How to learn Japanese with anime: for beginners & beyond

November 10, 2023

Anime lovers and pop culture fiends alike often find themselves wondering whether you can learn Japanese from anime. 

Is it possible to learn Japanese from anime?

The good news is, it’s possible! You can absolutely use anime to boost your Japanese studies, to a degree. 

While it’d be unwise and difficult to attempt to learn Japanese entirely from anime, there’s no reason you can’t leverage a love of anime to help you learn Japanese if you’re smart about it.

Here’s the deal: You’ll need a great Japanese course to get you started. You need to learn to read and write, after all, and you’ll want a guide to Japanese grammar. But even as a beginner, you can incorporate anime into your learning process – and this article will tell you how. 

But first, let’s talk about the nay-sayers

You’ll find plenty of people on the internet that will tell you not to learn Japanese from anime – and there are some good reasons for that. 

For example, anime frequently uses made-up words and excessively informal language and behaviour. You need to learn the right Japanese honorifics for the right conversation, and anime can’t really help there. 

See, Japanese culture puts a heavy emphasis on politeness, so if you try to learn how to converse in Japanese exclusively from anime, there’s a good chance you’ll end up acting and sounding like a rude, semi-nonsensical sixth grader. 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t include watching anime in your studies, especially if it makes you happy! As a beginner, watching anime can help you remember some of the basics, like the words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, ‘left’ and ‘right,’ not to mention essential nouns and verbs. Just take what you watch with a pinch of salt. 

Think of it like trying to learn English by exclusively watching the Fast and the Furious series. You can include it in your studies, but Fast 5 alone won’t help you order a meal or greet your new boss effectively.  

To that end, we recommend including other Japanese media in your studies, like modern radio and reality TV, news, talk shows, and cooking shows – things where you can hear how real people use the language and behave. Take note of what overlaps and what differs. It’s actually a really fun way to learn! 

With that important bit of info out of the way, here are our 7 top tips to use Japanese anime to learn Japanese.

7 tips on how to learn Japanese whilst watching anime

1. Practise active listening 

When you’re enjoying watching anime, learning might naturally come second. However, if you want to use anime to learn Japanese, you’ll need to make it a priority. Pay close attention to the Japanese language used while you’re watching and try to pick up on words you know, vocabulary you haven’t heard before, and overall grammar patterns that can help you reinforce what you’re learning.

2. Use re-watching to your advantage

One of the best ways to use anime to supplement your Japanese learning is to rewatch the same content multiple times. While it might not be as fun as bingeing a new series, it’s a nice change of pace from exercises and grammar tips. Try turning subtitles on and off (going between subtitles in both English and Japanese, for best results!) and looking up phrases you don’t recognise. Start to pick apart each piece of language until you can, over time, understand the whole thing.

That sound too tricky? No worries – simply choose an episode or movie to make your barometer for growth. Come back to it once every month or two as you learn and notice what new words or exchanges you understand with each new viewing. Still good!

3. Choose your content wisely

If you’re using anime to help boost your Japanese language skills, you’ll want to make sure you know exactly what you’re reinforcing. Be deliberate in your choice of what to watch. Don’t stick to one genre or time period – try to mix things up, and include series set in the real world, in the modern day. Pay attention to how the language changes and what vocabulary repeats – or doesn’t. 

That’s not to say you can’t watch more fantastical shows like Hunter x Hunter or Dragon Ball Z, but if you’re trying to learn, you should include shows like Ouran High School Host Club, K-On!!, or Your Lie in April in the mix. These popular shows use fairly simple, modern Japanese and more real-world vocabulary. 

4. Keep an eye out for Japanese writing 

One fun thing you can do as a beginning Japanese learner, regardless of the genre of your favourite show, is keep an eye out for the Japanese characters you’ve learned. 

It’s common to see hiragana, katakana, and kanji (the three Japanese writing systems) in use even in shows set in futuristic spaceships and magical kingdoms. For example, Naruto often eats at a shop that says ラーメン on the awning, and if you’ve started learning your Japanese alphabets, you’ll know that says ramen. Yum.

Wait right there

Sure, you can support your Japanese learning with anime, but how are you planning to actually learn Japanese? 

Don’t worry. We can help. You can start learning Japanese on Busuu right now.

5. Take notes

Learning a language is, as much as anything else, about building and retaining knowledge slowly over time, until you have enough to understand and communicate. And the great thing about watching shows and movies to help you learn is that you’re constantly being exposed to new vocabulary. 

When you’re watching anime, get into the habit of writing down unfamiliar words and phrases and noting new kanji. Then, take time after each episode to look them up. Even if you don’t capture everything that’s new to you, looking up just a few things will help you keep the learning going – all while enjoying a rollicking adventure, tense mystery or sweet romance. Many shows repeat certain vocabulary and phrases, so you may even start to find that you understand a little more with each episode.

6. Practise shadowing (wisely)

Shadowing is what we call mimicking another person’s speech to practise making the right sounds and intonations to sound more like a native Japanese speaker. 

And if you’ve watched any anime, you probably know why this could be a double-edged sword. As with English cartoons, not everyone in anime speaks the way real people do. That means, if you’re going to try shadowing, you’ll want to pick the characters you start imitating wisely. A good rule of thumb is nothing that isn’t human and no one whose voice hurts your ears.

The best practice of all would be including Japanese radio or (non-anime) TV in your watch party so that you know which voices sound fairly natural in anime when you hear them. Once you have a decent understanding of what everyday Japanese speakers sound like, then go ahead and get shadowing as you see fit. You’re smart – trust your gut.

7. Read the manga

Last but not least, the seventh tip for learning Japanese with anime is to read the manga along with the series. Many popular anime series are based on manga (Japanese comic books, essentially), and quite a few are translated almost directly from page to screen. 

Reading along can help you sharpen your Japanese reading comprehension, learn new kanji, and – as you get further along – help you get to the point where you can follow along without English subtitles (gasp).

Great. Now, you’re all set to include anime in your study of Japanese. But what should you watch?

We’ve got you covered there too.

Here are a few of the best anime for Japanese learners

If you want to learn Japanese from anime, you’ll likely want to start with shows that use fairly simple Japanese. Here are the best Japanese anime for beginners, from a language perspective.

Some of these anime are available on Netflix and Hulu, while others may require a CrunchyRoll subscription.

Non Non Biyori

  • About: A fifth grader from Tokyo adjusting to a new life in the countryside
  • Genre: Comedy, slice of life
  • Language: Very simple and modern, little to no off-limits or made-up vocabulary

Your Lie in April

  • About: A former child prodigy piano player who has been unable to play music since the death of his mother – it’s one of the 10 best anime series on Netflix.
  • Genre: Drama, romance
  • Language: High school level Japanese, mostly modern, some music terminology

Natsume’s Book of Friends

  • About: A young man who can see ghosts learns on his grandmother’s passing that she had the same ability, as she leaves to him her ‘book of friends’. The book of friends is a coveted ledger of the names of spirits she collected by beating them at contests and games, roping them into serving her.
  • Genre: Mystery, fantasy
  • Language: Goes between real life and interactions with youkai, spirits and supernatural beings from Japanese folklore. Good for learning the difference and learning a bit about Japanese mythology!

Aria the Animation

  • About: In the year 2301, a girl from Earth moves to Mars to work as a gondolier in a terraformed recreation of Venice, Italy.
  • Genre: Comedy, Slice of Life, Sci-Fi
  • Language: With a pinch of salt, it’s a decent guide for women learning Japanese, as many of the main characters are women. As kooky as the concept may sound, the Japanese is fairly simple in Aria the Animation and many of the characters use honorific speech, which is important for politeness in Japanese culture. 

And, if you’d rather a movie, you can’t go wrong with Studio Ghibli films like: 

  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • Spirited Away

Available on HBO Max in the US, Netflix in Canada and the UK. 

And our resident Japanese experts recommend Your Name as a good film – that can also help you get used to how gender difference is reflected in the language. Your Name is available on Netflix in the UK and for purchase on Amazon in the US.

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