This is actually a question that people not only ask me, but one that I often ask myself. I enjoy watching Japanese anime, so can I use the excuse of “it’s kind of studying…” as a justification?
The answer is, surprisingly, yes. Hold up, let me explain.
Depending on what anime that you watch, you can actually learn a variety of useful – though sometimes not so much – vocabulary. I mean, heck, I wouldn’t know what a shuriken was if it wasn’t for watching Naruto, and without watching One Piece, I probably still wouldn’t understand the concept of nakama, but the truth is, for beginners who are barely learning how to converse, these words are like background noise that get in the way of learning the language. Watching fantasy shoujo anime like Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles (one of my favorites) can help you learn concepts such as “inevitability” (hitsuzen) and “coincidence” (guzen), or watching historical anime like Rurouni Kenshin might teach you “Old Japanese,” but anime should act as a supplement to your Japanese study, not a substitution.
Watching Anime helped me.
Although my Japanese pronunciation is no where near close to being perfect, watching anime did indeed help me with understanding how Japanese people pronounce certain words. Honestly, anything where you can actively listen to Japanese being spoken – dramas, music, even those random Japanese variety shows – will help you improve your pronunciation. However, I still know many people who watch tons of anime and still have a very thick American accent when they speak Japanese. Why is this? The best way to get rid of that accent is to listen carefully to how Japanese people speak and copy them, but it all depends on what kinds of anime you watch and how you use anime as a tool to learn.
What kinds of anime should stay away from as a student of Japanese?
As a student of Japanese (especially if you are a girl), I would stay away from shoujo anime that have a cast full of girls with squealing, ultra high-pitched voices. Not many people actually speak like this, and it is definitely not considered “abnormal” if you have a lower voice in Japan. The reason why I am saying this is because it is something that I was concerned about when I was younger. When I was first learning Japanese, I felt like I was weird for having such a low voice for a girl, and it bothered me, so I would raise my voice ever so slightly on purpose when speaking Japanese. It is natural to speak Japanese in a slightly higher pitch than your normal voice in your native tongue, and I’ve also heard from many of my Japanese friends that they speak in a slightly lower tone in English, but you should learn a language in a voice that is comfortable for you!
If you are just beginning, I would also try to stay away from watching certain shounen anime that are full of weird attack names or anime based on magical beings that use named spells if you are trying to learn vocabulary. Yeah, “Secret Technique: Hidden Dragon Spinning Kick,” may seem frickin’ cool, but you really don’t need to know random attack names like this to function as a Japanese language speaker.
Finally, If you are watching anime to learn more Japanese, I would stay away from the “weird” part of anime. Ya’ll know what I mean. Hentai, Yaoi, etc. are not the kinds of anime that are going to teach you anything other than probably the word for “penis” in Japanese.
Although I said all this, I’m not trying to stop anyone from watching any of the above mentioned types of anime. All I’m saying is that if you are watching anime for the purpose of learning more Japanese, these would not be the most useful for you. I have watched (and absolute loved) anime like Cardcaptor Sakura, which has plenty of characters with high-pitched voices or anime like Naruto which has names for every little ninja technique. Go ahead and watch Hentai or whatever, just don’t expect to learn anything important from it.
So what anime should I watch if I want to supplement my Japanese learning?
I’m going to suggest anime that I have read in my experience that seemed relatively applicable to what I have learned through my years studying Japanese, but this is only my experience, and there are probably plenty of anime out there that I haven’t even watched that would still be very useful.
First, I would like to suggest anime that are historically/culturally relevant to Japan. These will not only often be about everyday life in Japan (something that is definitely important to keep in mind if you hope to go to Japan some day) and thus uses relevant language, but will also teach you something about Japan, instead of fueling what you may think Japan is like. Many Shoujo anime are like this – often depicting the girl and her love interest going to Japanese matsuri, festivals that are often seasonal, together, visiting Shinto shrines for hatsumoude, the first shrine visit of the new year, or even participating in the unique-to-Japan way of celebrating Valentines day with the girl giving the boys chocolate. Anime that are historically relevant are often very subtly referencing important figures in Japanese history, so if you take the time to look up these names, you will not only learn a lot about Japan, but have a great way to remember the facts through the characters in the anime.
Anime that show Japan’s cultural aspects
- Kaichou wa maid-sama – this one might be a bit of a stretch, but it is about a girl who is the class president at her school but since her family is not very wealthy, she works as a maid at a maid cafe. You can learn more about Japanese high school students and high schools through this!
- Tonari no Kaibutsu-Kun – this is another Shoujo anime, but it was kind of unique and interesting. Again, you can learn about high schools and pressures that Japanese students often face to do well in school.
- Kimi ni Todoke – I read a bit of this manga and it was relatively interesting, it’s just that Shoujo isn’t really my thing. Although I’m sure its exaggerated, this anime talks about the problems with bullying in Japan. If I remember correctly, they also go to festivals and shrines quite a few times. (**This was also made into a live action movie!)
- Koe no Katachi – I don’t believe that this has been released as an anime yet, so reading the manga (unless you read it in Japanese) would not be very good language practice, but I thought that this manga was rather interesting. It’s about college students, so it is a little bit more mature, but it really takes into account the consequences of bullying for the victim and the bully.
Unfortunately, I can’t really think of many Shounen manga that take place at a school and are relevant to everyday culture. Most of them are totally fantastical like Beelzebub or Katekyo Hitman Reborn!.
Historically significant anime (These tend to be Shounen or more mature)
- Samurai Champloo – This is actually my favorite anime of all time. Not only is the music great, but the anime is very historically relevant. It takes place during the Edo Period a bit after the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637. The anime is very significant in showing the way people from the Ryukyu Kingdom were treated in Japan, as well as the ways the Hidden Christians of Japan had hid from the government. It does talk about prostitution and Shunga (erotic woodblock prints) during the Edo Period, so just keep that in mind. The characters speak in modern Japanese, so it is easier to understand.
- Rurouni Kenshin – I have never gotten through the whole anime because it is rather long, but this anime is really interesting. If you want to learn how people spoke during the late 19th century in Japan, this would be the anime for you. Rurouni Kenshin is about a Samurai after the Meiji Restoration and how he wants to use his sword to protect others to atone for the sins he committed during the war. Although the main character Kenshin speaks in an older style of Japanese, most of the other characters do not, so it is still easier to understand. (**I think that there are 3 live action movies out right now for this anime series, they are rather well done and the actor is pretty good!)
- One Piece – An anime that I have been following for years, One Piece is a rather unexpectedly historically relevant anime. If you have the patience to watch the whole thing, then it is definitely worth it. Events in the anime often are referencing real events that happened in Japan or other parts of the world, and many characters are modeled after real famous people.
I may be a little biased in my choices, but all of these are really cool anime and I would totally recommend them to about anyone! I will soon be making a post about all my favorite anime, as many of them wouldn’t fit well with these anime.
How to use anime as a tool to study language?
Just watching anime is not going to be enough to help you supplement your Japanese studies. Subtitles are indeed useful, but they impede you from learning the language properly. Here are my steps for using anime to study:
Step 1: Watch an anime with the subtitles. If you are a student of Japanese, you have probably already watched some anime, which is a great start. If you are already an avid anime-watcher, chose an anime that you haven’t seen in a while, but remember the general plot line.
Step 2: Watch an anime that you have already watched before, but watch a raw version (no subtitles). For popular anime, this is generally easy to find on the web. Watch the anime again, but since you already know the story, it will be easier to pick up the actual language parts of the anime. I am generally too lazy to search for raws, so I just ignore the subtitles, but sometimes it is difficult. If you can’t find raws, then try to find a DVD of the anime at your library. I don’t know how available anime is at other libraries, but my local one in California has tons.
Step 3: While watching, try to look up any words that you don’t understand. This is why I would suggest not watching anime with tons of very specific vocabulary – stick to something about school life/ everyday conversations.
Step 4: Once you are comfortable with watching anime without the subtitles, you can move on to other anime that you have never seen before!
All in all, watching anime can help you supplement your Japanese Studies, but there are many other better sources like dramas and music, for which both I will create separate posts.