In 2023 I attended KumoriCon in Portland, Oregon where I did a talk on “How to Teach Yourself Japanese” and “How to Teach Yourself Japanese Through Anime and Manga”. This is another talk I’ve done often at anime conventions but I haven’t posted a summary before.

The advice here assumes that you already know at least beginner Japanese (JLPT N5~N4) as you need at least a foundation before you can start getting anything out of immersive learning.

You can read a summary of “How to Teach Yourself Japanese” here!


Before You Start

Before you start using anime and manga to teach yourself Japanese you need at least a strong foundation of Japanese. Ideally at least beginner Japanese (JLPT N5~N4), which is (roughly):

  • Hiragana and katakana,
  • 284 kanji,
  • 1,500 vocabulary,
  • 80 beginner-level grammar patterns.

If you’re a beginner learner but don’t know how to learn all that then check out How to Learn Japanese: The Ultimate Beginners Guide.


Do You Like Anime?

I assume if you’re reading this, you like anime. You have probably already watched a lot of anime and through watching anime you might have already picked up some Japanese.

But what happens if you just watch anime? You probably understand “ohayou, baka oniisan” but can you hold a conversation or read a book in Japanese?

When you only watch anime to learn Japanese

Watching anime is great for improving listening skills, but not helpful for speaking, reading, or writing.

You can’t learn through osmosis alone. I met a man who had been living in Japan for 17 year, working for a Japanese car company. He only knew how to order a beer and couldn’t talk to most of his coworkers because he never studied.

But what happens if you only study?

You might be great at passing exams and getting good scores in class, but not so great at speaking or reading.

A friend of mine taught themselves Japanese up to high-intermediate level (JLPT N2), but she struggled to have a normal conversation with people.

The trick to getting good at Japanese efficiently so you can listen, speak, read, and write it is to…


Study and Engage with Japanese

Balancing study and media engagement is key to improving your Japanese.

Anime and manga is made for Japanese people. Children’s anime doesn’t only use “beginner Japanese” as Japanese learners understand it. Sometimes a “children’s” show or manga can use very advanced and uncommon Japanese. But likewise a “show for adults” might have a lot of every-day Japanese in it.

In order to understand a lot of anime and manga you need to be learning at least low-intermediate level Japanese (JLPT N3). Which is,

  • an additional 324 kanji (total of 527 kanji)
  • 1,500 words (total of 3,000 words)
  • and another 80 grammar patterns.

You should ideally be studying daily. Even if that’s just 15 minutes of vocabulary study, it all helps towards improving your Japanese so you can better understand anime and manga.


There are Two Ways to Study

1. Passive Learning

Engaging with media is basically a form of passive learning. This means you are passively putting information into your brain.

Watching anime, reading manga and books, listening to podcasts or YouTube, speaking with friends in Japanese for fun is passive learning.

Through just engaging with media you can pick up new words and strengthen words and grammar you’re already learning. (Although as I mentioned, just passive learning won’t get you far.)


2. Active Learning

Studying, on the other hand, is active learning. This means you are actively putting information into your brain.

Studying with a teacher or in a class, learning through textbooks, flashcards, apps, etc. are all forms of active learning.

BUT you can use anime and manga for active learning!


Watch Anime / Read Manga That’s Best For You

When you pick what to watch or read you want to pick the right material for you.

You want to pick stuff that covers what you’re learning, so if you’re learning intermediate level Japanese then a slice-of-life or romance anime/manga set in a school or office would be great.

Or you can pick anime/manga that covers topics you’re interested in. If you love history and want to study more Japanese history vocabulary then a story about war, history, or competitive tanking would be good. If you love fantasy and want to learn more fantasy Japanese then there are plenty of stories out there set in fantasy worlds.

You can pick media that is at or below your level, which is great when you want an easy study session.

Or if you prefer a challenge, pick something above your level.

It’s more important to pick something that motivates you.

If you pick something too hard and it makes you feel bad about yourself and you stop studying, it’s okay to drop it for something easier! Or if you pick something that’s really easy but you aren’t enjoying it, it’s okay to drop it and find something that does.

Find what works for you!

But, even if you find the perfect anime or manga…

You will not understand 100% and that’s fine!

You don’t need to understand every part of an anime or manga to understand the overall meaning, or to get some useful Japanese learning out of it.

You can use some techniques to improve your understanding (and that’s where the active learning comes in!), but don’t kick yourself if you don’t understand everything.


Techniques for Using Anime for Active Study

1. Casual Listening

Technique 1: Casual Listening Can keep subtitles on (English or Japanese) Keep and ear out for familiar / new / interesting words Make a note and look up these words Keep watching even if you don’t understand everything Try to pick out 5-10 words

Point of this exercise is to engage with what you’re watching, without burning yourself out.

This is great for a show you’ve already seen, or are familiar with. You can have the subtitles turns on, but try to listen for the meaning instead of relying on the subtitles. Try to understand vocabulary and grammar, and the story overall, through context.

The more you study vocabulary and grammar the easier it will be to pick up on familiar words as well as pick out news words that interest you.

One thing to keep in mind though, is if you don’t understand a word, look it in a dictionary instead of relying on the subtitles. This is because English subtitles are NOT direct translations. They convey the overall intent of a line, but don’t always use the same words.

I find it helps to pick out just a few words, don’t try to look up the meaning for every single word. Then add those new words to your flashcard or study routine.

Otherwise you’ll be doing the next technique…


2. Intensive Listening

Technique 2: Intensive Listening Turn off subtitles Focus on understanding as much as you can (not 100%) Look up familiar / new / interesting words Make a note and look up these words Add them to flashcards (e.g. Anki) Study new words and grammar Watch anime again

The difference between intensive listening and casual listening is turning off the subtitles.

Focus your listening, but remember, it’s okay if you can’t understand everything.

Again, look up words that pique your interest, and add these to a flashcard program or whatever you’re using to study. Make sure you then study these new vocabulary. How many words you look up depends on you. It could be 5 it could be 20, whatever you are comfortable with, but it doesn’t have to be every single word you don’t know.

Doing this exercise is a really good way to train your ears and listening comprehension. This works well on a show you’ve seen before and are familiar with. Either way, you want to watch same episode a few times to really hone your listening skills. BUT this can take a long time and energy.

You don’t need to do everything all the same time, you can split it up between study sessions.


3. Parroting

Technique 3: Parroting Anime Can have subtitles on or off Keep an ear out for words or phrases you’ve learned Say these out loud when a character says them Repeat sections for more intensive practice

This is when you say the line after the character has said it. It’s a great technique for improving your listening and pronunciation.

You can start by parroting random words while you watch shows. Don’t try to parrot every single line in a show, that would get a little ridiculous. You’d be there for HOURS. But you can always pick a short segment of a show and slow it down to help.

This also works with podcasts and other audio, but again pick materials that would be most useful to you and what you want to learn. No point parroting intense philosophical discussions about time travel if you’re never going to use them.


Techniques for Using Manga for Active Study

Now let’s move onto some manga techniques!

Manga is a little more difficult than anime because you need to know not just the alphabets, but also casual grammar and a lot of irregular vocabulary.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, you CAN start reading manga as a beginner.

There’s manga for people learning Japanese called Crystal Hunters. Yotsubato! And Polar Bear Café are the most recommended to start with.

Manga is overall great for practicing vocabulary, kanji, grammar, reading comprehension but you can also use techniques to improve other things.


4. Read Aloud

Read what you’re reading out loud. This is a great way to improve your reading and speaking skills.

It gets your mouth used to sounding out the words, and you can go at a much slower pace compared to parroting anime.


5. Casual Reading

Just like casual listening, you can just read manga and other media for fun.

Even reading manga for fun and not worrying too much about vocabulary is a good way to improve your overall comprehension skills.

Manga also has the benefit of having pictures which helps you understand the context better than novels.

Technique 4: Read Aloud Read manga / light novels / novels aloud Technique 5: Casual Reading Read without looking up every word Try to understand from context (Can look up words if you want)


6. Sentence Mining

Technique 6: Sentence Mining Look up most (or every) word, kanji, grammar you don’t know Study them TIPS! Use something you’re interested in. Use something at your level. Use something useful.

Another technique that’s really popular online is sentence mining. This is when you look every single word and grammar in a book or manga and then study them. It’s very, very intensive and….TIME CONSUMING.

I personally don’t like sentence mining because I find it demotivating but lots of people enjoy it.

If you do want to try sentence mining then I suggest you pick something that you’re interested in, that’s at your level and useful. Really, whatever motivates you.


Bonus: Watch the Anime and Read the Manga/Light Novel

A lot of anime is based on manga or light novels. If you have an anime you love, go and read the manga or light novel it’s based on! (Or vice versa if the anime is the original.)

This is great because you’ll already know the story, and it exposes you to similar grammar and vocabulary in two different ways—through audio and text!


How Do You Balance Engagement With Study?

The best way to balance engaging with media and studying Japanese is with the 20/80 rule!

Active study for 20% of the time and passive learning for 80% is super effective!

So if you’re studying for 20 minutes a day, watch anime or read manga for 80 minutes!

Try to avoid the intensive study techniques when you’re engaging with media as that falls under “active study”. If you study textbook Japanese for 20 minutes then try to sentence mine for 80 minutes, that’s just 120 minutes of active study and you’re going to get burned out!


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