How to Learn Japanese Without Even Trying

By Ben Soonthornwacharin

There’s no shame in spending countless hours watching Netflix, but with a few tweaks, you can turn your couch potato quarantine time into something productive: learning Japanese while you binge on your favorite shows.

When I started learning Japanese in California, I didn’t have many opportunities to speak to Japanese people, so I relied on textbooks and recordings. Though those undoubtedly helped, it was hard to find good examples of natural speech and expressions. Now that I’m working from home, I find myself in a similar position – I don’t have many chances to speak Japanese face to face, so I’m using the extra time to brush up my skills and indulge my Netflix habit at the same time.

Using a remote control to select Netflix show. Unsplash

Watch and learn

Most streaming services offer programs with subtitle options in different languages. You can usually find a large selection of Japanese dramas, films, anime, and reality shows. Spend some time finding shows you really enjoy, because you’ll be watching them again and again! Set the English subtitles on, sit back, and learn. 

At first, watching a show with subtitles may not seem like it’s doing much for your Japanese language skills, but as you watch, study and repeat this process, you’ll find yourself recognizing more and more words. Keep a pen and paper handy to jot down new words you hear, then look them up.

Sound like a native speaker

Listening will help you pick up natural intonation and phrasing. Unlike a conversation in real life, you can hit pause and go back and listen again. Some people recommend shadowing, which can be a bit time consuming but will help you pick up speaking speed. Watch a short scene and try to say the lines along with the actor, practicing until you get it word-for-word. Think of it as karaoke for language learning.

Find Your Passion

Pick a genre you enjoy, and try to find a Japanese equivalent. Not only will you be more likely to continue to watch it, you’ll also gain cultural knowledge, including how people speak and behave (with a little dramatic license) at school, in an office, or even at a crime scene. Input is essential for learning a language, so make it enjoyable.

Girl using Macbook in bed. Unsplash

Here are some of my recommendations in different genres:

Reality TV

With natural, unscripted conversations, reality TV is a genre that’s incredibly popular on streaming services. There are several Japanese reality shows including Terrace House and Ainori: Love Wagon, on Netflix. If you want to ramp up the drama factor, try The Bachelor Japan on Amazon Prime. It’s a little more polite than the American version, but there are plenty of fights, eye rolls and twilight helicopter dates to keep you interested as you increase your dating vocabulary.

Anime 

For a lot of us, anime was our gateway drug to learning Japanese. One Piece is a favorite for many learners: a seemingly endless series about pirates with elaborate battles and ludicrous characters, that explores true friendship. You can watch it on Hulu. On Netflix, try The Disastrous Life of Saiki K., about a high school boy who wants a normal life despite his supernatural powers. For office politics, Aggretsuko is a humorous take on Japanese office life with a dose of death metal karaoke. Each episode is around 10 minutes, so you can watch it on the go. For beginners, I recommend Rilakkuma and Kaoru. Centered around a single office worker and her “pets,” the stories are simple and soothing, and the dialog is fairly minimal.

Drama

Like other countries, Japanese dramas come in a variety of genres, including mystery, crime, hospital, comedy, and human. If possible, I like to combine my love for human drama with my love for Japanese food. For easy, casual conversations with a dramatic touch, check out Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. It follows the lives of various Tokyo late-night workers, artists, and eccentrics who drop by an all-night restaurant. On a similar theme, Samurai Gourmet is a fun look at Japanese food culture. Just don’t watch these shows when you are hungry!

Love it, learn it

It doesn’t matter which shows you choose to watch; what is important is that you enjoy them. You can’t become fluent in a language without studying at all, but you can make the process more fun. What shows do you recommend? 

I’ve binged most of my favorites, so I need more ideas! Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.

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