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Learning Japanese with Manga and Anime

Updated on June 18, 2013

Whenever I attend a convention or a big gathering of manga and anime fans I always stumble upon at least one or two persons who not only like these mediums but are also interested in learning the Japanese language behind them. Why are these people interested in Japanese all of a sudden?

There are a couple of reasons: discovering the language while watching anime and falling in love with it, wanting to watch anime without the need for subtitles but in the most Japanese-oriented manner, striving to read uncensored manga in its original form, or even reaching the decision that translating Japanese anime and manga into your native language is a profession you are willing to do for life. This article is geared towards those of you who want to learn Japanese and also like manga and anime. As someone who came exactly from such a background I'd like to explain how manga and anime can help you learn Japanese and, more importantly, what are the limitations of learning from them.

The Credibility of Manga and Anime

Some manga/anime bashers might proclaim that "manga/anime depicts factional environment that does not reflect real-world Japan. Japanese don't speak or behave like they do in manga/anime". This perception is outright wrong. While certain genres in manga and anime doesn't reflect reality in a strict form, the spoken Japanese is them is as useful and rich as any real-life-simulating show you might find. The only catch is – some characters speak impolitely or use irregular sentence forms. But learning basic Japanese will help you easily identify those impolite or irregular sentences, so they won't affect your learning experience in any harmful way.

The Merits of Learning from Manga and Anime

As mediums that can constantly expose you to Japanese manners, ethics and norms manga and anime are powerful tools. You can easily watch one hour of anime every day, which translates into hearing the Japanese language for one hour a day regardless of where you live. With manga you can read at a fairly fast pace even if you are a Japanese novice, helping you utilize the language early on in an enjoyable manner. It's easy to see why anime and manga can help you enrich your Japanese: you hear, see and read the language using them. Anime not only enables you to learn new words from hearing, it also always puts them into context and shows you how to use them. Furthermore series that do take place in natural life-like environments (like the Japanese school life depicted in Clannad) teaches you valuable vocabulary specific to those environments. Manga enables you to read the language in bite-size bits. A lot of manga also include furigana (letters above the kanji that help you know how to read it). These two facts make manga much more accessible then Japanese books or newspapers.

Accessibility vs. Viability

Manga and anime are rapidly becoming the number one factor that propels people to begin learning Japanese. This stems, first and foremost, from their accessibility - you can watch anime for free or for a small fee when other genres from Japan are hardly available on TV. The same is true regarding manga as well - finding a manga (in English or Japanese) in the U.S. is far easier nowadays then finding a Japanese romance or essay book. Since they are accessible it makes sense people will want to learn Japanese from manga and anime. However, the availability of manga and anime does not automatically make them the most viable source for learning Japanese. On the contrary - some of manga and anime's merits are also their biggest demerits. Viability is an important part in Japanese language aids, and it is here that manga and anime are not as valuable as other aids. Let's see why:

Manga:

  • Uses pictures and so severely lack in nouns or adjectives that describe things.
  • Tend to utilize simple language in order to help the flow of the story.
  • Has a very low word count when compared to a book or a newspaper.
  • Tend to repeat the same words over and over again.

Anime:

  • Tend to be either very basic or very complex in terms of language. Shounen series are so basic as to only contain a couple of everyday words each sentence. Detective or science fiction series can feature ruthless dialogs so complex you will lose yourself halfway if your level isn't high enough.
  • Completely irrelevant for some fields (don't expect to find anime that can teach you vocabulary related to law, computers or economics).
  • Tend to repeat the same words over and over again.

Limited Vocabulary

Japanese study aids are divided into three groups: those that aid you speak better, those that help you read better and those that help you write better. Manga and anime will not help you write better in any way or form. Manga (in Japanese) will, however, help you read better by gradually introducing new words to your vocabulary. Likewise, anime will help you speak better by showing you how words are said and teaching you the context in which they are spoken. However, both manga and anime have vocabulary limitations. As complex or rich as a manga or an anime could be it can never be as informative and viable as a book. For example, the anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is rich with vocabulary related to politics and economics. But hearing these words at a fast pace won't improve your vocabulary as effectively or definitively as reading the same words in your own pace in a book. Manga is a bit different - it does allow you to read words at your own pace, but since filling up pages with text will hurt its presentation rich and long sentences are kept to a minimum within it.

Conclusion

Manga and anime can be entertaining and educational supplements to other Japanese learning aids. However, you will not learn Japanese solely by reading or watching them, nor can they replace any of the major learning aids for this language. For what it's worth those who like manga and anime will learn to enjoy and appreciate these mediums even more as they go on learning the Japanese language.

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About the Author

Nadav Rotchild has a Master's Degree in Asia Studies with an emphasis on Japanese language and culture. He lived in Japan for a year and a half, has studied Japanese for 8 years and has been reading manga and watching anime for over 13 years.

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