We are in a golden age for Japanese language learners. Apart from all the apps, websites, interactive textbooks, and more that you can use to teach yourself, right now access to Japanese content is unprecedented. There is so much out there it can be hard to know where to get started. In this article, I’ll be offering some tips and introducing some of the best Japanese dramas to help out!
Before we get to the programs, I thought I’d offer a few tips on effectively studying through video. It’s not enough to just pick a show and watch it, there are certain things to keep in mind to make them effective for learning.
- Choose wisely.It can be counterproductive to choose a program that is too elevated, or too fanciful, to be useful. As much as you may like Fullmetal Alchemist, the language it uses isn’t common Japanese. The immensely popular drama Hanzawa Naoki, which takes place in a highly stylized version of the high finance world, falls on the other side — it’s just too specific to be useful. Stick to slice-of-life or children’s shows, since they tend to feature real Japanese.
- Don’t rush it. All study benefits from careful, mindful progress. Don’t binge watch an entire series then move on. Repeat. Focus. Try taking dictation. The goal is to be able to pick up words and get a feel for how they are used, not just power through a show.
- Tie in. This is a tricky one. One of the important elements of language study is creating a mental map by learning words then experiencing them as actual parts of living language. It’s a good idea to have words and phrases that you’ve studied already, and want to see how they are used in real (fictional?) life. When you hear a word, rewind a bit and listen to the sentence. Then listen to the conversation. Check the context, and practice it.
- Use subtitles at first if you can. I know it seems counterintuitive, but if you start straight off with Japanese only, it’ll be too difficult. You need a booster at first, and there’s no shame in using subtitles.
Beginners often benefit the most from short, direct language, so children’s TV programming is a good choice.
にほんごであそぼ Nihongo de Asobo (Let’s Play in Japanese)
This NHK television program is geared to teach young Japanese children about Japanese culture. The language can be tricky (they use famous poems) but it is repetitive, and slow, and usually puts the words on screen so you can read while you listen/repeat. The added cultural insight is also valuable.
ちびまる子ちゃん Chibi Marukochan (Little Maruko)
This is a long-running animated program about Sakura Momoko and her family. Since it focuses on the elementary-school-aged girl Maruko, language is relatively simple, and is extremely standard. This is an excellent example of how families communicate in real life, as well as the culture of Japanese daily life.
Once you’ve moved past the basics, it’s time to look at the variations in language — daily life versus work, and so on. Both grammar and vocabulary change as situations do, so examples are handy.
アグレッシブ烈子 Aggressive Retsuko (Aggretsuko)
This animated drama on Netflix is not only fun, but it also gives good insight into work culture (really!) and language usage in social situations.
孤独のグルメ Kodoku no Gurume (Solitary Gourmet)
This classic drama, now on Netflix, features a salaryman who goes around to various restaurants and gushes over the food. He is a clear, slow speaker, and this show has become a cultural touchstone in Japan. It’s even parodied in children’s animation! It’s a bit tricky with some of the food vocabulary, but that’s also a good thing to learn.
Shall We ダンス (Shall We Dance?)
The Richard Gere movie was a remake of this Japanese classic, and it’s a great one to revisit. The language is again relatively simple, but since it takes place between adults it’s a good way to experience real work and social language.
At this stage, the world is your oyster. Go ahead and try tricky fantasy anime like 鬼滅の刃 Kimetsu no Yaiba (Demon Blade), or crazy madcap comedies like テルマエ・ロマエ Termae Romae. Just be sure to take it slow, and focus.
頑張って！ Ganbatte! You can do it!