The most simple and effective way to learn Japanese is to study. That means textbooks, fumbling through Japanese grammar, memorizing hiragana, katakana and kanji, mountains of flashcards and apps, learning the nuances of keigo (honorific speech) and, most importantly, perhaps even most challengingly, a whole ‘lotta self-discipline.
Unfortunately, learning Japanese can feel like a drag if you’re anything like me and absolutely hate studying. But I do like video games. I can focus on RPGs like Persona 5 and Elden Ring and devote over 100 hours of memorizing characters, backstories, weapon sets and deep lore without breaking a sweat. Yet, somehow, I break into a sweat talking to the old lady behind the register at the konbini (convenience store) because I don’t study Japanese enough.
If only we could learn the language through video games, right? Well, you can! Here are five games you can play to learn Japanese. While none of them will replace a textbook, they offer a chance for a breather and a fun, complimentary way to learn for gamers.
Are flashcards not exciting enough for you? Ever thought, “I sure could learn adjectives and prepositions quicker if I was blowing them away with a machine gun?” If so, Linguist FPS is the game for you. Developed by Rocket Boy Games, you learn basic Japanese vocabulary and phrases through short obstacle courses and gunplay with robots.
As you perform actions, an announcer will yell out things like sugoii! Jido raifuru? Ikoze! (Amazing! An automatic rifle? Let’s go!), piza! watashi no sukina tabemono! (Pizza! My favorite food!) or kusurida! tairyoku ga torimodosareta! (Medicine! My stamina is restored!) Or you’ll receive commands like shagande (crouch), aoi doa wo akita (open the blue door) and migi ni itte (go right).
While not the most practical phrases (plus it’s very informal), the game is a fun way to learn the type of Japanese you might use during online gaming. Consider it a prep before hopping on Rainbow Six or Call of Duty’s Japanese servers. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to the actual game. The main objective is mowing down hordes of robots and collecting keys. You’ll pick up phrases through repetition—running the same gauntlets and listening to the announcer’s same commands. While it does get repetitive pretty fast, it’s an innovative take, especially if you’re into shooters.
2. Influent: Japanese
Influent is a game for people who love putting sticky notes all over their homes to learn Japanese—the game is essentially that, but without the cleanup or stigma of being a crazy person that puts sticky notes all over their house.
It teaches Japanese vocabulary and sentence structure using a virtual environment where players interact with various objects around the house and learn the names of those objects in Japanese. There are more than 400 words to learn, each spoken by a native Japanese speaker for correct pronunciation, and you can choose the category (food, animals, etc.) you want to study.
Unfortunately, that is it. Unless the word is on a travel magazine or something, you’re limited to terms used around the house. Opening the door and exploring outside your tiny apartment is impossible and a huge disappointment. Still, Influent can be a fun supplement to other Japanese language resources for learning vocabulary and is an easy distraction from the typical textbook.
3. Tokyo School Life
Usually, I don’t appreciate when lists to learn Japanese feature visual novels, but Tokyo School Life is probably the best visual novel on Steam to do it.
While not explicitly designed as a language-learning game, Tokyo School Life features Japanese text with English translations and furigana. Furigana are hiragana characters written above kanji to show their pronunciation, making it easier to read and understand.
The game follows the story of a foreign exchange student who goes to Tokyo to study at a Japanese high school, so it might also appeal to anyone interested in the Japanese school experience. There is a branching narrative, and players make choices that affect the story and the characters’ relationships. It might be boring if you’re not familiar with visual novels, but if you stick with it, you’ll improve your reading skills.
4. Learn Japanese to Survive
Learn Japanese To Survive is a series of role-playing games developed by Sleepy Duck and funded through Kick Starter that teach Japanese with a big focus on Japanese culture. The games are Hiragana Battle, Katakana War and Kanji Combat. As you can surmise, each game focuses on hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Players learn Japanese by battling Japanese monsters. And I mean literal Japanese monsters. The enemies are floating Japanese characters and kanji that will rip you to shreds. Players battle through the story by correctly identifying and writing Japanese characters. As you progress, the Japanese characters become more complex—especially true for Kanji Combat.
In Kanji Combat, players use a mnemonic method to help them remember kanji’s meanings and stroke order. Before every story beat, you’ll review new words with flashcards and quizzes and later encounter those kanji characters as monsters to defeat. If hiragana and katakana are too easy, Kanji Combat is a great place to start learning kanji. The game features an epic story and 200 words to learn.
5. Learn Japanese RPG: Hiragana Forbidden Speech
Developed by Study Bunny Games, Learn Japanese RPG: Hiragana Forbidden Speech is an excellent way for old-school RPG fans to learn hiragana and improve their Japanese reading skills. Players go on an anime-inspired adventure, solving puzzles and defeating monsters using hiragana through reading and writing exercises, pronunciation quizzes and interactions with fun characters. Gameplay also reminds me of The Typing of The Dead, a classic.
The game’s approach to learning Japanese also feels more natural thanks to expressions commonly used in everyday speech. Of course, textbook Japanese is essential, but it’s a good idea to understand how people actually speak to each other in Japan. The Japanese used in the game is simple but practical.
Learn Japanese RPG is also impressive for an educational indie title developed in Little Rock, Arkansas. There are over 4,000 lines of spoken dialogue, about 16 hours of gameplay and more than 240 Japanese words to learn. It also utilizes an “adaptive dialogue system” that determines whether the dialogue is in Japanese or English based on your current skill. Overall, if you want a good game that also just happens to teach you Japanese, you can’t go wrong picking up Learn Japanese RPG.
What’s your favorite game for learning Japanese? Played any of these? Let us know in the comments!