Using Video Games to Improve your Japanese: Does it Work?
By Liam Carrigan
On June 27, 2016
If you’re a regular reader of my inane ramblings here on Gaijinpot, then you may remember back in autumn of last year when I penned a blog outlining exactly why I wasn’t quite ready to drop the ¥50,000 or so required for a Sony Playstation 4.
Well, after starting my new job in April, and getting a little bit more money in my bank on payday than I was used to, I decided to take the plunge and upgrade to the current generation of consoles. By April, the PS4 had come down to the much more realistic price point of around ¥35,000. Games were cheaper too.
I complained a lot last year about how Star Wars: Battlefront, with its lack of single player modes wasn’t really a complete game. Still, at the greatly reduced price of only ¥3,000, I kind of had to buy it, and it was the first game I bought for my new system, along with Batman: Arkham Knight and Transformers: Devastation.
Yes, I know, I’m 32 years old, but I still love Batman, Darth Vader and Optimus Prime. If that makes me a big kid, then so be it!
Over the last couple of months, as I’ve strived to get to grips with my new system, I’ve noticed an unexpected residual effect of my gaming—my Japanese ability seems to be going up slightly faster than usual. Perhaps it’s because, as the user of a Japanese Playstation Store and Playstation Plus account, all the menus, all the setup and most of the payments I need to make are completely in Japanese.
This idea of engaging in an activity other than language study using a foreign language is what teachers refer to as “passive learning.” I’ve read several texts on the merits of passive learning and indeed, to a limited extent I’ve tried to implement it into my classes.
So, how exactly does it work? What are the best ways to maximize your Japanese learning while still enjoying your gaming time? Well, for what it’s worth, here’s how I managed to balance my twin goals of leveling up in my games and preparing for JLPT 4.
Important note: if you live outside of Japan you will need a Japanese console to do this, or one that has the option to be set to display Japanese language. Likewise, you will need to use the Japanese versions of the games.
First, as much as it pains me to say it, a game like Star Wars: Battlefront isn’t really going to help you. Sure, the options menus can be set to Japanese, but most of the inputs are symbol based rather than text based.
Apart from the occasional bout of swearing at one of the local online players when he’s blown my Tie Fighter out of the sky for the umpteenth time in that round of Fighter Squadron mode, I never really use Japanese when I’m playing Battlefront.
However, when it comes to deeper, more story-driven games such as Batman: Arkham Knight, you can expose yourself to a lot more Japanese.
Being a North American game, as you would expect, the primary dialogue of Arkham Knight is entirely in English. However, there is the option to set the subtitles to Japanese.
If you really want to challenge yourself, I recommend playing the game with the voices muted, so you need to rely entirely on the Japanese written text to get you through the game. The best and most immersive way to do this, however, is with actual Japanese titles such as Capcom’s Biohazard (Resident Evil) series of survival horror games.
With actual Japanese titles, you will, in most cases, have the option of both audio and subtitles in Japanese, for a true language immersion experience. Keep an online FAQ guide nearby in case there is a part of the game that you really can’t navigate in Japanese.
Also, keep a notepad or your smartphone handy and remember to make a note of any new or unfamiliar kanji compounds or phrases, so that you can look up exact meanings later. Having Google translate on your phone is good for a rough translation, but it’s better to show the exact phrasing to a Japanese friend later on to clarify the exact meaning.
Modern games are so immersive these days that you really feel like you are part of the action, and both listening and reading the language of instruction play a big part in this experience. However, despite these present day conveniences, perhaps the modern consoles, with their multi-language options and loosened regional controls aren’t the best way to push yourself to improve your Japanese. Instead, I recommend going “old school.”
Go down to Akihabara in Tokyo or Den Den Town in Osaka where you can pick up some older systems and games. With these, switching to English when the Japanese gets too hard isn’t an option.
Remember that back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, games aimed at older players weren’t really a thing yet. The vast majority of titles in those days were aimed at children as the primary consumers. Hence, the language used in the games is a lot simpler and easier to understand than some of today’s games.
Most Japanese titles for older consoles such as the Nintendo Famicom (NES in Europe and the U.S.) and the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in the U.S.) use vocabulary and language that would typically be understood by an 8 year old, which conveniently enough is around about the level of the JLPT N4 and N3 Japanese language proficiency exams.
There’s also that nostalgia factor. It’s been great fun for me to go back and replay titles from my youth such as Legend of Zelda and the more recent Onimusha series.
It’s also interesting to uncover some of the quirky differences between the Japanese versions and the European counterparts as your Japanese level improves.
Take, for example, one of my favorite Mega Drive games, Streets of Rage 3 (known as Bare Knuckle 3 in Japan). Not only does the Japanese version have a completely different plot and alternate endings, but there are even secret characters that were completely left out of the U.S. and EU versions.
Using video games both old and new to improve my Japanese hasn’t just been an educational experience, it’s also heightened my appreciation for the Japanese culture and mindset. If I had more time and I wasn’t burdened by trivialities like having to work for a living, I’d love to study this in more detail.
Until then, I’ll continue to appreciate the unique beauty, challenge and mystique that only Japanese video games can provide.