There were plenty of kids growing up the 80s who remember picking up a square rectangular controller, turning on a gray box that looked like a VCR, and connecting it all to a CRT television (the big ones we had before flat-screens).
They'd then spend several hours glued to their TVs playing Genki video games until they were ordered by their parents to stop. ("Your eyes will turn square" was my parents' favorite reason for stopping.). It was there, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, that many of our lives were changed.
For many, games consoles gave people their first glimpse into Japanese culture which would later blossom into a fondness for other aspects of the culture: manga, anime, music, and cinema.
While it was just a bit of fun and our parents mightn’t have really understood it, there was an opportunity for us to learn Japanese that we may have missed. After all, children learn really quickly.
Japanese, or Nihongo a native speaker, is a language spoken by more than 128 million people. People often think Japanese is difficult to learn due to the writing systems that it employs, and the network of alien terms that a google search throws up to any new learner, such as desu, watashi, romaji, and hiragana katakana but to name a few.
The reality is that the Japanese writing system is complex for English speakers to learn because it uses a completely new alphabet, but once you have mastered how to read and write, Japanese grammar is surprisingly more straight forward. Therefore as a beginner you will focus more on speaking Japanese, before moving onto tackling the writing system, with the grammar coming later on.
Although there are a number of ways to learn Japanese, you can now say goodbye to the traditional language lessons of the past if they are not your cup of tea.
Anyone can learn a language nowadays and there are plenty of games that can help you do this. For the gamers among you, let’s have a look at how you can combine a love of video games with your language learning in order to be the very best, like no-one ever was.
The Best Way to Learn Japanese on Your Own: Video Games
While most of us didn’t even realize, we were consuming Japanese culture from a very early age. If you could get the cartridge to work by blowing on it as hard as you could, you'd have a fantastic opportunity to spend a few hours immersed in a world where everyone was speaking Japanese! Not only were you listening to perfect pronunciation, you were also being exposed to Japanese phrases, and how to speak Japanese in general.
There was a profound influence from Japan at the time. In fact, it was the second largest cultural exporter. It just goes to show how important it all was.
Video games, which were quickly becoming one of the most popular aspects of young people’s lives, were making their way into houses all over the country.
They were controversial, too. Violence in video games is not a new phenomenon, after all. In the early 90s, games were under fire for the violent content being displayed in games such Mortal Kombat. It was a new media and it was unregulated. If kids were committing violent acts in the game, would they do the same in real life?
The controversy led to creation Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) which is most famous for the stickers on video games telling you the ages they're appropriate for.
That said, kids learned much more than just how to kill a man by removing his spine, they also started to discover uniquely Japanese cultural concepts. A quick look into a foreign culture can be a great way to motivate you delve deeper and learn the language without even realizing you are.
Imagine if Japanese classes could be as fun as video games...
If you could get your hands on imported games from Japan, you could familiarize yourself with the Japanese writings systems: kanji (the Japanese characters) and kana (hiragana and katakana). It’s almost as good as learning Japanese with a private tutor! If that's what you're after, you can find Japanese courses London or around the UK with Superprof.
You can study without studying. By having fun and listening to the dialogue, gamers were able to understand certain Japanese expressions and phrases. While a film will keep playing whether you understand or not, a video game will make you show that you know what’s going on!
Don’t lie! After a long journey of classes, you’d much rather play a game than go back to verb tables. Imagine if you could do both!
For years, companies like Nintendo have been a vessel for Japanese culture through games and an ambassador for the country itself (did you see the Japanese Prime Minister dressed as Super Mario at the end of the Olympic Games?).
When used right, they’re also a great tool for learning as you can study the language and culture simultaneously without opening a textbook or stepping foot in Japan.
Koe: The Video Game that Teaches You to Speak Japanese!
A lot of people opt to learn Japanese online, take Japanese lessons with a tutor, or a Japanese course at a local institute. All of these are great ways to learn the language, but many people don't know they can increase their proficiency through video games. One such example is the video game Koe.
It was launched on the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform in 2014 and garnered £75,167 (about $100,000) in support.
This amount of funding was unexpected given that the developer Jitesh Rawal, who was a student at the University of Derby, UK, at the time, had only asked for £35,000.
By basing the game on JRPGs like Final Fantasy, Pokémon, and Dragon Quest, the aim of the game is simple: to learn Japanese while having the same kind of fun you’d have playing these classics.
You’ll be taken on an adventure where you learn Japanese in interesting places while fighting monsters, etc. Imagine being able to learn hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字) without even realizing that you are.
Through the immersion being offered by this game, you’ll be able to learn basic Japanese vocabulary, words and phrases, as well as everyday expressions, and have conversations in Japanese.
This project shows, through its vintage appeal and that it’s more than possible to teach yourself Japanese without relying on the assistance of a sensei or private Japanese teacher.
The biggest challenge that the developers will face is finding the right balance between making a fun game and also making it an effective teaching tool for learning the Japanese language.
If this isn’t enough for you, why not consider learning Japanese at middle school, high school, or even university?
Learn Japanese with Educational Nintendo 3DS Games
These educational games turn the player into a student and force them to answer questions and find the answers to problems. As they progress, they’ll face harder and harder challenges.
Nintendo very quickly realized how popular these types of games would be and subsequently ensured that their platform carried as many games as it could for Japanophiles. As a result, there are plenty of different games on the 3DS for those who’d like to enhance their Japanese learning experience:
Pururun! Shizuku-Chan Aha-☆ DS Drill Kokugo
While this game doesn’t have the catchiest name, it does offer its main mode (“sentaku”) with several themes (“moji”, “kanji”, “kotoba”, “bunshô” and “matome”) which can help you practice Japanese via several fun activities. The better you do, the more levels you go up. The game also keeps track of your progress.
The game focuses on teaching you in real time and challenges you to study every day in order to reach a score of 100 and make your friend “Shizuku-chan” happy.
DS Rakubiki Jiten
Kanji Sonomama DS Rakubiki Jiten is a dictionary app more than it is a traditional video game.
Since there’s also no training method for learning to write Japanese characters, this software would probably be best for those who are already at an intermediate level. However, it does come with English-Japanese dictionaries that include over 13,000 words.
There are three dictionaries available and you can use the stylus and touchscreen in order to find Japanese words using kanji:
English-Japanese Genius 3rd Edition
English-Japanese 2nd Edition
Zaidanhoujin Nippon Kanji Nouryoku Kentei
This 2D video game made by Rocket Company is also available on the 3DS.
This game was clearly designed for Japanese beginners and can help them to master how to write kanji, the Japanese characters. You can adjust the speed and difficulty of the game in order to suit your needs.
Although this game won't prepare you to take the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), it will help you memorize kanji characters with over 25,000 exercises and mini-games based on official tests. Once you’ve finished your training, you should be able to pass the Japanese Kanji Kentei aptitude test.
Of course, you can supplement your video game curriculum with lessons. Begin to learn Japanese online today. :)
The Video Games that Helped Spread the Japanese Language
As the spiritual successor to Atari, the arrival of Nintendo marked a huge change in the industry.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is still popular today due to its vintage charm even though its graphics are far from what you see on consoles like the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One.
However, there’s a certain emotional appeal that has a generation hooked on retro games like Super Mario, Zelda, and Mega Man.
This relationship between the player and these video games was forged during hours spent in front of the TV and those lucky enough to have Japanese copies of the games benefited from free language lessons with games like:
Super Mario Bros.
There are few gamers who don’t have fond memories of at least one of these series.
Appearing in nearly 100 games in 30 years, Mario (despite being an Italian plumber) is probably the most recognizable symbols of Japanese culture. In the early days of gaming, Mario was the first Japanese thing that the children of the generation were exposed to.
In an age of digital culture, why not use an enjoyable and popular medium to get closer to both Japanese culture and learn more about the Japanese language, too? If you want to go to the next level, then why not consider studying Japanese at university, or even going to Japan for an immersion course in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka.