Last year, I shared my experiences on how I use video games as a supplement to practice my Japanese skills. When I was looking at Overlord-G’s guide on Yuri and it got me thinking, it’s probably a good idea to make a Newcomer’s guide on how to use Japanese language video games to practice Japanese. I have wanted to write a more detailed guide for a while. Since importing games got easier in the past years, why not?
This guide is more suited for people who are at an Intermediate or Advanced Japanese level. For people who are beginning to learn the language, you should probably hold off until you know both polite and casual speech.
Guide Last Updated: February 18, 2019
Table of Contents
- Why play Japanese video games over watching anime?
- What tools and consoles do I need?
- Where do I get the games/consoles?
- What should I do while playing a video game?
- Recommended Games
Why play Japanese video games over watching anime?
It’s true that some people want to learn Japanese so that one can watch Anime without subtitles. While Anime can be good for listening comprehension, it’s not that great if you want to learn new vocabulary and/or kanji. Although anime and video games should only be used for supplemental practice (they will use language that might be impolite or not used often in real life such as gendered speech) instead of being a replacement for textbooks/formal instruction, I find video games a better medium since will have the actual dialog in addition to the voices. Not only that, it’s a lot easier to reinforce the vocabulary and kanji you have just learn with a video game opposed to watching a single episode of your favorite Anime.
What tools and consoles do I need?
Here are some of the things that are required in order to play Japanese version video games as practice.
A Japanese to English Electronic Dictionary – Having a Japanese to English dictionary is essential since you will often come across a word that you won’t know. Luckily, you don’t need to go out and get a dedicated electronic dictionary (although they might have better definitions) since you might own a smart phone or a tablet that can accomplish this. I use an iPhone, so I typically use an application called Imiwa in conjunction to the built-in Wisdom English-Japanese Dictionary from Sanseido that is included in iOS and Mac OS X. While I don’t own an Android, there should be plenty of Japanese to English dictionaries on the Google Play store. You should enable Japanese input before using these apps.
Since then, I got myself a dedicated Japanese Dictionary. I highly recommend getting the Casio Ex-word since they usually have a lot of content and add on dictionaries along with Kenkyūsha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary since it has a lot of definitions. This is available on a micro-SD card if you get an entry-level or midrange model or the professional models, which already includes it. The model I have is XD-U6500 and I highly recommend buying it off Amazon.co.jp and using a forwarding service such as Tenso or using Buyee (which is owned by Tenso) as other places mark up the prices ridiculously. However, if you have a smart phone or tablet, you can turn it into a Japanese dictionary by downloading several apps suggested below. While using your smart phone as a dictionary can drain your battery quicker, it is the cheaper route. Note that the suggestions are mostly for iOS, although a few apps may have Android versions.
Other apps I would consider are:
- Wisdom English-Japanese – Japanese English Dictionary ($29.99) – This is the same dictionary that is included in macOS, but in an accessible iOS App. While iOS has this dictionary built-in, it’s a lot easier to look up words from the dedicated app.
- Yomiwa ($6.99) – If you are having difficulty looking up Kanji or just want to look it up easily using the camera, Yomiwa uses OCR to find the Kanji easily. This is more useful for reading printed material such as Manga or Light Novels or Mobage through the use of screenshots. It’s not optimal to use this app on video console screens since it has a hard time recognizing Kanji. You are better off lookup Kanji through radicals or drawing it. The app is also available on Android.
- EBPocket Professional ($4.99) – If you have access or find EPWing dictionaries on google, which is an electronic dictionary format found commonly on CD, this application can turn your smartphone into a powerful Japanese electronic dictionary. EBPocket also has a version for Android smartphones. Kenkyuusha is available on EPWing format on CD. If you use a PC or Mac, EBWin and EBMac allows you to use EPWing dictionaries.
- Kenkyuusha New Japanese-English Dictionary 5th Edition – ($120) Kenkyuusha dictionaries are the gold standard as it provides a lot of examples. This is one of the legal ways of obtaining it without having to buy a Casio Ex-Word or simular electronic dictionary.
- Dijirin (大辞林) ($21.99) – Sometimes, you need a Japanese to Japanese dictionary to look up some words. Dijirin is usually suggested since it’s easier for non-native speakers to understand. Like Wisdom, this dictionary is built into iOS through the lookup function, but it’s a lot easier to look up words using the dedicated app. As always, Dijirin is also available in EPWing format, if you can find it on CD. This dictionary is also available on macOS.
A Video Game Console – In order to play games, you need a console unless you are playing computer games. While there are three companies (Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) you can get gaming consoles and games for, Nintendo and Sony consoles are usually preferred since they are more popular in Japan than Microsoft’s. Any console in the eight generation, besides the 3DS and Wii U are region free. If you want to play Japanese games, a Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch or a Playstation Vita are recommended since they are region free. If you are beginning, a Japanese Nintendo 3DS might be beneficial since there are games available that have furigana, which is a reading guide for Kanji seen in most games aimed for children. With a Japanese 3DS, you can add funds to your Nintendo Switch without needing to buy Japanese Nintendo Network gift cards.
Anki – Anki is an open source flashcard program that facilitates memorization of vocabulary and even Kanji. The cards you will study in a given day are done automatically. There is a version of Anki on iOS, but it costs $24.99. However, it’s a worthwhile investment in the long run as you can study your cards anywhere without being front of a computer.
Where do I get the games?
There are quite a few places where you can get Japanese games. However, depending on the country you live in, you might have to pay import duties in addition to shipping fees (In the United States, there is no import duties for video games). Not to mention, Japanese games typically cost a bit more than an English release (about 30-40% more, unless it’s a budget copy). In short, you should pick games that a publisher doesn’t intend on localizing or something that you really want to play badly.
Here are some easily accessible places you can get games without needing a shipping proxy or middleman:
CDJapan – This is the international branch of Neowing, which sells a variety of stuff such as music CDs, Anime DVDs, merchandise, books and video games. While their shipping costs a bit more than other sites, but they offer a frequent shoppers program, which you can earn points (which is helpful since you will typically get 300 additional points from a video game purchase). They also ship rather quickly (About 1 week for unregistered airmail and 2-3 weeks for unregistered SAL). For consoles, you need to look elsewhere.
AmiAmi – While I haven’t used them, they also sell video games in addition to Anime merchandise. Not only that, they also sell Japanese 3DSes, although you probably need to use EMS or Fedex if you plan on buying a console from there. They often discount their games even though they might not keep a stock in the long-term compared to other sites.
PlayAsia – This is usually the site people mention when someone wants to import video games. While they sell consoles, they typically cost more compared to Japanese retailers. They provide free shipping for orders over $25, but it takes over 3 weeks from my experience. That saying, I had problems with them trying to ship my order one time, until they finally done so. PlayAsia also sells consoles, but they are more expensive than AmiAmi or Nippon-Yasan.
Nippon-Yasan – Like AmiAmi, I don’t have much experiences with them either, although they are a Japanese based company that sells Anime merchandise, video games and consoles.
Amazon.co.jp – Just recently, Amazon.co.jp now allows shipment of video games and hardware sold directly by Amazon overseas, thus giving another alternative over buying from the sites above. However, there are some drawbacks as you can only buy things that are directly sold by Amazon and not from third-party sellers (this is important if you want to buy used copies, which are cheaper). For that, you need to use a forwarding service like Tenso.
If you are into digital downloads, PlayAsia, JapanCodeSupply, and Japan Codes sell PSN cards. However, they have a huge markup, so you are better off buying the physical games unless you want to get downloadable content. Also, you need to use a Japanese PSN account to download content in the Japanese Playstation Store.
Setting up a Tenso Account
Tenso is a forwarding service, which allows you to forward packages that will only ship in Japan. They basically give you a free address to use for forwarding. After they receive your package, you basically pay a shipping fee (depends on the weight) and handling fee to have it shipped to you.
Getting an account set up with them is easy. You create an account with them, enter your address to ship and send them your identity (usually a driver’s license). The last part is pain in the butt since everything has to match (your full name, address, date of birth) before you can forward any packages. After they successfully verify your identity, you are free to start shipping items. From my experience with their sister service with Buyee, they ship fast after they received your package.
What should I do while playing a video game?
Now you have the video game, but how do you understand what the characters are saying? One of the common mistakes people make is to smash the A (or circle) button because he/she wants to play the game. You should avoid doing this since it would completely defeat the purpose of using it as practice.
First, you should memorize some of the common gaming terminology, especially if you are playing a role-playing game. If you memorize words such as: 攻撃、防御、逃げる、装備、素早さ、経験, you will be ahead of the curve. In addition, there will be some words that are borrowed from English that is commonly used such as アイテム and セーブ. If you come across a word you don’t know, you should follow these steps.
- Look up the word in the dictionary – If you don’t know it, the dictionary should always be the first place to go to. However, finding the Kanji for a particular word can be tricky. Luckily, if you know the radicals that make up a particular Kanji, you can easily find it. Also, if you know parts of the word that has the kanji, type it in.
Once you find the Kanji, type the rest of the word to find the meaning. If you playing video games on the go, put the word on the “add” list so you can refer back to it later. If you want a better definition, just copy the word and paste it to your desired dictionary app.
If you use an app that can perform OCR using a camera or picture such as Yomiwa as seen below, you can hold down the definition and then copy the word with Kanji. Then you can paste it to your desired dictionary app for a definition.
2. Record the word into your vocabulary log notebook in OneNote, Notability or Evernote – Before you do this, you should put down today’s date and the game you are playing on that day so you can track your progress. Then, type the full word (as seen in the game), the kana and the meaning. I typically tag each line in OneNote so I can keep track what words I made flashcards for (this will differ in EverNote). After recording the word, go back to the dictionary app and put the word into the “done” list.
Don’t forget: You should always include a な for な adjectives so you won’t mistake it as a noun!
- Add the words to the deck – After you finish playing, go through the list and add the cards to your Video Game vocabulary deck in Anki. The deck should be formatted to show the word, the kana in the front and the meaning on the back.
4. Study – You should study the video game vocabulary deck every day so that these words will stay fresh in your mind. If you have trouble remembering these words, add another field called sentence (if it’s not there) to the back and write one sentence using that word.
While everyone has different opinions on what games one should play, here are some I recommend, although you can play any games as long it’s text heavy like a role-playing game or a dating sim. Keep in mind that games designed for an older audience instead of a teenaged one might use obscure grammar that is only covered in an Advanced Japanese course (or JLPT N1).
Pokémon (also known as Pocket Monsters) – 3DS
Since Pokémon games are typically geared to a young audience, the main series games are usually a good choice for those who completed beginner level or lower-intermediate Japanese to build up one’s vocabulary, although it can be a bit difficult. Furthermore, Pokémon X and Y allows you to play in any language, including Japanese, making it an attractive choice since one only needs to buy the game from a local store. However, you should be familiar with casual speech first before playing. Also, avoid using Kana mode! It’s a clutch that won’t help you with the Kanji.
If you decide to import Pokémon Spinoffs, these games will have furigana, which will make looking up words that have Kanji a lot easier.
Other games to consider in this franchise: Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, Pokémon Sun and Moon/Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee
Atelier (e.g. New Atelier Rorona) – PS3 and Vita
From experience, the dialog in the Atelier games can easily be understood for people who know intermediate Japanese (although there might be some uncommon words). Depending on the game, the dialog is not terribly long since most of these scenes are slice of life-ish, especially games in the Arland trilogy. However, you might have to look up some words for some of the traits if you don’t already know what they do along with the quests/main task requirements.
Tales of Games (e.g. Tales of Hearts, Tales of Innocence, Tales of Vesperia, etc.) – PS3 and Vita (Depending on the game)
Since Namco refuses to localize most of their Tales games, not too many people outside Japan got to experience them. Even so, these games are perfect for practice because they are geared to a teenage audience, If you considering the Vita remakes, I recommend Tales of Hearts R since I liked the story and the characters from that game. Not to mention, the skits in the portable version are manual advance, so you don’t have to worry about the dialog advancing while you try to comprehend it.
Hyperdimension Neptunia Rebirth – Vita
If you are a big gamer and want to play a game filled with gaming related jokes and references, this is the game. While this game uses a good number of Japanese slang and has references to the video game industry, the game is fairly understandable at an intermediate level.
The Idolmaster (Idolmaster 2 and Idolmaster SP) – PS3/360 or PSP (depending on the game)
Although I don’t recommend this game unless you know a sufficient amount of vocabulary since the text auto-advances, this game will give you some idea of actual Japanese conversions since this is an idol simulator and you interact with other people for the communications. Not to mention, the game has a rhythm game aspects for auditions, lives and festivals if you are into that.
Japanese Mobile Games
Most Japanese Mobile Games also known as Mobage are usually in visual novel format and are generally free to play, unless you spend money on Gacha. This makes them ideal as practice material. You can take a screenshot and use the Yomiwa app to look up Kanji you don’t know. Here is a list of games that will work from my knowledge without a VPN:
- Bang Dream Girls Party
- Love Live
- Idolmaster Cinderella Girls Starlight Stage/Million Live Theater Days
- Kirara Fantasia
- Magica Record
It is recommended to use an iOS device (iPhone or iPad) since it’s easier to sign up for a Japanese iTunes account and then download them to your device without a VPN. For Android, there is more steps involved to download these games. If you don’t know how, this guide can help.
In the past, Japanese video games were a pain to import for the fact that consoles had region locks and there weren’t many retailers that sell imported games. Because of this, people tend to use Anime, Manga and Light Novels as practice. Thanks to the Internet, importing games and playing them has become a lot easier.
With that, I hope this guide is helpful. If you have any other helpful tips I didn’t mention, any experiences or games that you would recommend, feel free to share them in the comments. Also, good luck!
Update: Concise Guide is now available (Adobe Reader required). ¶