Anime is Great for Learning Japanese (here’s how it works)

Many sources have cited interest in anime as one of the main reasons why people begin learning Japanese. It is certainly the reason I started, and from personal experience I feel that anime has certainly made a positive contribution to my Japanese language skills. But the real question for anime fans is whether it’s possible to learn Japanese from anime? Fortunately, academic research has been done on the topic and the answer is positive.

Japanese can be learned from anime as it is a powerful medium for providing the input needed to expand one’s language abilities. Pairing anime viewing alongside formal study of Japanese will yield positive results for language improvement, but without formal study, gains will be minimal.  

Many studies have indicated that language acquisition is possible through watching TV in the target language [1]. For example, the nature of television as a form of multi-modal input facilitates vocabulary learning [1]. Multi-modal input means that you are hearing the spoken words in the target language at the same time as you are reading the subtitles in your native language and watching the scene unfold.

The serial nature of television series allows for a lot of repetition of the same words. The repetition helps facilitate acquisition of the word [1]. In my own experience I have heard from several people that watching shows on Netflix, and in particular watching Friends, was a big help for them in learning English. So why can’t anime be helpful for learning Japanese?

In fact, many studies have shown that you can learn quite a bit from watching anime [1], [2], [3]. In terms of learning Japanese, the following have been reported as outcomes that students get from watching Anime.

Japanese language skills gained from watching anime:

  • Word recognition
  • Incidental vocabulary acquisition (mainly words related to the theme of the anime, but also slang, insults and swear words)  
  • Acquisition of basic/ritual phrases and catch phrases
  • Awareness of patterns of intonation
  • Awareness of formal and informal speech (including the use of honorifics and pronouns)
  • Awareness of difference between female and male speech
  • Awareness of yakuwarigo “role language” (the language used by various types of characters depending on their gender, age, regional affiliation, socioeconomic status, and personal traits)
  • Improved Japanese listening ability
  • Improved Japanese pronunciation when speaking

It is important to mention again that you will gain the most benefit from learning Japanese from anime by formally studying the language alongside your viewing. Unfortunately, it is not realistic to expect to learn and become fluent in Japanese just by watching many hours of anime. However, one study did investigate what can be gained without formal language instruction [1].

The respondents in the study were mostly people who had watched anime avidly over many years. Most indicated that they can understand simple and short utterances, and can speak some words and simple sentences, but none of them were otherwise able to communicate in Japanese with any depth. However, an important result of this study was that they were able to pick up various words relevant to the anime they watched.

Coming back to the benefits of watching anime alongside formal study, Professor Natsuki Fukunaga of Marshall University describes a virtuous cycle of language learning experienced by anime students (those who watch anime and pursue formal Japanese language studies). They build on what they learn from anime in class, then apply what they learn in class back to anime [3].

In Japanese class, anime students put their prior knowledge to use while they gain new knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, writing systems, and culture. When these students go back to anime, they find themselves recognizing more words than before and reviewing things they learned in the past.

Natsuki Fukunaga
Cycle of anime students’ Japanese foreign language learning [3].

After you’ve learned some Japanese, you can watch anime in Japanese and understand some of it. This is extremely rewarding! You get to apply what you’ve learned to deepen your enjoyment of watching anime! But that’s actually not the whole story. Formal study of Japanese does not just help you with understanding anime, anime also helps you understand what you are learning.

By watching anime and immersing yourself in the language in action, things which were not making sense in your classroom studies suddenly will when you get the right exposure to it, for example tricky grammar points or highly nuanced words. Opportunities to get the required exposures are gained through input.

Anime’s role in the cycle of Japanese language learning is input. Input is critical for language learning; a large amount is needed, especially in the earlier stages. You will mainly want to focus on audio input, but written input is also important and cannot be ignored, especially for Japanese, which uses kanji in its writing system. While we’re on the topic, output is also important. Of course… it’s all important!

But, for more information I write about the balance between input and output, and audio vs. written input here. For now, let’s just go over a summary of how input works. In input hypothesis, developed by Professor Stephen Krashen, the main idea is that you need to be exposed to material that is just above your current level (comprehensible input) in order for language acquisition to take place.

In anime, there are scenes with words and expressions at various levels. So, if you are at a lower level, much of it will pass over you, but there will be some scenes in which the language is at your current level which will make for good comprehensible input that you can learn from. What you are really doing is taking advantage of your implicit learning ability.

If you are putting in the work in formal Japanese language study, then just by watching anime, you are able to gain from it! But keep in mind that the point is not to be able to understand everything all at once. The point is to pick up what you can and keep taking things in even if you don’t understand them, because of the cycle effect, seeing them in anime first can help you learn them in your formal studies.   

What Makes Anime a Great Source of Input

Anime is a legitimate and arguably ideal form of input. Below is a list of reasons why. Some of the reasons come right from a study all about training students’ Japanese listening ability using scenes from anime [4]. But the most important reason is that it is authentic material made for native consumption, it is not material that has been made deliberately with altered language for learners.

Aspects of anime that make it a great source of input:

  • Highly engaging material
  • Authentic material made for consumption by native speakers
  • Large quantity available
  • Dialogues from a variety of situations with associated words and expressions
  • Lots of context surrounding the dialogues
  • Variety of speech styles
  • Clear pronunciation
  • Availability of subtitles and captions
  • Visual context to aid understanding
  • A counterpoint to balance the more conservative speech style taught in conventional Japanese language classrooms

One question that arises is whether some anime are better than others for learning Japanese. In research studies, anime has been divided into two broad categories, shoujo and shounen [1], [5], [6]. It is said that shoujo anime is better because its focus is on daily life and ningenkankei (human relationships), whereas shounen anime focuses on fighting and competition.

Furthermore, the language in shoujo anime tends to be easier than shounen which often includes more higher-level technical terms [6]. One study in particular analyzed the words and expressions used in three anime of different genres and classified the words and expressions according to their JLPT level [6]. The anime analyzed were Hyoka, Fate Zero and K-ON 2.

Hyoka is a mystery series, Fate Zero is an action series involving a lot of battle scenes, and K-ON 2 is a series about school life. It was found that words at all levels of the JLPT are used in each anime, but K-ON 2, which is a shoujo anime, did indeed contain a larger proportion of words and expressions at lower levels.  But don’t worry! Yet another study focused on learning from shuonen anime found that viewers potentially develop similar levels of listening comprehension from consuming either genre [1].

But Will I End Up Sounding Like an Anime Character?

By watching anime, you will certainly pick up some expressions and words (often derogatory ones) that would almost never be used in daily Japanese life. I have. And I have watched a lot of anime. In fact, I wish I could speak Japanese like an anime character. If I could, that would mean my Japanese is at native level, even if it sounded whimsical and exaggerated. But this is not the case. 

You will not end up sounding like an anime character by watching anime to learn Japanese. As you develop your Japanese skill and come able to express yourself, you will still retain your own speech style. On the contrary, it would take considerable effort to learn to speak like an anime character.

I would say the case is like your native language in which although you know derogatory words and expressions, you know from social context whether or not it’s alright to use them. Most of the time it’s not. The same is true as you pick up those types of words and expressions in Japanese, you will know that they belong in the world of anime and not to be used in real interactions with other people.

Another point is that, when you are learning a new language, your communication ability will at first be characterized by… your inability. Since you have very little command of the language and limited vocabulary, your utterances will tend to be short and terse; just enough to communicate the point you want to get across [7].

As you learn more and start speaking with some autonomy, your speech will be more of a forced translation from your native language. With a lot of time and practice, you will eventually reach a point of more natural sounding Japanese which you can speak with automaticity, but you will still sound like you. I write in detail about the struggle developing as a Japanese speaker here.

As mentioned, it would take a long time and deliberate practice to get to the point of automatically speaking like and having the verbal mannerisms of an anime character. Anime characters are just that, fictional characters that take effort to play by human actors. These characters are not you and you do not need to worry about becoming them. 

How to Use Anime to Learn Japanese (specific strategies)

The next thing to discuss is what to do specifically while watching anime in order to maximize your Japanese language learning gains. Passive viewing will yield some benefits, but you can take it way further. Below is a list of techniques you can use, some of which come from a study on using anime as a teaching tool in a Japanese as a foreign language classroom [5].

Strategies for using anime to learn Japanese:

  • Note Taking – write down words and expressions you notice but may not understand, then look them up or ask your Japanese tutor about them. Notice the context in which they are said.
  • Read along with Captions – captions are Japanese subtitles, basically just the written transcript of the dialogue.  
  • Audio On, Visual Off – turn off the visuals to see how much you can understand without the visual context.
  • Dubbing – without using English subtitles, can you write down the dialogue of the scene in English (or other native language) from your understanding of the Japanese audio alone? This is kind of like making your own fansubs.
  • Watch with a Tutor – you can watch scenes together with your Japanese tutor and get a line-by-line explanation of the language being used.
  • Repetition – rewatch episodes after you have reviewed new words and expressions you noticed.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these strategies. Let’s start with watching with a tutor. I don’t mean paying someone to watch anime with you, rather the idea is that when you come across scenes with difficult Japanese that you can’t understand, rewatch these isolated scenes with a native speaking tutor who can explain the mechanics of the language being used to you. By the way, a private tutor is an excellent resource for learning Japanese and probably more affordable than you think. I write about it here.

The next strategy to discuss is the use of captions. First, let’s make a distinction, subtitles text is the translation of the dialogue into English (or other language), captions text is the exact transcript of the dialogue written in Japanese. As you can guess, subtitles are more suitable for lower-level learners to aid in comprehension [1].

Captions are best for more advanced learners. One reason is just that more advanced learners will have the ability to read captions. A big barrier to learning to read Japanese is kanji. Although kanji is difficult, it is critical to learn, which I write about here. But the other big benefit of captions is that the written dialogue disambiguates the spoken dialogue. If it is hard to catch what is being said, subtitles will enable you to parse the words, which will also have a positive effect on vocabulary acquisition [1].

The above strategies are essentially all forms of intensive listening, with the added benefit of visual context (except in the case of audio on, visual off). Intensive listening is where you are listening for details and trying to take in and understand everything. It’s a powerful way to develop your listening and comprehension skills.   

But I mentioned above that understanding everything is not the goal. So, in contrast, we also have extensive listening. In general, part of extensive listening means that you understand a very high percentage of the content, but another aspect is being interested and engaged with the content. With anime, although we’ll probably have to ignore the former criteria, we’ll certainly honor the latter.

For more information about how to practice listening, and extensive vs. intensive listening I write about it here. In the end, you’ll just need to experiment with what works for you. Because anime really interests you it may help you through intensive listening practice sessions, which can be strenuous. Conversely, intensive listening may turn watching anime into a chore, so you might be better off with extensive listening. For all the reasons we went through in this article, your Japanese language skills will benefit from anime either way!


[1] Bacani Casie. (2021). Becoming ‘those Anime Students’: Learning Japanese Through Anime. California State University, Long Beach.

[2] Chan, Yee-Han & Wong Ngan-Ling. (2017). Learning Japanese through anime. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 8, 485-495.

[3] Fukunaga, Natsuki. (2006). “Those anime students:” Foreign language literacy development through Japanese popular culture. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50, 206-222.

[4] Junjie, Shan., Nishihara, Yoko. & Yamanishi, Ryosuke. (2018). A system for Japanese listening training support with watching anime scenes. Procedia Computer Science, 126, 947-956.

[5] Chan, Yee-Han & Wong, Ngan-Ling. (2017). The use of anime in teaching Japanese as a foreign language. Malaysia Online Journal of Educational Technology, 5, 68-78.

[6] Junjie, Shan., Nishihara, Yoko., Yamanishi, Ryouske., & Fukumoto, Junichi. (2017). Analysis of dialogues difficulty in anime comparing with JLPT listening tests. Procedia Computer Science, 112, 1345-1352.

[7] Gass, Susan M., Selinker, Larry. (2008). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, Third Edition. Routledge.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

Recent Posts