It’s OK to Learn Japanese Because You Like Anime

If you love anime and it has motivated you to want to learn Japanese, you may feel that anime alone is not a legitimate reason to start learning, and that you may not get enough benefit from it to justify the time and effort it takes to learn. My hope is that this article will put your mind at ease and reassure you that good things can and do come of it. We’ll look at several questions which may concern you, starting with whether people actually do and how many learn Japanese because of anime.

Every 3 years the Japan Foundation conducts an extensive survey to get an idea of the overall picture of Japanese language education outside of Japan. They do a fairly extensive tally of the number of institutions and schools, teachers, and students. A big component of the survey probes the reasons why students decide to learn Japanese.

Among reasons, some are utility-based, like employment opportunities, while others are based on personal interests, one of which is interest in the Japanese language itself, but another is interest in Japanese popular culture, which includes interest in anime. This latter reason proves to be a common one.

Interest in Japanese popular culture (e.g., anime, manga, J-POP, fashion) has consistently been reported as a top reason for learning Japanese since the Japan Foundation started surveying it in 2009. In 2021 about 60% of all global respondents stated this as at least one of their reasons.

The survey is broken down by region and country. The reasons for learning Japanese vary by region. In terms of interest in Japanese popular culture (e.g., anime, manga, J-POP, fashion), 60% was the global number, but in Western Europe, North America, and the Middle East, it was reported as 83%, 92% and 97% respectively [1].

The tally of students learning Japanese in the 2021 survey was approximately 3.8 million. This means that there is a good chance that about 2.3 million learners are driven by their interest in anime! Actually, the number is almost certainly higher because it does not account for all of the foreign students currently studying Japanese in Japan and all of the unreported self-learners.

So, if you are concerned that learning Japanese motivated by your love of anime is not a valid reason, then you need not worry. It’s a perfectly valid reason that is validated by fellow learners all over the world and I count myself as one of them. But… the question is now should you do it? Should you learn Japanese just because you like anime?

Is Learning Japanese as an Anime Fan Right for You?

Let’s get an idea of the percentage of anime fans that pursue learning Japanese. If we look at the number of users for just one popular anime streaming service, Crunchyroll, we see that in 2021 (the same year as the above-mentioned Japan Foundation survey), they had 120 million users [2]. Some of these users might be native Japanese, but since it is an American company, the vast majority are probably not.

So, looking at the large number of users from just this one service and comparing it to the 2.3 million reported Japanese learners mentioned above, we can infer that in all likelihood most anime fans don’t pursue learning Japanese. I am making some big assumptions here, but I think the logic still stands. So, choosing not to learn Japanese as an anime fan would not be unusual at all.

But if you are asking the question, both to yourself and searching it online, there is clearly something motivating you. Motivation is complicated and multifaceted, but one of those facets is extrinsic vs. intrinsic [3]. One part of extrinsic motivation is pressure, both internal and external. You may think, I should learn Japanese, other people I know are, people expect me to…

But another part of extrinsic motivation is instrumental motive, which would be learning the language to attain a personal goal; in the case of an anime fan, it would be to understand anime in Japanese. On the flip side, intrinsic motivation involves genuine interest in the language, enjoyment of the learning process, and positive feelings that come from being able to understand and use the language [3].

If it’s just pressure driving you, it won’t serve you that well, but otherwise, both instrumental motive and intrinsic motivation could be routes to Japanese learning success [3]. Ultimately, committing to learning Japanese is a highly personal and consequential decision. Although the term “consequential” can have a negative connotation, I mean it in a mostly positive sense, one that brings you benefit, which we’ll discuss below, but there is a tough pill to swallow first.

There is a huge time investment to learning Japanese, which implies an opportunity cost. There is also a monetary cost which varies quite a bit depending on how you go about your studies. For detailed information on the time to learn Japanese, I write about it here. For cost, I write about it here. I have also written a quick guide to learning for free here.

In the end, I think you should view learning Japanese is an investment in yourself. If you enjoy the time spent learning and it’s meaningful to you, then you don’t need to question it. So, if you do decide to learn Japanese, let’s now look at what you can get out of it as an anime fan. The first thing you may want to know is whether it is easier to learn Japanese if you watch anime? Let me provide some reassurance.

Watching anime can help anime fans learn Japanese. From a practical perspective, anime is a great source of engaging input. Furthermore, it can be a source of motivation for learners with a strong desire to watch and understand anime in Japanese only.  

Anime is certainly a continual source of motivation for me. One of my goals is to be able to watch and completely understand Ghost in the Shell in Japanese, unassisted by subtitles or captions. But getting back to learning Japanese with anime, as alluded to, anime definitely does provide benefit! I write all about it here.

Is Anime Better if You Understand Japanese?

Watching anime with subtitles and just hearing the Japanese dialogue without understanding it is still perfectly enjoyable. But it is nice to be able to understand the original Japanese. One benefit is simply the luxury to focus your eyes on the visuals and not having to read any text. But I think you’ll find you get much more out of the experience than just that.

Watching and understanding anime entirely in Japanese is a different experience to watching with subtitles. Japanese cannot be translated perfectly to English, so the main benefit is that cultural elements and aspects unique to the Japanese language can be appreciated and not lost in translation.

Although I cannot say that I understand 100% yet, for me watching anime and understanding the Japanese unlocks a new layer of enjoyment. Even with the best subtitles, although the meaning is still communicated, something is indeed lost in translation, or rather, there are things that exist in Japanese that cannot be replicated in English (the same is true of the reverse).

Particularly for Japanese-English translation, in general, I find content in the original language to be better than its translation. This is not the fault of the translators, it’s just due to innate differences between the two languages. Sometimes I read translations and think “that sounds better in Japanese”, or “that’s not quite right”.

The following are some examples from a real anime dialogue that show how the original Japanese language and the English subtitles differ. These examples are from just the first 10 or so minutes of the first episode of a favorite anime of mine, Nichijou.

Example 1 context: 
Nano and the Professor are at home and Nano is asking the Professor to wake up.

Japanese: はかせ、そろそろ起きてください!
Romaji: Hakase, sororo okitekudasai!
English: Professor, please wake up!

The word そろそろ (sorosoro) has been omitted from the translation. Sorosoro does not really have an English equivalent, but it implies that the time for an action or event is approaching and encourages promptness. Also, the word はかせ (hakase) has been translated as ‘professor’. I think it’s a reasonable translation but hakase is used to refer to someone with a PhD or an expert in some academic discipline. In Japanese, the word for professor is 教授 (kyouju).
Example 2 context: 
Nano has made breakfast, but a cat suddenly came along, snatched the food, and ran off with it. Nano calls after the cat.

Japanese: あっ、大切な朝ごはんなので…
Romaji: Aa, taisetsuna asagohan nanode…
English: Ah, that’s our breakfast!

The adjective 大変な (taisetsuna), which means ‘precious’, has been omitted from the translation. Also, the original Japanese utterance is an unfinished sentence ending in ので (node) which means ‘because’ or ‘since’. A more literal translation might be: Ah, because that’s our precious breakfast… [you can’t just steal it]. The part in square brackets [], is an example of words that I added which could have been used to finish the sentence. 

The translator actually did a good job here, because in English, although a complete sentence is used, when stated emphatically in the given context, there is a pragmatic implication of you can’t just steal it, even though it is left unsaid. But in Japanese unfinished sentences are common. They are a reflection of the Japanese culture and how Japanese people communicate with one another. I write in detail about the phenomenon here. 
Example 3 context: 
Nano runs after the cat that stole the food, and the Professor gives her a parting phrase. 

Japanese: いってらっしゃい。
Romaji: Itterasshai.
English: See you later.

This is another example of a word いってらっしゃい (itterasshai) which does not have an English equivalent. Itterasshai is a parting phrase said to someone as they leave home for the day, to work or school for example. It has the more literal meaning of ‘please go and come back’. 

Other possible translations into natural English might have been please have a good day or please come home safely. Although see you later was not a bad choice, in Japanese the more common translation would be 後でね (atodene).
Example 4 context:
The school principal is giving a speech to the students. He mentions that the weather is currently cold and wants the students to take precautions against catching a cold.

Japanese: とにかくカゼをひかないように。
Romaji: Tonikaku, kaze wo hikanaiyouni.
English: In any case, be sure not to catch a cold.

This is another example of an unfinished sentence. This one ends in ように (youni), which has a few meanings, but the meaning here is ‘so that’ or ‘such that’. The literal translation of the sentence might be: In any case, such that you don’t catch a cold... If we complete the sentence, it might be: In any case, [make it] such that you don’t catch a cold. This does not really sound natural in English, so again, I think the translator did a good job. 

A funny thing happens when you know sufficient Japanese to start comparing the original language to the subtitles, you start noticing differences and having an opinion on the quality and accuracy of the translations [4]. I think you also gain an appreciation of just how hard it is to translate between the two languages. 

Afterall, anime is written in the Japanese language for a native Japanese audience by a writer or a group of writers who are also Japanese. Elements of the culture are embedded in the language and the language itself is a reflection of the culture that uses it.

When making subtitles, the translator needs to do their best to accurately recreate the original message of the dialogue in a different language in which the way of expression is different, and the same cultural aspects do not exist. It’s no small task. But as I said, if you understand Japanese you can access the unique aspects of it and enjoy them.

Learning Japanese Because of Your Love of Anime Can Change Your Life!

Anime can introduce you to the Japanese language and the language can introduce you to all else that is Japan… and more!

Let’s look at some examples of people who started learning Japanese motivated by their interest in anime. Professor Natsuki Fukunaga of Marshall University wrote an intriguing paper entitled Those Anime Students which profiled three such people, all students at an American university, each with a different outcome after starting to learn [4].

For the first student, anime turned out to be a social activity within a community of anime fans. Once established in the community she eventually stopped studying Japanese. The second student really enjoyed Japanese video games and anime. He realized that more video games were available in Japanese only, so he decided to learn Japanese.

Once he started to learn, he found himself more interested in the language itself, which led him to decide that he wanted to become a translator for video games and anime. The third student ended up going on exchange to Japan and upon returning to the US decided he wanted to go to grad school to become an expert on Japan.

The last person I want to discuss is me. I am where I am today because I found Inuyasha on TV back in 2003. I got into anime and eventually started studying Japanese. At the time of writing, I have been working on my Japanese for over 10 years, I live in Japan and work as an engineer. I communicate with my colleagues in Japanese, but a big part of my job, which I take seriously, is talking to customers in Japanese. I still do enjoy anime, but I don’t watch it that much anymore.

As you can see, your interest in learning Japanese motivated by your love of anime can have a big impact. Japanese could become a big part of your life and even define your career. In any case, if you do decide to learn Japanese and persist with it, I guarantee your life will be enriched and you’ll gain a new world perspective through the cultural lens of the Japanese language. And hey, you’ll understand anime too!


[1] The Japan Foundation. (2023). Survey Report on Japanese-Language Education Abroad 2021.

[2] Pineda, R. A. (2021, August 4). Crunchyroll Surpasses 5 Million Subscribers. Anime News Network.

[3] Dornyei, Zoltan. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Routledge.

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

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.

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