Opinion – “I Can’t Read Japanese” Only Goes So Far

Sometimes, fans have to suck up and import the title they want.


Everybody has at least one THAT title. You know, the title that they love sooooo much and yet still has not been released in English (or whatever their primary language is). It may be a game, anime, manga, and you might even want one, two, three hundred of each. It’s a title the “shut up and take my money!” meme was made for, and you are still waiting on it.

With so many titles, publishers need to thoroughly vet what they license. Like it or not, publishers are in the business for the money, and some titles are just not brought over either because the cost to acquire is too expensive, not enough people will purchase it, or due to the content. Yes, sometimes I wonder how the companies crunch the numbers and determine how series xxx will not be a success when the Internet is just abuzz with demands and less popular series get picked up.

Eventually, though, fans may just have to relent and say, “This is never going to be licensed.”

So what next? Wait for scanlations, fansubs, or a game patch? I’m not going to get into the legality or morality of these (every angle of the debate has been done before), but if you are truly a fan, you cannot just leech off the market.

I know some people argue that companies and creators get an indirect benefit, but ultimately fans need to open their pocketbooks. I’ve already discussed why “I can’t afford it” is no justification, so I’ll take on the other major argument now.

“I Can’t Understand Japanese!”

I have no formal Japanese education. I’ve read a few guides, played through a few learning games and apps, but my knowledge mostly comes from anime and manga. If I were somehow dropped off in Japan, at best I could piece together a few sentences about the weather or ask for directions, but I could not carry an actual conversation. But you know what? To watch anime, read manga, and even play many games, you don’t need to.

Like many others, Sailor Moon was one of my gateway anime. I remember being shocked to learn there were other seasons of the series, and loading short voice clips on my dial-up modem from them. Chibi-Usa’s first transformation phrase is “Moon Prism Power Make Up”, but I kept hearing “Moon Chibichibi Power Make Up”. Audio recordings of Uranus and Neptune were a jumble of nothing to my ears. Now? I almost can’t understand how I was hearing “chibichibi”. I’ve managed to play several import games, read several manga, and even translate passages without any formal lessons or independent study.

So how did I go from not understanding a single word to being able to play otome games and translate entire passages without a single classroom lesson?


Seriously. Like it or not, fiction is made up of many tropes and cliches. You have watched TV shows or read books and predicted what would happen next. I love anime and manga, but (good or bad) there’s no doubt there’s a lot of overlap in series. If something is repeated a number of times, and you are likely to start picking up on these cues.

Of course, if you are serious about Japanese, I would highly recommended taking courses. If this is not possible, you can still gain quite a bit of reading and writing skills independently even without doing online lessons.

Since my primary language is English, I’m going to gear my comments toward English speakers. But some of the tips still apply.

Sources of Osmosis

Of course, perhaps the easiest way to start absorbing Japanese is by watching subbed anime. I am not putting down dubs by any means (in fact, I do believe some are as good or better than the original Japanese), but anime really is a wonderful starting point. Most games are also voiced, but unfortunately visual novels don’t have the full animation to support it. Tones also help portray emotion, so you can understand what they’re feeling even without knowing what they’re saying.

Again, a series may have a catchphrase that is constantly repeated, and when you hear some of these words in other sentences, you start making connections:
“Tsuki ni kawatte, oshioki yo!”
“In the name of the moon, I’ll punish you!”
“Kirei na tsuki!”
“What a beautiful moon!”
What is the only word repeated in both?

Of course, Japanese is not quite this straightforward, but it’s a starting point. Again, fiction tends to use a lot of familiar situations, and if you start picking out words, you’ll get a vague idea of what they’re saying.

If an anime or a manga has an official English release, you can use that to help understand the other, unreleased one. Read the book while watching the anime, or watch the anime and then read the book. Usually early volumes/episodes are pretty faithful, so one will be helpful to understand the other.

I also rely on song translations. While they are almost never written in standard Japanese, J-pop and anime songs tend to be extremely catchy. If you can find a song you really like, see if you can find a translation. Keep reading it while the song is playing. You want to tie phrases together. I know many Japanese speakers recommend not using romaji, but I think it’s almost impossible to not use romaji at the early stages. Now I try to avoid reading romaji when I’m looking at song lyrics, either reading the English translation or trying to follow along with the Japanese kanji. Again, the purpose is to try to connect the audio phrases with what’s written. Even if you can’t conjugate the verb, at least you can understand what the word means.

Some publishers also leave some of the Japanese text untouched. Pay attention to the sound effects and side comments, which are often written in different fonts. You don’t want to just see Japanese in the nice, normal fonts. You want to see how certain kanji and kana is written in not-so-nice Japanese.

Yes, the process is slow. It took me many years to get to this point. But for any learning, repetition is the key. If you’re a fan anyway, you’re bound to pick up words. Just put a little more effort into making these connections.

What to Import

Firstly, work your way up. There are a lot of awesome titles, but you shouldn’t expect to jump into a seinen or josei series right away. Shoujo is probably is the best introductory demographic outside of kodomo series. They tend to be less dialogue-heavy, and romance in fiction tends to proceed down similar paths. Comedy and gag manga will likely have a lot of jokes and puns that will be hard for a non-native speaker to understand.

Choosing genres is also important. Realistic series are going to be easier to understand since you don’t have to learn the rules of the world in fantasy series or understand the scientific concepts in a sci-fi series.

When searching for manga to import, the key is in furigana. Furigana is the pronunciation guides that are included to help younger readers read the much more difficult kanji. With furigana, all you really need to know is the Japanese alphabets of hiragana and katakana. Again, any title in magazines like Nakayoshi or Ribon are bound to have furigana.

Depending on the game type, games can either be a cinch to play through in Japanese or a nightmare. A beat-em-up fighting game requires very little knowledge. A gal game or otome game focus on the story, and the simple visuals may not always help. Fortunately, a lot of menus in games are in English, making it easy to navigate the options. If you check English reviews, most reviewers will also mention the reading level. If not, ask. Most will be happy to respond whether they think the game is easy to understand or not.

Making Your Way Through a Series

When you start a Japanese series, expect to feel dumb. Expect to look at the text and see nothing but a bunch of strange shapes. It’s new and unfamiliar, of course it’s going to be difficult. You will have to go slowly. Even now, I can finish an English manga easily in under an hour, I have some manga where I couldn’t finish a single chapter in an hour. I can finish an English visual novel in 30 hours or so, but it will probably take double or triple that for me to finish in Japanese.

But you know what? I can tell my reading speed has dramatically increased. Once upon a time, it took me almost a whole day to read one volume of Dr. Rin ni Kiitemite!, but I now can read a volume in about an hour.

Also, when I started teaching myself Japanese, most of my knowledge came from old textbooks I found. Now, however, there’s a lot more sites and apps, plus better technology like tablets. the amazing Jisho. There’s other good sites out there as well (like WWWJDIC and this handwritten kanji search), but Jisho is my favorite. What it does is basically take all that complicated kanji and make it a puzzle game. If there’s a kanji I don’t understand, I just go to Jisho and try to break the kanji apart into smaller pieces. So sites like Jisho help take care of the troublesome kanji. That cuts down on the amount of memorization you need down to the two kana systems. In addition, if you set up your system to write in Japanese, sites like Google Translate make it much easier to make sense of entire passages. I keep these site open on my computer/tablet as I read.

For games, many popular titles have translation guides. When in doubt, trial and error. If you pick up a game in a series you’ve already played in English before, then you are going to have a much easier time. My first imported game was Final Fantasy X-2. When I first started, I couldn’t read “Attack”. I had to remember where all the good skills were located in the menu since I was playing on Active, and I had to constantly check the translation guide. But then playing the game made it easier to later play Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, as I could now pick out Cure from Blizzard. Then I took my knowledge to the other Final Mix games when they came out over the years. Looking at the guides and the menu helped me really learn katakana and hiragana. Which, in turn, means I can play not only other Square-Enix RPGs but play and read other games and books.

Also, get a good pair of headphones. Speakers are nice, but you want to have as clear audio as possible. You also want to block out outside noise in order to concentrate on what’s being said. Some characters will have heavy accents, but just do your best to power through.

“But It’s Expensive!”

And here we go again. Unfortunately, some “fans” don’t want to put any work into supporting their favorite series. Only available in Japanese? Too hard to read. Well, give them all the tools to succeed, and they’ll find another reason. And it’s usually this one.

Yes, importing is expensive. Even acquiring some used anime/manga/games is often more expensive than buying a new copy of other titles in your region. If you’re a regular visitor to my site, you’ll know I typically get my manga for 40-50% off. Even with the most expensive single volumes of $13.00, that’s still $6.50. To import a used volume in Japan will usually go higher than that because of shipping. Even with free shipping, it still would easily go for $6-7 a volume. Games? Used handhold games will easily run $40, and haven’t paid $40 new on release date for a handhold title in a long time.

There’s no doubt it’s expensive. Unless you’re a millionaire, you’re going to have to choose. But choosing none is not an option. Choosing to read scanlations instead or downloading a ROM does not help.

Final Comments

So this turned out to be a combination opinion/personal experience/tips article.

But my main point is this: some titles will, unfortunately, never get a Western release. This does not mean you should feel free to turn to illegal means to enjoy your favorite series. There’s a lot of help and resources to get through a Japanese title, and you will struggle at times to understand it. But not only does importing support your favorite creators, but it’s very fulfilling when you are reading/watching/listening to something and you realize, “Hey, I understand this!”

And if you don’t want to either put in the effort to understand Japanese and still can’t afford it? Then stick to all the free, legal alternatives and/or settle for whatever is released in your country. Simple as that.

P.S. REGION LOCKS SUCK! Take some free money from us foreigners, okay, companies?


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  1. Coco

    Some great tips and pointers. 😉

    I’m with you when I hear “But it’s too expensive!” comments. If it’s something you love, you’ll find the means to satisfy your obsession. Being a manga/anime fan and gamer is a REALLY expensive hobby.

    I personally have bought multiple copies in different languages of titles just to help support the artists/companies and show that there is a market for their works.

    Region locks do suck! T-T I’d buy SO many more German manga eBooks if not for the region locks.

    1. krystallina

      I know I used to have (still have?) a shirt that said “Anime: More Expensive than Crack.”

      I still feel a little sick when I’m browsing Amazon.jp and they have some free/cheap Kindle manga. Come onnnnn!! Let me get some!! Stupid “not for your area” messages…Grrr!

      1. Coco

        LOL. I actually have the Myth laptop bag with “ANIME! Crack is cheaper!” on it. You wouldn’t believe how may looks I got at my southern baptist university for it. Priceless!! xD

        I know!!! SO frustrating! -_-

        1. krystallina

          BWAHAHAHA! I remember that one too! Well, at least you’d always know which bag was yours! (I had a Puchiko one.)

          1. Coco

            The whole reason behind buying it. xD
            OH!! DiGiCharat was such a cute anime!! <3

  2. The Fullmetal Narcissist

    Personally, I believe that you can’t steal what isn’t being sold. If an anime hasn’t been licensed by US distributors in either subbed or dubbed format, and watching an illegal fansub is the only way to watch it in some form of the English language, that’s a moral gray area.

    It’s like buying a bootleg DVD of Song of the South. There’s never going to BE an actual home copy to pay actual money for, so really, who are you ripping off?

    1. krystallina

      There’s always going to be some gray area. Certain things are illegal, but companies may chose to purposely avert their eyes since they gain some direct and/or indirect benefit, like doujinshi/fanart and uploads of shows. Ultimately though, everything was made by a person or persons. Manga authors, for instance, really can’t force someone to release their works in another language. It’s not their fault, and they deserve our support if their work is good.

      Yen Press, for instance, licensed more light novels recently. Instead of being happy, many “fans” threw fits, saying now they won’t buy it because they’ll have to wait so long to read the next volume. “Fans” can’t use the “it’s not available in English” excuse and then backpedal when it’s available. If you have no intention of buying it, then don’t read/stream/play it illegally.

  3. The Otaku Judge

    I admire your language skills. No matter how much anime I consume I will never master Japanese. If companies don’t wish to localize their products I don’t blame fans for peddling unofficial translations for free. Companies can’t moan about lost sales if they never wished to sell the product abroad in the first place.

    1. krystallina

      Thanks. 🙂 I’d love to master Japanese, but I know it’s never going to happen.

      Unfortunately, sometimes the unofficial translations do cut into the profit if it’s ever released. Pick up a title too early, and it may not gain much attention. Wait until it becomes popular, and then some won’t buy it because it’s available for free on the Internet. It isn’t some manga assistant or game designer’s fault their overseas branch refuses to publish a title. Again, a lot of this could be solved just by Japanese companies allowing overseas fans to purchase titles directly and disabling region locks, but it will be a long time before that happens.

  4. bobaandgames

    When I was younger, I absolutely fell in love with the series DNAngel. So much that I decided to import the manga that hadn’t been translated yet.

    Thankfully it was somewhat doable because all the kanji had hiragana next to it, so I could plug words into the free dictionary I had that I didn’t understand (this was before Google Translate). Still, it was super challenging.

    I sort of hate to say this, but a certain notorious manga site that provides raws with overlays of translations actually really helps my learning of Japanese. The English translation ends up right alongside the original Japanese text, so I can learn to recognize some of the characters. I’ve recently stopped mousing over easy phrases because I recognize them immediately in Japanese. I know that there’s a ton of legal and scanlator issue with that site, but I really appreciate it for this reason ^_^;.

    1. krystallina

      That setup would go great on Manga Library Z. I think another official site tried it out as well. Overlays like that do make it nice to check your work.

      Did you ever pick up the Tokyopop versions of D.N.Angel? And if you did, they never finished the series, did you import the last two volumes?

  5. Takuto's Anime Cafe

    Good for you! And I think you’re on the right track. I’m still tempted to this day to import Black Rock Shooter, Tales of Symphonia the animation, and Gosick. The only thing stopping me is, of course besides the sky high prices, that I can’t read Japanese. BUT I’m not gonna whine about that here LOL I’ve been following these tips pretty faithfully, so maybe one of these days I’ll have the basic understanding to import these great titles. Thanks for the TIPZ ?


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