Playing games in Japanese can be a great way to learn. It shows you real life language written by Japanese people for Japanese people. There’s no worry about whether the vocabulary you’re learning is relevant because you’re seeing it right there in front of you. You might even have these resources sitting in your house, right now! Hundreds of learning opportunities ready to be taken advantage of!
But it’s not magic. Simply playing a game in Japanese isn’t always going to give your language ability a boost. To get the most out of your play sessions, let’s have a look at some things to consider when choosing a game.
The Hiragana Trap
When you’re first starting out, the usual path will be to choose a game that’s aimed at kids with simpler language that will hopefully be easier to understand. To an extent, this is a good strategy. But many of these games will fall into the hiragana trap. Although there are fewer kanji to contend with, this makes it more difficult to tell homophones apart and harder to guess the meaning of unknown vocabulary. After a while, it can frankly be a bit of a chore to read.
Kanji impose meaning and make things much easier to read. It may seem counterintuitive when you’re starting out gazing at a mountain of characters with just a handful of strokes to differentiate them, but they actually do make things easier to understand. This hiragana only issue does not just appear in more child focused games, but also in a lot of older games which didn’t have the space or resolution to show kanji sufficiently. This means that while Famicom games are easily accessible, they can sometimes be a bit of a pain to get through. And the less said about those games that opted to display the entire game in katakana the better.
But of course you’re trying to learn Japanese. You probably don’t know too many kanji yet. If you could write up all the Jōyō kanji with your eyes closed you probably wouldn’t be reading this article. A happy medium is furigana. As the main text uses kanji, there’s a tiny hiragana helping hand hovering above the character. You don’t want to get too reliant on furigana, but it’s an undeniable help when learning, if nothing else because it helps make looking up unknown words in the dictionary much easier.
Much like anime and manga, games employ a lot of language which is going to make you sound odd in real life. Depending on the game, you may run into olde timey language, uncommon personal pronouns (https://legendsoflocalization.com/personal-pronouns-in-japanese/) and a bunch of vocabulary that is likely just going to be useful in playing other games. There are also plenty of game series that create their own terms especially with regards to items, creatures and special abilities. When trying to grasp the ins and outs of Monster Hunter, there were many instances I’d look up the kanji for an item that was critical for my quest, only to find nothing in the dictionary. A quick google search later showed only results from Japanese Monster Hunter wikis.
However, it would be a mistake to think learning these words means nothing, but you may have to put in a bit more effort. Words do not exist in a vacuum and special items or abilities are usually made from other terms. If you can separate the parts of these words you can use this to remember the meaning and reading of a kanji, which will help you next time you see them put together in a different unfamiliar compound word. You may not find 火薬草 (Fire Herb) in the dictionary, but you can learn火 fire薬 medicine and 草 grass, and take those with you further.
To keep you going, you need to have a sense of purpose. An impetus to keep going and to keep reading. Which could be as simple as the game is neat and the text is fun to read.
However, consider how you would approach the game if you were playing it in your native tongue. A friendly NPC starts to talk to you. Do you mash A to skip past his banal and longwinded description about rumors of dragons on the mountain that you were headed to anyway? You’ll end up doing that if you play in Japanese too. Boring or unimportant text is unlikely to become more interesting by making it more difficult.
Coming back to Monster Hunter, it’s a game that talks a lot without really saying anything. The villagers will talk at length about the lore, but as they’re yakking on and on I’m skimming until I see the key words helpfully highlighted in red. That’s when I wake up and actually pay attention, because I have a reason to read it. Skipping past a dozen text boxes to get to the fun part isn’t going to help your language skills. Make sure that reading those boxes is at least part of the fun, too.
Your brain is lazy. It will find the easiest way from A to B if you let it. Make sure your game has enough text to actually be worthwhile, or you’re just avoiding doing homework by pretending to study while playing. You could play Mario Kart in Japanese, and you might learn a few phrases here and there, but it’s easy to figure out how to start a race, and from that point, your mind will start to remember the physical position of the menu items.
Again, consider how you play the game in English. Do you sit down and read the words “Grand Prix- 1p- Start” every time? Or do you just absent mindedly click through until you’re ready to smash a koopa shell into Toad’s face?
One way to counteract these bad habits is to constantly say your choices out-loud. This is obviously much easier to do if you live by yourself, but I’m sure your spouse will understand if you quietly mutter スタート to yourself now and then.
THE BEST GAME(S)
With all these things in consideration, the best game for learning Japanese is…
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.
It’s easily available, cheap and with no region lock so if you are the owner of a DS or 3DS from any part of the world you’re an Ebay bid away from having it in your home.
One of the better gimmicks to come from the touch screen is the ability to draw on your map using the touch screen. This leads to many puzzles in which you must read and understand instructions, apply that knowledge, and mark down your solution in order to proceed. The language has purpose. If you do not engage with it, if you disregard it, you cannot continue. It forces you to pay attention.
There is a good balance of language and playtime. Games with walls of text like Phoenix Wright can be helpful when you’re a bit more advanced, but they can also be mentally taxing with little room for respite.
But without a doubt the best thing about it is the way it handles kanji. It’s a game aimed towards younger folk, so the language is still fairly basic, but kanji can still be seen in dialogue and explanations. If an unfamiliar word pops up, and you want to know the furigana, you can simply press on the word using the touch screen. This means that if you don’t know the reading it’s easy to check, but the answer is not there immediately giving you a reason try yourself first. It means that words that are completely alien to you are much easier to look up in the dictionary, but you can test yourself with those that have cropped up a dozen times in your playthrough.
And if you enjoyed playing through this game, Spirit Tracks has all the same bonus points, and trains! CHOO CHOO!
It has purpose! It has optional furigana! It has charming dialogue! It’s the perfect game to learn Japanese!
(Just don’t mention the Temple of the Ocean King, okay?)
Find me playing games and talking about life in Fukuoka on Twitter @CraigedyCraig.