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One of the most difficult things about being a gamer is seeing Japanese releases of our favorite series or most anticipated titles in Japan months before it ever hits foreign markets: i.e. US, UK, and AUS. The other difficulty is knowing that sometimes our favorite titles will never reach foreign soil.  It’s a sad fact and facing those difficulties is something we’ve all had to confront at least once in our lifetime.

But wait! For those who are not deterred by cultural boundaries and language barriers, you can be one of the select few in this world that have had the opportunity to play the unobtainable.  But before you delve further, I have to tell you that I’d be lying if I’d said I have the answer to all your problems; I don’t. But with a little work and dedication, anyone can turn a daunting obstacle into a rewarding experience.

Before I begin, I want to preface this article by letting you all know that this is intended for those who are interested in story driven games.  While some may have trouble navigating menu screens, Fighter Games or Beat ‘em Ups don’t require too much knowledge of the language to enjoy.  With that being said, Let’s go!

Your Reasons?!

So you made it past the jump and are interested in playing a Japanese game despite only knowing English. Great! First things first, answer this question:

Are you playing a Japanese game to learn Japanese or are you suffering through Japanese to play Japanese games?

The difference in thinking will have a strong affect on how you approach the game and what you take away from the experience.  Those who are trying to learn Japanese through video games may never finish the game, but ironically, will be left with a deeper understanding of the language and possibly the culture.  In contrast, those who want to play the game will more than likely finish the game, but not take away as much as far as language learning goes.

Or maybe you’re a super fan of a specific Japanese title and you are curious to see what it’s like in its original form. Whatever your reasons are, choose a game that appeals to you despite how difficult you may think it is. Remember, your primary goal is to enjoy the experience, not loathe it.

Get Into the Mind Set and Learn some Hiragana and Katakana

Before you start playing, do something that gets you pumped up for the game. Often times knowing that I’m playing a game months before any of my peers have the chance to even preorder the same title is enough to get me excited, but sometimes going that extra distance puts me over the top.

Something like eating a bowl of ramen, or combing my hair Dragon Ball style or saying a few Japanese phrases will suffice, (Zutto, Koko de matteiru – Finally! I’ve been waiting).  For the hardcore fan, you can go as far as putting on your favorite cosplay costume.  Whatever you do though, keep it legal people.

As well, a little bit of practice in recognizing Hiragana and Katakana (2 of 3 Japanese writing systems that are much like our ABCs) will go along way. It won’t take you long to learn the two alphabets, and just by knowing them will go along way in your understanding.

With a slew of DS titles, when you encounter a Kanji word (3rd writing system that uses symbols to represent words) you can use your pointer to scroll over the word and it’ll show you the Hiragana.  Similarly, console titles will often have the hiragana already displayed over the Kanji character.  It’ll allow you to read and look up key words in a dictionary.

Observation, Definition and Redundancy

When you first start playing, you will feel overwhelmed, but as you progress through the story, you’ll start to hear and read words repeatedly. For example, while playing Spirit Tracks, I encountered the word “Kishya” (Steam Train) quite often. It was a Japanese word I had never heard before and a word I never thought would ever enter into my vocabulary.  But what it did was made me realize how time period, motifs, style, etc. affect the language of the game.

It may be an obvious statement to many people, but to me it was something that was often overlooked when I played games in English.  Only when I started to play games in Japanese did I realize how true it is.  When you figure out those general themes, it will greatly enhance your understanding of the game.

Similarly, when you start playing, don’t look up every word you don’t understand in a translator.  Play the game through as you normally would. Obviously, when you come to puzzles or have to figure out where to go next, it helps to know what the characters are talking about, but try to figure out what’s going on based on your observations.

Before I knew how to read, I would look at comic books and learn about the story based on the pictures. The same rules apply here. Try to define the situation based on the visuals.

Trial and Error

What’s great about video games that comic books can’t provide is that video games have positive / negative feedback mechanisms built into their engines. When you do something wrong the penalty is usually death or something similar. When you succeed, you’re given power-ups or granted access to new areas.  Those feedbacks check for understanding and help you progress from level to level.

Try to assess the situation based on the visuals and make decisions based on your assumptions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because that’s how you learn. And most importantly, save your game often.

If you stick it out through the beginning, you’ll eventually hit a point where language becomes less of a barrier than what you had originally imagined.  As a result, you’ll hit a groove where you’re able to go from one event to the next effortlessly.

Take Breaks Often

Playing a game in a different language requires much more brain power than playing a game in your native language. As a result, you’ll quickly get tired of what you’re doing and may even experience headaches – I know I’ve experienced a few in the past. Try to take a break when you start to get tired and focus on something else – preferably in your native language.

When You Finish

When you finish playing a game in Japanese, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve accomplished a feat that many of your peers have never even attempted, and that’s something to be proud of.  As well, there will be many parts of the game that still remain unclear to you (if not the whole game). Take the time to go back through and look up some of those keywords that jumped out at you so often.

And if all else fails, just get a Japanese girlfriend to translate everything for you. Remember, enjoy the experience! “Ganbate Kudasai” (Go for it!)

If you have any tips or tricks or wish to share your experiences playing a video game in a different language, please tell us about it in the comment section below.

  1. I’ve never attempted to play a game in Japanese before. I don’t know if I ever will but more power to those who try!

    The closest thing I’ve ever done was buy Spanish editions of two novels: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and The Shadow of the Wind. I’d read both of them in English before but after studying Spanish for 8 years, I wanted to just dive in. Harry Potter was more difficult, but La sombra del viento was much more rewarding because I was reading it in the original Spanish.

  2. To quote what an Atlus employee wrote on their official forums when asked about how hard it is for a non japanese speaker to play a japanese language RPG…..

    “I have talked to and met dozens of people who don’t speak japanese who tried to play a Wizardry or Robot Taisen game that was never ported. All of them failed.”

    My advice is don’t even try if you aren’t serious about trying to learn the language.

    • It takes a fair amount of patience and dedication to complete a title in a different language but I wouldn`t tell someone not to try. It’s difficult, but not impossible.

  3. Months? Try never. Come on Nintendo, give us The Last Story!

  4. I recently imported the Japanese version of Deadly Premonition (Red Seeds Profile) for PS3. Everything is spoken in English but anything that is text, and there’s quite a bit, I can’t read. That by itself makes it somewhat challenging, so I really respect anyone that played something entirely foreign to them.

  5. avatar Bolo

    I’m so not learning Japanese. English and Spanish are good enough for me. Mad respect to those who use imports to learn it, though.

  6. avatar Japanese FAQs

    There are also translation FAQs available on the internet if you’re into following a game along while reading the dialogue off of a computer. A bit of a challenge but rewarding in its own right.

  7. avatar ??


    I always loved the Pokemon series on the gameboy/ds, and the last year and a half i have been studying japanese (yes i’m an otaku/weeaboo, get over it :P ). I decided to re-play Pokemon Silver for the GBC in Japanese.

    I already fully know Hiragana and Katakana and about 40-50 or so Kanji, and some basic vocabulary, but that dosent make it easy! I can certainly agree about the headaches after a while playing too!

    But to you learners out there: Playing the game in japanese has so far increased my reading speed and accuracy a heck of a lot! If you are really brave, install a Japanese windows and the zKanji dictionary too :)

    And beware of the headaches >.> …

    • It’s amazing how quickly playing a game in a different language can tire you out. But as you said, those early struggles really pay dividends to future understanding.

      If you get Windows Home Premium 7, I believe you’re able to switch the interfaces between Japanese and English no problem. I’m not 100% sure though. Thanks for your comments ??

  8. avatar I've always wanted to learn japanese, also with xillia 2 coming out soon, I really might dive into the japanese gaming scene, surely it can be done with some patience


  9. avatar Tosha

    17 June, 2012 at 11:24I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing here. See the image below, I’m able draw the kanji ? into my iPhone using the moethd stated above and it is recognised fine.Keeping things free, I’m a person who looks up kanji everyday and find this a very practical solution. Coupled with the Kotoba! app, on the rare occasions I can’t find a kanji using handwriting, it’s easy to look it up in the multiple kanji libraries on the app. Reply

  10. avatar Toshiki

    You made a very interesting and convincing point! Beside being able to read Kanji, I know Japanese vocab., particle, etc. very well. Do you think I am qualified to play a Japanese game (with Japanese language, of course). Because I am thinking of purchasing an imported PS3 game(s), but I’m not sure if I am capable of reading Kanji and whatnot. I’m not very confident, but for certain that I love Japanese game (their language). As I said again, I can understand Japanese conversation very well, and I speak basic Japanese. The only problem I have in Japanese language is reading Kanji. I just can never remember so many Kanji (How I see the Kanji character, it’s like children’s doodle). I wish most Japanese games does Furigana. I’m not sure if Tales of Xillia has furigana…

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