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!
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.