Subtitles and language learning

When I’m watching Japanese TV, I try to make use of Japanese subtitles instead of English subtitles as much as possible. But until recently, I had never given much thought to whether native-language or target language subtitles are better for language learners.

The following is a list of what I think are the main pros and cons for using native language and foreign language subtitles:

Native language subtitles

  • No matter what your level, foreign language content is accessible, which is great for listening practice. This is good for themes requiring specialist knowledge and/or vocabulary.
  • You can begin to make associations between words in your target language and words in your native language. I find that this is most likely to happen with everyday vocabulary.

Target language subtitles

  • Helps you to recognise common sentence patterns and vocabulary. For example, with Japanese, I found watching TV really helped me to understand more casual types of speech. Since we only studied polite language (ます/です) in class for quite a while before learning the plain form, this made things much easier when it was introduced.
  • You can focus on how certain situational phrases are used. This is especially good for phrases that don’t really translate to English, such as 失礼します (shitshurei shimasu) and お疲れ様でした (otsukaresama deshita) in Japanese.
  • It is much easier to recognise the words that you do not understand (and then look them up in the dictionary). Even in our native language, we often mishear things, and when we use native language subtitles it is easy to overlook words that we don’t know the meaning of.

As the above shows, both types of subtitles can have their own benefits. The choice between target and native language subtitles often depends on your language level and familiarity with the source material.

One way to make have the best of both words is to watch something without any subtitles, then again with target language subtitles, and then with native language subtitles. Fortunately, YouTube, Netflix and Viki make switching subtitles pretty easy.

Viki is especially good as dual language subtitles are available using the Learn Mode. This feature already exists for Korean and Chinese and is now in beta mode for Japanese.

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You can click on any word from the target language subs to get the English meaning – really useful!

My experiences with Learn Mode so far have been very positive and you get both benefits of native and foreign language subtitles.

Transitioning to target-language subtitles

As you progress in your language learning, you will be able to benefit even more from target-language subtitles. Here are my tips on moving towards using them over native language subtitles:

  • Choose something that you are really interested in, especially if you plan on watching it multiple times.
  • Try to choose something that is not too complicated. I recommend starting off with shows that closely relate to everyday life – because choosing something on a niche topic unrelated to something you already have knowledge of will only succeed in leaving you demotivated. Cultural differences can exacerbate this problem too.
  • Doing a bit of homework in your native language before watching anything helps a lot. This could be:
    • Reading the synopsis of a film in your native language
    • Reading the original book if you plan to watch a film adaptation (and vice versa).
    • Watching the trailer before watching the film
    • Reading a (spoiler-free) review

I might even write down names of key characters and locations. I find that doing this helps a great deal when you are actually watching a TV show. It means that you are not wasting precious time trying to remember the name of the main character’s sister!

  • Break shows down into smaller chunks. It’s much easier to watch TV series rather than films because TV episodes are shorter.
    • Watching without native language subtitles requires a high level of concentration which is hard to sustain for a 90+ minute film.
    • TV shows also have the advantage of being much easier to follow as you get used to how characters speak.
    • If you do choose a film, try watching it over a number of sessions to build your confidence.
  • Have a notepad handy and make a note of words and phrases that you didn’t understand or find interesting. I then look these up at the end of my listening session and add to my vocabulary list to review later.

…and if I get stuck?

Don’t beat yourself up if there is a phrase you just don’t understand. It is highly likely as a learner that you will encounter:

  • A slang word/ phrase
  • An idiom or saying
  • A word pronounced in a strange way (or said in different accent)
  • A pun
  • Words that merge together when spoken quickly
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Keep calm and carry on, even if you are feeling like this!

When you come across things like this, you could record a clip of what is being said and ask a friend or language partner to explain what is going on.

In some cases, I find that continuing to watch the show can help – later developments in the story might fill in gaps from what you missed earlier.

If you can turn on English subtitles, don’t be afraid to turn them on. Just because you do not understand something right now, doesn’t mean you will never understand it.

Obviously, the ideal situation is not to have any subtitles at all. Becoming too reliant on subtitles is unlikely to improve your listening or reading skills in your target language. One thing I try to do is to read native language subtitles as quickly as I can so that I can focus on the spoken language.

Sometimes you have to take the plunge and watch things without any subtitles – how much you do understand might just surprise you!

What is your stance on this? Do you go for native language subtitles, target language subtitles or none at all? Let me know in the comments!

I failed with Anki (again)…my new approach to Anki reviews

As the title suggests, my relationship with Anki has its ups and downs. I haven’t been using Anki for Japanese vocabulary reviews on a regular basis for a couple of months, which I have been feeling guilty about recently.

The main reason for my guilt is that when I am consistent with Anki, I retain so much more information. Unfortunately, the problem I have is that I always end up falling off the bandwagon.

A few months ago, I was doing a pretty good job of keeping up with Anki reviews. I felt that I was retaining more vocabulary, especially in conjunction with daily tadoku reading. At first, I could get my reviews done in 20 minutes or less, which felt achievable even on a busy day.

But then I realised that I was spending more and more time reviewing cards – my review sessions were now at least 40 minutes. I began to dread opening up Anki and seeing how many minutes it would be until I finished my reviews, especially if I had missed a day. I stopped reading in Japanese as much because I felt that I needed to prioritise flashcards instead.

It seemed as if my Japanese study was being entirely dictated by Anki reviews and not any of the more exciting stuff. So at that time, sticking with Anki didn’t feel like the sensible choice and I stopped using it.

For the record, I do like Anki (and similar spaced repetition programs) a lot, but I find that after a couple of months I get burned out and have to take a break. This is probably the third or fourth time I have been in this situation, so I thought I would take a step back and think about how to be more consistent.

On reflection, here’s where I think I was going wrong:

I was learning stuff that was not important to me

I was using shared decks, which can be great, but it meant that there were words I was learning that I didn’t have any real interest in learning. I usually add interesting words I come across directly from Akebi (a wonderful free dictionary app) into Anki, which I find easier to learn because I discovered them in a context that interests me.

Eventually, I want to transition to making all of my flashcards myself but thinking more carefully about what vocabulary I want to learn is a good first step.

I was trying to do all reviews in one long session, rather than breaking it down into smaller chunks

Using the Pomodoro technique could work, but as I find it difficult to focus solely on flashcard reviews for 25 minutes at a time, I will change the time spent a little bit. I think I should be looking at focusing for 10 minutes at a time, perhaps at different times of day (eg. 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes during my lunch break, 10 minutes in the evening).

I wasn’t balancing flashcard reviews with the fun stuff

Flashcards are not a replacement for reading, listening and speaking the language. For every 10 minutes I spend in Anki, I want to be spending another 10 minutes practicing Japanese in another way that I enjoy (such as reading, or watching TV shows).

The limit on the number of new cards was too high

If you miss a day, the number of cards that I had to review the next day was very disheartening. Going forward I will experiment with how many cards I can comfortably review in about 20 minutes, and set a limit accordingly.

I wasn’t being honest with myself about whether I had actually learned the card or not

It is very easy to conflate recognition of a kanji with knowing how to write it, which doesn’t help me in the long term. So following on from my previous point, I want to limit the number of cards I review, and then I can spend more time reviewing each card in more depth.

There are a lot of ways to customise Anki, and I think that making better use of these will help me stay engaged with my vocabulary reviews.

It’s going to be a bit tough getting back into the rhythm of daily Anki reviews again, but I hope my new approach means I can keep an Anki habit for longer!

You need to be careful with おまえ (omae) – the potential pitfalls of pronouns in Japanese

Japanese has a lot of first-person pronouns (‘I’) and second-person pronouns (‘you’) in particular, the choice of which is dependant on the relative status of who you are and who you are talking to. In English, we use pronouns all the time and when talking to a superior we tend to change our phrasing rather than vocabulary to show respect.

So when we hear words such as in Japanese TV shows and anime, it is easy to think that pronouns such as 私 (watashi) or 俺 (ore) for ‘I’, and お前 (omae) or あなた (anata) for ‘you’ are largely interchangeable.

A case that came up in the news recently goes to show why the choice of pronouns in Japanese is so important. The incorrect use of the pronoun お前 led to the resignation of Ryoichi Yamada, a superintendent in Niigata prefecture.

In June 2017, a boy committed suicide as a result of school bullying. On the 11th October, Mr. Yamada arranged a meeting with the boy’s family to offer his apologies and discuss what can be done better going forward.

Unfortunately, during this meeting he referred to the father as お前 when asking a question. He did later apologise for using the word, but the damage had been done and he tendered his resignation the following day.

Why was using お前 inappropriate?

お前 is a highly informal word meaning ‘you’. As you would expect for an informal word, you would only use it . Even so, a close friend could take offence at being referred to as お前. It is more often used used amongst males than females. With this in mind, it is not hard to see why there has been outrage over his choice of words.

In this case, Mr. Yamada had taught the boy’s father in the past. This is the reason why the superintendent may have thought using お前 would have been acceptable. However given the situation, one would expect the superintendent to be using extremely humble language, and so the use of お前 was highly insensitive.

I would be very wary of using words like this, especially as a beginner to Japanese. Part of the following video by Japanese Ammo with Misa explains from a Japanese perspective why learners should refrain from words like omae.

Note: the whole video is great, but I’ve set it to start from the part where she talks about Japanese pronouns.

Tips on using pronouns in Japanese

Pronouns are generally not used often in Japanese, as the context indicates who the topic of conversation is. For instance, if I say:

魚が好きです。

さかながすきです。

It is assumed that I am the one who likes fish even though I didn’t use the word 私(watashi).

Therefore, it is more natural not to use pronouns at all.

If you do need to refer to a specific person, it is better to refer to a person using their actual name:

小原さん、いつアメリカに来ましたか。

おはらさん、いつアメリカにきましたか。

Ms. Ohara, when did you come to America?

You can also refer to someone using their occupation or status.

Words can be used in this way include 先生, 課長, 博士:

先生はいつアメリカに来ましたか。

せんせいはいつアメリカにきましたか。

Teacher, when did you come to America?

お巡りさん、東京駅はどこですか。

おまわりさん、とうきょうえきはどこですか。

[Police] Officer, where is Tokyo station?

If you are interested in knowing the different words for ‘you’ in Japanese, this video on second-person pronouns explains the contexts in which you can and cannot use various words.

Pronouns are a tricky thing to get used to, and there are also gender and regional differences in usage too. I recommend sticking to the above tips until you’ve been exposed to the language enough to get a feel for when certain pronouns should be used.

5 Things I Learned from my Year Abroad

My year abroad experience in Japan was almost five years ago, and is sadly becoming a distant memory.

I still remember how excited I was to finally be going to Japan. My year abroad was something I had been looking forward to for a long time. I had never actually visited Japan before!

At the same time, I was so nervous to jump on a plane and fly across the world. What if Japan wasn’t what I expected it to be?

Fortunately, my year abroad was a positive experience for me and I am glad that I gave myself the opportunity to do it. A lot of things in my life have changed since then, but it is only now that I look back that I realise that it changed me in more ways than one. There are so many things that I learned on my year abroad experience that I am thankful for.

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Travelling Light = less stress!

This might seem like an odd thing to include, but this is a practical thing which still serves me well today. It is worth saying that I was (and still am) a hoarder!

Before going to Japan, the prospect of packing my most important belongings into a 23kg suitcase felt impossible. Some items I did need for Japan included makeup, painkillers, deodorant and comfortable shoes. Of course, I did want to prioritise some sentimental items, such as pictures of family and friends.

However I realised after a few months that after all of the time I spent trying to decide what I needed to take, there was a lot of stuff I didn’t use at all.

Every time I have been travelling since then, I think carefully about what items I really need to take and pack solely on that basis. Thanks to the year abroad, I am a much lighter traveller than I used to be.

It’s important to let go and embrace imperfections

I have always held myself to high standards, especially when it comes to learning. Learning a language requires you to let go of that need for perfectionism, because us learners do make mistakes. There’s no point in getting hung up on that time you used the wrong word, or couldn’t understand that conversation.

As long as you can make yourself understood (in the politest way possible), you are making progress. Whenever I struggled with obsessing over my failures, I tried to think of the time when people were clearly happy I could speak some Japanese, or was able to translate something for my friends.

Open yourself to new things

Of course, you are in your target country to learn about that country’s language and traditions. There are bound to be certain things that you encounter that are completely new to you, both good and bad.

Your year abroad experience inevitably gives you the opportunity to mix with people you would not have crossed path with overwise. Learning about other languages and cultures aside from Japan was a real highlight of my time abroad.

Embrace the opportunity to have new cultural experiences whenever you can!

A greater sense of self

People I met who had already gone on their year abroad told me that I would end up learning a great deal about myself as well as Japan. I never truly understood what was meant by this until I was a couple of months into my exchange programme.

It’s funny how much you think you know about your home country is easily tested when you get people asking things that you’d previously never given much thought, such as “Why is the UK flag known as the Union Jack?”.

I spent a lot of time worrying about how I would be treated in Japan. I am British born and bred, but my grandparents are from the Caribbean. So naturally, I stood out like a sore thumb in semi-rural Hokkaido!

Fortunately, I never had any discrimination issues whilst in Japan, but having dark skin and afro hair did mean a lot of pointing and staring. It did ultimately make myself feel much more comfortable in my own skin, as I learnt to embrace what made me different (as well as the many things I had in common with the people I met).

People come and go

The year abroad can only last so long. My fellow students were from a wide variety of countries and it was inevitable that most of these people I would never see again after the year had ended.

Whilst this is kind of sad, it reminds to you treasure things as they happen in the moment. You will always have those memories of the experiences you have from your time abroad.

Overall, I feel that the year abroad gave me the chance to appreciate the wider world, as well as the life I was fortunate to have back home. Whilst I do not live in Japan now, I would certainly go back on a longer-term basis should the right opportunity came along.

If you have the chance to work or study abroad (especially as a student), I fully recommend it!

‘Appy Mondays: Ohayou App Review

Welcome to ‘Appy Mondays, my series of app reviews relating to Japanese language study. Today’s app review is of the JLPT listening practice app Ohayou.

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How the Ohayou app works

When you first log into the app, you have to create an account with an email and password or link the app to a social media account. I decided to go with the first option. Whichever you choose, the app should automatically log you in whenever you access it after this.

The listening tests are grouped by JLPT level, and on the far right there are non-JLPT specific listening exercises too. Each JLPT level has a number of tests, which have to be downloaded before they can be accessed. Fortunately, downloading is usually very quick.

There are various types of language questions, which correspond to the types of listening questions you will encounter in the JLPT:

The above table, taken from the official JLPT website, shows the different types of listening questions included at each level of the exam.

Depending on the level of the JLPT you are working towards, the types of listening questions you get in the exam will vary. Fortunately, the Ohayou app has pretty much all of the listening question types in the test. The non-JLPT listening exercises include practice for hiragana and katakana, as well as counting and calculations in Japanese.

Once the test has been downloaded, you can jump into listening practice. Each test has 20 questions which follow the format of the JLPT test, which are multiple choice. For lower levels of the JLPT the answers may be pictures, but they will be entirely in Japanese otherwise.

Clicking the ‘Check’ button after listening to the question show you if you answered correctly. You can then choose to listen to the question again or continue on to the next one. You can also rewind or fast forward 10 or 20 seconds using the arrows, which is really helpful if you need to hear a particular sentence again.

My thoughts on Ohayou

Ohayou is a very convenient app for JLPT listening practice and is a great app to help build confidence for the listening section of the exam. For all of the listening exercises I tried, the audio was very clear too.

One of my biggest tips for the listening section of the JLPT is to familiarise yourself with the format of the exam. The listening comprehension tests are the same as those you find in the JLPT so anyone preparing to take the test (especially for the first time) will find this very useful.

The non-JLPT exercises were a bit of a mixed bag for me. I thought that the hiragana and katakana tests were good – I would recommend them to those who had just finished learning the scripts and want to test their listening skills.

I tried the tests relating to counters, which I think are useful especially for reviewing common but irregular counters like ひとり and ここのつ, but the audio quality was not as good as the JLPT tests. It sounded as if the audio had been recorded from someone’s TV or perhaps had been recorded with the TV on in the background. Needless to say, this kind of distracting noise could just as easily happen in a real-life situation, but I found it a bit disappointing.

I need to mention that whilst the app is free to use, additional features can be bought with for money, although these features can be ‘paid’ for using points you gain by using the app.

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You can pay 400 points (US $2.99) to remove ads permanently, and 1000 points (US $4.99) to view all transcripts and access to one-click definitions of any word. For once, it is nice to come across a freemium app that does not require a monthly subscription!

Completing the tests for the first time earned me 2 points each, so at that rate earning enough points to unlock the premium features in full is probably near impossible without paying for them. There was also the option to earn 5 points by watching a video ad, but despite watching a couple of ads my points total never increased.

In the app’s defense, it is possible to purchase the transcript for individual questions or tests. So if there is a particular test that you are struggling with, you can spend 15 points to purchase the transcript. I would be wary about becoming overly reliant on transcripts for listening practice, as you will not have that benefit in the actual test. Generally, I found that if I got any answers wrong, listening to the question a couple more times made it clear where I went wrong.

I can’t really see the value of paying the $2.99 to remove ads – I didn’t think that the ads were intrusive enough to justify it. Having access to all transcripts for $4.99 could be useful, especially if you are planning on taking all levels of the JLPT in turn (and so would be using the app quite a lot).

If you are interested in checking the app out, it is available in the Apple store and Google Play store.

Have you tried this app out? Are you aware of a better alternative? Let me know in the comments!

Daily Writing Practice with the NVA Challenge

I’ve posted before about keeping a journal in your target language as a way of practicing your writing skills. However, I’ve always struggled to think of things to write about in my journal. This struggle was the inspiration behind the Writing Challenge I did last November.

Fortunately, there is another language learning challenge that helps solve this problem: the NVA challenge!

What is the NVA challenge?

NVA stands for Noun-Verb-Adjective: each day, the challenge provides you with one noun, one verb and one adjective to write a text with. The words are normally of a similar theme or complement each other in some way, which makes it easy to think of at least one sentence. In addition, the words used are words you would commonly use.

My experiences with the NVA challenge so far

I’ve been doing the challenge myself for a few weeks and have found it very useful for building a daily writing habit.

I find that once I’ve actually written one sentence, it is much easier to write a couple more sentences. Even on days when I am busy, I have been able to write down at least one sentence. It’s become part of my daily routine to write just before I go to bed, which I find quite relaxing!

Excuse the messy writing – I currently insist on writing the texts by hand (in pencil!), as sadly I am forgetting how to write quite a lot of kanji…

I certainly recommend this writing challenge, as I think it is very accessible no matter what your language level is. You might not find a word in your target language which corresponds directly to English, but that shouldn’t be your main focus.

With Japanese, I don’t force myself to use the exact translation of the words given in the challenge. Instead, I normally try to use a word which has a similar meaning. This also has the benefit of focusing your time on actually writing rather than looking up lots of lots of words in the dictionary.

Make sure to get your writing corrected

You can always get your sentences corrected on language exchange apps and websites such as Hello Talk, HiNative or Lang-8. Hello Talk and HiNative are best suited for sentences or short paragraphs. Lang-8 is better for longer texts (sadly Lang-8 is not accepting new memberships).

Find the NVA Challenge on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram and Habitica. If you use Habitica there is a guild dedicated to the NVA challenge, where others in the community check each other’s sentences too.

Today’s post was a short one but I just wanted to write about this great challenge. I hope that it might help some other language learners out!

How do you like to practice your writing skills? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Tadoku Tuesdays (4) What I’m Reading (in Japanese) in Sept 2018

As I did in the last Tadoku Tuesday post, I am going to write about two books I have read recently or am reading. I’ll also include any new additions to my book collection. Both of the novels I focus on here happen to be by two famous contemporary Japanese authors, Banana Yoshimoto and Kotaro Isaka.

The Novel I’m Reading: 「アムリタ」 Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto

It’s a little bit difficult to give an overview of the plot for this novel, but I have tried my best!

Sakumi is dealing with two major events in her life; memory loss caused by an accident as well as the death of her younger sister Mayu. Prior to the accident Sakumi had been making ends meet with a part time job, but then realises that she wants to pursue a career in writing. Her little half-brother Yoshio then develops telepathic abilities. As her memories begin to resurface little by little, she begins to come to terms with the circumstances of her sister’s death and gains the courage to work towards what she truly desires in life.

My thoughts

I’ve previously written about another of Yoshimoto’s novels before, which had not been translated into English. This time I thought I would try reading one of her more famous novels, which on the whole has been well received.

I wouldn’t say that the plot is particularly enthralling, although there are some interesting characters which help keep the narrative engaging. There are lots of dream like passages, which give the novel a mystic feel and are vividly depicted. Despite this, Sakumi as a narrator feels very grounded and relatable, even though situation she finds herself in is not.

This is a fairly long novel that has been split into two parts. I have finished the first half of the book and enjoying it so far, but knowing that there is another 200+ pages to read I do wonder what developments are going to occur which will keep me interested.

Language level

If I had to estimate the book’s difficulty in terms of language I would probably put it at JLPT N2 level. Banana Yoshimoto’s writing style is on the whole quite straightforward, although at times there can be long rambling sentences that might take a bit of careful reading.

The Novel I Recently Finished: 「神様の制度」 Kamisama no Seido by Kotaro Isaka

This novel is actually a compilation of several short stories, which all involve the same narrator. Our narrator is only known as Chiba and works as a agent of death (a Grim Reaper of sorts). As an agent of death, his task is to spend time with the person he is assigned to, and decide within seven days if that person should die.

My thoughts

This is the first novel I have read by Kotaro Isaka, and I really enjoyed it. Like Amrita, this novel also looks at the themes of life and death. Having said that, the tone of this novel is completely different. Isaka has written stories spanning many genres, and elements of this come into play in the novel. He somehow manages to infuse the variety of short stories with suspense and comedic moments in a very satisfying way.

Being a death god, there are a lot of ‘fish out of water’ moments where he is trying to understand human feelings and motivations. This provided a lot of humour that I was not expecting. There is a wide variety of characters presented in the stories and through the narrator’s eyes, we get to learn a lot about the people he is assigned to. I found it very easy to get engrossed in each of the stories.

Language level

In terms of language level I’d probably recommend this for JLPT N3 level learners. I think this would make an ideal choice for someone looking to read their first novel in Japanese!

I find Isaka’s writing style easy to follow; he tends to write in shorter sentences that still manage to convey a lot of information. Being a series of short stories, it is much easier to digest than attempting to read a longer novel in one go.

There is a sequel called 神様の浮力 “The Buoyancy of Death” which was released a few years ago. I would like to read this in the future, although the novel seems to have more mixed reviews from fans of the original.

I will certainly be reading more of his works in the future, although with such a large catalogue to choose from I will struggle to decide what to read next!

Books added to my To Be Read pile:

I am trying my hardest not to amass too many books (because then it gets even harder to decide what to read next!) and have only added one book to my collection recently:

「舟を編む」 Fune wo Amu / The Great Passage by Shion Miura

Mitsuya Majime is an introverted man with a passion for reading. He takes the opportunity to transfer from the sales division to the dictionary department, where he is under the guidance of the highly regarded editor Kohei Araki. Araki’s team is undertaking the task of completing a dictionary called “The Great Passage”. The book follows the team’s pursuit of making the very best Japanese dictionary.

This has been on my wishlist for a long time, so I was super happy to finally buy this book! Given the subject matter, this could be a bit of a tough read in Japanese. Fortunately, I also purchased the ebook version of its English translation (“The Great Passage”) which I can use to help me with any tricky parts. I haven’t yet decided whether to try and read both versions in parallel or not.

There’s also an anime adaptation and a live action film, so I think starting with one of these two to give me a grounding in the plot and characters will make reading the novel a little bit easier.

So that’s it for today’s post – you can take a look at アムリタ and 神様の制度 on the Amazon JP website and read the first couple of pages if you are interested in checking them out.

What are you reading at the moment (in Japanese or otherwise)? Do you have any recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments!

15 Easy Japanese Songs to help you learn Japanese

Knowing where to start with Japanese music can be a bit of a minefield. On top of that, finding songs you can study Japanese with is even harder. Or perhaps you often go to karaoke, but never know what songs to sing? Look no further – here is a list of 15 easy Japanese songs to get you started!

The songs on this list have been chosen because they are popular songs which also have simple Japanese lyrics. Similarly, I’ve tried to include a mix of older and newer songs.

I wanted to write this post to show the wide range of Japanese music. Sometimes I worry that it can be hard to see past the idol music sometimes! I hope that this list will be a helpful starting point for discovering all sorts of Japanese music.

1. 上を向いて歩こう by 坂本九 // Ue wo Muite Arukou by Kyu Sakamoto

This is the oldest song on the list but a definite classic. Known as “Sukiyaki” in English, this is one of the best selling singles of all time. I’m not sure why this is because it has no connection to the lyrics!

It is also one of the few foreign language songs to reach the top of the US Billboard Top 100 chart.

The upbeat sound of the song contrasts with the sadness of the lyrics. The song tells the story of a man who looks up and whistles to stop tears from falling. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, which makes it a great Japanese song to study with!

   2. 世界に一つだけの花 by SMAP // Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana by SMAP

The recently disbanded boy band SMAP were very much a national institution, having a career spanning almost three decades. Besides music, the band’s members expanded into acting and hosted one of the most popular variety shows of all time, SMAPxSMAP.

Their biggest song (The One and Only Flower in the World) was released in 2003. It was an instant hit, selling over a million copies. The song’s simple lyrics and pacing make it a karaoke favourite even today.

3.手紙〜拝啓十五の君へ by アンジェラ・アキ // Tegami ~ Haikei juugo no kimi e by Angela Aki

This single by singer-songwriter Angela Aki was released in 2008. Originally featured in a NHK documentary, it became popular again after the March 11 tsunami disaster and is still heard at graduation time today.

I think it perfectly encapsulates what a lot of us would write a letter to our younger selves. It’s a song with a great message and certainly one to listen to when you’re feeling a bit down.

By the way, 拝啓 (はいけい/ haikei) is how you traditionally start off a letter in Japanese.

4. First Love by 宇多田ヒカル // Utada Hikaru – First Love

Utada Hikaru is one is Japan’s most famous contemporary artists – it was tricky to pick a song from her many albums.

First Love was Utada’s third single, taken from the album of the same name which went on to over seven million copies in Japan. That’s not bad considering she was just 16 years old at the time! This easy Japanese ballad has a mix of Japanese and English, and is likely to be a karaoke favourite.

5. PONPONPON by きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ // PONPONPON by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the stage name of Kiriko Takemura. Takemura started as a blogger and model before entering the music industry. Her 2011 single PONPONPON was the first of her singles to become a viral hit.

The catchy beat is the invention of famed producer Yasutaka Nakata, who is also the creative force behind pop trio Perfume. The song and music video are the epitome of cute. Together with the simple lyrics, this is a very easy song to get stuck in your head (you have been warned!).

6. ありがとう by いきものがかり // Arigatou by Ikimonogakari

Ikimonogakari are a pop-rock band that have been around since 1999, although they are currently on hiatus. The band’s name refers to the group of children assigned the task of looking after plants and animals in Japanese primary schools.

Arigatou is a song they released in 2010 and is about treasuring a loved one. The lyrics are very sweet, and the tempo of the song makes it a good choice for singing at karaoke!

7. ORION by 中島美嘉 // Orion by Mika Nakashima

Mika Nakashima is a singer and actress from Kagoshima prefecture who debuted in 2001. As an actress, she is probably most famous for her role in the live-action adaptation of the shojo manga Nana.

Her single Orion was released in 2008 and is one of her many popular singles. In this song, Mika sings wistfully about a past love. The lyrics here are slow and not too difficult which makes it a nice song for Japanese learners.

8. リンダリンダ by ザ・ブルーハーツ // Linda Linda by The Blue Hearts

The Blue Hearts were a punk rock band popular in the 80s and 90s. Linda Linda is one of their most popular singles and remains a karaoke favourite.

Originally released in 1987, the song was a key part of the film Linda Linda Linda (2005), where 4 high school girls form a band which covered several songs by The Blue Hearts.

9. 恋に落ちたら by Crystal Kay // Koi ni Ochitara by Crystal Kay

Crystal Kay is a singer hailing from Yokohama, who released her debut single at just 13 years old. Koi ni Ochitara was her seventeenth single released in 2005 and was the theme song for a drama of the same name. This pop ballad is probably the least well known on the list, but it has simple but sweet lyrics perfect for karaoke!

10. 涙そうそう by 夏川りみ // Nada Sou Sou by Rimi Natsukawa

Nada Sou Sou is an Okinawan phrase which means “large tears are falling”. In standard Japanese this would be 涙がポロポロこぼれ落ちる/ namida ga poro poro kobore ochiru. The song tells the story of someone looking through a photo album of someone who has died.

The original song was performed by Ryoko Moriyama, but it is Rimi Natsukawa’s version released in 2001 that steadily became a hit. It was so popular that broadcaster TBS made two dramas and a film between 2005 and 2006. The song is sad but beautiful and certainly a Japanese song worth knowing about.

11. KARATE by BABYMETAL

Babymetal have a unique blend of metal and idol style music (now known as “kawaii metal”). Babymetal formed in 2010 and consists of three members: Suzuka and Moa. Since their formation, they have performed in many places around the world.

The group’s 2016 song Karate is from their second album Metal Resistance and is all about never giving up in difficult times. A lot of the main phrases are repeated and overall the lyrics are not too tricky. This is a definite crowd pleaser at karaoke!

12. Monster by 嵐// Monster by Arashi

I don’t think it is possible to escape Arashi, the five-piece boyband who have been together since 1999. Like SMAP, each member is involved in TV hosting and acting.

Released in 2010, Monster was the theme song for the drama adaptation of the manga Kaibutsu-kun which starred member Satoshi Ohno. The lyrics are straightforward – if you are in the mood for a Halloween pop song then this is for you.

13. Best Friend by Kiroro

Kiroro are a duo who released their first single in 1998. Both members Chiharu and Ayano are from Okinawa. However, the name of the band was actually inspired by words in the Ainu language after visiting Hokkaido.

The song Best Friend was released in 2001, and was the theme song for a drama called Churasan. It is a popular song to sing at graduations, as the song relate to appreciating close friends.

14. キセキ by Greeeen // Kiseki by Greeeen

Greeeen (the 4 e’s represent the four members of the group) are a pop-rock band originating from Fukushima prefecture. Kiseki was released in 2008 as the theme song for the baseball drama Rookies, and quickly became a bestseller.

The title kiseki has the dual meaning of 奇跡 (meaning “miracle”) and 軌跡 (meaning “path, track”), which is why it is written in katakana rather than kanji! The lyrics aren’t too difficult and emphasise how important it is to treasure each moment and to keep moving forward.

15. 恋するフォーチュンクッキー by AKB48 // Koi Suru Fortune Cookie by AKB48

[Note: there are options to have Japanese or English subtitles on the video!]

AKB48 are a massive girl group with several best-selling songs to their name. Named after the area in Tokyo where the group are based (Akihabara), the idol group is split into teams that hold performances there every day.

Released in 2013, the message of Koi Suru Fortune Cookie is to try positive about the future, because you never know what will happen tomorrow. I am not the biggest AKB48 fan but you cannot deny that this song is incredibly catchy, upbeat and has a fun dance to learn too!

So this turned out to be a very long post! It’s always good to have a shortlist of songs when going to karaoke. Hopefully this post has given you a few ideas (it was certainly fun writing this post). If in doubt, you can’t really go wrong with good old Disney songs in Japanese!

What is your favourite Japanese song? Let me know in the comments!

Easy Manga Recommendation: Let’s Dance a Waltz

Today’s manga recommendation for Japanese learners is ‘Let’s Dance a Waltz’ / Warutsu no Ojikan (ワルツのお時間), a manga series created by Natsumi Ando.

Quick Facts

Author: Natsumi Ando (安藤なつみ)

Genre: Romance, slice of life

No. of volumes: 3

Recommended for: JLPT N4/ upper beginner

Furigana: Yes

Anime/ drama/ film adaptations?: No

Plot Overview

Tango Minami is a high school student whose family run a ballroom dance studio. Having danced from a young age, he teaches at the studio to earn pocket money but keeps his connection to the dance studio a secret from his school friends.

One day, a girl turns up looking for a trial lesson. The girl, Hime Makimura, is a shy student who is looking for a way to break out of her shell. Hime falls with love with dancing from the very first lesson, but Tango realises that they are both in the same class at school! Can Tango manage to keep his ballroom dancing a secret, whilst helping Hime to become a better dancer?

Why do I recommend the manga?

First things first, this is in many ways a typical shojo manga – the female protagonist is a shy girl who learns to find confidence in herself, assisted by the charismatic and popular male lead. The plot develops pretty much exactly as you would expect from this genre of manga. Having said that, the ballroom dance aspect helps to keep the narrative feeling fresh.

Hime (meaning ‘princess’) really hates her name as she feels she could never be a princess in anyone’s eyes. Therefore it is heartwarming to see her find a natural talent and passion for ballroom dancing. Whilst this is a ballroom manga, the manga is more focused on the emotional impact dance has for Hime. Tango also grows as a person through his interactions with Hime, which helps him feel like a more rounded character by the end.

At just three volumes, this manga is a short but enjoyable read.

Recommended Japanese language level

I consider this manga to be appropriate for JLPT N4 or upper beginner level and above. You may be surprised to learn that the vocabulary used in this dance-themed manga is not too difficult. There are a few terms that are specific to dance, and these terms tend to feature a lot of English loanwords. As the main protagonists are high school students, there is a bit of slang used but if you are used to manga slang conventions, this should not pose too much of a problem.

As always, you can read a sample of this manga on the EbookJapan website to get a feel for its difficulty by clicking the blue ‘無料立ち読み’ button.

If you do try reading any of the recommendations, please let me know how you get on the comments. I am always on the hunt for beginner friendly manga, so if you have any suggestions please let me know!

If you do like this recommendation, you might also like:

Happy Reading!

Studying languages more effectively with the Pomodoro technique

I have a confession to make – I am a serial procrastinator. As much as I love learning Japanese and blogging, there are days when I can’t seem to get round to doing either of them. There are also days when I set quite a lot of time aside to write a blog post for example, but only end up with a half-finished post.

If I am honest with myself, my lack of productivity on days like this is normally because of two things:

  1. I haven’t thought through what my goal actually is and what I need to get it done
  2. I pick up my phone to check an email and somehow end up wasting time on somewhere like Facebook/ Twitter/ Reddit

Fortunately, the Pomodoro technique has helped to reduce my “bad productivity days” not only with blogging but with language learning too!

About the Pomodoro technique

Pomodoro is the Italian word for ‘tomato’. The Pomodoro technique is a reference to those tomato shaped timers used for cooking.

Time management expert Francesco Cirillo came up with the Pomodoro technique which has 6 easy steps:

  1. Choose a task you’d like to get done
  2. Set the Pomodoro for 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings
  4. When the Pomodoro rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper
  5. Take a short break (5 minutes)
  6. Every 4 Pomodoros, take a long break (usually 20 minutes)

Benefits of the Pomodoro technique

There are numerous benefits to the Pomodoro technique:

  • It’s easier to get focused and stay focused – 25 minutes is long enough to get things done, but not so long that you get bored.
  • Avoid distractions such as social media (you can check them on your breaks of course!).
  • Short breaks give your brain time to recharge – studying for a long time without breaks is counterproductive.
  • You soon work out how much time you need to dedicate to longer tasks. This is especially good if you have a deadline coming up!
  • Easy to track how time has been spent. This is to make sure that you are spending time working towards the goals that are relevant to you.

I had been using the Pomodoro technique for certain tasks that I struggle to motivate myself for such as tidying my room. It was only recently that I realised that it can be easily applied to language learning too.

Language learning requires a lot of energy. Sustaining the level of concentration needed to study effectively becomes more difficult over longer study sessions. From my own experience, studying for long periods of time without a proper break usually leads to frustration and burnout.

How I use Pomodoro for languages

For me, the Pomodoro technique is particularly useful when I am working towards specific goals, such as studying grammar for the JLPT or working on improving my pronunciation. For regular daily study, I have a series of mini goals that I spend 10-15 minutes on (see my Habits over Goals post).

I particularly struggle with studying for the JLPT. Finding the motivation to study grammar, drill vocab and do mock tests can be extremely difficult, even when the test is only a few days away. This is an example of how I am using Pomodoros for my JLPT prep (I am working towards the JLPT N1 exam in December):

Before I start a session, I decide on a specific goal and how I am going to achieve the goal.

For example, I will spend 25 minutes reviewing JLPT grammar points from my Kanzen Master textbook. I usually stick to one learning resource only, as referring to more than one usually leads to procrastination.

I then set the timer to 25 minutes and prepare to study

At this point, I also make sure I have my noise-canceling headphones, some water, and any other tools I might need within easy reach.

I choose to listen to music during my Pomodoro study sessions. I always used to find music distracting. But I realised that I absolutely cannot listen to music with words, because I usually start singing along! There are some great instrumental videos on Youtube if you search “study music”. My personal favourite things to listen to are Ghibli soundtracks and chilled hip hop.

Work on task for 25 mins, then take a short break

As soon as I start playing my study music, I know it’s time to get focused!

Sometimes I extend the Pomodoro length to 30 or 35 minutes if I feel like I am in deep focus, and taking a break after 25 minutes would be counterproductive. If I do this, then I usually reduce the number of Pomodoros accordingly.

I make sure that on my breaks that I physically get up and take a short walk, drink some water and grab a snack if I am hungry.

Complete 3 or 4 Pomodoros, then take a long break.

Review progress made and make notes for next session

I think it is important to look back on your session and review any issues you came across. The questions that I often ask myself include:

Did I identify some kanji/ vocabulary that I need to review?

Do I need to refer to another resource to clarify my understanding of a grammar point?

By doing this, I can make adjustments for my next session that will help me work more effectively.

How I track my Pomodoros

One of the best things about the Pomodoro technique is that the only tool you need is a timer. Having said that, there are a lot of apps out there that can help with tracking your Pomodoro sessions. Here are a couple of apps that I personally use:

Google Chrome Extension – Marinara: Pomodoro Assistant

I use Google Chrome as my browser, and there is a simple but extremely useful Chrome extension called Marinara that I use for blogging (as I normally need to be connected to the internet!)

Screenshot 2018-06-24 at 12.07.28
The icon on the far right shows a Pomodoro in progress

By clicking on the Marinara icon I can jump straight into a Pomodoro session. When each session is done, I get a popup to remind me to take a short or long break depending on how many Pomodoros I have completed.

Marinara has a countdown timer, which I find motivating when I feel my concentration slipping – knowing that I only have a couple of minutes to go helps to keep me going!

Screenshot 2018-06-24 at 12.06.36

You can adjust the length of the Pomodoros and how the extension alerts you to the end of a Pomodoro if you wish. Marinara also tracks your Pomodoro activity which is quite nice too.

Pomotodo App (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

When it comes to offline Japanese study sessions, I make use of Pomotodo. By creating an account, you can make to-do lists and track Pomodoros completed; these can then be synced to track your productivity across multiple platforms.

Pomotodo also has a few other useful features. For example, the mobile version allows you to block the use of certain apps whilst a Pomodoro is in progress. You can set daily, weekly or monthly goals and also see what times of the day or week you are most productive

Pomotodo is very user-friendly and I love the clean, simple design. The app is free but has a Pro version costing $3.90 per month – I don’t think that the Pro version adds enough value to be worth purchasing it though.

Using the Pomodoro technique has confirmed to me that the most important thing is not the length of time spent on a task, but rather how you use the time spent. Defining what goals you have and how you are going to achieve them is also key to using your time effectively. I only wish I had come across this technique before I last took the JLPT!

Do you have any time management hacks (for language learning or otherwise)? Let me know in the comments!