CHICAGO – This is a great time to be studying Japanese. Even living outside of the country, beginner students have access to a massive amount of native language content thanks to the internet, and they can even mine online video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu to improve their language skills.
However, it’s not enough to turn on any old Japanese show and let it run; this is a bit too 受動的 (judōteki, passive). Students must be more 能動的 (nōdōteki, active).
The best way to accomplish this is to turn off the English 字幕 (jimaku, subtitles) and turn on the Japanese closed captioning. In the U.S., this instantly culls the long list of available Japanese shows down to a smaller handful, which I have carefully reviewed for you, dear readers.
Please note that these are the shows available on my American version of Netflix. There are many more if you are lucky enough to live in Japan, and all of the shows mentioned below are also available on the Japan-based service.
Netflix U.S. offers the following with Japanese subtitles: 深夜食堂 (“Shinya Shokudō,” “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”); クロムクロ (“Kuromukuro,” literally “Black Shell” but titled “Kuromukuro” on Netflix); アンダーウェア (“Anda¯wea,” literally “Underwear” but titled “Atelier”); 火花 (“Hibana,” “Spark”); テラスハウス (“Terasu Hausu,” “Terrace House”); and シンドバッドの冒険 (“Shindobaddo no Bōken,” literally “Sinbad’s Adventure” but titled “Magi: Adventure of Sinbad”). New shows are constantly being added, so this list may already be incomplete.
The good news is that this small group represents a diverse selection of Japanese television programming.
“Midnight Diner” is a 30-minute live-action drama adapted from a manga of the same title, centering around the customers at a late-night diner. The マスター (masutā, proprietor), played by Kaoru Kobayashi, has a compassionate ear and cooks up delicious food for his 常連客 (jōrenkyaku, regulars).
Watching the show actively with Japanese subtitles will force you to get up from the relaxed binge-watching posture you likely assume upon loading Netflix and lean in closer to the screen, but it will be worth it. You’ll finally learn the delicate use of 加減 (kagen) in episode six when the local 八百屋 (yaoya, vegetable shop) owner is haunted in his sleep by the ghost of his recently deceased mother.
After finding respite at the diner, he orders 梅干し (umeboshi, pickled plum) and notes that he has tried to replicate his mother’s recipe but been unable to succeed: おふくろさんにしか分からない塩加減ってのがあんだよ (Ofukuro-san ni shika wakaranai shio kagen-tte no ga anda yo, “There was an amount of salt [to add to the plums] that only my mom knew”). Kagen is a combination of the kanji for add (加) and subtract (減), and attaching it to a noun is an easy, efficient way to refer to adjusting the addition of something, in this case salt.
There are times when using this method of study will force you to rewind and look up a word so that you can fully understand what is going on. I would encourage you to do so despite how annoying it can be to interrupt the pleasure of watching.
For example, when I was glued to “Kuromukuro,” your prototypical mecha anime that fuses Japanese history with modernity, I had to pause right as the U.N. facility in Toyama was being attacked by mechas (huge human-operated machines).
One of the officers asks, 国連本部からは何も言ってこないか？ (Kokuren honbu kara wa nani mo itte konai ka?, “No word from U.N. HQ?”). The response from the communications officer is 何も … 情報が錯綜しているようです (Nani mo. … Jōhō ga sakusō shite iru yō desu, “Nothing. … All the information appears to be jumbled”). I was unfamiliar with sakusō and needed a minute to look it up in the dictionary and figure out that it meant “complicated, entangled, jumbled, confused.” But then I was on my way again.
“Kuromukuro” is also great anime to learn some aggressive casual Japanese. The allied mecha pilots go in against the enemies pretty hot, one of them using this phrase: ケツに120ミリ食らってくたばり やがれ! (Ketsu ni hyaku-ni-jūmiri kuratte kutabari yagare!, “Shove these 120 mm [shells] up your ass and effing die!”). Yagaru (used above in its imperative form, yagare) can be considered an aggressive, profane version of する (suru, to do) or やる (yaru, to do) and it attaches to verb stems, in this case to くたばる (kutabaru, the slang version of “die”). Yagaru is the closest Japanese comes to an equivalent of the F-word, and I urge you not to add it to your active vocab.
“Atelier” and “Spark” are two Netflix originals that resemble classic Japanese ドラマ (dorama, dramas), and they both feature newcomers: the former to the fashion world, the latter to Japanese comedy. Both protagonists are looking for help.
In “Atelier,” 大学新卒 (daigaku shinsotsu, new university graduate) Mayuko Tokita is, to borrow her boss’s words, ピチピチでツルッツルでモノをよく知っている けどやっぱダサい (pichipichi de tsuruttsuru de mono o yoku shitte-iru kedo yappa dasai, an energetic, smooth-skinned know-it-all but ultimately unfashionable). She tries to find her place at the lingerie firm where she’s hired.
In “Spark,” protagonist Tokunaga asks Kansai comedy veteran Kamiya to show him the ins and outs of 漫才 (manzai, Japanese duo comedy), and one of the first lessons is basic Japanese etiquette: 先輩が後輩におごるのが当然なんや (Senpai ga kōhai ni ogoru no ga tōzen nan ya, “Obviously a senior will pay for a junior [when out drinking]”).
“Terrace House” might be your best option to learn truly authentic Japanese as it’s a reality TV show and, as they say at the beginning of each episode, 台本一切ございません (Daihon issai gozaimasen, “There is absolutely no script”). This is the Japanese equivalent of the U.S. show “Real World.”
I’m only a few episodes into “Terrace House,” but it has been a breath of fresh air and I know I’m going to love it. The panel of 芸能人 (geinōjin, celebrities) that introduce the show and gossip about the people in it makes me feel like I’m back in Japan watching actual Japanese TV.
It’s annoying to rewind, but this is what you have to do when you’re learning a language. That circular 10-second rewind button is your best friend. Once you’re able to read out the closed captioning, try closing your eyes and just listening. Rewind it a few times to increase the number of repetitions you get, and gradually the Japanese will unfold for you and start to feel more and more comfortable.