Can You Get God Level Japanese with Subtitles?

Today i’m going to give you a quick breakdown of the massive advantages of utilizing simultaneous subtitles. 

Before I go into this, let’s discuss the elephant in the room. To utilize this information you already need to be able to read Kanji at a decent level. So knowing the first 2,500 or so Kanji leads you to this point. However, this is vital information to know, even if you are staring from absolute zero.

A Brief look at Subs

Generally, subtitles for say, dubbed films in Japanese are not what we call ‘exact’ subs. They are usually translated from the film script, and you can see the difference between what is being said and what is on screen. This means that for a beginner, or advanced learner, it may not always be clear what word was used. Simultaneous, or ‘exact subtitles’ show exactly what is being said at any moment. Therefore you are never ‘lost’, and can look up exactly what was said if you aren’t 100% sure.

With exact subtitles not only do you not have to worry if you are hearing correctly or not, you can train both your listening and word association at the same time. I did not realize this in the beginning due to observational bias. In other words, I just utilized the subtitles that were available to me, besides, early on I couldn’t read them at speed anyways.

However the value becomes almost unfathomable once you are able to read. You can basically ‘loop’ through native, accurately transcribed speech over and over once the subs are exact. As a training tool this is amazing.

What Brought me Here

It was Spirited Away that re-triggered this subtitles observation. I was watching the film with no subtitles and was struggling to understand what was going on. There were two reasons for this. One, my headphones were bad, which was really distorting the voices (didn’t realize) and two the characters in the film speak really, really fast and even after all of my current level of immersion and watching bullet-spoken Japanese, something about how they spoke in this film made everything mesh together. So I turned on the subtitles and saw that they were exact. Now I was able to follow everything because I could read it. In fact, after changing my headphones and working through the film with subs, everything changed. First of all, I wasn’t hearing it as badly as I thought, and secondly, once I was able to read what they were saying I was able to “work through” the film with 100% comprehension. Then the light bulb came on and I realized this would allow me to work through any media with exact subs. 

Exact Subs Allow You to Watch Anything (provided you are able to read it)

Exact subtitles make movies function like picture books. You are able to read what every character is saying and follow the story. Each time you watch the movie, you get better and better at reading and internalizing what is going on, and gain the benefit of the action. Anything you don’t hear clearly, you just replay a few times and read the subs. More and more you start to “unlock” the language. Words you studied before become burned into your mind in a different way. Also, there is no limit to how much you can watch something. You can skim through, read all the subs, see what you don’t know and then rewatch the whole thing. This is a ‘fun’ sort of training because the more you watch and train the better you get.

Why This is So Powerful

People often mislead themselves with the types of activities they do relative to their level. By simply watching and listening to anime at length, they believe they are making “progress”.(I certainly did lol) Now in the very, very beginning, all of these activities are beneficial. You are training your ear, getting used to the phonetics of Japanese and building basic contextual associations. However, as time passes the ‘net benefit’ of listening without knowing what is going on diminishes greatly. I learned this after watching things without subtitles for sometime. Sure I might think I know what is going on, but often, I would lose nuances, or deeper meanings.  Even as my listening ear got better and better and I was able to look up things I didn’t know, sometimes the content you are watching is so loaded with vocabulary you don’t know that it would simply be easier to see it in front of you. You simply cannot know what you don’t know, and Japanese is a language where with words, especially verbs, you must know them beforehand to know what they mean. When people are speaking at bullet speed, you cannot process anything you don’t already know.

In the above picture, from the film Naussica: Valley of the Wind, a character looks down a hill at her army fighting and losing a battle, and calls them orokasha. This means “foolish”, and can also be written 愚か者. There is NO WAY I would pick this up just by watching it without subs, especially if it had been written with the Kanji (which I have never seen used with this word).











In this picture also from the same movie, the characters are talking about a 貯水池 chosuichi (water reservoir). When watching this, I could hear them say it, but being able to both hear it and read it let me know it was a word I needed to pay attention to and I looked it up. Again, these are simultaneous transcriptions, so what I read is always exactly what is said. There is no way I would “pick” this up from just watching it, even passively.

Japanese has the specific challenge of being a pictographic language and we cannot always simply “get” words from context. In fact, most of what we hear will be nonsense if we do not know the words. In fact, I assume this is why pretty much all Japanese context is so well transcribed. Fortunately for us, we have more available that we will ever be able to watch in one lifetime, and its EVERYWHERE.

Japanese Content is Made Like This

The amazing thing about the majority of Japanese content, is that pretty much all of it is transcribed perfectly with simultaneous or exact subs. From Youtube videos, to anime and Japanese TV series, they are pretty much all transcribed properly, which allows you to watch, learn and grow with native content in real time. You will find that it is foreign movies dubbed into Japanese that rarely have ‘exact subs’. Lucky for us, between Netflix and Youtube we are covered with literally hundreds of thousands of hours of content with exact transcriptions. This means you have an endless variety of ways to “train” your brain. Either through podcasts, talking head Youtube, vlogs, movie reviews, political commentary, TED talks, anime, you name it. Most of them have 100% transcriptions.


Think of this like constant, three dimensional training. You get the benefit of training your understanding of rapidly spoken speech and reading along quickly (if you aren’t 100% following what’s going on). You also get massive context and images and visuals to help you. Just like watching movies and cartoons in English, you will find that in trying to remember a word, you will remember first the scene where you encountered the word, then the word will come to you. You will see 装甲兵 soukouhei (armored soldiers). This means if I’m watching a hit series like Alice in Borderland I am covered with exact subtitles. Because so much Japanese context has exact subs, common words flash hundreds, sometimes thousands of times per day, further training your brain. You see, once you cross the first big barrier of learning how to read the Kanji, if you spend a lot of time watching native content, you will automatically start to memorize or reinforce thousands of words (that you have learned or are learning).

You Will Never Be ‘Lost’ Again

Can you imagine tackling some content and knowing you are able to work through it? You see we focus so much on the end result, which is sitting down and listening to people (in Japanese) argue in parliament or laugh about their grandma’s terrible strawberry cake recipe, we forget that by being able to read what they are saying, we are bridging the gape between the speech we cannot yet always understand and our ability to process it in realtime. Once the subs are exact, I can watch any media and work through it. My reading level is sufficient to allow me to do this.

THIs aspect of my discovery has changed EVERYTHING.  As much as I love watching Star Trek dubbed in Japanese, they aren’t exact subs. I cant’ even image how much i’d gain if I could get exact subs for my favorite shows and then watch them endlessly. When watching Youtubers like Hikakin, just watching 2-3 vlogs a day can build monstrous brain power. These guys are context machines. They are constantly traveling, cooking, explaining the features of tech or software, are always joking, talking about the environment, playing games, pranks etc. All with EXACT SUBS!

I know for the Japanese learners out there, it can feel very stressful watching native media (especially early out) because you can feel “lost”, but with exact subs, once you hit a high enough reading level, you can read anything that is being said. This means, once you have enough reading ability, you will never be lost! You just have to get your listening game up to match what you read and the easiest way to build that is to just keep watching more and more native media. This is a multi-marathon event, not a quick sprint.

To put it simply, at present, it is I can watch anything I want with exact subs without worrying about being lost.   I am not yet able to watch any and everything in Japanese without reference, but knowing that I can watch almost anything (at my own pace) and not be ‘lost’ because of the assistance of subs is an incredible psychological boost. I can keep watching, keep working through, keep getting stronger.

This a tough race, so we have to use ALL the assistance we can get. In pretty much all language training, especially in simultaneous interpretation you live and die by transcripts. Its the most tried and true way to map what you listen to with what you are hearing and create the “matrix” that launches you into greater ability.




About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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