We have been conditioned by well-intentioned mothers to believe that television will “destroy our brains.” This might well be true if one spends their time watching “reality” TV shows that don’t actually reflect reality, the sensationalist 24-hour news cycle, and tasteless drivel that neither entertains nor educates. But if you watch television in Japanese, this otherwise time-wasting and brain-wasting activity can become a constructive form of language learning that even mommy should be able to get behind! Video is also one of the best ways to create a fun, effective, foreign language immersion environment no matter where in the world you happen to live. Here now are my top ten favorite tools for using online video to learn Japanese.
Watching authentic Japanese video content like YouTube, TV shows, movies, music videos, commercials, etc. can be a great way to pick up new vocabulary, phrases, and structures within fun, meaningful, engaging contexts. Video is also especially good for helping improve your listening and pronunciation skills. There is just one problem: most videos created for native Japanese speakers are beyond the reach of beginning learners. FluentU solves this problem by providing interactive subtitles in kanji, hiragana, and English that allow you to look up words on the fly using their built-in dictionary (which includes contexual defintions and links to other videos that use the word or phrase). You can then save new words to your personal vocab list and practice them using FluentU’s multimedia flashcards complete with video clips, audio, and images.
Netflix + Language Learning with Netflix Chrome Extension
Netflix now has hundreds of Japanese-language anime, TV shows, and movies, including many Netflix Originals produced by Netflix Japan. To get the most out of Netflix for language learning, make sure to use the Chrome extension Language Learning with Netflix which adds interactive subtitles, a pop-up dictionary, and adjustable playback controls. I also recommend importing Netflix subtitles into LingQ (a great tool for building vocabulary through authentic content) using the LingQ Importer Chrome extension. For more, see my post Learn Japanese with: Netflix.
With 45 million registered users and over 2 million subscribers, Crunchyroll is the world’s most popular destination for anime. With the basic service, you can stream for free in a web browser, but you can remove advertisements, get access to the full library, stream videos in high resolution, and watch on other platforms when you upgrade to premium ($6.95 a month with a 14-day free trial).
Hulu is one of the best destinations for high-quality Japanese anime. They also have a decent number of Japanese films to choose from. Note that most Japanese content on Hulu automatically plays with Japanese audio and English subtitles. However, be aware that many anime also have a version with English dubbing (which we obviously want to avoid for the purposes of learning Japanese). To tell which is which, look for Sub instead of Dub at the beginning of the show title.
A bit of fun trivia for you: the name “Hulu” is based on two Chinese words with the same basic pronunciation but different tones, húlú (葫蘆, “bottle gourd”) and hùlù (互錄, “interactive recording”). According to the company blog: “The primary meaning interested us because it is used in an ancient Chinese proverb that describes the Hulu as the holder of precious things. It literally translates to “gourd,” and in ancient times, the Hulu was hollowed out and used to hold precious things. The secondary meaning is “interactive recording.” We saw both definitions as appropriate bookends and highly relevant to the mission of Hulu.”
Amazon Prime Video
If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can access a fair number of Japanese TV shows and movies on Amazon Prime Video. As of writing, there are 605 Japanese titles available for streaming, 33 of which are available for free to Prime Members (the balance being available for rent). Not a massive number, but hey, this is plenty of content to immerse yourself in Japanese right from your TV or smartphone, transforming otherwise wasted time into productive language learning. There are even a few Japanese language Prime Originals (日本オリジナル), which were previously available only in Japan but are now available to stream outside the country.
Note: The Japanese version of Amazon Prime Video has a much wider selection of Japanese content, including popular TV dramas like Trick (トリック) and many Prime Originals only available in Japan. You can also watch popular American shows and movies with Japanese subtitles. The bad news? You will need a separate Amazon Japan Prime account to access the content, as well as a Japan-based VPN if you don’t live in Japan. Also, many of the Japanese videos lack Japanese or English subtitles, so much of the content will be beyond reach unless you are at an advanced level.
For more about how to watch Japanese content on Amazon Prime and see some of my recommended shows, see my post Learn Japanese with: Amazon Prime Video.
Kanopy is a fantastic way to watch movies for free. All you need is a library card! Once registered, you can:
- Watch up to seven movies per month for free (credits refresh on the first of each month).
- Watch on your computer, TV, or mobile device with the Kanopy apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire Tablet.
- Save movies to your personal watchlist.
I especially like that Kanopy has a number of Japanese classics that are difficult to find on other streaming services (e.g. Seven Samurai).
TED was once an invite-only conference in Monterey, California attended by the who’s who of technology, education, and design (which is what “TED” stands for by the way). Fast forward three decades and TED is now a massive worldwide community of lifelong learners that holds local TEDx events all over the world. While I highly recommend attending a TED event in person if possible (I attended TEDxTaipei and TEDxOlympia and loved both), most talks are recorded and posted online where anyone in the world with an internet connection can view them. So this is all fine and dandy, but how can TED videos be used for learning Japanese? I have three main suggestions:
- Watch TED Talks with Japanese subtitles: As of writing, there are 2,625 TED videos on TED.com with Japanese subtitles, including TED Talks, TEDx Talks, and TED-Ed videos. That ought to keep you busy for a while! First filter talks by Japanese language, and then further refine your search by topic (technology, entertainment, design, business, science, and global issues), duration, or event type. Browse all TED Talks with Japanese subtitles.
- Use TED’s cool interactive transcripts: All TED Talks have nifty interactive transcripts that let you to click on a phrase and jump right to that part of the video! To view Japanese subtitles, simply click the “Transcripts” tab below the video and select 日本語.
- Watch Japanese TEDx Talks: While most TED Talks around the world are presented in English to maximize their global reach and impact, there are a decent number of talks in Japanese, too. Check out this list of 5 inspirational TEDx Talks from Japanese Level Up.
Viki is another great way to stream Japanese TV shows and movies for free. You can stream online or watch in one of the many apps. If your’e curious, the name “Viki” is a portmanteau of the words “video” and “wiki,” a nod to the fact that subtitles are crowdsourced from the Viki community.
NHK’s High School Courses
NHKs koukou kouza (高校講座・こうこうこうざ, lit. “high school courses”) has a seemingly endless supply of free, educational video content. Although the videos are intended for Japanese high school students, the content is actually quite useful for non-native adults as well, especially if you will be teaching English in a Japanese high school. Note that the site uses Windows Media Player, so Mac users will need to download Flip4Mac.
If you use wifi at coffee shops, airports, hotels, etc., I highly, HIGHLY recommend using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for your computer, phone, etc. (it is far easier for people to spy and hack via unsecured internet traffic than you might think). But beyond just making your web traffic more secure, a VPN provides the added bonus of letting you change your IP address to another country, meaning you can access U.S. only services while abroad (e.g. Netflix) or access Japanese language content usually only available in Japan. I’ve tried quite a few VPNs in the past few years, and GoldenFrog is my favorite so far. I especially like their slick apps for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android that let you quickly change your server location with just a few clicks/taps.