The short answer? It depends.
It depends on your Japanese learning goals
Do you want to speak Japanese?
If your primary goal is having conversations with people in Japanese, then subtitles are of limited value.
Why? Because they don’t help you directly practice the skills you need to have smooth, flowing conversations.
Though this may change in the future, there are currently no magical subtitles that appear below someone’s face out in the real world. Instead, you have to rely on sound, facial expressions, body language, and context.
Fortunately, our brains are extremely good at sussing out meaning from these factors, and have only relied on written communication for a minuscule portion of human evolution.
So if speaking is your aim, do your best to match your practice environment (e.g. watching TV shows without subtitles) to your performance environment (e.g. speaking face-to-face in real time with no written clues).
Do you want to read Japanese?
On the other hand, if you want to strengthen your Japanese reading skills, then subtitles can be a highly under-appreciated form of textual input.
Obviously, you will need to know kana and a fair number of kanji already to make sense of written Japanese, so this won’t work for absolute beginners.
Which leads us to the next factor…
It depends on your Japanese level
If you are an absolute beginner, you will probably need to use subtitles in your native language to make sense of what you are watching. While this might not be ideal for learning to speak or read Japanese, it does at least provide two of the three essential ingredients of effective language learning:
Subtitles help you understand what is happening in a given episode or film, which in turn helps make the activity much more enjoyable.
Sure, you can always force yourself through a show that you barely understand, but this can be extremely boring and frustrating, and is of little educational value.
We learn when we understand, so it makes sense to use English subtitles (or another language you speak fluently) for at least the first pass through a Japanese anime, TV show, or movie.
But your learning journey needn’t stop there…
It depends on the amount of time & discipline you are willing to invest in your Japanese study
If you have the time and discipline to watch a given episode more than once, here is a powerful way to significantly increase your rate of language acquisition:
- Step 1: Watch an episode with subtitles in your native language to get a basic understanding of what is happening.
- Step 2: Immediately watch the same episode again without subtitles, focusing completely on what is being said, and how it’s being said.
Does it take a lot of time? Yes. But so does learning a language. And if you do this consistently, you will reach your Japanese fluency goals a lot more quickly than traditional language learning approaches.
In fact, this is the exact method that Ken Cannon from Japanese Through Anime used to reach an impressive level in Japanese, with extremely native-like pronunciation and accurate pitch accent.