I Hear Japanese

A lot of anime fans probably don’t grasp this, but they really don’t ‘hear’ Japanese. I was watching subbed anime for a good while before I started to realize that what I had been hearing was actually a voice in my head reading off the dialog. It takes having read a significant amount of subtitles to stop doing this.

I think I had been watching anime for around 9 months to a year before I started to ‘notice’ voices. But that still doesn’t mean I ‘heard’ them. It’s easy to get a sense of what a voice sounds like to the point where you can differentiate voice actors. For instance, a lot of people can easily distinguish Rie Kugimiya’s voice, because it is distinct, but that only really means that they are picking up on the existence of her voice, and not so much what she’s actually saying, or how she’s performing. I’ve seen a lot of people who think that Kugimiya isn’t a good actress, and the reason is that they are only reacting to the surface of her voice. They are thinking ‘high pitched’ or ‘bitchy sounding’, or in a voice they like (let’s take Wakamoto) they are just thinking ‘deep’ and ‘crazy’ or what have you.

This is exactly why a lot of people don’t really see a big difference between dubs and subs. They aren’t listening to the performance so much as the simple sound of the voice. Baka-Raptor has said before how he can only watch (most) comedy anime dubbed, because delivery is important to the humor of a joke – this is true, though if he could really ‘hear’ Japanese, he would be able to appreciate Japanese comedy.

The inability to ‘hear’ Japanese is actually a huge controlling factor on our fandom. It’s why a lot of characters can be mislabeled – for instance, Kagami from Lucky Star is mislabeled as a bitchy tsundere, whereas someone who understands the nuances of her performance might be more likely to notice that she is more meant to be a tsukkomi character. I also think it’s precisely why a voice like Wakamoto’s is one of the most well-known to the US fandom – it’s less because he’s a great voice actor (though he is), and more because his voice is easy to like without being able to understand a damn thing he says. Meanwhile, a great actor such as, say, Keiji Fujiwara, will be less noticed because his voice isn’t so easy to pinpoint to the untrained ear.

There is sort of this gradual process of learning to hear Japanese, and I think it’s incredibly important. My enjoyment of anime in general has increased greatly by my hearing voices. The biggest help is that it makes everything more memorable. I have noticed that I have a much harder time remembering scenes from shows that I watched before hearing Japanese than I do from ones I’ve watched and understood. This is also part of what has made rewatching a lot of old favorites so fun, as it totally broadens my perception of the shows. And I’ve come pretty far with it too.

See, I took 3 years of Japanese classes in high school (about equivalent to one year in college I’m sure, and probably less when you consider my grades in those classes) and while those didn’t help a whole lot, they at least gave me a start. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that you CANNOT learn a language without speaking it and hearing it on a significant basis. I often hear people say how their Japanese gets really rusty when they are outside Japan, simply because they aren’t being exposed to the language.

My best friend, No Name, learned Japanese from watching anime and reading manga (and if that sounds impossible, you should know that he’s seen 4 times as much as I have, and I’ve seen 4 times as mush as you have. The amount he’s consumed would effectively give him a WAY higher ratio of hearing and reading Japanese to hearing and reading English/Vietnamese.) I have been much more slowly and gradually doing something similar. I really haven’t done much in the way of reading, but I have been learning to comprehend the language more and more.

I’ve reached a point, at least, where I don’t really read subtitles. Mind you, if I didn’t have subtitles I still wouldn’t know what was going on, but it’s gotten to where the subtitles are more of a ‘clue’. It’s more like my brain is using the subtitles to confirm what it’s already figured out, sort of like using context clues to answer questions on a test (something I’m an expert at). At this point, I actually find myself usually thinking ‘this is what the character really means.’ Not that I don’t agree with the subtitles, because the tricky thing about translating Japanese is that it doesn’t really make sense directly most of the time, and therefor a lot of localization has to be done, but now I’m at the point where I see the localization. I say, ‘ah, she said this, that’s what it really means’ and if I want, I can change the interpretation of the phrase more to my liking.

I’m quite happy that I can do this, too, because as you know, I am ALL about creator’s intent, so I appreciate understanding a script as closely as possible. So my plan is to start training myself with RAWs. For a LOOOOONG time I’ve had the idea of watching a show so many times that I have it memorized (would probably only take 4 or 5 runs) and then watch it in Japanese and see if I can basically understand it. I really want to start training myself like that soon.

25 thoughts on “I Hear Japanese

  1. looks like a good thing to strive for. ^_^

    I can understand simple anime for the most part with out reading and just listening. (magical girl series are really easy to do this with for me) there’s no way i could do that with something like FMA or Gundam or something a little more complex.

    • Yeah. Generally, shows with young girl characters are really easy because their speech is simple and they always talk about the same shit, lol. I actually have these 3 Nanoha A’s drama CDs that I accidentally downloaded when looking for the OST, so I’ve thought of training with those, but I fell REALLY fucking creepy just sitting there listening to disembodied young girl voices lol.

  2. I don’t think ‘tsukkomi’ and ‘bitch’ are necessarily free of overlap – but you’re right; her attitude is usually more “Well I’m sorry for having a normal reaction!”

    I suspect the sub/dub thing partly comes down to whether or not it sounds like work to listen to the Japanese and try to understand it.

    • lol true, though I don’t think the Japanese would so much think of it that way. It’s more like, because the tsukkomi is socially acceptable, unlike the others, then she has to be listened to, you know? Like, I want to say it’s that sort of Japanese shame. It’s Konata’s light shamelessness that makes her interactions with Kagami so fun, because she really wears her out like that, I think.

      This is getting hard to explain without overstepping my boundaries, though >_<

  3. “I am ALL about creator’s intent, so I appreciate understanding a script as closely as possible” Wow, it’s so rare to see nowadays someone who cares about the creator’s intent. Good, I agree. I don’t like killing the author like that.

    As for what you comment, it happens to me. In fact when I watch subbed anime I often have trouble hearing -i.e. understading- the Japanese being spoken, I often say, woa, if it wasn’t for the subs I woudln’t have understood it.

    However, when I watch anime without subs I find that I understand lots of things, often things I think I wouldn’t be able to understand, so to some extent reading subs and hearing Japanese (and understanding it) are completely different activities, and they are often mutually exclusive

    Personally I notice that I improve through practice, that is, whatching lots of raw anime, nowadays I don’t watch subbed anime anymore, and also by studying. I mean, if I’m reading a novel and find some word or phrase, I learn what it means and how it is used, and then I hear it in anime, it’s obvious it’s going to be easier to understand than trying to look up a word Ive never heard in my life.

    For example some time ago I heard the word “tegowai” (stubborn, tough), but I couldn’t just quite transcribe it. When I finally found it and learned it, it becomes easy to understand whenever I hear it.

    I’ve also found that understanding a languages isn’t a gradual thing. One day I just noticed that when listening to anisongs I could understand a lot. It was just all of a sudden.

  4. Good luck with all of this.

    I have no chance of being able to pull anything like this off. The only episode I watch raw is the finale of Macross Frontier because I put it on my iPod and the conversion of the file killed off the subs (not that it’d be readable on such a small screen). I’ve rewatched it so many times that I know what’s going on, but I would never really keep up with what the characters are saying.

    At most, I could get that… “Oh Ranka is talking about the robot space bugs right about now, in a soft and caring voice…”

  5. What a coincidence. With my eyes out of commission, I’ve recently decided to take the opportunity to train my ears. My goal is to be able to comfortably watch raws of simpler shows by the end of the summer.

  6. I’ve also reached a point in my Japanese proficiency where I use subtitles more as “clues” – I can pick up on the style of the translator and can distinguish certain things that they did or didn’t translate well. For many simple or slice-of-life shows that don’t use a ton of fictional or technical terminology, I can understand most of what’s going on without the subtitles. But I still prefer using subtitles because most anime is very detail-oriented and I hate to miss out on any crucial line of dialogue. But I’m also a very fast reader so I’m often finished reading before the character is done talking. Thus, I can still pick up on their voices and acting ability (at least I think I can).

    Even though I’ve studied Japanese for roughly four years at college and have spent a total of about seven weeks in Japan, I feel my Japanese slipping away now that I’m no longer speaking and immersing myself in it on a daily basis. The only anime series I ever watched fully raw was the second season of Chi’s Sweet Home. Maybe watching some of my old favorites raw would be a good idea.

    • On the ‘fast reader’ comment – true for me with subs, too, and it’s, I think, a trick of the eyes. I am actually an incredibly slow reader when it comes to books novels, etc., but with subs, I actually read them without thinking and at a glance. Like, if I just happened to walk through a room and someone was watching something with subs, I would end up picking up on them without even really looking at the screen. I think part of it is my brain not needing the whole phrase to be read carefully, but also it’s a trick that my eyes are using to be able to focus on the action again ASAP.

  7. I have reached the point where I more “absorb” subtitles than actually read them, if that makes any sense. I don’t know exactly if that’s similar to what you’re doing or not… But I do find myself having moments where I disagree with the transliteration of fansubs, which seems sort of like your “A ha!”-type moments.

    Like Yumeka, the only show I ever watch extensively raw is Chi’s Sweet Home. I did try to watch the final four episodes of Mouryou no Hako raw since it seemed like no one was ever going to finish subbing it, but I don’t usually count that because I literally had no fucking clue as to what was being said, understandably.

    My plan for learning Japanese? Get posted to one of the American military’s installations in Japan. Ha. Japanese is the hardest language I ever took – and that’s coming from someone who hacked through four years of Mandarin and two of Arabic.

    • Holy Crap! Houryou no Hako took FOREVER to get subbed. When it was finally finished I had no idea what was going on because it was such a long time since I had seen the previous episode. Great watch though.

    • How the hell was Mandarin easier than Japanese?!

      No Name (being proficient in English, Japanese, Vietnamese, and a little French) and I (both of whom can always distinguish Asian languages) are always making fun of Chinese in general for being the most bullshit language. He’s always ranting about how ‘Vietnamese actually makes sense! Chinese doesn’t make sense!’

  8. I might have discussed this with you, but I did a comparison using the first episode of Slayers. I watched the first 5-10 minutes dubbed, then subbed. I felt Lina’s Japanese VA’s tone of voice much more conductive to the atmosphere of Lina than the dubbed voice was.

  9. The next step after learning to “hear Japanese,” I think, is realizing that anime Japanese is very strange and unnatural-sounding, and then learning to like that anyway.

    • Yeah. I think that’s the funny thing about all of this, is that no one would actually talk this way >_< However, my only reason for wanting to know any Japanese is to better understand anime, so that doesn't really matter to me.

      • I’m strange. I really like the language in general from what I’ve learned about it. Being able to watch anime or play games before they come out are both things I don’t care about. I really get a kick out of katakana in general, being a former English major.

        I like Japanese as a language more than Spanish, which is what I was learning at one point. Of course, a week in jail where Spanish was the predominant language doesn’t help much either.

  10. I have great difficulty in listening to the sound track and reading the sub simultaneously.

    When I was learning Japanese some time ago I tried to adopt the approach of focusing on the voice and take the subs only as clues. But I always end up focusing solely on the subs.

    At the end I just gave up and have been sticking to raws ever since.

    The funny thing is that even if I watch a video dubbed in my mother tongue and subbed in English, my attention will still be drawn to the subs. I guess this is the after effect of watching too many subbed anime. @_@

  11. Though I was already pretty good at picking up on tone of voice and attitude from listening to the Japanese while reading subtitles by the time I started dabbling in fansubbing, timing subtitles really drove this home for me. Timing makes you pay much more attention to the Japanese voices compared to just watching the show with subs.

    By now, I read the subs more as information rather than as dialogue and then sort of superimpose the English translation onto the Japanese dialogue in my mind as I listen to it. Combined with also having learned a decent bit of simple Japanese from watching so much anime, this leads to amusing situations of sometimes being able to tell what a character is going to say in Japanese before they say it by picking up on their speech patterns and translating back to Japanese from the English subs.

    By the way, Ichigo Mashimaro is a good show to try watching raw. I watched a raw of the Encore OAV ep2 before subs were out and I understood nearly all of it. The downside is that some of the jokes use more complicated language, so you’re most likely to not understand some of the best parts of the show.

    • Oh man, I finish characters’ sentences all the time XD in most generic fanservice shows, it’s a total breeze hehe.

      I will definitely try Ichimaro raw!

  12. Pingback: I’ve Finally Fallen For Hanazawa Kana | My Sword Is Unbelievably Dull

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