If I were being completely accurate with the title of this article, it would read as “how to supplement your Japanese language learning with video games” but that’s boring. It would be great to just be able to play a bunch of your favorite Final Fantasy’s and suddenly be fluent. It would absolutely be amazing in fact, so I’m sad it doesn’t work that way. But I’ve been making it my mission to learn Japanese with the least amount of effort possible. I will also clarify that I’m talking strictly about the Playstation 1 console version of FFVII and not the remake.
Now, I’m not fluent in Japanese, nor should I be considered a teacher in any way possible. I tend to teach people more about what not to do, but this time I think I’m on to something. I can say with confidence that I am much better at Japanese now than I was a year ago thanks to the methods outlined in this article. I’m too poor and busy to afford proper lessons. So these are tools I’ve sculpted purely from the clay of whatever resources I could find online, mixed with the cement of efficient laziness.
I will not be teaching proper pronunciation or stroke orders in this article. This is for reading Japanese so we can play old Japanese video games with ease. All methods presented here will be as affordable as possible. First off, get on a plane to Japan. Go to one of the many great old-school gaming stores in Akihabara and purchase yourself a Japanese version of FFVII. Or you can, ya know, emulate it but I’m not condoning illegal activity! So you should go with the first option … I won’t judge you if you google ‘FF7 international ISO’ though. That’s on you.
Learn Japanese With FFVII – Japanese Learning Tools
Jumping into a Japanese copy of Final Fantasy VII to learn right off the bat isn’t very efficient. You’ll be seeing a bunch of dialogue boxes with weird characters and have no idea what’s going on. I also recommend that you play through FFVII at least once in a language you do understand so you have some idea of what’s going on. Before being able to read anything in FFVII you first have to, ya know, know what the symbols mean. Here are some tools for learning the Japanese alphabets.
Kana – Pen, Paper, and a Google Image Search
For those that don’t know, Japanese has three different alphabets, two phonetic and one logographic. Hiragana and Katakana are both phonetic alphabets, meaning that when you see a hiragana or katakana character, you will always speak it out loud the same way. Kana are used to build words in the same way English does but because Japanese doesn’t break up sentences with spaces, it’s pretty hard to tell which kana are being used for which words. It’snotimpossibletoreadasentencewithoutspacesbutit’sobviouslymuchharder. So to minimalize confusion, Japanese uses context-specific characters (known as particles) and the third alphabet, Kanji. More on Kanji later.
For the kanas, the best recommendation I have is to just embrace the kinesthetic learner in you. Grab a piece of paper and a pen, do a Google image search for hiragana and katakana (or use the image below), then draw the symbols you see. Make sure you look up the proper stroke orders for each character at first to make it easier to draw them. Then just go slow.
Vowels and Consonants
Start with the vowels, A – I – U – E – O = あ – い – う – え – お. Then you’ll see that every character afterward is just a combination of a consonant and a vowel. Ka – Ki – Ku – Ke – Ko = か – き – く – け – こ. You can use basic mnemonic techniques too if you like. For instance く kind of looks like a beak, so you can imagine a Cucco from Zelda to give you the ‘ku’ sound. It might be worth practicing some memory stuff where you can because you’re gonna need that memory when it comes to kanji.
Give yourself about ten to twenty minutes a day and you’ll have both alphabets memorized within a week or two. You don’t have to learn Japanese all at once so it’s okay to take all the time you need. Also, do not neglect Katakana. You’ll see that katakana is essentially just another alphabet with all of the same sounds so you may wonder what the point is for it. Katakana is used for all words loaned from other languages. It’s similar to how English uses accented letters for words like déjà vu. Because of the western influence over Japan, Japanese uses a lot of English words transcribed using katakana. Would be funny if you learned a whole bunch of Japanese words but couldn’t understand the English ones. I’ve noticed that katakana comes up a lot, not just with words foreign to Japanese. So just learn it.
Kanji is the third logographic alphabet, meaning that each character can have multiple ways of pronouncing it but the symbol will always mean the same thing. 犬 will always mean dog, but the hiragana, いぬ, can be used in a bunch of different contexts to mean different things. The word, ‘dogmatic’ contains the word dog but has nothing to do with dogs.
Kanji is going to be where a lot of Japanese learners will hit a wall. Kanji is intimidating. There are over two thousand Kanji that are in common use and closer to eight thousand in total. I’m pretty sure only Japanese linguists with at least forty years of experience could tell you all eight thousand. Memorizing two thousand though is still no small feat. Japanese kids take nine years during their schooling to learn that many. You might think “screw that, I ain’t learning two thousand goddamn symbols, I’ll just use hiragana for everything and be fine” I definitely remember thinking that. But once you actually learn a bunch of kanji, you realize how much easier they make everything. Sometimes I’ll look at a Japanese sentence and tell what it means just by the few kanji being used.
We essentially use a logographic framework to understand English. When we look at an English word, we’re not seeing the individual letters, we’re seeing the shape of the word first. Yuo cna enve mxi lal hte telters pu nda sitll unsdertnda ti. It’s going to take a long time to memorize all the kanji but it’s not impossible. We’re gamers, if we can grind out hundreds of levels in World of Warcraft, we can memorize a couple of thousand swirly characters. Easy. Luckily I’m here with a tutorial. First, you’re gonna need a good app.
Of all the apps and methods I’ve used, Kanji Garden is by far the best I’ve come across for memorizing kanji. Hell, I think all memory apps can take a lesson from Kanji Garden. The method is ingenious. It’ll introduce you to a kanji and its definition then present it to you over time like a flash card. What makes it great is that every time you get the answer correct, it’ll extend the time interval of when it presents that kanji to you again. So on the first level of any kanji, you have to wait a minute before it presents it to you again, and on the final level, you have to wait six months before it’ll present it to you. And if you can get the answer correct after waiting six months, it’s pretty much a given that you’ve memorized that kanji.
It also helps keep the practice time manageable. When I used flashcards, after I got to a hundred kanji, my study time was getting up to like an hour. With Kanji Garden, you control how much time a day you want to dedicate and it stays consistent. Also, Kanji Garden is free! There is a premium version as well, it’s not too expensive.
For every kanji, it’ll present you with the definition and both its on’yomi and kun’yomi readings. On’yomi are readings adapted from Chinese and are mostly used when using two kanji together (there are some exceptions), and are represented with katakana. Kun’yomi are the native Japanese readings and are represented with hiragana, they’ll also often be followed by other hiragana that are used for conjugation. These different readings can get pretty annoying, especially when a kanji has two on’yomi and three kun’yomi. But with the memory techniques laid out in the next segment, it’s not that difficult.
This will probably be the most versatile section in the whole article. These memory techniques can be used for much more than just memorizing kanji. In any situation where you need to memorize a bunch of information, these techniques are tried and true.
The Linking System
To memorize each kanji, I use a mnemonic method I read about in a Derren Brown book called The Linking System. It’s usually used as a method of memorizing a list of seemingly unrelated things. The basic principle is that you tell yourself a story with the material. So if you had to memorize a list of random things, let’s say: dog, mail, confetti, rain, crater. You can imagine a dog stealing the mail out of your hand and then shaking confetti out of it that gets washed away in the rain and into a crater left by a meteorite.
Tell a Story
That’s a perfectly fine story, and for only five items, it would work for a short while before you end up forgetting it. But it’s obvious and boring. The true talent behind the Linking System, the way to make truly memorable stories that last, is to get weird with them.
Maybe the dog ate so much mail that he exploded, his blood twinkling like confetti in the sun before raining down on you, filling the crater left in your heart from just watching a dog explode. If that’s too dark, maybe you can imagine a dog mailman delivering confetti bombs to people’s homes that burst out the chimneys making the town feel like it’s perpetually raining with festivities, and the whole town was built in the crater left behind by the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs, but some survived and live in the all the houses. Now you have this image of a whimsical dinosaur town with raining confetti and dog mailmen.
The point is to create an emotional connection to the material by kind of shocking you into remembering it. Close your eyes and imagine walking through the crater town. See the dogs with their mailbags, and feel the confetti rain trickle down. In the case of the exploding dog, the emotional connection is horror. Use whatever is necessary to create a deep connection with the material. Then do it enough that it becomes second nature. This is the most fun to be had when learning anything because you get to stretch your creativity trying to find the best story that fits. When to exaggerate and when to simplify. It is a skill to hone, so it’s up to you to find which stuff fits best.
A Lot of Material
When learning a new kanji, you’re given a bunch of associative material to that kanji. Most kanji are made up of two or three more common kanji (known as radicals) then you have their meanings, then their multiple kun’yomi and on’yomi. So each kanji gets its own little story. You’re allowed to add notes to every kanji, so every time I’m introduced to a new one, I try to come up with a good story on the spot. I tend to structure them all the same way.
Because the first thing you see when being tested is the kanji itself, I’ll put the radicals that make up the kanji at the start of the story. For instance, 振 is made up of the radicals for ‘hand’ and ‘farming’, so the story starts with a farmer holding his oversized hand in the air. Next is the meaning. 振 means to shake, so I imagine the farmer trying to shake his giant hand. Then to distinguish the on’yomi from the kun’yomi, I tend to put the on’yomi before the kun’yomi in every story. Sometimes, the on’yomi fits better in the story before the meaning or even the radicals, so feel free to move them around. As long as you put the on’yomi before the kun’yomi, or else you’ll mistake them for one another.
Anyway, so the on’yomi for 振 is シン (shin) and the kun’yomi is ふ (fu). So I imagine myself as a thief, my ‘heart’ shaking (reinforcing the meaning) after having just stolen ‘food’ from the large-handed farmer. You can probably figure out that I’m using the word food to associate with ふ, but why do I use heart? That’s what this next technique is for.
The Peg System
In its most basic form, the peg system is used to memorize long strings of numbers by taking words that rhyme with each individual number, then using the linking system to memorize the sequence. It gets more advanced when you start associating single letters with numbers, then constructing words from the numbers. For example, if I hit my keyboard at random and had to remember the number 847,032,587, I would construct the words: shirt, zoomin, and fight. Then I would imagine a shirt zooming off of a guy in a fight after being punched so hard in the chest that his shirt tears, anime style.
But anyway, there are no numbers with kanji so how do pegs apply? Well, the peg system is all about having a lexicon of immediate associations you can pull out for things that don’t have intrinsic meaning for you. For instance, numbers and words in a foreign language. One of the first things you’ll learn from using Kanji Garden is that a lot of kanji share the same on’yomi and kun’yomi. You’ll be using a lot of the same associative pegs, so why not get efficient with it and make those pegs out of Japanese words?
In the previous example, I used シン for heart because that’s the on’yomi for heart in Japanese. The on’yomi for fire Japanese is カ (ka), so if I come across any kanji with the on’yomi of カ (and there’re a lot), I integrate fire into the story somehow. The on’yomi for the kanji for ‘big brother’ (兄) is キョウ (kyou). I happen to have a big brother with the name Nickolas, so I changed his name to Niキョウlas and whenever キョウ comes up in a kanji, I put Nick in the story somewhere. The added benefit is that these peg associations become ingrained incredibly quickly because you’re essentially reinforcing the memory of those specific words for every kanji that shares the on’yomi or kun’yomi.
Of course, if it’s just making it harder to memorize stuff then pegs can be used in easier ways. For き (ki), I change it to kill then put murder somewhere in the story. For カク (kaku) I think of the male genitalia (I always find sexual stuff more memorable because I’m a dirty-minded weirdo). Have rules for your memory pegs but don’t get too bogged down with them, if you see an easier way to remember something, it will always be easier to remember than some convoluted way of fitting it to your specific memory system. Memory works best when the lowest amount of energy is being exerted. The more effort you have to put in to remember, the harder it will be to remember.
Go with your instinct, if you can feel you’re going to forget something, you probably will. You’re always free to change your stories and pegs to something that will work better for you. And remember to feel the emotions that occur from the stories.
Random Examples of Stories I’ve Made
側 – Side.
亻 = Person. 則 = Rule.
On’yomi = ソク (soku).
Kun’yomi = がわ (gawa), そば (soba)
Story: “That person is breaking the rules, they’re off-SIDE” screams the ソク – sock – nosed がわd – coward -, he’s then bashed by a man who is not そぼ – sober -.
The emotion I feel when recalling this story is humor. The image of a sock-nosed person being beaten up by some drunk for overly trying to enforce the rules makes me think of old slapstick comedy.
細 – Slender or Detailed.
糸 = Thread. 田 = Field.
On’yomi = サイ (sai)
Ku’yomi = ほそ (hoso), こま (koma).
Story: Fields of thread with SLENDER man making DETAILED thread sculptures of himself. With your サイ – three-pronged dagger -, you attack him but he turns your blade into a ほそ – hose – with weak pressure. He then grabs you and puts you into a こま – coma -.
The emotion I feel for this one is futility and fear. Slender man is of course a horror icon.
貨 – Goods.
化 = Change. 貝 = Money.
On’yomi = カ
Story: Change money for GOODS, then smirk as the trick money catches カ – fire -.
This one’s just a simple one so I didn’t feel the need for some big story. It’s pretty easy to imagine getting goods by exchanging them for money. I do feel a bit of duping delight by adding flammable fake money in there though.
Feel free to use these if you want and if you’re in the midst of practicing kanji and are looking for ideas, leave a comment. I’ll be happy to help out. But of course, you will have more of a connection to the stories you make yourself.
Jisho is just a great app for looking up Japanese words and kanji as you come across them. You can construct the kanji you want to know out of a list of all the radicals and it’ll give you the meaning, different readings, and stroke orders. It’s handy for quickly looking up kanji if you come across one that you’re curious about.
When playing Japanese FFVII and I come across a kanji I don’t know, it can sometimes be hard to figure out what radicals are being used because the text is all pixelated. Because of this, I tend to use Google Translate more than Jisho. Google Translate has a drawing function that you can use to draw the kanji and it doesn’t have to be exact for Google to figure out what it is. A lot of the time, I can’t tell exactly what radicals are being used to I just put in some random crap that looks close to it and it’ll pick up what it’s supposed to be more often than not. Also, you can type out full sentences in Japanese and it’ll do its best to translate them. It’s easy to install a Japanese keyboard for windows.
Okay, so now you know a whole bunch of new symbols and their meaning. But how do you actually put them together into sentences? If you’re like me, you’ll go through a bunch of mainstream sources that teach polite Japanese sentences. Then you’ll watch an anime or play a JPRG, trying to apply everything you’ve learned. And you won’t understand a single thing that’s going on. You’ll get a few phrases here and there, but you learn pretty quickly that Japanese is a lot more malleable than expected. When looking for resources to help, make sure they don’t shy away from the casual form of Japanese. Here are a couple I’ve found.
Of all the resources I’ve used, nothing has brought me further than Tae Kim. He has a book called ‘A Guide to Japanese Grammar’ you can get, or you can access all the lessons in the book straight from his website. He has videos for a lot of the beginner lessons, then they get more and more in-depth. I’m still slowly making my way through everything on his website.
The best thing about Tae Kim is that he’ll teach the polite versions of everything the same way most resources do but because he’s Japanese, he points out along the way just how unnatural the polite form comes across to natural Japanese speakers. Every lesson has him going through both polite and casual forms. He also adds in little exceptions and nuances where they count. Tae Kim is by far the densest resource for Japanese grammar I’ve come across. All you need is something to help keep you engaged with the material.
Game Gengo ゲーム言語
Game Gengo is a YouTube channel that takes snippets of text and conversations from all sorts of video games and turns them into lessons. He has plenty of videos going through the grammar of different levels of the Japanese Learning Proficiency Tests using video game text, it’s amazing. While Tae Kim has examples for every lesson, they always tend to be quite basic for the purposes of hammering in the point of whatever the lesson is about. With Game Gengo, the lessons are built around examples of text that weren’t made to be lessons. So they have the benefit of being more naturally written within the context of the bigger world and plot of the games they’re in. Also, he’s kind of doing what I’m doing with FFVII but way better.
I’ve tried a bunch of different apps and stuff for the purpose of really packing in as much vocabulary as possible and the best advice I can give is don’t bother. Sure, you can memorize how to say every type of fruit or animal in Japanese but without the knowledge of how to actually use them in a sentence, what’s the point? You will naturally learn and remember a lot of vocabulary with the resources I’ve already listed. Tae Kim has multiple lists of vocabulary that get used in each lesson. Kanji Garden will be the biggest resource for vocabulary, and it even gives you the different readings with example phrases and sentences for each kanji. Don’t treat vocabulary as some separate thing you have to learn alongside everything else, instead, let your brain internalize all of your vocabulary as you’re learning grammar and kanji.
Anyway, enough of all this other crap. How do we actually use Final Fantasy VII to learn Japanese?
How to Use FFVII to Learn Japanese
Now that you have all the resources to learn Japanese, you may wonder why you need FFVII at all. The purpose is for possibly the most important part and that is mentality. Everything so far is for the purposes of study, but we don’t play Final Fantasy to study. Learning a new language can often feel daunting. You’re given a whole bunch of new information and you feel like only a small percentage of it ever sticks. The point of using a game to supplement your learning is purely to make the language ‘click’ for you. It’s easy to sink thousands of hours into learning phrases, vocabulary, and kanji. But when you actually try to use it, you suddenly forget everything you’ve ever learned.
Another step is to use iTalki and actually speak to random Japanese people but that’s intimidating. Also, I don’t live in Japan so I don’t need to actually speak to many Japanese people on a daily basis, but I do have a bunch of anime and video games that are in Japanese. The intent is not to formally learn to become fluent in Japanese, it’s to engage enough with the language that you can learn it while doing relaxing stuff that you were going to do anyway. I’m not a Japanese teacher. I don’t know what the best curriculum is. I’m just a lazy bastard who’s making the most out of his media by turning it into a hobby.
I chose FFVII because the story is complicated, and if I can read through the entirety of the dialogue in this convoluted plot, I can understand anything. Every character in FFVII has their own unique voice and it comes out in the way they structure the dialogue. You don’t see much of the polite form unless the character relationships call for it. Tseng talking to President Shinra will use ます and です more often. Hojo will not because he’s an arrogant scientist who knows he’s invaluable. Barrett uses the katakana for オレは instead of the hiragana, おれは, when referring to himself. He does this for seemingly no other reason than katakana looks more manly than hiragana.
The dialogue of each character gives you a little more insight not only into the nature of the character but how they view every other character. We don’t really have that level of depth in English. We tend to express ourselves more with inflection, tone, and gestures rather than the way we structure our sentences, and we can’t express those with text alone.
Of course, it works both ways. Because I’ve played through FFVII many times in my life, I always have a basic gist of what everyone is saying. I also know how all of the characters relate to one another. So when they use more complicated Japanese grammar rules, I have more context as to why. The biggest benefit of using FFVII, or any old JRPG for that matter, is that the text goes at your own pace. Don’t press the O button and you can read through the same sentence as many times as you want.
Learn Japanese With FFVII – What I Do
There are a few different stages of how I approach a Japanese FFVII gaming session depending on my mood. I apply different levels of how much I merge Japanese learning to the FFVII gameplay.
Level 0 would be no learning whatsoever. I skip through all the text because I just want to play a game. I do this with the English version as well sometimes because I’ve played it so many times. There is still some benefit to this level because you are still having to associate the Japanese letters with the commands that you’re choosing in battle and the menus. This helps solidify the shape of each word in your head so you don’t actually have to read it. And because you’re in slug gaming mode, you’re not putting any effort in at all, helping ingrain it naturally.
Level 1 is where I’ll attempt to understand each text box of dialogue as it appears. I won’t even really try to read it, I’ll just see if I recognize any kanji and what tense the sentence is in. This is still me in pretty much slug-brain mode. I’m still going for mostly a relaxing gaming experience, and if any Japanese pops out to me that I know, I make an effort to recognize it. I don’t bother looking anything up that I don’t understand.
The main benefit of this level is that it’s helping to ingrain the stuff you already know. Even with minimal effort, these still work as practice examples so that you don’t have to put in as much effort when you do try to memorize phrases or kanji or vocabulary. This is the level at which I usually start when I turn the game on. But the feeling of knowing I know something (a kanji or particle or whatever) and not being able to put my finger on it leads me to…
Level 2 is where it switches to a more half-and-half gaming/learning experience. If I come across a sentence I don’t understand, I’ll make the effort to learn it. Mostly that means I’ll type it out in Google Translate. If there are any kanji I know but can’t put my finger on, I’ll look them up. If there are any I don’t know, however, I’ll just move on. Once I have a good idea of what the sentence says, I move on to the next. This stage is more for understanding what the characters are saying and not for learning the intricacies of Japanese. That’s what Level 3 is for.
Level 3 is the stage where I’ll read everything out loud. I’ll go through the sentence, and look up anything I’m unsure about. Then I’ll read it out loud a couple of times before moving on to the next text box. If there are any kanji I haven’t learned yet, I’ll draw them into Google Translate and try to memorize them. Any particles I’m unsure of, I’ll skim through any Tae Kim lessons that touch on it. If I’m learning something new, I’m in level 3.
Level 4 is a suped-up version of level 3. In level 4, the goal is to be completely confident in my translation of every character being used in the Japanese text. There are so many little exceptions to each rule in Japanese, and finicky intricacies that don’t seem to make much sense at first. There will be conjugations upon conjugations, then abbreviations of those conjugations. I’ll understand what’s being said in a lot of Japanese sentences, but then have no idea why certain characters are being used. That’s what level 4 is for, ironing out the weird stuff. I usually only spend about half an hour in level 4 at a time, then I’ll get tired and slip back into level 1 or 2.
Level 5 is full learning mode. I’ll make a save before any new dialogue-heavy portion of the game then I’ll go through that section as if in level 4. Afterward, I’ll reload the save and do it but try to remember everything I just learned. It’s surprising how much I’ll forget something after having just researched it. After going through the section, I’ll reload the save and do it again. I’ll do it as many times as it takes to be able to read through that portion of the game without looking anything up. I try to get it as close to the feeling of reading English as I can. Concentrating on making all the text feel natural as I read it out. I mostly play FFVII for the gaming side, so I’ve only hit level 5 a few times. But they’ve been very helpful.
Learn Japanese With FFVII – Other Games to Try
Of course, the Japanese learning methods I’ve laid out in this article don’t only apply to Final Fantasy VII. Most modern games have a language setting you can use to switch the text to Japanese but the dialogue has almost completely shifted away from text boxes and towards full voice acting. In all the cutscenes, the text flies by, taking away the ability to learn at your own pace. Hearing Japanese voices is great for learning pronunciation and phrasing, but this article is all about reading. If you want help with pronunciation, just watch a crap tonne of anime for thirty years as I did. Anyway, here’s a list of games I think work well.
Final Fantasy I – IX
Of course, you can just play any of the other Final Fantasy’s before they started incorporating voice acting. I still play FFX in Japanese but it’s not the same. Any PSX or SNES-era JRPG will work fine, like Legend of Dragoon or the Mother series, just as long as you can find a Japanese copy to download (not that I’m advocating for that …) for instance …
Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross
Two of the best RPGs in existence. All of the same methods apply because they all have text-based dialogue. If by chance you’re not a hundred years old like am and want to play something from his century, check out these.
Possibly my favorite indie game. Every moment of The Messenger is pure fun. And, fortuitously, all the dialogue is text and it gives you the option of switching it to Japanese. If you haven’t played The Messenger yet, I strongly recommend it. Maybe play through it in English first so you know what you’re doing. The dialogue is all pretty hilarious so it’s definitely worth the effort.
The Yakuza Series
This is a series I’ve yet to fully get into but from what I’ve seen and played so far, it seems pretty fantastic. They have the added benefit of being set in Japan so it might help immerse you in Japanese culture. It has a mixture of both text and cutscene-based dialogue. So you can still use the methods in this article to some extent. There’re also voice actors to help you with pronunciation.
I’ve actually just learned that in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the Japanese subtitles close themselves after a short time. So you can’t learn at your own pace. That’s annoying. I don’t know if the other games are like that. Maybe leave Yakuza for when you’re a bit quicker at reading.
If you were to ask me if it was possible to completely learn Japanese with Final Fantasy VII alone, I would say no. But I think I’ve laid out a good schematic for fortifying your Japanese study with the games you love. For me, I use FFVII as motivation to keep studying. I go in and out of learning Japanese all the time. I’ll spend a few months going hard then drop it for like a year. A common issue of those with their attention in the deficit. But because I have all these Japanese games I want to play, learning Japanese has shifted from this nebulous and arduous hobby to a fun activity that I do while I’m relaxing.
The best way to learn anything is to find out how you relate to the material. I’m a gamer, and I love Japanese games most of all. It only makes sense to apply gaming to my learning. And it’s working. I’ll be back with another article later down the line with hopefully more refined methods.