Posted in About me, Attitude, Changes, Motivation, Plans, Reading, Video games

LONG TIME NO SEE! HERE I AM, AGAIN!

Hi there! It’s Mikuwashi! お久しぶりですね!

It’s been quite a long time since I last posted so most probably you have been wondering where I had gone or whether I intend to continue this blog at all. The answer is very much “Yes”! The truth is, life has gone in my way and changed a lot of things. On February 16th my Mom had had an accident: she broke her leg and had to be hospitalised. As we both live and run a business together, everything fell on my back to pick it up and handle alone. Later, as it is probably for a lot of other people, the coronavirus hit and life changed further with uncertain future overshadowing (especially in our business industry). Currently, our situation’s slowly getting back to normal so I can get back to focusing on stuff I enjoyed and did pre-accident and pre-pandemic. Before I start writing other Japanese-related posts, however, I thought you deserve an update.

Many of you asked me about my JLPT N3 results. I did post them on my Instagram account along with the screenshot but I will reveal them here as well.

I will be very immodest saying this but the truth is I did great! I passed the exam and my overall score was 164 out of 180 points! I did best in the listening section, snatching a perfect score, yet my grammar and reading sections points weren’t that much worse! I got 49 out of 60 points from the Language Knowledge (that is, for vocabulary, kanji and grammar questions) as well as 55 out of 60 points in the reading section (that means I just answered one question wrong)! Obviously, I couldn’t be happier with my results and I personally think of them as a perfect conclusion to my N3 studies.

Speaking of studying, here comes bad news. Over the last few months, although I did keep in touch with Japanese, I rarely studied to make progress into N2 studies. I haven’t started them at all, honestly. I mostly read and played games in Japanese, quite extensively. I hope that because my Mom’s slowly recovering and the situation’s also gradually getting back to how it used to be, I would be able to sit at my desk again and study towards that N2 level.

Here I am very pleased to announce that I have made significant progress when it comes to reading! I started to read a lot and have been beating my personal records for the amount I’m able to read – as of now, my record is 6 manga volumes in one day! I have never thought I would be able to overcome that fatigue that hits you after you input a certain amount of Japanese during one day. I guess the most helping factor was me starting Persona 4 Golden as well as Persona 5 Royal in Japanese – a game franchise I had conquered in English before, therefore I didn’t have to worry about understanding the plot but still spend quite many hours a day playing those titles. As a result, I have finished 2 Persona games now (i.e. Persona 5 Royal and Persona 5 Scramble) and there’s only one title left for me to finish this year so I complete the New Year’s resolution I had made in one of the blog posts back in January.

Speaking of reading, I have started reading aloud quite a lot and grew to notice that actually, this is something that also boosts your reading skills. It all started with a Reading Aloud Challenge which was held on a Japanese learners discord group I had joined a few months prior. I decided to take part in the challenge and grew to enjoy reading live, much to my surprise. It was very stressful at first but I’m gradually getting used to it and thus enjoying it more and more with every session. Much recommended!

As for new resources I started to utilise recently, I have to mention Japanese seiyuu radio programs for sure. I discovered 超A&G+ radio channel (which is available online) and found out that many of my favourite male seiyuu actually host their own programs there! They aren’t easy to understand, as they speak with natural pace as well as they use a lot of vocabulary I don’t know. That doesn’t faze me, however, and I enjoy listening to those a lot! I even found the courage to write a fan letter to one of the programs and actually sent it! I felt so ashamed a few days after I had done it and the letter wasn’t read during the program (the hosts read a few fan letters aloud and answer them during the program), too, but it was an experience I had never gone through before (not even in my native tongue!), yet I found it refreshing and pleasant. I also felt a little proud that I sent it, gotta admit.

So, as the summer starts, here begins the next step of my Japanese journey. I hope you’ll hop on the ride and will be able to enjoy it with me. See you soon with a new post!

Posted in Languages, Listening, Reading, Study methods, Video games

RECOMMENDED VISUAL NOVEL TITLES (INTERMEDIATE LEVEL)

It’s time for the next tier of games – and you do not realise how tricky it was to pick those up! I moved a lot of titles to the next level when I realised how their gameplay could affect the gaming experience A LOT. And by a lot, I mean that apart from proper Japanese language levels some of them are going to require some good gaming skills as well (and a lot of nerve in some cases).

However, we’re on intermediate tier now and that means higher language difficulty, but a person on N3 level should be able to deal with these without major problems. Some games in this list include other game genre elements which make the gameplay more complicated. I’ve also chosen games the plot of which is simply more complex or uses specific vocabulary because of its setting (e.g. in Code Realize you encounter tons of technical vocabulary because it’s set in steampunk England. Also, a few characters are quite passionate about science or technology and that fact impacts your ability to understand what they’re talking about and what’s actually going on).

Well, it’s time to dig into this level’s recommended titles!

CODE REALIZE

Japanese title: Code:Realize ~創世の姫君~
Platform: Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, otome, steampunk
No. of games: 3
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: C (B for the sequel)
Anime: Yes (1 season, 13 eps)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: Yes (all 3 games)
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/code-realize/

Synopsis: Cardia lives day to day isolated from the world in a restricted, abandoned mansion in order to fulfil her promise to her father. Her body carries a deadly poison that rots or melts anything that her skin touches – causing the locals to call her “monster” so her father told her to stay away from people and falling in love, but he suddenly disappears. One day, her quiet solitude is interrupted when the Royal Guards break in to capture her. That’s when she meets the chivalrous thief Arsène Lupin who helps her break free from the Royal Guards. Cardia then finds herself on a journey with Lupin to locate her father. (source: wikipedia)

My comment: Code Realize games got really popular which resulted in the creation of 3 games in the series as well as the anime version of the first game coming out soon after. There’s a great reason for all that – the game’s just marvellous. Apart from clear, steampunk setting, an awesome cast featuring some of the most famous male seiyuu (Japanese voice actors) as well as amazing soundtrack which only adds up to the whole setting, Code Realize offers a solid story with an interesting twist in terms of well-known characters like Sherlock Holmes, Arsene Lupin, Frankenstein or Van Helsing.

Now, after I’ve written this very commercial-like sum up of Code Realize’s greatest features, I can tell you more about it from the linguistic (and Japanese-learning) standpoint. Even if you’re a fan of steampunk (I’m personally not, but I picked up this game anyway), if I were you, I’d refrain from buying this title for your first game of intermediate tier of visual novels. Despite simple gameplay which only requires making a correct choice of you here and there (like almost all visual novels do, especially otome games), the world of the game as well as the language used are not entirely easy to understand. I mean, the dialogues between the parties and the narration are relatively easy to understand – the kanji use is quite natural, meaning if you’ve just started N3 level, you’d find this game problematic. For a person who’s completed N3 level, you’ll recognise most kanji thus making it easier to play the game.

However, it’s the technology behind all the plot that can confuse you and require that dictionary being on constant standby. If you’ve ever read or watched a story set in a steampunk world, you’re very much aware of how much the technology influences the plot and how much it is talked through and mentioned. Code Realize isn’t any different from other stories of this particular setting. So, yes, you can expect times when the dictionary use will be heavy, but most time you’ll do fine – if you’re either already on N3 level or have completed it, that is.

The general plot is quite simple and gets you hooked quite easily, the characters are just gorgeous and I personally had a problem choosing my favourite guy. Even if you’re not into any of them, their personal stories are so well-written, you just want to find out about it all – which isn’t a common thing, actually. It’s very rare and something to clap on if the creators made you play all the routes available instead of picking “the one and only” and focusing on him. Just bear in mind that if you’re fond of Lupin, his story won’t get unlocked until you’ve completed the other 4 guys’ routes. That’s when you’re able to start a new game in Lupin’ route. 

One more advantage is the graphics which is something to be stared at, including the backgrounds. I just drooled over them most times. The soundtrack isn’t memorable, but it fits the overall story and setting quite nicely, so it’s quite easy to get involved in the story and the characters’ peril.

Oh, and the last and, in my opinion, the most important thing – Cardia just rocks. She’s a very strong very independent lead female, very different from your typical otome game protagonist which needs constant protection from the bad guys or life itself. Cardia isn’t like that. Yes, there are times when Lupin and the gang need to save her last minute, but she can think, she can plan and she can execute. She also isn’t a harmless womanly woman, but due to her powers, she can do serious damage and turn the tides in dangerous situations which is something I LOVE of female protagonists. I LOVE when they AREN’T a damsel in distress all the time. It’s also a delight to watch how she grows to live among other people and to trust them, despite her upbringing sank in seclusion. Consequently, Cardia is one of those things that make the story and this game itself great. Definitely try this one, but maybe save it for the upper spectrum of intermediate level. If you’ve just entered it, I’d recommend trying some other games presented in this list.

7’SCARLET

Japanese title: 7’scarlet
Platform: Playstation Vita
Genre: visual novel, otome, mystery
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: B
Anime: No
Drama CDs: No
English version: Yes
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/7scarlet/

Synopsis: The game follows Ichiko Hanamaki, a college student whose brother has disappeared in the town of Okunezato a year prior to the start of the game. She and her childhood friend Hino Kagutsuchi find a website discussing mysteries surrounding the town, which will host an offline meetup in the town during the summer; Ichiko and Hino go there to investigate Ichiko’s brother’s disappearance. (source: wikipedia)

My comment: My honest thoughts of this game? Mixed. I mean I loved the trailer when it first came out. It looked so aesthetically pleasing that I preordered it immediately. The plot also sounded intriguing – finally some mystery being released! Did it live up to my expectations? Yes and no. I kind of got what I was expecting, but was not fully satisfied.

For instance, the mystery around the protagonist’s brother’s disappearance is quite good and to reveal all secret you must play all the guys’ routes with the inn owner at the end – similarly to Code Realize, his route gets unlocked after you finished the rest of the male cast. On the other hand, the romantic aspect of this game lacks and one route is just terrifying rather than being romantic. I know some girls are into yandere (a Japanese term for a person who is initially very loving and gentle to someone (or at least innocent) before their devotion becomes destructive in nature, often through violence and/or brutality. Source: Animanga Wiki) stuff, but I’m not, so one route was very off-putting and I even put the game itself away. However, my usual curiosity got the best of me and I just had to find out what is the mystery of this small town our protagonist and her childhood friend are visiting.

But bear in mind that if you’re looking for a detective mystery, you won’t find it here. Code Realize would be a better choice in that regard as it involves a conspiracy. In 7’scarlet you’re going to find a small-town mystery, people being wary of outsiders, pretending the protagonist’s brother had never arrived and not letting them find out secrets of their town. This was just the kind of story I was looking for – and it didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t an amazing story, but a good one. Actually, if you’re looking for something LESS heavy in romance and plot mechanisms characteristic for an otome game, 7’scarlet might be just for you. As it was also released in English, you can easily check whether you understood all the tangles between every character, the town and the protagonist’s brother as well as the finale.

There isn’t much to say about the language. I’d definitely put it above Shinobi Koi Utsutsu presented further below, but it wasn’t something an N3 level student wouldn’t handle. Sure, the story is rich in small details that end up mattering later or connections between people and places, but it can be dealt with a little dictionary time. Or simple immersion in the story. Honestly, I even took some notes on the aforementioned connections so that I wouldn’t lose track of those small but important details and that also helped a lot. Not to mention the fact that in this game you sometimes get to choose what things you’re buying and having certain objects in your inventory directs the plot in a certain way. As a result, it is advisable to write down those choices as well (or simply use the walkthrough if you’re struggling to enter a particular route). Also, be careful of bad endings. There are quite a few moments when you can lose all your progress because of a decision you’d made a few minutes earlier, so save as often as you can and keep several saves (that’s actually a tip true for all the games you’re playing, not only visual novels).

ROOT LETTER

Japanese title: √Letter (ルートレター)
Platform: Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, PC (Steam), Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, mystery adventure, point-and-click
No. of games: 2 (but “Last Answer” is an enhanced edition of the original game with additional endings and a live action mode)
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: C
Anime: No
Drama CDs: No
English version: Yes
Game’s website: http://www.r-letter.com/

Synopsis: Root Letter is set in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, where the protagonist arrives in search of Fumino Aya, a pen pal friend from high school who had disappeared for 15 years. After he finds a letter dedicated to him from her that was never sent, he sets out to interrogate her classmates as he wonders if everything Aya had told him had been a lie. (source: wikipedia)

My comment: Wow! Finally a game which isn’t an otome one! Although it does feature a romance. However, in Root Letter you’re a guy who has set on a journey to find an old pen pal – a girl – who you used to exchange letters with 15 years before. You’re curious to find out what happened to Aya, especially that her last letter states that she has killed someone. 

The game contains several cool features that made me binge-play it over several days. Yes, DAYS – the story is long, but very linear, so as long as you keep saves in proper moments, you can replay the game to get all the endings (and trust me – it’s so worth getting all the solutions why Aya disappeared – one of them is so absurd I laugh about it till this day) without wasting much time. What’s more, I gotta admit that this game made me laugh so hard occasionally – specifically, there’s this one character, a pervy old guy that suddenly appears in the most inappropriate moments (especially when you’re having a bath in hot springs) which brings a welcomed comic relief to this very much a sad story.

Also, contrary to typical otome games, you don’t pick any “guys” or other characters around which the plot then revolves. Instead, in Root Letter, your goal is to discover what happened to Aya and there are several explanations (i.e. endings; both bad and happy) about what happened.

Throughout the game, you reread the letters you got from Aya and try to remember what you wrote back. This is where the game mechanics get very interesting – since you and Aya were penpals 15 years before, you struggle to remember what your response was. As a result, during the game, you get to choose what you responded with and that choice influences the game’s outcome – a typical “choose 1 option” visual novel mechanic, but in a very creative format. Here’s where I can give you a tip – save as you’re about to make a choice about your answer to Aya’s letter. That’s where the routes split, resulting in different endings.

Another part of the game is pure INTERROGATION. If you’ve ever played an Ace Attorney game, then you’re quite familiar with a concept of cross-examination where you get to interrogate the witness about the case and you can present various evidence to them if needed. A similar idea is used in Root Letter – you get to question the game’s characters and can show them some objects you’ve gathered while snooping around Aya’s hometown. Based on your talk and the objects you can make people tell you things they hide or which are relevant to the story. As a result, you walk quite much around the town and visit different places relevant to Aya’s life, obtaining more and more information on her story.

An interesting thing about this game is its enhanced edition. The story in that edition is very much the same, but if you’re not a fan of anime graphics, you can trigger a “live-action” mode which will feature actors instead of drawn characters. The clips were also remade with the actors’ play. Music was great since the very beginning – it isn’t memorable, but nicely fits all the scenes – the scenery of a small town, the intensity of questioning the characters as well as a certain nostalgic vibe during flashbacks.

If we were to talk about the language used, it’s quite simple. As long as you remember places’ names, you’re fine (fortunately you move from spot to spot by choosing your destination on a map). The plot is not super complex, either. What may prove to be a bit of a challenge is the interrogation, though. During its climax, you’re faced with some timed responses you need to make. At first, you may have trouble with reading them, because they’re swapping so fast, but you can always save the game before questioning somebody and reload it if you fail. It’s such a minor difficulty, though, that I decided to put it in this game tier. The story and other game mechanics, after all, are totally of intermediate level.

SHINOBI KOI UTSUTSU

Japanese title: 忍び、恋うつつ
Platform: Playstation Portable, Playstation Vita, Playstation 4
Genre: visual novel, otome, ninja
No. of games: 2
Limited edition: Yes (and twin edition with both games too)
CERO: C
Anime: No
Drama CDs: Yes
English version: No
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/nin_koi/banka/

Synopsis: Katagiri Kae, whose aim is to become a ninja, meets a vice-president of Sanada High School in a tea house she works at. He asks her if she would enrol in the school. In order to do that, it is necessary to transfer to the ninja training centre first and achieve good results in the midterm exam – only then Kae will become an actual student of the school and start preparing to become a full-fledged ninja. Wanting to make her dreams come true, Kae agrees to the vice’s proposal. However, on her very first day, she activates an unusual ninja technique allowing her to captivate men. Will Kae become a real ninja or will her secret technique blow in her face?

My comment: I’m so sentimental when it comes to this game. To tell the truth, it was the first otome game I’d actually finished! Well, partially. It was the first otome game I’d finished a route in (although I was close to doing that before when playing Norn 9 back in 2013 – I was just 1 chapter away from the end, unaware at the time!). That says something since I hadn’t even completed my N4 studies when I started playing Shinobi Koi Utsutsu. As an old Naruto fan, I just had to pick a ninja otome game. If you’re in the same boat, feeling too old for Naruto (if that’s even possible), but would like to try something centred more on romance than overpowered fights (though battle scenes and ninja work is still present in this game!). Similarly to Code Realize, the graphics are heavily ninja-inspired (that even includes the loading symbol) as well as the soundtrack. The background music is a nice mix of modern and ninja era music. If you’ve ever watched Naruto, you know what I’m talking about – when the scene gets intense, that nice heavier beat kicks in, making the scene more exciting while most of the time you can hear traditional Japanese instruments as a part of a track.

Language-wise I’d say that this game is perfect for N3 level. It includes a lot of kanji you learn on that level. For others, you’d quickly learn to recognise them. I’ve also noticed a lot of grammar points discussed at N3 in the dialogues and narration of the game. So, if you’re mid-N3, you’ll play this game with ease and certain comfort of staying away from the dictionary. Early N3 is also possible, but with more frequent dictionary checks. As I’ve mentioned, I had played this game as an N4 student and had actually completed it (it took me around 2 weeks to finish one route, though).

What’s also great about the language is the fact that despite the plot being set in ninja times, the language used both by the characters and in the narration is very much modern. Some characters use several words or figures of speech characteristic for those times (like 我 [われ] or でござる), but that’s it. You don’t have to worry about old Japanese present at all, which only serves as this game’s advantage – you get to enjoy a different type of story without struggling to understand what is being said.

The plot isn’t anything great, it revolves around ninja school life, meaning training, missions and battering with other students (especially that other kunoichi – female ninja – are jealous of the protagonist’s power), very much like in a typical high school setting. Of course, at some point in the game, you get to choose one of the guys (here as your training partner) and later end up developing romantic feelings for each other. 

However, Shinobi Koi Utsutsu features a lot of well-known seiyuu – especially because in the enhanced version for Playstation Vita, you get 4 more potential romance targets than the original 6 in the first version of the game, which was released on PSP. It means more male seiyuu to listen to and fall in love with. It also makes this game a good value for money – you get 10 routes to play and each route is of standard length (meaning a few hours per each character and if you’re stopping for dictionary searches or translation, that adds up to even longer playtime). 

If you’re a fan of ninja stories, there’s one more otome game I can prompt you to play and that’s Nightshade (Japanese: 百花百狼). I haven’t played it myself, so I can’t speak for its language level, but it was released in English on Steam (PC) and based on my friends’ experience with this title, I can definitely tell it’s an awesome play and I’m interested in checking it out myself. In Japanese, it’s available on Playstation Vita.

ZETTAI KAIKYUU GAKUEN ~EDEN WITH ROSES AND PHANTASM~

Japanese title: 絶対階級学園~Eden with roses and phantasm~
Platform: Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC
Genre: visual novel, otome
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: No
CERO: D
Anime: No
Drama CDs: Yes, a few
English version: No
Game’s website: https://www.prot.co.jp/psv/kaikyu/index.html

Synopsis: The protagonist, Fujieda Neri, lives in the poor district within the “Ring Area”, which surrounds the Tokyo Bay. She lives a modest, yet peaceful lifestyle. However, one day, her father, her only family, suddenly disappears.

“Go to Kaikyuu Academy.” – That was all what was written on the mysterious letter left behind by him.

The private Kaikyuu Academy… A prestigious boarding school attended by sons and daughters from privileged families, founded upon the goal of educating them well in order to give them the tools to support future Japan.

Following the letter left by her father, Neri transferrs into Kaikyuu Academy, a school where celebrities gather. It is extremely luxurious, however, being grounded upon a social caste system, the academy is dominated by “social class discrimination”.

At the very top of the social hierarchy is the “Queen”. Endowed with incredible political influence, she rules over the students. Superior to everyone else but the Queen are the chosen elites belonging to the privileged class, “The Roses in Full Bloom”. The commoner class, in which most of the students belong in, is called  “The Nameless Honeybees”.

And then there are “The Ignored Stones”… Even though they’re fellow students, those in The Ignored Stones are regarded as having the same rights as a servant – they’re usually oppressed and enslaved. Finally, there is “The Resistance”, which is an organisation composed of students who oppose the social hierarchy system and wish to demolish it.

In a society far more disparate than she had ever imagined, Neri finds “love”, and gradually, a certain “truth” about the academy surfaces. What is this “truth?” and how is it connected to her father’s mysterious disappearance? (source: the game’s website)


Posted in Reading, Shopping, Video games

WHERE TO BUY JAPANESE RESOURCES

Many people have approached me in private messages on either Facebook or Instagram, asking where I buy the Japanese resources I show in my stories or posts. The answer is simple and only singular: online.

I live in Poland and here there are simply no opportunities or places to purchase Japanese resources from – at least, you won’t find a Kinokuniya branch store or a Book-Off here. You can find some books on auctions online, there are also some Polish publications, but I abstain from those – on my level, I stick to resources published in Japan, so that means the necessity of importing them. Here I’m going to discuss what online shops and services I use to purchase my resources, that is books (be it textbooks, workbooks, novels etc.), mangas, games and other resources (like I have an elementary school kanji poster in my office, so I can peek at it while I’m busy working – something always sticks!).

Before I list my favourites, there are some things that I need to underline. First of all, in terms of games, you have to pay attention to what platform the game was released on. Why is this important? Because some consoles are region locked, meaning you won’t be able to play a Japanese imported game on it unless you have a Japanese version of that console. A device of any other region won’t simply read the disc. Yes, there are some ways to bypass region locking, but remember that they are NOT LEGAL (e.g. jail-breaking the console or using special programs like Swap Magic for PS2).

Apart from region-locked PlayStation (1) and PlayStation 2, here you have to pay attention to Nintendo consoles especially, since they used to be region locked almost always, like its latest handheld console, Nintendo 3DS (and its 2DS and XL variations). However, Nintendo Switch did not continue its predecessors’ trend (namely Wii and Wii U’s) and you’re free to import Japanese games for it (I myself am considering purchasing Switch because of it). Also, Xbox games used to be region locked, too (both Xbox and Xbox 360), so be careful with those.

On the other hand, there are several consoles which do not have this region-dependent feature (or it’s limited to some titles, like for PlayStation 3 a game called Persona 4 Arena was region locked). It means that if you have such a console, you’ll be able to play the Japanese version of games on it no problem; yet, be sure to check if a game itself is region free before purchasing! Such ‘unlocked’ consoles include PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Playstation Vita, Playstation Portable, Nintendo DS(i), Xbox One.

What about PC?”, you may ask. However, since I haven’t imported any games for PC yet (and I’m a Mac user so that’s definitely not going to happen any soon), I can’t really tell you about it. The only thing I do know is that there are some games the distribution of which is limited to Japan only. Meaning, even if you found those on, say, Japanese Amazon, if you provide an international address, you’ll probably be notified that you cannot purchase this item because it isn’t shipped outside Japan. This case is quite common with Z CERO rated games (18+ games). However, thanks to proxy services, which I will also cover in this list, you can purchase those but they will cost you a little more money (due to the proxy fee and double shipping).

But consoles are not the only medium which is locked. Be careful when buying a Japanese DVD – they’re also of a different region. Japan is region 2 for DVDs, just like most European countries, but the USA, for instance, is region 1. The situation is just the opposite with Blu-rays: Japan is region A, just like Northern America is, but Europe is region B. So, before jumping at those anime DVDs you’d found, be sure to check if your DVD player can handle reading the disc, so that you don’t have to scream you’d just spent your money on something you can’t use.

Anyway, here come my top online shops for Japanese resources:

CDJAPAN.CO.JP

What is sold: manga, books, CDs, games, DVDs, light novels, others.

CDJapan is the number 1 resource I use. There are several reasons for that. First of all, they offer a wide range of goods – I purchase my books, games, drama CDs, magazines or other goods like figures or posters there. And that’s not all they offer – for example, I’m not a fan of possessing a physical copy of music CDs, but CDJapan also sells them.

Apart from the fact that I’m able to find almost everything I look for there, I love CDJapan’s Reward Points system. For every purchase, you receive points which directly equal to Japanese yen. With your next purchase, you may use them to get a discount. What’s more, they offer extra points for bigger orders. Usually, when you order items costing over 5000 yen, you get 300 points extra plus the number of points you get from goods themselves (the number of points depends on the type of product – check product’s description for info on points given for purchasing it). As a result, you can stock up on those points quite often and quite easily. I remember that in the era when I was importing tons of otome games, I had several thousand yen collected in their Reward Points which cut the cost of purchasing a game tremendously. Moreover, CDJapan is brilliant at special offers and they often have either sales, coupons for discounts, customer satisfaction surveys available (and they give 50 points for filling those out!) or they give additional points or double the extra points you receive.

I personally like to play with their system and I admit I often split my order into several small ones because of that. First of all, sometimes, due to special deals, they reduce the bottom limit for those 300 points extra to 3000 yen worth of goods and if I order something worth just over 6000 and split my order into two, I get double the points.

The other advantage of this solution is the manipulation of shipping costs and customs. If you’ve ever ordered something bigger abroad, you’re probably aware that customs are just waiting to imply extra fees on you. It’s annoying because the cost of buying this product rises – and you’re buying it just for personal use! But, if you don’t include much in one order and the total price of the purchased goods (be careful, shipping costs, unfortunately, are included in customs’ calculations! At least in my country) doesn’t go over the quota that your country has set as ineligible for customs and tax – you’re safe.

Shipping is another reason why I tend to make a few small orders instead of one big order on CDJapan. The cheapest method is SAL, but this is an unregistered parcel, meaning if it’s lost, you won’t get your money back. This is why I tend to send 1-3 books in one package maximum. If I lose them, it won’t hit me that hard. Moreover, I’ve been ordering at CDJapan since 2011 and I’ve NEVER had a package lost! They come pretty quickly too (as for SAL) and I usually have a package in 2 weeks (though they can come even 8 weeks after the purchase).

The other reason is that if you buy books or magazines, those are heavy and quickly add up to the shipping costs! So if you don’t want to pay a fortune for sending 3 thick magazines, check how much it costs to ship them separately – it might be a better (and cheaper) option. I’ve also used SAL for my games, so don’t be afraid to use it for that too, especially that games are very light (unless it’s a limited edition – then definitely choose at least registered air mail so that you can get a refund in case anything happens to it).

However, there’s one more reason why I love CDJapan – they have a shipping calculator included at the checkout and if you select your country, you’ll see all the shipping prices presented in a nice table, making it easier to choose your shipping method. I often use this calculator to check how many books I can fit into a package without increasing the shipping costs at all or increasing it slightly, so that it still pays off to send them together. For instance, if adding one more book to the order makes the shipping costs equal or more expensive than ordering that book on its own, I’d order that book separately or leave it for the next batch.

It’s also worth mentioning that CDJapan, as of recently, is offering proxy service! Of course, as it is with all proxy services, you have to pay a fee for it. However, I’d say that they’re quite fair about it and don’t ask you to pay too much. For example, I had to proxy Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, because that was the only HP volume they were missing in the shop. I chose my desired copy (you can choose where CDJapan is supposed to buy the copy from, its condition and other details as well – it’s all listed in the proxy request form) and because it was proxied from a Book-Off, I didn’t have to pay for the double shipping, only for the proxy service fee and for shipping the package me. This was a pleasant surprise since normally when you use a proxy service, you have to pay for: the goods, the shipping from the seller to your proxy service provider, the repackaging and checking the goods’ condition (if chosen and available) and then the shipping costs from the proxy service provider to you. CDJapan wins in terms of proxy service because they do the repackaging and combining the proxied item with other items you bought in their store FOR FREE. Normally you have to pay for that.

As for payment, there are several choices. They do Paypal, so if you’re a user of this one, CDJapan accepts payments via Paypal. They also do cards (debit, credit), Alipay or they can wait for money sent via registered mail. There’s a difference when you’re doing Paypal, though. You have to pay for the goods immediately, even if it’s a preorder. If you choose to pay by card, however, the payment is postponed until the preordered item has been released – then the proper amount is blocked on your card and finally taken as payment. For items already on the market, it makes no difference – you’re paying right away, even if it’s stated that the goods are back-ordered, meaning you’ll have to wait up to 3 weeks till they’re finally shipped.

There is one last thing I forgot to mention, especially that I’d just told you about preorders – in case of games they often include special bonuses (pictures, drama CDs(!), booklets or any other extras). The bonus is stated in the item’s description. Careful – the numbers are limited but if you pay attention and check frequently – you’ll definitely make it in time.

AMAZON.CO.JP

What is sold: everything!

Amazon works kind of similarly to CDJapan for me. Actually, I tend to check both places before I purchase anything. Yet, I usually order from CDJapan because Amazon has three major disadvantages: high cost of shipping, the import handling fee and limitations on sending stuff abroad.

The cost of shipping is self-explanatory. They use courier service (for me it’s usually DHL) and thus its fee runs high. On the other hand, you receive your items fast, even within the same week (especially if you order on Monday – I often get the package by Friday).

The import handling fee is something very annoying if you’re not used to Amazon. Basically, they take some additional amount in your name and if customs or taxes are applied when the package arrives in your country, you don’t have to pay extra anymore – it’s covered from that handling fee. And if no there are no extra customs to pay – you get the money back. YET! In my entire history of Amazon purchases (that counts for both Japan and the US branches), I had that extra money given back to me only ONCE. And I do believe that, in my importing experience, there were orders that were not applicable for customs – because I know my country’s laws and limitations in that department and that money was, well… It’s enough to say I expected it to come back.

The last thing is something I’ve already mentioned before – some items are blocked by the system as those that can only be shipped within Japan. That’s something I found very disappointing because there were quite a lot of things I wished to buy but was unable to do so because of Amazon’s limitations. Buuuuut… There’s a way to go around it and you already know it – proxy service! CDJapan doesn’t do proxy from Amazon, but Buyee does. I’ve written more on this service below.

Apart from Amazon’s huge selection, there’s one more advantage they have – ebooks and emanga. I won’t be writing how to obtain them, I could dedicate a separate post to that. However, as you probably suspect, those are region locked. Meaning, if you try to purchase them from abroad, the system won’t let you buy more than 5 volumes. After that, you’ll see a nice notification that “you’re probably travelling outside Japan and as of now are unable to buy more ebooks and emanga”. There’s a way around this, but as I said – maybe I’ll write on that later.

MANDARAKE.CO.JP

What is sold: manga, light novels, doujinshi, CDs, DVDs.

Did you know you can order from Mandarake now? No? Well, now you do! I’d visited Mandarake in the past but I’ve recently discovered that they’re opened to international orders too! And this is a great place to get your mangas, light novels, drama CDs, anime DVDs, artbooks or even DOUJINSHI from. Basically, it’s otaku galore. And if you’re open to learning from otaku media, Mandarake’s your new home. And your wallet’s new home.

The site offers an English version of it, so browsing is nice and easy. Pay attention to the goods’ conditions, though – they’re mostly used, but you’ll find new ones here and there. Just so that you know, Japanese “used” is nowhere near “used” you probably know. The mangas have almost mint condition – if it’s more used then it’s clearly stated in the item’s description, so read those carefully! What’s more, they often include the same bonuses that were featured with the items originally! For instance, my Love Hina set turned out to have all the stickers, booklets, cards or bookmarks that were included with some volumes! And no sticker was missing. AND, what’s absolutely best, the whole set cost me 2000 yen. Plus shipping, of course, but even considering shipping the cost of each volume was quite low. Purchasing manga pays off so much here I don’t buy them from CDJapan anymore.

Speaking of shipping, they offer a variety but I recommend using DHL. What, a courier service?! Yes! Because they have the cheapest shipping fare plus you get the goods within a few days (I usually receive them in around 5 days), so you can quickly dig into that title you were looking forward to.

Mandarake is yet another site (like CDJapan) where I like to play with the shipping cost. It pays off more to purchase more here, since the basic shipping cost is over 2000 yen anyway, so spending around 5000 yen in total (goods + shipping) is the most optimal solution.

However, be sure to check how many mangas you can fit into a package without increasing the shipping costs to another tier – just play around with the checkout a little. Being able to add even 1 more manga is beneficial because their prices start from even 50 yen to around 500 yen per volume in case of some titles (it really depends on the title). Manga sets come much cheaper but they also sell out fast, especially the popular titles (e.g. I’m still hunting for Haikyuu! and Yowamushi Pedal sets).

But even when spending that 3000 yen on manga (plus around 2000 for shipping), you can get so much! That’s how I have 18 volumes of Chihayafuru, complete Love Hina set (with bonus stuff), complete Kangoku Gakuen set and a few light novels on my shelf now. Of course, there are more titles in my favourites list that I’m looking forward to in the future. I’d definitely buy more but I simply don’t read them that fast (yet)!

There’s one last thing you have to know, especially if you’re choosing DHL. They usually impose customs on you, unfortunately. Those are not high costs – for all the orders I’d made at Mandarake, I usually paid around 20-30 PLN (that’s less than 8 USD) extra at delivery. However, it still pays off because thanks to cheap manga, relatively cheap shipping you still pay way less on the whole than at other shops.

YESASIA.COM

What is sold: books, games, CDs, DVDs, manga, light novels

I haven’t got much to tell about YesAsia since… I don’t shop there anymore! It was useful to me a few years back, but today it’s become too expensive (they’d increased their prices). However, that depends on a person so you might find it different and thus I’d decided to include it in this list anyway. It’s a general shop like CDJapan with a variety of goods to choose from, Chinese and Korean included! So it might be used for other languages as well.

I used to shop there in the past because the exchange rates were pretty good, but not so much anymore, unfortunately. Plus in terms of e.g. manga or books, I feel that their choice has declined and I’m rarely able to find what I look for.

They’ve also resigned from free shipping which was eligible for orders over $35. What was more, you could get extras for larger orders (I still have tiny Haikyuu! figures I got from them as a bonus!) – but again, it’s not so fancy anymore.

But if you’re willing to use it, go ahead – I had no problems with their service. I received all my packages without any issues, so that’s one thing I’m sure of – it’s safe to order from them.

YAHOO AUCTIONS AND BUYEE.JP

What is sold: everything is possible!

Ah, Japanese auctions. Unconquered territory for foreigners. The descriptions are in Japanese, the delivery address must be Japanese, sometimes even your credit card must be Japanese… But the goods that are on offer! Here’s where you’ll find basically EVERYTHING. Things out of print, limited editions, things that are not supposed to leave Japan’s territory (well, in my case I mean Japanese school textbooks and some games). It would be great to be able to use that, right? Especially that they’re auctions so you can buy stuff for very cheap if you’re lucky!

But that dreamland can be achieved.

You just have to use a proxy service provider. I personally have only used Buyee and I can definitely recommend it. I used it to import Japanese chuugakkou (middle school) textbooks for history and geography so that I can practice reading and get to know more about their country from the same perspective they learn about their own. I’ve also found some limited edition of games I was looking for thanks to the auctions and Buyee’s service.

I’ve already told you how proxy works – they purchase an item in your name and it’s shipped to their facility, then repacked and checked (if chosen, at Buyee that’s optional and costs extra 500 yen; however, if they check and the item was damaged in transport between the seller and them, they can apply for compensation for you) and finally sent to you. However, because of that, you have to pay for two shippings and wait a little longer to get what you want (even if you ask them to send it to you via courier service). Don’t worry, though, because the costs of Japanese post within Japan is not that bad. When you’re buying something light or small, the costs are around a few hundred yen.

What’s more, because this is a service, you have to pay for it. Shipping is one thing, but you have to pay them for doing their job – buying an item in your name and sending it. The costs are not super high, however, I usually pay around 500 yen for that but it depends on where you ask them to purchase from as they offer more than just Yahoo auctions (the most popular auction site in Japan). You can even ask them to order from Amazon and send it to you (via cheaper shipping method than Amazon uses AND without that import handling fee I told you about). It really depends on you and your calculations. Of course, you don’t have a choice with some items, like I didn’t have with the Japanese school textbooks – that was the only way. But take a look at their site to find out more about their prices and how the whole system works. After you do it once, it’s quite easy, I tell you!

Moreover, they offer browser extensions, so if you’re visiting Japanese Amazon, you can add an item to Buyee cart instead and later check how much would it cost you to order it at Buyee instead of Amazon directly. Sometimes it pays off more to go with a proxy rather than Amazon itself.

PLAY-ASIA.COM

What is sold: games, soundtracks, walkthroughs, consoles, game merchandise

The last shop I frequently use is Play Asia. It’s a shop targeted at gamers as it offers a diversity of games and other items connected to gaming, that is video consoles, soundtracks, toys from game franchises, books (mostly walkthroughs, artbooks or other books based on a game) as well as… gift cards for various services such as Amazon (and its many branches), Netflix, Apple, Playstation Plus and so on – and for different regions, too! That’s great news if, like me, you’ve gained access to, say, Japanese Netflix or Amazon, but the system does not accept foreign credit/debit cards. That’s when gift cards come in handy since you can still pay for the service or orders BUT you don’t have to possess a credit card issued in Japan, for example. And Play Asia allows you exactly that – by selling gift cards.

Play Asia is also the shop where I buy my US and European games, especially for Nintendo because, unfortunately, Nintendo is not really present in my country and thus I have to import games for its consoles from abroad. They also have games for different game regions and since my consoles are all PALs (European versions), I need PAL versions of Nintendo games too. And, rather than importing the games from Amazon UK, I prefer Play Asia – the shipping is much cheaper (especially since game boxes are very light and small in size) and they give you a $5 off coupon with every purchase. So if you want to buy more things at their shop – you can basically get free shipping in exchange for that coupon (because the cheapest fare is around $5 for a SAL).

There’s also amiami.com but so far I’ve only purchased anime figures from there – I’m waiting for my first ever game bought from them to come to me sometime in mid-November, so this list will probably be updated with my experience at this site, too.

Posted in Languages, Reading, Study methods, Video games

RECOMMENDED VISUAL NOVEL TITLES (ON RELATIVELY EASY LEVEL)

Last week I introduced visual novel games’ usefulness as a language resource to you. This week I’m going to reveal my top list of visual novel titles, sorted into three different groups of language proficiency: relatively easy, intermediate and hard games (language-wise). With some games, I’ve also considered the game mechanics as well, since, in my opinion, this factor also influences whether the gameplay is hard or not. In this entry, I will also be talking about Japanese CERO rating which can be useful in deciding whether any other game that you want to play will be appropriate for your language level (ergo, if you can play it without throwing the pad, or the console itself, at the wall in frustration).

However, as I was writing this post I realised that this entry turned out to be tremendously long and thus I decided to cut this post into 3 separate posts which will be published later this month. In return, instead of only 3 titles I initially planned to recommend for each language level, I’m going to introduce 5 titles instead. This solution would, in my opinion, be better than cutting down the list that greatly exceeded 3 titles for every tier anyway. Not to mention the fact that I’m in the middle of playing some visual novel games and I wish to include them in the higher tier lists when I have played enough of them to form an opinion.

The first category I came up with covers games that can be tried quite early and the language in which is relatively easy to understand – the recommendations for this category will be covered in today’s post. For example, at this level, some words are written in hiragana instead of their usual kanji writing or the language used mostly contains informal Japanese. I, personally, had started playing games in Japanese very early when it came to my Japanese level – as far as I remember, I imported my first game just when I was out of N5 level and began my N4 studies. That was very early, only about 2 years into learning the Japanese language, with around 200 kanji known to me and many important grammar structures which are introduced on N4 level, still unknown to me.

What’s more, the setting of those „relatively easy” games is often the school/student setting, so basically most interactions the game protagonist has are connected with their family life, school, first love or hobbies. Those topics are usually covered quite early in Japanese studies and if you’re watching anime or dramas OR reading mangas, then you probably know lots of vocabulary from those topics already. As a result, such games would prove easier to play for you.

The second tier is intermediate. Here I placed games that provide more linguistic challenge than the first group OR the game’s gameplay gets more complicated, thus increasing the difficulty of the gaming experience in general. For instance, I included Code Realize, which uses steampunk setting, in this level’s list. It is because some vocabulary appearing in this game might cause trouble when playing (AKA you have to open that dictionary of yours). What’s more, I’d consider this vocabulary quite useless – unless you really need to know how to say „steam engine” or some other technical/mechanical stuff in Japanese.

The final group covers difficult games. That difficulty can origin in various factors of the game: complicated plot, tricky game mechanics, used vocabulary, frequent formal language, vast narration to read, numerous kanji used in sentences and so on. That’s the category where I put most mixed-genre games, especially RPGs or point-and-click games, since the latter usually requires logical thinking and when you don’t understand something, you’re basically quickly on your way to either a dead end or a bad end (because visual novels usually include numerous bad ends which cause instant game over – don’t worry, if you save your game often, you can just load that save and you’re fine. For this reason, I recommend keeping numerous saves though, as some bad ends occur even after a few wrong choices made – and that could be a few hours of play!). In consequence, the amount of time you have to spend with such a game increases dramatically, not to mention the frustration if one misunderstood detail drags you away from making progress in the game.

As for where to purchase video games (as well as books, mangas and other Japanese resources), I plan to write a post on that in the nearest future, so be sure to check it out if you’re eager to import some of those titles I’m going to suggest today! However, if my list does not satisfy you, do not worry, I won’t be mad. Nobody likes everything they’re served and I find it perfectly fine to choose some other game you are looking forward to playing instead. But I’m going to give you a little tip on choosing games for your language level anyway.

Here’s where this CERO rating, which I’ve mentioned above, comes to play.

CERO is Japan’s video game content rating similar to PEGI (Europe) or PG (the US). It ranges from A to Z. Well, technically it ranges from A to D and includes Z as a special, restricted category. The letters represent the recommended minimum age for play. And thus CERO rating corresponds to:

A = up to 12 years old
B = 12+
C = 15+
D = 17+
Z = 18+ (the only one officially restricted, meaning you might have to show your ID when purchasing, as these games usually involve heavy violence, erotic content or any other content that is suitable only for adults)

Why is this important? Because if we apply the Japanese education system onto CERO rating, we’d get:

A = primary school (ages 6-12)
B = middle school (ages 12-15)
C = high school 1st and 2nd grade (ages 15-16)
D = high school 3rd grade (ages 17-18)

If you know a thing or two about the Japanese school system and especially about the tempo of their kanji acquisition, you’ll start connecting the dots at this point. Japanese kids learn around 1000 kanji throughout 6 years they spent in primary school. The second 1000 kanji are learned throughout their secondary education, that is middle school and high school.

As a result, games with A or B CERO rating are easier to read and understand than higher-rated games. That’s because during their secondary education, apart from more kanji, the Japanese also learn more advanced vocabulary (as you probably did during your mother tongue classes at school, too), while games targeted at primary school kids would be easier to read (less kanji and simpler vocabulary) and comprehend since these kids have just started learning to write in their mother tongue, just like the beginners in Japanese have.

I figured out this relevance when playing games in Japanese. I noticed that B rated games usually use simpler language and some words are swapped with their hiragana spelling (instead of using the kanji the word is usually spelt with). The plot is usually simpler, too. In contrast, C or D rated games usually include a more complex story with multiple subplots (and also the game itself is vast and rich in details, taking longer time to beat it). The language used (especially the kanji load) is obviously more difficult, too.

This relationship can be clearly seen in the list of games I prepared for you. So, if you want to play any other game which is not included in this list – check out its CERO rating first. This will give you a rough idea on its language level. Taking a peek at the gameplay itself can also give you a clue whether the game would be tricky for you or not. Youtube is a very good source for this one, even if the game hasn’t been released yet, the producers usually upload promotion videos (プロモーションムービー) or so-called „play movies” (プレイムービー) with sample gameplay. I often check those out before deciding on a purchase. Of course, watching sample gameplays comes AFTER I decide if a game picks up my interest at all! 😉

As for the price range of visual novels, the cost really depends on the platform. I mostly play on Playstation consoles so I’m most familiar with them. The average cost of a game starts at around 5800 (for a Playstation Vita/PSP game) to over 20000 yen for a limited edition of the title. However, regular editions (that means only the game software itself, without any additional bonuses) cost between 5800 and 7000 yen. That price does not include the shipping if you’re importing the game. You can, of course, also buy them cheaper, especially if they’re on sale or you’re buying used copies. It really depends on where you’re buying them from. But I’m going to cover my game shops in the future post (about the shops I purchase my Japanese resources at), not here.

HOW TO READ THE RECOMMENDED SECTION

Platform: what gaming platforms this game was released on,
Genre: what game genres, apart from visual novel, it includes,
No. of games: how many games (e.g. prequels, sequels, side stories, spin-offs) were released in the series,
Limited edition: whether a special box with the game’s software as well as a few bonuses, such as CDs, booklets, artbooks, postcards, files, plushies etc. was released,
CERO: official CERO rating of the game (visible on its box),
Anime: whether anime based on the game was released (this might be helpful if you’re not sure you understood the plot well or if you want more fun since often the anime and the game’s plots vary at some points),
Drama CDs: whether drama CDs were recorded for this title (apart from drama CDs available in the limited edition of the game),
English version: whether the game’s been translated to English and released to the western market (it can also be useful to check if you understood the game, especially if anime hadn’t been made; there’s such a case with game titled „7’s Scarlet”, which got English release but no anime or manga),
Synopsis: Short summary of the plot,
My comment: my additional remarks, info or warnings about the plot, the gameplay and so on.

Well, without further ado, here are my recommendations:

RECOMMENDED VISUAL NOVEL GAMES

RELATIVELY EASY LANGUAGE LEVEL
(can be tried on early/mid-N4 level)

PRINCE OF STRIDE

Japanese title: プリンス・オフ・ストライド
Platform: Playstation Vita
Genre: visual novel, romance (otome – targeted at women)
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: B
Anime: Yes (1 season, 12 eps)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No
Game’s website: http://posweb.jp/

Synopsis: The series Prince of Stride: Alternative revolves around the extreme sport “Stride”, a sport where a team of 5 plus a relationer runs relay races in towns. The story takes place at Hōnan Academy where first-year high school students Takeru Fujiwara and Nana Sakurai try to re-establish the school’s “Stride” team by recruiting 6 members. Their goal is to join other schools to compete and win Eastern Japan’s top Stride competition, called the “End of Summer”. Takeru asked Nana to become a relationer as well as a manager. They asked Riku Yagami to join the team, but he turns them down stating that “Stride” is something that he does not want to do, but has to after finishing in a dead-heat against the upperclassmen. (source: wikipedia.org)

My comment: Prince of Stride started as a special joint project by Dengeki Girls’ Style (a popular otome game magazine) and Reject (a well- know otome game and other otome-themed media producer). As a result, everything is just different about this game. First of all, there is rarely a sports otome game created. And a GOOD game, too! This title has AMAZING plot, it glues you to the screen. As I mentioned in the previous post – I couldn’t put this game down for a few weeks in a row, until I played all the routes! The main stride team is a fun bunch and the relationer, that is you, is a very well-written protagonist. Which is a valid point, because otome games protagonists tend to be quite irritating to western players, especially women. We’re just different from Japanese women in terms of behaviour and shyness. This is why I find Nana, Prince of Stride’s main character, a great advantage to the game. She also has her own special skills – she’s an integral part of the stride team and does her job very well. Speaking of her job – as she’s a relationer, so she doesn’t exactly run in the relay. Other members do. But as stride is run throughout the city, the runners don’t see the upcoming runner and thus a third person is needed to time and tell the next runner to set and go. That third person is a relationer, who observes the track and the runners on a map displayed on monitors and is in contact with the team via wireless technology (just like, for example, F1 racers are with their team). This part, the race, is my favourite part of the game, As for a visual novel, it was done very well and the races are exciting and engaging. Your job, as the player, is simple – you have to time the relay correctly to get the best score possible for the race. Other elements of the race, like choosing the team’s order or cheering on your team members are also taken into consideration. Basically, the more points you have, the more likely you are to win the race. If you don’t meet the minimum requirement – it’s an immediate game over, but you can reload the race of course. The producers also thought of replays and put an option to skip the race if you’d beaten it before. It’s a plus since the race takes around 20-30 minutes of play to finish it!Another important thing is that for most of the game, I didn’t feel that I was playing an otome game at all. In fact, the first signals of a romance appear in the second HALF of the game! So that’s a big chunk of the story you first read before you get into your guy’s route. Still, the love growing between the protagonist and one of the guys was entertaining and well incorporated into a very sports-themed game. Actually, there were lovey-dovey scenes I almost wanted to skip (like when they go on a date just before the last relay) because I was more interested in the competition itself rather than characters’ romantic relationship developing. But the ending, oh, the ending made me scream, it was so GOOD and satisfying!
Also, I’ll be mentioning soundtracks a lot in this list, as I find BGM important in the gaming experience, but Prince of Stride’s soundtrack is just un-be-lie- va-ble! One of the best visual novel game soundtrack I’ve ever encountered for sure. The only disadvantage of it is that it was NEVER released as a CD or something!So the only choice you’re left with is to listen to the songs in the extras section in the title menu (it’s a standard for otome games to have a soundtrack player included in the menu). It’s no wonder this project was a huge success which resulted in anime production launching right after the game was released! Yet, because of that popularity, it’s a bit difficult to get a hold of a copy of the game now. I still regret that I hadn’t ordered the limited edition when I was considering it. Unfortunately, I completely underestimated this game’s potential and went for the regular edition when preordering. Damn!

BROTHERS CONFLICT

Japanese title: ブラザーズ コンフリクト
Platform: Playstation Vita, PSP, Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, otome
No. of games: 3 (actually 2, as Precious Baby is a remake which includes first 2 games)
Limited Edition: No
CERO: B
Anime: Yes (1 season, 13 eps)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/bc/pb/

Synopsis: Ema Hinata (or later known as Ema Asahina) is the daughter of the famous expat, Rintaro Hinata. One day, Ema finds out that her dad is going to remarry a successful clothing maker named Miwa Asahina. Rather than bothering them, she decides to move into the Sunrise Residence complex that is owned by Miwa. From there, she discovers that she has 13 stepbrothers. As time moves on, her stepbrothers develop feelings for her and compete in ways to win her heart when all Ema wants to have is a loving family. Can she make all of her 13 stepbrothers happy or will she only pick one of them? Ema has a pet that helps her when times are tough and only her and her new brother can understand. She is faced with many challenges like finding out she adopted and having to apply for college. (source: wikipedia.org)

My comment: A very simple but enjoyable game with a very good soundtrack and fantastic cast – you’ll find real male seiyuu (Japanese voice actor) stars here! The scenes in the game usually involve daily life and everyday activities so we will find the characters preparing food together, going shopping together, celebrating birthdays together, going to the beach together etc. The great advantage of this game, especially of Precious Baby for Playstation Vita and Nintendo Switch is that it incorporates two games in one. The first two games in the series were released as separate titles, each including 6-7 romantic routes with different brothers (1 route per brother) plus 1 secret route for somebody else. As a result, if you purchase Precious Baby, you’ll get two games (and all possible boyfriend material) for the price of one. And because there are many brothers to choose from, you’d definitely find your type. Each brother also has their own, iconic BGM track. The gameplay can be a bit tricky, especially during the first playthrough, as you have to choose your activities in a calendar. What you choose to do influences the gameplay – meaning, if you choose to interact with a particular brother on a specific day, you can get a special chapter with him. The more those chapters you find and experience, the closer you get to the happy ending with your chosen one. However, it’s difficult to predict WHEN someone will have that extra scene with the protagonist so honestly, I used a walkthrough with this one. IN JAPANESE, so I forgive myself for doing this. You should too.

UTA NO PRINCE SAMA

Japanese title: うたの☆プリンスさまっ♪
Platform: PSP, Playstation Vita, Nintendo Switch
Genre: visual novel, rhythm game, otome
No. of games: 10 (6 main games and 4 spin-offs)
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: B
Anime: Yes (4 seasons, 53 eps + 1 movie)
Drama CDs: Yes, multiple
English version: No (but there’s an English version of a spin-off mobile game)
Game’s website: https://www.utapri.com/

Synopsis: With dreams of becoming a composer and someday writing a song for her favourite idol, Haruka Nanami enters the Saotome Academy, a prestigious performing arts school. Surrounded by potential idols and producers, Haruka gets to know six of her classmates, who are all competing to become idols. For her project, she must team up with another student as an idol-producer team, and if they are successful, they will join Shining Agency after graduation. Besides, romance is strictly prohibited at their school. (source: wikipedia.org)

My comment: Uta no Prince sama (or UtaPri for short) is the only game in this set that involves another game genre – a rhythm game. That’s kind of understandable, since UtaPri is set in a music school for idols and music composers and the objective of the game is to get paired with one of the main guys and do a song together (him – singing, you, the protagonist – writing the music and the lyrics). Consequently, there are several occasions in the game when you’ll encounter a rhythm game where you have to push specific buttons when they appear on the screen – just like you’d do in Dance Dance Revolution (though this one involves a special dance mat and you dance for real). I loved this mini game! The songs created for these games and just awesome and they quickly went to my playlist. Also, the game lets you choose the difficulty of the mini game – which is a great move by Broccoli, the producing company, because if you’re not very musical or have no experience with such games – you can choose the easy mode (the other’s hard). However, the difficulty of the mini game increases over the play anyway – it still is considered “easy”, but with time you get more buttons to push with the song. It’s as if each mode had level 1, level 2, level 3 – each time this mini game appears, you need to get more skillful. But don’t worry, you can practice the mini game, choosing it in the game’s title menu. At one point I was so into it, I stopped my progress with the plot and kept on playing the rhythm game… As I said, the songs are SO GOOD.
As for the plot, since you get paired with your guy as a part of your school assignment, you’re obviously gonna fall in love. I really liked the “no love allowed” rule imposed by the school here, since you and your guy are trying so hard at first NOT to let those feelings grow and later you decide to fight the system! Will you succeed? Check it out yourself, but I got to admit, that this plot point added this extra spice to the story.

DIABOLIK LOVERS

Japanese title: ディアボリックラヴァーズ
Platform: PSP, Playstation Vita, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4
Genre: visual novel, otome, dark fantasy (vampires)
No. of games: 7
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: C or D (depends on the title in the series)
Anime: Yes (2 seasons, 25 episodes)
Drama CDs: Yes, TONS
English version: No
Game’s website: http://dialover.net/

Synopsis: The main heroine, Yui Komori, was just a normal teenage girl until high school when her father, a priest, has to go overseas for work. As a result, Yui is sent to a new town and arrives alone at the mansion she was told will be her new home. At the mansion, no-one greets her however the door swings open on its own accord. Yui enters the mansion to find herself alone, as she explores she finds a handsome young man sleeping with no heartbeat on a couch. To her shock, he awakens and five other young men gradually appear. Yui soon notices something different about all of them, she discovers that all six of them are brothers but by three different mothers, and they all turn out to be sadistic vampires. (source: wikipedia.org)

My comment: I personally didn’t like this game too much and for this reason, I stopped collecting it after the 2nd game (which I bought only to play the route of my favourite character). The plot is silly and repetitive, as the protagonist usually gets cornered in every chapter by one of the brothers to be abused, bad-mouthed and have her blood forcefully sucked. If you’re sick of males trashing women and treating them as if they were his possession – don’t play this, because the main „hot” guys are sadistic (and sexist) garbage beings and they DON’T CHANGE over the course of the plot, unfortunately (I was very disappointed when I ran the 2nd game and expected the continuation of the budding romance that began in the 1st game only to discover than the whole progress of the main protagonist and the guy of your choice made went down the drain because they have a kind of AMNESIA). What’s good about this game, then? It’s very easy language-wise! Because of the repetitive plot and scenes as well as reused vocabulary, this game is very easy to adapt to and play. There aren’t any unusual game mechanics, either (there are only the standard questions with choices to make once or twice per chapter). The art is just GORGEOUS, not only the special CGs, but the sprites themselves as well as the art used in e.g. the opening and ending videos. This game also has fantastic songs sung by the voice actors (and the game’s cast includes the best male Japanese voice actors!) – you can just play those songs on constant repeat, great music! Plus the job those male voice actors did is just marvellous: the sucking noises, the moans or the sighs of the vampires are just ecstatic poetry to your ear – and exactly everything you’d want from an otome game. No wonder this entire series sells like hotcakes – I’d really recommend playing it on headphones and while you’re alone unless you want to get hot while other people are around.

TRIGGER KISS

Japanese title: 熱血異能部活譚 Trigger Kiss
Platform: Playstation Vita
Genre: visual novel, otome
No. of games: 1
Limited edition: Yes
CERO: B
Anime: No
Drama CDs: No
English version: No
Game’s website: http://www.otomate.jp/tk/

Synopsis: In the future, some people are born with superpowers. Akizuki High School won the national championship in superpowers club fights but was banned from the tournament for 2 years due to heavy violence of the members during the championship finals. Two years later, the club’s captain, Azuma, is told by the principal that the club will be disbanded if they do not win the national tournament. At the same time, a second-grader named Futaba Sendou, who also has superpowers, is transferred to Akizuki High School. Even though Futaba hates her abilities, she is tricked into joining the club and competing in 3-on-3 battles with different schools.

My comment: This actually was my very first otome game and also first pure visual novel game in Japanese I manged to finish (after the fiasco with Norn9 which is DEFINITELY a higher difficulty tier game – you’ll see this title in future posts). I still hold it dear and enjoy it. There are several factors which make this highly underrated game quite attractive for language learners. First of all, the graphics. Instead of a typical text box in the lower parts of the screen, the characters’ lines appear in typical comic bubbles all over the screen. This makes the game appear to be a kind of interactive manga than a visual novel. Secondly, the language used by the members is quite simple and repetitive – after you get used to some vocabulary used to describe the superpowers and battle, it gets pretty easy. Thirdly, the female protagonist is one of the best if not THE BEST protagonist I’ve met in any otome game. She’s strong, she’s independent and she’s not shy. She doesn’t have a problem to tell the boys that they’re acting wrong. She also takes the initiative herself, rather than waiting for a knight in shining armour to save her ass – which is something most otome game protagonists lack. Also, she throws great punchlines – she’s so sarcastic and playful! As a result, Futaba is one of the reasons why Trigger Kiss is so fun to play. The game mechanics don’t add anything special, too – the only new thing is touching the screen when the protagonist chooses to use her superpowers (and it feels quite awesome to do that!). The game doesn’t require any special skills to play, really. I mean, I played it when I’d just began my N4 course and I was a total newbie in visual novel games department at that time, too, and I had no problem enjoying this game. The plot is interesting, the interaction between the members of the club is quite… standard (I mean, you’d definitely seen such club members’ interaction scenes in anime or manga before, so you’d have no trouble understanding what’s going on even if you can’t grasp what the characters are saying word-for-word). The soundtrack is also good – I have several tracks from this game on my motivational tracks playlist. The only tricky part is the lengthy narration during the battles, but as I’ve said before, after a few opponents you more or less start to recognise and remember the vocabulary used for describing them.

DISCLAIMER!

The titles above are all, as you’ve probably noticed, otome games, that is games targeted at women which usually concerns a single female protagonist surrounded by hot men who, obviously, start to have feelings for the protagonist. However, since easy games usually score A or B in CERO rating, that means that the romance itself is slightly subdued and in some titles very shallow, especially if the title focuses on something else other than just romance. And that’s actually the case with Prince of Stride and Trigger Kiss which follow adventures of two school clubs participating in national championships and that competition is what the plot strongly revolves around. The romance involved is very minimal but is still present. What’s more, B rating means that the game involves nothing more than a love confession and the usual kiss after a confession. So if romance is not your thing, but you’d like to play some game with relatively easy language – give these two titles a try, the plot, apart from its romance component, is definitely worth it and very entertaining.

Other story genres than romance will be included further in the list – it’s just that romance is very easy to read and follow while more sophisticated and complex stories require higher level of language proficiency. So if you’re up to the challenge, read my upcoming entry for other types of stories and more game genres mixed in!

Posted in Languages, Reading, Study methods, Video games

THE PERFECT GAME GENRE FOR LANGUAGE ENTHUSIASTS

I’ve always liked playing video games. It has all started when I was around 5 and my dad bought a Pegasus and, obviously, Mario Bros to go with it. We often played together or I tried my skills alone and we often compared who managed to progress further – mind you, those were the times when save function wasn’t a thing in games! So every time you ran a game, you had to start it from the very beginning!

Later I discovered computer’s DOS games (Jazz Jackrabbit was lit!) and the world of computer games for Windows opened up to me. My family knew all about my hobby and, surprisingly, supported it with birthday or Christmas presents! Before you blink your eyes and reread the previous sentence, completely confused, remember that those were the 90s and gaming in my country was still considered pretty much a boys’ hobby and a bad, unhealthy hobby, too – girls like me were supposed to love Barbies and plushies. Thank God my parents were of modern thinking which meant games and Lego for me – I’d never shown much interest in dolls. Still, video gaming was restricted for most of my childhood – I got 30-60 minutes of play per day and my beloved GameBoy Color was being taken away for the school year and returned to me for summer and winter holidays. Still, I used every opportunity to play games in my free time and I still do, over 20 years later.

When I started learning English, it wouldn’t surprise you that I learnt A LOT from the games I played – especially that in 90s game translation was a rare thing in my country. We got tons of games which were not translated at all and basically imported untouched (thus available only in English, or they just translated the box and the manual, but the gameplay was entirely in English). At the time, it was frustrating, because some games you wanted to play were not translated and playing them was trial and error at first in order to figure out HOW exactly to play the game. That was especially true with Nintendo and Playstation games. I don’t remember when first translated Playstation titles hit, but it was pretty late (I’d even guess post-Playstation 2). Anyway, we had to deal with gaming in English – apart from the language benefits it was a double-edged sword because we were kids and kids are kids – if you didn’t understand something, you got angry and you dropped it, getting no language practice out of it as a result. But when you’re a kid, you don’t perceive games in another language that way.

When it came to language teaching methodology, nobody was talking about using video games as a language resource at that point as well. Everybody who played games was wasting their time in front of the screen, in the others’ opinion. This is one of the reasons why I’d never really recognised how much progress I made in English thanks to games. Fortunately, I finally did when I started learning Japanese – it was already late 2000s, times changed, I grew up and was more aware of how I study and consume knowledge. So when I asked myself what would be the most pleasurable thing for me to consume in Japanese, my mind immediately hinted that I should play some games.

But which games wouldn’t require a high level of proficiency in a language? I mean, it’s one thing when you can take your time to read and understand and, if things get too difficult, finally open that dictionary you hate so much. But it’s another story when a game moves forward before you have even finished reading a sentence simply because the game itself was programmed to do so after a few seconds… Or when you cannot move forward with your game because you don’t understand how its gameplay and mechanics work and thus you put the game away. This is something that actually happened to me when I ran Pokemon Blue for the first time (I was only a kid at the time and my English skills weren’t great, obviously, as I had just started learning it), I couldn’t pass further than the second town because I didn’t understand that I was supposed to go back to the first town to deliver a parcel. So I got stuck until I stumbled upon a Polish walkthrough and was finally able to move on. On a side note, Pokemon games were a major factor that contributed to my English proficiency – I played all of them until Sun and Moon series and replayed most of them several times. The fact that you have to repeatedly choose specific attacks and perform other repetitive actions really add up to your language skills if you’re a gamer.

Taking my above-mentioned gaming experience into account, I immediately knew that I didn’t want to play a game in Japanese I wouldn’t enjoy, simply because it would be less rich in text or of a disliked genre (for example, I don’t play sports games or shooters) at the cost of it having a lower level of language difficulty. Luckily, 2 years earlier I’d started to play games of a particular genre which was just perfect for the job: the game didn’t move from one text to another without you clicking to confirm it, it had simple game mechanics, so you don’t have to focus too much on understanding them (and they are also almost the same in most titles of this genre, so once you learn how to play them, you can play any game of this genre, just learn one or two differences in the title’s mechanics and you’re good to play it without any manual every time) AND, what was the best and most valuable feature of it, almost all of the text appearing in the game was DUBBED by voice actors, so I wouldn’t have to worry about encountering a word I could understand but didn’t know how it was written – the in-game characters were talking to me, the player, and what they were saying was displayed on the screen at the same time – this feature really cut down on my dictionary search time.

That genre is visual novel.

The mechanics of visual novel are very simple and friendly even to a person inexperienced in video gaming – your only job is to click or hit a specific button (e.g. on Playstation it’s X or O on the gamepad) in order to make the appearing text progress and you have to make some choice once in a while – usually you, as the game’s protagonist, are supposed to choose between 3-4 different options you’re offered (it can be a line the protagonist is supposed to response with or an action they choose to perform) and depending on that choice the game progresses in different ways (and leads to different endings – each visual novel usually has multiple possible endings). If you’ve ever played heavily plot-driven games like Life is StrangeHeavy RainBeyondThe Walking Dead – you know what I’m talking about.

Yet, visual novels are much more simple, there usually isn’t any walking on the screen, it’s more static – you can see the text box, the background image and a character sprite on the screen. Let me show you an example: 

Zettai Kaikyuu Gakuen, my favourite visual novel game

In the game, you mainly read a bunch of text while the characters, background scenery and text appearing on the screen change. The purpose of the game is to, basically, read the whole story, as you would read a book from cover to cover. Sounds boring? But pour some background music, sound effects (like broken glass or rain), voice acting, diversity of characters’ images (with different facial expressions, too!), rich plot, occasional extra detailed image (they’re commonly known as CGs, i.e. computer graphics and they usually show a scene from the game that you’re experiencing at the moment), gamepad or console vibration to the mix and you get an exciting and engaging emotional roller-coaster, that is visual novel games.

When a CG is inserted in the game, the plot still progresses, but instead of usual sprites on a background, you get a beautifully drawn image depicting the scene

In a sense, visual novels are like typical paper novels, but more interactive in their nature, as you can influence the outcome of the plot (the story usually has various endings – both good and bad ones – and it’s quite fun to discover them all), you can also see the characters (and their facial expressions too, since sprites are not the same all the time – the game usually includes several sprites of the same character with different facial expressions and clothes, which only adds to the experience), see the setting of a scene, hear the sound effects, listen to the background music (actually, they have great soundtracks and, to tell the truth, most of my favourite motivational tracks come from video games!), hear the characters’ voices and so on (I mean, especially in otome games, if you put the headphones on, it’s an amazing, out-of-the-world experience, as they use a special equipment called “dummy head mic” to record the voices. Because of that, if a game character is supposed to whisper in your ear – you’re under the impression that he/she REALLY is whispering straight into your ear. This is why I enjoy those games so, so much).

This is a perfect example of HOW MANY different sprites were created for just ONE CHARACTER in Persona 4 game – and this guy isn’t the protagonist!

So, in a way, visual novels are like a book but in a game format. However, you get as much reading practice as you would with a book, just with some handicap – because most of the text is displayed and read by the voice actors at the same time (usually excluding the protagonist’s and the narrator’s lines – but that makes a nice change and a welcomed challenge in-between the dubbed parts). You can also turn the voice acting completely off in the menu if you want a real challenge. Or just mute chosen characters – most visual novels include such options in the game’s settings.

Yuki Kaji, Japanese voice actor and a dummy head mic

I mostly play otome games, which is a romance in visual novel format. Of course, like it is with books, you can get visual novels of basically any genre – horrors, sci-fi, drama, comedy, slice of life, mystery and so on. The same thing goes with their language version – English and Japanese ones are the most common, but many visual novels have been translated to major European languages, like Spanish, German or French, so you can purchase those instead if that’s your target language. Just pick your poison and get some practice! 

Horror and mystery game called Death Mark (it’s available in English, too!)

What’s more, visual novels can be nicely fused with other game genres – I know very successful and engaging fusions between RPGs and visual novels (e.g. PokemonPersonaYsTrails of and Tales of franchises), horror and visual novels (Corpse PartyDeath Mark) or point-and-click games and visual novels (Virtue’s Last Reward and the entire 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors franchise, Danganronpa or Ace Attorney). Not to mention the fact that you can also replay games you’ve already conquered in another language – not necessarily visual novels, but of other genres too! If you know the game’s mechanics, it makes it that much easier for you to play them, as you only have to focus on the dialogues and the plot – and they’re also something you’ve already read before, so it’s like reading Harry Potter in another language – you know the plot by heart, but you discover how it was translated or, as it is with Japanese visual novels, how they sounded in the original – I actually find it fascinating to get to know how some jokes sounded in Japanese, how closely something was translated, what was lost in the translation process and so on.

For instance, I’m a hardcore JRPG fan and love their rich plots as well as game mechanics, so I often play those (and they also feature tons of standard visual novels elements, like rich dialogues or voice acting, especially when the in-game characters are talking with each other! Just take a look at the example below). After giving visual novels a try, I made a brave choice to include JRPGs in my Japanese gaming mix – but only those I’d finished before, so I know their gameplay mechanics inside out. As of last week, I purchased a game of my favourite JRPG franchises of all time, that is Persona. I got myself a copy of Persona 4 Golden in Japanese as a result. I can’t wait for it to come and play it in the original! I’m definitely going to tell you about my experience with this one!

Persona 4’s visual novel elements
Persona 4’s RPG elements (battle)

As I’ve said in my last entry, the great thing is that because a visual novel is a game, it tends to draw you in, as games usually do, and you get curious about what’s going to happen next. As a result, rather than checking your dictionary every time you don’t understand something, you usually continue playing without that dictionary search. That is why games are great for what I’ve talked about the last time – immersion and understanding the unknown from the context. And you can benefit from visual novels especially, with their rich and captivating plots and long gameplay. Getting every ending takes around 20-30 hours of playing – that varies from title to title, of course, but it’s usually that much.

Yet, if you use games for language practice, you have to take into consideration that this hour estimate is about games you can play comfortably, that is without taking breaks to check your dictionary (so either when you’re already advanced in a language or the game’s in your mother tongue). I usually take much more time when I’m playing in Japanese because I’m not fluent yet – in total, it can take several weeks before I finish a game.

As for the games’ prices and where to import them from, I plan on writing a separate post about my games, manga and books shopping tips and sources – I’m going to publish a post on that in 2 weeks. The next week’s topic is going to be an extension of this entry – since I’d revealed that I was going to publish a post about video gaming and language learning, many people approached me, asking what game I would recommend for their level. This is why the next blog post is going to cover my personal recommendations for visual novels on 3 levels of Japanese language proficiency – easy, intermediate and hard – as well as how to evaluate whether a game we’re interested in is going to be suitable for our language level. Stay tuned for next week!

Posted in Languages, Reading, Study methods

WHY YOU SHOULDN’T USE A DICTIONARY WHILE READING

My parents and school teachers always told me that if I read a lot, I would pick up orthography and new words more quickly. It was especially true for Polish, my mother tongue, since its orthography and grammar are quite complex and difficult, and mastering them takes almost 6 years of primary school and the majority of your time at junior high (currently probably less, since junior high has been abolished in the recent reforms and instead of 6 years of primary school and 3 years of both junior high and high school, we reverted to 8 years of primary school and 4 years of high school). As a result, we, Polish kids, spent a lot of time just completing tons of grammar and orthography exercises during our Polish classes, in tandem with learning about our country’s literature.

So when I started learning Japanese and I first had to learn both hiragana and katakana – I wasn’t surprised that it was going to take some time. In fact, I kind of expected it and my Japanese sensei (teacher) only confirmed my speculations. So, learning both basic Japanese syllabaries was accompanied with hours and hours of reading and writing practice. And it still is, because after you open the door to that world of around 2000 kanjis (borrowed Chinese characters used in Japanese; you usually start learning them after you grasp hiragana and katakana) and their readings, you realise that mastering them is definitely going to take time.

Here’s another one of my quick remarks: I’m perfectly aware that not all languages use such a distinct writing system. Lots of languages people choose to learn use your typical Latin alphabet and I’m going to address reading in such languages further down in this post. But for now, I’m going to discuss the problem of reading in a language which has its own writing system.

I wasn’t surprised that one of the first pieces of advice that my sensei gave me was to “read as often and as much as you can, as it will help you recognise those characters more quickly“. Sensei‘s advice brought that slow acquisition of Polish orthography to my mind, so I adhered to her tip straight away, believing that it was going to bring the same results as reading in Polish did – and just as fast, too.

So I started to read. However, since Japanese writing system is far more complex, I immediately hit a wall – in opposition to Polish, which used Latin alphabet, I soon realised that simply “reading” sentences wasn’t going to be THAT easy! The reason for that was that a Japanese sentence consists of characters written with the use of hiragana, katakana AND kanji. Even if you can already read the first two, the latter creates many problems even for native Japanese – each character usually has several readings which only adds to their complexity and, as a result, makes it very difficult to read correctly, especially for a beginner. Yes, there are texts which use just hiragana (like most beginner textbooks use only hiragana and katakana at first, to get you used to those and then slowly exchanges words with their actual kanji that it teaches you over the course of the book) or with furigana (which is an annotation in hiragana, located above a word written in kanji, that shows how this word should be read) so if you’ve only started learning Japanese – go for kids books or special readers targeted at beginners. This way you won’t have to check for words you understand, but don’t know how to write them yet (this is perfectly normal with Japanese – you gradually switch from writing and knowing a word in hiragana only to their standard spelling in kanji). But there always comes a time when, even in beginners’ books, appears a kanji which doesn’t have furigana and you don’t know how to read that word yet. That’s when a dictionary should be the first “person” you go to.

However, checking that dictionary is a mundane and boring hold up that usually brings frustration, especially if you have to do it several times in a row (sometimes even a few times within ONE sentence), because you don’t know how to READ this and that word. It’s even more frustrating when the word turns out to be one of those you actually know the meaning of, but you just simply weren’t aware it’s written this way. And of course, after checking it in the dictionary, even if you encounter it just a few lines later – you don’t remember it anymore, because you checked so many words on the way that it becomes confusing. What to do then?

Keep a notebook and write down those new words, maybe?

I’m in strong opposition to keeping vocabulary notebooks. I’ve rarely done it at school (only because the teachers required it) and I’m not going to start now – well, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t tried to do so in the past. I had, in fact. Quite a few times. Was it helpful? No, because searching for a word written down on paper takes much more time than using an electronic or online dictionary’s search bar to get the same result. Not to mention the fact that it didn’t help me remember the words – as I said, if you write down too many new words at once, they get mixed in your mind and you have trouble recalling them. Time-wise, it’s much more effective to check them in your dictionary again.

But you can incorporate a little trick of mine into that dictionary search: try recalling the word first before looking it up. Think about the context in which you first stumbled upon that word. What was it connected with? What images did it bring to your mind? What was going on in the plot by then? Was this word used in a line a character said? If asking yourself such questions doesn’t help you trigger your memory, then go ahead and use that dictionary. But repeat the trick every time you see a word that you know you had encountered and checked before – after some time a memory of that word will pop up and believe me, there’s nothing more satisfactory than recalling a word on your own and then just making sure that you were correct (with the use of a dictionary).

There’s also another consequence of keeping a vocabulary notebook: the more new words you add, the more your frustration builds up and results in faster fatigue when reading and/or even leaving reading for some time altogether due to demotivation hitting in. Not to mention the fact that a mere thought of reading AGAIN puts you off and that’s something you don’t want to happen. As I’ve mentioned before, learning a language should be a pleasure, not a burden.

After several times of enthusiastically starting a new notebook for a new manga or short story and dropping them when that fatigue struck and discouraged me too strongly, I did what I do best: I drew conclusions after observing my behaviour while practising reading in Japanese. You should do the very same thing. Just ask yourself:

What is the best and most rewarding way to read in TL for ME?

In my case it was manga, tv series (including anime) and… video games. Because manga is a comic, it’s much easier to understand what is happening. In novels, you have to read those (sometimes quite vast) descriptions and narration in order to fully comprehend what’s going on. In manga, everything is presented with pictures, the only bits left to read are the monologues/dialogues, minor narration (like “3 months later the protagonist did…”) and onomatopoeia. Consequently, you don’t have to worry too much about not understanding what the characters of the story are doing – you can deduce a lot just from the frames, characters’ facial expressions and mimics as well as their actions. Manga’s also a much faster read – in fact, I keep a daily routine connected with it. Around 2 months ago, I obliged myself to read at least 1 manga chapter a day – the shortest chapters, published weekly, are only 19 pages long, so if I have a very bad day in terms of reading, I choose one of those to keep my routine. Normally I read around 30-50 pages of manga a day – again, depends on chapter’s length. There are also days when I read more chapters, but that’s entirely up to me. What’s more, as my own rule, reading more chapters does not count towards next days – meaning that if I read 3 chapters in one day, I cannot slack off for the next two days because I “read those days’ ration”. No, I have to read at least 1 chapter anyway and I’m proud to say that I stick to this resolution most times (I usually give myself 1 day off a week).

Another great source of reading practice for me is video games. I’ve been playing them for years, ever since I was a child, and at first I played them only in my mother tongue, obviously, then I used them to learn English. Well, to tell the truth, I didn’t use them consciously as a source of language practice – I was too young for such ideas. But there were a lot of games I wanted to play and there wasn’t a Polish version available, so the only solution was to buy and play the English version. As a result, I acquired most of my English skills from playing games and because of that positive experience with them language-wise, I gave them a try with my Japanese.

What’s great is the fact that because they’re games, they tend to draw you in. As a result, rather than checking your dictionary every 5 seconds when you don’t understand something that appears on the screen, you just say “Ah, screw it!” and continue playing it without taking breaks for a dictionary search. When you get into the game’s plot like you would while reading a good book, you automatically start to read more and more – simply because you’re curious what’s going to happen next. And that curiosity facilitates something I find a crucial skill in reading in your TL – guessing the meaning of a word/sentence from the context.

As a matter of fact, if you ask around, only a small number of people who are learning a foreign language do that! People tend to reach for a dictionary the second they encounter something they don’t understand instead of letting their brains do what they do best – fill in the missing information and use the context to fill that gap. Our brains are incredible in that department if you only let them! So, if you don’t understand something, read more, let your brain stomach the information it just received and let it try to give you the answer based on the context. It might surprise how much you can actually understand from the text itself, the arts (if you’re reading comics or playing a game) or your previous experience with a book (if you’d read it in your mother tongue before, for example).

What is more, if the languages you already know and the language(s) you’re studying are somehow related (e.g. they have words of Latinate origin, they belong to the same language family etc.), you can use their similarities to carry over the meaning of a word from the language you know to your target language. The same principle concerns different parts of speech – if you already know the adjective, you can figure out on your own that some word is a noun from the same word family.

Besides, the more you read this way, the more adapted to this method your brain becomes and, consequently, the more skilful in grasping what you’re reading about it becomes. Because as you read, your brain constantly acquires that new vocabulary without you realising it. And the more you come across a word in different contexts, the more your brain narrows down and specifies its actual definition. After some time you can notice that you essentially KNOW some word and even several uses of it!

This is how I learnt English – by grasping the meaning from the context rather than actual at-desk textbook studying. Funnily enough, when I’m asked what a word or phrase translates to in my mother tongue, I have trouble with this because I’d never checked equivalent of some words before, as I’d understood their meanings almost subconsciously upon encounter. However, I could provide tons of contexts and situations in which you would use a specific word/phrase and that, in my opinion, is more valuable than being able to translate the words. After all, when you’re speaking, you should subconsciously choose what words suit best in the conversation you’re having, rather than translating what you want to say from your mother tongue (AKA consciously creating a sentence). It is, unfortunately, what many people do. But that is an issue suitable for another blog entry.

Moreover, if you put your dictionary down and trust your brain’s instinct, you become that much closer to immersion in your target language – something that tremendously boosts your language acquisition and comprehension. If you don’t rely on your dictionary, you don’t force your brain to constantly switch between two languages. It stays focused on one language, only making that immersion easier. It’s like when want to cook something on two separate frying pans, but keep on jumping between them and switching off the one you’re not using at the moment because you don’t want your food to get burnt. When you get back to it, it has to heat up again. Similar thing happens to your brain when you switch between languages – it hast to boot and get into that „mother tongue” or „target language” mode all over again. However, if you stay immersed in one language (even if it’s just during your study or reading session) then that boot doesn’t have to happen repeatedly and, in consequence, your brain gets „better” at operating in the foreign language.

A lot of people say that for real immersion you should just pack and go to a country where your target language is spoken. It’s true, I’ve done and experienced it myself, but I believe that it can also be done (to some extent of course) within your four walls. That requires some dedication and free time, but it CAN BE DONE. You just have to surround yourself with as much language input as possible and limit your mother tongue input or any other distractions to a minimum. For example, ask your family not to bother you while you’re having a study session. On the other hand, increase that target language input to the maximum – read, play, watch something. Leave that dictionary alone (unless it’s monolingual dictionary – then you’re still staying within your target language) and let your brain do its magic and absorb as much language as it can (you will feel it overheating, just like you probably do when overstudying and your brain begs you for a break).

For instance, when I was playing a game called Prince of Stride, which is about a high school stride club (in the game, stride is a new type of team sport, a parkour-like relay on a prepared course), apart from the text, it incorporated some new mechanics that appeared only when the protagonist’s team was competing – like you had to pick the order in which your team would run or you had to perfectly time the runners’ relay itself in order to win and so on. Combined with the plot, the art, the characters (and their voice actors) and the soundtrack, it was so enjoyable, that I binge-played this game for 4-5 hours straight every day after work and it took me around 3 weeks to complete it in full (to get all the endings) and I basically hadn’t used the dictionary AT ALL (just a few times maybe, when I really couldn’t grasp the context). As a result, after a few days, I was in a total immersion mode and started DREAMING in Japanese. My mouth moved on its own to express myself in Japanese while having trouble to speak in my mother tongue – the exposure to TL was just so immense that my mind had to answer with me producing the language. Fantastic feeling and one of the many reasons I recommend gaming to any language learners. In fact, I’m going to write more on games in my next post where I’ll present my choices of game genres that are particularly useful and friendly to language learners even if they don’t have much gaming experience or skills. So stay tuned for next week!

Prince of Stride: Team order choice screen

As you can see, you don’t really have to use your dictionary while reading. As a result, you get much more pleasurable and smooth reading experience. Of course, if you come across a sentence or a passage so packed with new vocabulary or grammar structures that you cannot decipher it – feel free to use that dictionary! I do that too, but I limit its usage to those extreme cases. Apart from that, I use the context and I recommend this way to you as well, as I find it more satisfactory and, obviously, much faster. It also feels very rewarding to be able to understand more and more without depending on a dictionary. Many pleasant readings!