Anime Editorial, Editorial, Life Experience

Overcoming the Limitations of a Western Anime Fan

If only I had an imaginary friend to play card games with me…

One day, a socially-introverted thirteen year old who got tired of the fact that no one else around him was playing Yu-Gi-Oh! decided to find a new hobby in hopes of diverting his attention away from the depressing reality that he had no friends. After all, you need two people to play a card game, but you only need one person to watch anime. That was the motivation of why I started watching Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu on that fateful day in April 2006. Back then, I had no idea that it would become the first step into a completely new World that would change the rest of my life. Long story short, this interest completely reshaped my social attitude, and I’m even willing to go as far as saying that by 2008, ARIA the ORIGINATION had pretty much single-handedly redefined my purpose in life.

I have never had too much confidence in my skills as a writer, and that’s why I haven’t ever written about anime in my personal life. With the immensely influential role that anime has played in it so far, I feel that my limited techniques wouldn’t be able to do it justice. However, I think it goes without saying by now that anime and its surrounding subculture in general is a major part of my life, and that’s not going to go away. That’s pretty much the point I wanted to get across so far. However, the reason why I’m writing this post is that as of recent years, I’ve become increasingly apparent that I’m reaching a ceiling of where I can go with this hobby as a Western fan.

Watched the anime? What about the light novel?

A wealth of amazing stories that we will almost always never know.

As most of us know, the anime medium itself is only a small subset of a far bigger culture. As Western fans, we are already extremely fortunate that to have an extremely refined fansubbing procedure that allows us to watch and enjoy translated anime almost as fast as they air in Japan. However, even dating back as far as when I started anime back in 2006, I had realized that Suzumiya Haruhi was in fact a light novel, and the anime was simply an adaptation of the first few books. Desperate to know what happens after the anime ended, I looked online in hopes of finding translated versions of the books. Naturally, they were nowhere to be found.

Naturally, I’m only using Suzumiya Haruhi as an example here. Being the huge franchise that it is, the books were actually translated pretty quickly after the anime finished airing, courtesy to Baka-Tsuki and later Ultimatemegax’s team. Most franchises however do not enjoy the same fate. With more and more anime being partial adaptations, the ending is always an original one created by the studio, or inconclusive leaving room for a possible sequel. In addition, light novels get adapted into anime even more commonly than manga as of late, and that implies the amount of quality writing behind them in comparison to manga.

Light novels have a lot of text, and they usually do not get fan translations into English unless they get adapted into an anime that turns out to be popular in the Western audience. Even then, the translation usually goes along at a snail’s pace. Lately, not only have the amount of untranslated light novels of anime I enjoyed been stacking up, but I’ve also developed an interest for light novels that don’t even have anime adaptations yet. This is a whole new subset of the culture that is almost exclusive to the Japanese audience.

Seriously, is it that much to ask for if I just want to know what happens to Jirou and Subaru’s relationship in Mayo Chiki? For a Japanese fan, all they need to do is spend a couple of dollars on Amazon, and a few days later all the light novels will be in front of their doorstep, ready to be read. For us? Not so lucky. We have to either wait for someone to translate the light novels on the Internet, or wait for the anime to get a second season. Given the niche appeal of this series, I doubt either of those two options will be happening any time this century.

Visual Novels? What are those?

English patch where?! Ixrec, translate faster!!!!!

Visual novel translation projects make light novel translations seem trivial. Baldr Sky alone has 91,443 lines of text, so does anyone even want to make a guess when we’ll see the English patch? As a point of reference, it took Muv-Luv six years to get translated, and it only has 35,375 lines. The reality is, most good visual novels never get to see the light of day across Japanese borders.

Why is this a problem, you ask? After all, there are already so many anime and manga available to us – more than what we can go through in our lifetimes. Well, as much as I love anime, I can’t help but notice that the anime and manga mediums have a lower ceiling than the likes of visual novels when it comes to storytelling and plot in general. Is there any mecha anime whose story was as well written and even have action scenes executed as great as Muv-Luv Alternative? Is there any philosophical anime that comes anywhere near the depth of the themes explored in Umineko no Naku Koro Ni Chiru? Is there a romantic drama anime that is as tear-jerking as the final scene in G-Senjou no Maou? Is there an anime that broke your mind as much as Ever17 -the out of infinity-?

I’m not saying that the best anime out there do not have good storytelling or plot. After all, if Gankutsuou doesn’t count as a good story, then what does? In addition, most of the best anime out there wouldn’t really work as a visual novel, such as Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann for its breathtaking cinematography, or Mawaru Penguindrum for its complex imagery. However, what I’m saying is that visual novels definitely have a potential when it comes to storytelling that anime or manga cannot match. After all, even short visual novels take around 20 hours to play, which equates to 60 anime episodes. There is hardly ever enough budget to make anime of that length without compromising quality – and that’s why visual novel adaptations into anime are usually awful.

Westerners have been fortunate to receive translations for some visual novels, but in reality, there is an abundance of masterpieces are still not available in the English language.

Time to learn Japanese

And one day, I’ll actually be able to play Akatsuki no Goei.

As I went into the Winter 2013 anime season, I suddenly asked myself this question: out of the twenty six anime series I’m following this cour, how many of them would I drop if I could use that time to play a visual novel or read a light novel from the wishlist that have stacked up over the past few years? The answer is that I would have dropped most of them. There is no other way to deny it – if I want to go further in this hobby, I have be be fluent in Japanese.

Even putting aside the fact that being fluent in Japanese opens up the new areas of light novels and visual novels, it opens up a whole new World in the community. Almost all the active personnel in the industry from seiyuus to directors have twitters and blogs. News are always announced in Japan first. Higher quality articles and resources abound. A community that actually pays for their anime, as well as the doujin sector which is mostly unexplored over here in the west. The list just goes on.

The desire to learn Japanese is definitely not something that just spontaneously appears for no reason. People often get the urge to start learning it in our community, but what happens is that it becomes a heat of the moment thing, and they never act upon it or give up within a very short period. I have realized that I have reached a period in my career where I can’t deny the necessity of Japanese any longer, and putting this post here will serve as a motivation and reminder for me to keep going. I’ve got some background of Japanese due to learning it for a while before in high school, but certainly not working knowledge.

As a result, I will probably be cutting back on my Internet presence for the next year or two due to investing a substantial amount of my spare time into studying the Japanese language. I believe that this is necessary for me to also contribute something useful for the English community too. With that, I will get right down to it!

Of course if anyone has any tips or suggestions, you’re welcome to tell me. If you want to join me in my efforts after having read this, I welcome you even more!

About ImperialX

Anime fan and tech guru.


19 thoughts on “Overcoming the Limitations of a Western Anime Fan

  1. Honestly, anything that results in “cutting back on Internet presence for the next year or two” is a good thing.

    However I feel there is more than just devoting 2 years to study of Japanese. Without the proper environment and the situation, you practice of the language will suffer, especially AFTER your years of study.

    I know anecdotal evidence is usually not a good reference, but I had a friend that studied 4 years of Japanese in college. After graduation, he was extremely proficient and passed the N1 JLPT with ease. Fast-forward another 4 years where he moved up to Oregon to work for a tech company, and his Japanese is ‘recoverable’ but no where near fluent.

    As a tip, I would not let the study of the Japanese language hold you back in your career in anyway. If possible try to steer your career where you can land a job and a life in Japan. That added on top of your learning of the language should result in success.

    Posted by milkmandan | January 17, 2013, 10:52 AM
    • There’s no doubt that I want to be as fluent in Japanese as possible, but I don’t really need to reach a level of proficiency such as JLPT-N1. This is still only a hobby for me, and I simply want to be able to read light novels and visual novels, with the occasional aid from a dictionary. I am proficient in Chinese so I already know pretty much every Kanji I see, as well as their definitions. I just don’t know how to pronounce them, but that doesn’t affect me when I’m only reading them. And for my hobby, I only really need to read them.

      Even as I devote most of my spare time to learning Japanese, I won’t let it hold me back in anything in real life. I don’t intend to study Japanese in university either, because I don’t think I’ll be making a living off it or anything like that. I know that it’s impossible to fluently learn a language unless you’re surrounded by it. That’s why I don’t think I’ll ever be fluent. I just need to be a level where I can read LNs and VNs.

      All of this is pure speculation, of course. Who knows what level I’ll be at in 2 years. Maybe it won’t nearly be enough. However, because I only really need to learn the grammar and a few thousand words (I know how to write the Kanji already due to Chinese background), I feel it might be enough to at least start reading LNs and VNs.

      I have no interest of being able to speak it within 2 years, of course. That’s a later goal.

      Posted by ImperialX | January 17, 2013, 11:04 AM
  2. seriously 2 years? I’m betting that you could probably do it in 3 months or less if you actually tried. This is because of how plain most of the vocabulary in common VN really are. The repetitiveness of the language used in LNs and VNs is shocking. Chances are, if you can read through a VN in japanese with the occasional aid from a mechanical translator, you would have minimal problems with other VNs. The biggest problem that you might have is the occasional word that you don’t know the meaning off, that can be remedied by using a machine translator and inserting the general meaning of that word into the sentence structure that you are, most likely, already familiar with.

    About that comment about fluidity in japanese, you are surrounded by japanese in the form of anime, LNs, and VNs. I don’t see why that isn’t enough. Considering how I learnt my english practically 90% off TV shows =.= when I was still a kid.

    I know this might sound hypocritical due to me not being 100% satisfied with my skill in japanese, since I still feel a bit uneasy without a machine translator (lol. More like I actually need a machine translator for a lot of circumstances), but just take it easy. Reading VNs/LNs is not supposed to be a chore, you are supposed to enjoy them. You should never focus so much on learning japanese so that it affects the enjoyment from the VN/LN.

    Oh btw: Drawing causes me a lot more trouble than learning japanese. =.=.

    Posted by ~-entropy | January 17, 2013, 11:38 AM
    • It really depends on what level of Japanese fluency I’m satisfied with. I think if it’s just memorising 2000 of the most common Kanji (as well as their respective furigana) as well as elementary level grammar, I can do it in less than three months. However I do have slightly higher expectation of myself than that, so I’ll give myself a year or two and see where I end up. I actually want to try to not use the mechanical translator as much as I can.

      As for immersion, I have no problem with that. As soon as I switch my computer, iPad and iPhone’s OS to Japanese, I’m pretty much surrounded by Japanese. I watch plenty of anime, and I will start with LNs and VNs, as well as raw manga too. That’s why I don’t think I’ll ever forget it as long as I have this hobby.

      I think that learning a language will always be a chore at the beginning, but I hope that gradually I’ll begin to enjoy it. After all I’m doing it for the sake of being able to enjoy the things I want to enjoy.

      A lot of people can speak Japanese, and less people are able to draw well.

      Posted by ImperialX | January 21, 2013, 1:44 PM
  3. I took Japanese 1 and 2 at my local community college a year ago, and lately it’s been really bothering me how I’ve now forgotten most of the stuff I learned. I honestly don’t have much time to devote to studying Japanese, but after reading this post I’m feeling motivated to give it a shot.

    How do you plan to go about learning it? I’ll be using Japanese for Busy People and Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji, since I hear they’re the best books for self-teaching the language, and eventually I want to retake Japanese 2.

    Posted by Sorrows Neptune | January 17, 2013, 12:02 PM
    • As milkmandanさん said above, if we are not constantly immersed in Japanese, even if we are to get fluent, it’s very easy to forget. After all, we didn’t learn Japanese starting from a blank state of mind like an infant. I don’t think it’s possible to forget the languages we learn during our infancy, but now is a different story. Even as we learn Japanese we are constantly surrounded by external disruptions. I will certainly try to stay immersed in Japanese as much as I can. Right now I’m using my computer and all my electronics, and all the websites that support Japanese UIs in Japanese even though I can’t understand anything. It’s a start.

      Personally I don’t believe in the textbook method of learning any language. After all, I learnt English as a second language and I never used any textbooks beyond memorising vocabulary. I never learnt any kind of grammar. If a four year old kid speaks better Japanese than those who studied it in University as a major, why would I want to learn Japanese like University students? I’d rather learn it like a four year old kid.

      So, my method of learning Japanese will be as follows. It’s the same way how I learnt English.

      1) Learn the Hiragana and Katakana and write them repeatedly.
      2) Learn 2000 kanji with Heisig’s Remember the Kanji (Volumes 1 & 3) and write them repeatedly.
      3) Read and understand 10,000 Japanese sentences starting from children’s books, then eventually manga and easy LNs.
      4) Repeat steps 1~3 until I can read all 45 volumes of Doraemon without any kind of aid.

      I think by the end of step 4, I can pretty much just do whatever I want. When I see a word I don’t know I’ll just look it up and remember it. Grammar is a natural thing. I watch so many anime, and I will be reading a lot of content, so as long as I have the vocabulary, I don’t believe I’ll ever have to learn it. Of course if I get ultra confused at some grammar problem, I’ll probably look up Tae Kim’s Guide (really amazing grammar guide for Japanese) or find a Japanese friend on SharedTalk to help clear things up.

      Posted by ImperialX | January 21, 2013, 1:54 PM
  4. I became interested in visual novels after watching Clannad and Little Busters, so I decided to start with Umineko. While the end of episode one is engaging, I have to ask if visual novels tend to be kind of boring in their beginnings. There were times when I just wanted to fast forward through the text, but restrained myself due to fans saying that every word counts. And on the topic of Umineko, how are those Answers of the Golden Witch posts coming along? I’d read them in a few years when I start reading the PS3ification of Umineko Chiru, haha.

    I’ve been meaning to read a light novel (namely Durarara!! because Brains Base doesn’t love second seasons), but I was wondering how well-written the Baka-Tsuki translations and licensed novels are. I was also thinking of reading Spice and Wolf or Suzumiya Haruhi. In the case of Spice and Wolf, should I watch the anime first? And for Suzumiya Haruhi, are the first light novels a must-buy even if I’ve watched season one?

    I dream of living in Japan for a study abroad program (and even permanently), but that’s still a few years away. The Japanese language is beautiful and I can’t stand it when my non-anime friends come up to me and ask why I bother listening to a different language if I can’t understand it (like listening to Japanese music). Even with subtitles on, one of them even asked me why I didn’t turn off the audio/voices. It’s disappointing.

    Posted by shirayuki75 | January 17, 2013, 4:06 PM
    • Think of it this way, anime are usually 12 to 24 episodes long. Usually an anime that’s 24 episodes long will take three or three episodes before it gets going, right? Since they need time to set up the foundation to the setting, characters, etc. That’s an hour of setting up out of the eight hours of anime (24 episodes is about 8 hours of content). That’s 1/8 of the anime.

      Visual novels are almost always around 50 hours in length on average. What’s 1/8 of that? That’s like six hours. This is why most visual novels seem to go on forever at the start, and is incredibly boring. In reality, since visual novels have such long stories, it’s only to be expected they take a long time before they get started. Asking a 50 hour VN to get ready in merely an hour is like asking a 24 episode anime to finish introducing the setting and characters in less than nine minutes. That’s just not possible.

      Umineko is nearly 80 hours in length. The entire first episode is nothing more than an introduction. If you have the patience to play through all eight I promise you it’ll be the best story you have ever read. I mean every word I said in The Answers of the Golden Witch. Speaking of that, I will eventually finish writing it. I did say I’m cutting my Internet life for Japanese…so, yeah. It’ll be out when it’s done.

      The Baka-Tsuki translations for light novels are OK but if you can read Japanese that would be even better. Watching the anime first works pretty well for Spice and Wolf. Also, Suzumiya Haruhi, simply put, is just an amazing light novel series. Read it up to volume 4, and by then you will know what I mean. It’s just really great.

      Japanese is really quite a beautiful language. Even when we don’t understand it, we can still feel it when we listen to it.

      Posted by ImperialX | January 21, 2013, 2:16 PM
  5. You can check up with many Japanese songs and their lyrics (obviously non romaji ones), break them into different parts and increase your vocabulary. That’s what I do when I’m learning Japanese, it’s one fun way to learn the language. The language itself is unique with the compounds, phonetics and stuff. Learning it to the fullest can be a challenge, though.

    My passion in life is learning and improving Japanese and also the Kanji, I’m going to take the Kanken, at least pre N2 for that matter and that test is far more superior and difficult than JLPT because it’s meant for natives. Mesmerising one’s self in the entire culture is what I’m going to do and learning the language is the first step.

    Posted by ViolentLucius | January 17, 2013, 5:53 PM
    • That’s a really good idea! I have a lot of Japanese music and I should start looking up their lyrics. Thanks for your suggestion.

      Immersion is everything when it comes to successfully learning a language and I hope I can create a good environment for myself to learn Japanese.

      Posted by ImperialX | January 21, 2013, 2:17 PM
      • Yes, and by doing that you can learn new words and expand your vocabulary. I’ve a blog post about this, you can check it out here: http://goo.gl/9PVkj. It’s nothing big though but helpful, hope you find it useful. And you’re welcome.

        Ofcourse, that one word makes a huge difference not only for languages but anything that you want to be good at. Remember, it’s a difficult language but unique at the same time, good luck!

        Posted by ViolentLucius | January 21, 2013, 6:25 PM
  6. Visual novels aren’t exactly hot stuff. For every “Clanand” there’s crap like The Guts! Learning Japanese is great and all, but in the end it’s only a hobby. I’ve been doing this for 7 years (including 4 years of Japanese from UC Berkeley) and trust me, what’s worth watching will be subbed. Besides we’ve got Crunchyroll to take care of lesser known series.

    Posted by Maceart | January 17, 2013, 6:49 PM
    • correction. For every clannad there will be mountains of crap like The Guts!,

      Posted by ~-entropy | January 17, 2013, 9:20 PM
    • Yeah, everything worth watching are subbed. That’s why I didn’t really include anime or manga as a reason for learning the language. Visual novels and light novels on the other hand, are a different story. I don’t really think we can truly say that everything worth reading has been translated.

      Of course there’s a ton of rubbish, but I’m not really learning Japanese or that. Also, I am interested in the Japanese community. I’ve been in the Western community for too long and want a breath of fresh air.

      Posted by ImperialX | January 21, 2013, 2:19 PM
  7. Yeah I’ve wanted to do this for ages. I wish you the best of luck! Me? I still have nearly 2000 kanji to memorize. Hahahaha….

    Posted by Duffman | January 17, 2013, 7:03 PM
  8. Wayyyyyy back in high school I took two years of Spanish. Even at that time it was mostly wasted effort – I did poorly and recalled very little even immediately after finishing the classes. The same was true when in college I took a year of German. Both experiences convinced me I was never going to be able to learn another language.

    In the fall of 2011 when anime had become a serious hobby I realized I was spending a considerable amount of time *listening* to Japanese (I had figured out that many dub’d versions had translation ‘issues’ so I rarely watch the dub’d versions), and the seed of an idea was planted in my head. After a couple of false starts I discovered the Pimsluer learning CDs and that I could cover a 25 minute lesson on my way to or from work in the car. By November 2012 I had finished all three Pimsluer sets (I’ve been using other material as well, but my main learning material was the Pimsluer CDs). At the same time early last summer some of my friends at work,(I work in a very diverse environment with people from many different countries, though sadly none from Japan) knowing what I was doing, started egging me on about visiting Japan. Again, the seed once planted grew and I spent the last two weeks of November wandering around Japan (Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Takayama, Matsuomoto, and Kanazawa). Though I certainly am not at the conversational level, I was very pleased at how much I was able to get by with my limited grasp of Japanese, often getting looks of surprise from the people I interacted with when I convinced them I actually knew enough to do such things as understand directions, order food, do a little shopping, etc.

    I also am starting to understand more and more of what I hear when I’m watching anime – occasionally with some of the simpler shows, if the dialog is not coming to fast, I can follow some conversations for a short while. (What I find really amusing is when I find myself occasionally disagreeing with the subtitles – as if I have the skill level to argue)

    I’ve also for a long time been aware that most anime is rooted in printed material, and in the last couple of years I’ve become aware of Visual Novels, I have a few Light Novels (all of the Suzumiya stuff, in fact, for instance) and a couple of translated manga. But it was actually while I was over in Japan that yet another seed was planted in my head. I was in a bookstore (I can’t resist bookstores, and was more than anything else “people watching”) and browsing the manga looking to see what I could recognize from the anime I watch when I stumbled across the cover of Tonari no Seki-kun. Instantly I found myself laughing at the antics within because the author has managed to bridge the language barrier such that simply watching the antics of the characters is entertaining. I eventually picked up all three volumes in print before I returned to the US but while “reading” them I realized I WANTED to *read* them.

    So, in the spirit of New Years resolutions I resolved that this year my goal would be to actually learn to read a little, and with that in mind I’ve picked up books and stuff to do just that.

    Posted by Cratex | January 18, 2013, 5:17 AM
    • Immersion, immersion, immersion.

      I use that word a lot when it comes to learning languages, because I truly believe that it makes a difference. At our age, it doesn’t matter if we learn a language (be it Spanish or Japanese) for two years or four years – as soon as we stop learning it, we forget it.

      Why do we forget? I learnt English as a second language. I stopped learning it many years ago, but why don’t I forget it? Because I’m immersed in English. I can’t possibly forget it because I use it. That’s why I believe that us who have such big hobbies in anime culture have a far higher possibility of retaining the language after we learn it.

      Let’s both do our best in 2013 to learn this beautiful language!

      Posted by ImperialX | January 21, 2013, 2:29 PM
  9. Best of luck!

    Having been through similar experiences as the other people leaving comments, I sincerely recommend repetition, and *active use of the language*. It’s rather easy to read and be able to understand, and another entirely to be able to conjure the vocabulary and grammar actively for a conversation. Although active knowledge might not be necessary to enjoy VN and LN, stimulating all sides of your language centre will help you remember the language for the future. You mentioned learning like a 4-year old; one thing to remember about that is that a 4-year old spends his time learning little else, with parents as constant teachers. Us adults have to be more time efficient, and usually have to make do with books for teachers. Unfortunately there are no books that pester you for using incorrect suffixes…

    That said, it’s most definitely doable, especially if you’re dedicated. I also expect you’ll find that you have an intuitive understanding of Japanese vocabulary and grammar from hearing endless lines of conversations and monologue in anime. ;)

    Posted by Linus E.G. | January 23, 2013, 8:38 AM

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