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Is Japanese Language From Anime Different Than Normal Japanese?

by Justin Sevakis,

AJ asks:

I've been studying Japanese for a while now, but it's only recently clicked that there appears to be a disconnect between how formal people are with each other in how they address each other and how they speak in anime. What I mean is that on the one hand people tend to address each other on a last-name basis until they get closer, and then use first-names, and people move from more polite speech to more informal speech as they get closer. In anime though, I see people who on the one hand address each other on a last-name basis, but on the other hand use informal speech, even with people they just met. How do people normally talk to each other in Japan?

As any otaku who has seriously studied Japanese can tell you, learning the language from anime is a terrible idea. What you pick up from your average Shonen Jump show is almost unrecognizable from what you learn in a formal language study. Anime tends to be awash in thug-speak, slang that would sound horribly rude coming from an adult, and general childishness. As I like putting it, you learn "DIE!!" (死ね!) before you learn "good morning." (おはようございます。)

Unlike English, Japanese uses at least semi-formal language for most day-to-day activities, from ordering lunch to having a meeting with your boss. And formal Japanese is very different than looser language. Verbs are conjugated differently, extra words and fragments of words are added just for decorum, and the language takes on an indirectness that makes it possible to speak for sentences without saying anything at all.

Anime dialogue, meanwhile, is predominantly the sort of dialogue you'd hear among kids at recess. While some shows do, of course, take place in an adult setting and/or have measured, polite, realistic characters, most of anime's iconic characters and lines come from teenagers and/or warriors of some kind. Its dialogue is very direct, and outside the context of anime or a rough social environment, usually comes off as extremely coarse and insulting. And since most of it takes place in Tokyo (or the characters talk like they're from Tokyo, at least), it's also pretty rich in local street slang. Masculine Tokyo colloquialisms, like changing negative conjugations ("Sou jyanai") to have a more relaxed pronunciation ("Sou jyanei") enter daily speech. Very very few people in Japan actually talk like that outside of a specific few situations.

Then you have the simple words that younger otaku pick up, like "baka." Baka is often translated as "idiot" or "moron", but in reality it's such a childish word, it's closer to "dummy" or "silly". Imagine someone over the age of 12 using the word "sillypants" unironically and you get some idea of how unnatural and weird that is.

Moreover, most anime voice actors don't speak the way normal people do. Much like their American counterparts, Japanese voice talent generally over-enunciate every word, and put a lot more tone of voice into every sentence. If you picked up most of your Japanese from anime and try to speak it in the same way, you're going to sound like a radio announcer rather than a normal person. How you perceive the language to sound will be thrown off.

To be perfectly honest, I still have this problem whenever I speak Japanese. I DID take proper Japanese classes in college and have been to Japan multiple times, but the vast majority of my experience with the language has been with anime. I do know the polite form of some things, but I always end up defaulting to super-casual but over-enunciated street slang. It's so embarrassing that I usually apologize for it up front. I'm pretty terrible with foreign languages in general, and I don't have much time to study these days, so it would appear that I'm stuck. But at least I have ludicrously, crystal clear diction, so everyone can understand me (assuming I get the words right)!

Having an ear for anime voice actor performances can also really throw you off when understanding more normal Japanese. This comes up quite a bit with neophyte subtitle editors who cut their teeth on anime, and are asked to subtitle an interview or commentary track, or a live action film. Many are completely taken aback by how real-life Japanese has tons of run-on sentences, mumbling, and people talking over each other. Translating and timing out subtitles is orders of magnitude harder. (In fact, this is why most of the time nobody bothers to subtitle voice actor commentary tracks. That, and the fact that most of them are just inane chatter.)

Japanese as it appears in anime and Japanese as it appears in real life are quite different. It might technically be the same language, but polite Japanese is essentially a separate dialect. Hearing Japanese from anime constantly might make you more comfortable with the language and its structure, but taken by itself, it can really throw off your language studies.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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