• Basic Guide To Japanese For Video Games

    By Electric Boogaloo and ½pint

    Japanese is a very complicated language to learn, and something which takes time, effort and a lot of perseverance. It is a language unlike any languages we traditionally learn in England. Everything from the alphabet to sentence structure is different to English, but like many things in Japan, follows a tight structure and recognisable pattern. There is no way we could teach even the most willing student the language of Japanese, but we are an import site, and being an import site we will strive to make even the most inaccessible and obscure title a joy to play. That said, we welcome you to our Japanese import guide, which aims to make Japanese games playable to everybody without the stress and hardship of learning the entire language.

    When looked at from afar, it appears that Japanese is a disorderly, confusing mess. This is, in reality, very far from the truth, and there is a very easy method to work your way around Japanese games. The simple fact is, that the Japanese language has borrowed many words from the English language, and most words associated with modern technology - like videogames - sound basically the same as they would in English. Words like ‘aakeido’, for example, meaning ‘arcade’. If the Japanese used Latin characters rather than their different alphabets, it would be a cinch to understand the language. However, the unfortunate truth is that they don’t, which is where we hope to help.

    The Japanese alphabet is split into three (in order of complexity): Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji. The words that the Japanese language borrows, simple words like "Beer", "Coffee", and of course "Game", are written using the Katakanaalphabet, the simplest of the three. As mentioned before, most modern jargon in the Japanese language is simply taken from English, which means that a lot of what you see written in games is similar - if not identical - to English, albeit written in Katakana. With such a large range of vocabulary within easy reach, there is no reason not to learn this alphabet and once learnt, navigating Japanese games will be a cinch. In fact, this is knowledge-enough to plough into most text-light Japanese games.

    See further down for the Katakana alphabet charts and explanations.

    For any modest import gamer, Katakana is the only alphabet needed to be able to understand what’s what in Japanese games. Our vocabulary guide at the bottom of this page will detail many of the words and phrases that crop up in Japanese games, along with how to say them and their meanings. However, not everything in video games is written using Katakana, and there are still many words which have got a ‘proper’ Japanese equivalent. Words such as “Shop” are instead written using the Hiragana alphabet.

    The Hiragana alphabet is in a way the opposite to Katakana. While Katakana is used for foreign words, Hiragana is used for Japanese words. This includes everything like verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, conjunctions, markers and so on. Hiragana only really ought to be learnt if you are trying to learn Japanese as a whole, rather than just to get by in your import games. Even so, it does help out in games. “What’s the use in reading Japanese if you don’t know what it means”, I hear you ask. Well, the answer to this lies in the Kanji.

    Kanji are those characters you always dreaded. They are the ones you always think of when you hear Japanese mentioned. At the last count, there were over 36,000 Kanji in existence in the Japanese language. It’s a daunting prospect, and since each Kanji is a cross between a picture and a letter, there is one hell of a lot of characters out there. Many of them can look the same, and this is where you can run into some trouble. It is also where Hiragana helps out immensely. In the vocabulary section of this guide, you will find many words which aren’t written in Katakana, but instead are simply Kanji symbols. In-game, it can be very hard to work out exactly what certain Kanji symbols can mean.

    This is where Hiragana comes in. Hiragana is used in the Japanese language in many places, but as well as forming a part of the language, it is also used to spell out Kanji symbols. You don’t seriously expect every person living in Japan to have 36,000 Kanji symbols and their meanings memorised, do you? Of course not. No, in games, Hiragana is often used to ‘write out’ Kanji symbols, so to speak. Small Hiragana subscript appears above Kanji symbols in most games, spelling them out. These are called Furigana. If you’re trying to learn what many Kanji symbols mean, it is so much easier to be able to read them in Hiragana than to have to learn every individual brush-stroke for the symbol.

    And so, the following Hiragana guide is very useful when trying to learn bits and pieces of Game vocabulary not featured in the Katakana alphabet. In the vocabulary section of this guide, we will give the Furigana for the Kanji symbols featured.

    See further down for the Hiragana alphabet charts and explanations.

    Basic Vocabulary

    English Phonetic Japanese
    yes hai
    no iie
    on ari
    off nai
    start sutaato
    settings settei
    option opushon
    music ongaku
    I did it yatta
    buy kaú
    sell urú
    leave derú
    shop mise
    save sếbu
    load roudo
    level reberu
    item aitemu
    mode moodo
    continue tsuzúki
    fight tatakau
    file fáìru
    retry ritorai
    memory card memoriikaado
    attack kógeki
    easy kantan
    hard muzukashii
    quit shyuu ryou
    1 ichi
    2 ni
    3 san
    4 yon
    5 go
    6 roku
    7 nana
    8 hachi
    9 kyuu
    10 jyu
    100 hyaku
    1000 sen
    10,000 man

    Katakana In Depth

    This table shows the 48 basic syllables that make up the Katakana alphabet. It is neatly arranged in rows/columns, which is the standard arrangement much like ours. So with a copy of this chart, we can begin by translating this example word:

    By browsing many Japanese release dates, this one will pop up quite often. Taking each character from the chart, we translate this to be ‘ko na mi’. Yes, simply this is Konami. However, like most things in life, they don't stay quite as simple as this.

    If you were thinking that the table above was a little sparse in terms of how many syllables can be spoken, then you’d be right. The alphabet can be extended from the initial characters, but adding a small “ or ° mark to the top right corner of certain characters. By adding these, a new range of words can be spoken. The following table shows these changes:

    Now a greater range of syllables can be used. However, it gets a little more complicated, but not much. When the character '-' is met, this simply means to expand the sound of the last syllable met. For example:

    Spelling this out, we get: wa-a-pu. Now, a word of advice. After obtaining the syllables, say them out loud. This helps immensely in getting the sound of the word, as the spelling of the word will never match the English equivalent. Eventually, this word should come out "warpu", the developers of D2 on the Dreamcast. However, whenever a syllable is met with the last letter 'u', the 'u' is often devoiced. So the large wrestlers so common in Japan are actually pronounced 'smo' rather than 'sumo'. Also, you may have noticed that the language does not handle an 'l' or a 'v'. These are usually swapped with the characters 'r' and 'b' respectively. This is most noticeable in one of Sega's famous racing games:

    Say this out loud, and it should sound something like 'rally'. Which is what it says. At this point, the most important thing to remember is to not look at the spelling so much, and to try to get the pronounciation correct. Japanese symbols are very independent, unlike English letters. In English, how you pronounce a letter depends on the surrounding letters, yet Japanese symbols are said the same no matter which word they are in. So take each symbol as it comes, write down the English (or Romaji) equivalent, and say it out aloud. This should make it clear what the word is.

    More syllables can be created also, with the following combinations, finishing off our Katakana alphabet.

    Notice the subscripted symbols, and how they affect the larger symbol. In effect, they remove the first symbols’ vowel, and replace it with the subscripted syllable. A quick word of warning however, some of the Katakana words can become very stylised, like in this example:

    Luckily this one has the equivalent English written underneath, but this is an example of how stylised the language can get, and that it is not just restricted to it's simplest font style.

    And finally, the character 'tsu', when written subscript, performs the same as what the '-' character does, but for consonants. For example, in Get Bass:

    Pronounced, this is 'ge tto basu'. Sadly, the Japanese language does not explicitly show spaces, so this is one of the main problems of translating. This shows the importance of saying it out loud, which will help in separating the words.

    This picture also has a heavy amount of Hiragana/Kanji, yet some of the words are in Katakana. So it is possible to gain a little understanding into the general meaning of phrases. The first few Katakana characters translate to "me mo ri kaa do" or "memory card". So obviously this is a memory card operation, and the Katakana next to 'OK' reads as 're to ra i', which translates to "retry".

    More examples of Katakana to English translations above. With a little bit of practice, skipping through menus is incredibly easy, and even comprehending more comlex phrases becomes easier with knowledge of Katakana.

    It's impossible to learn this alphabet overnight. However, within a week of work with it, slowly writing down the romanised equivalents, saying them out loud, then getting the English, it is possible to be fluent with the Katakana alphabet. And with this newfound knowledge, go and enjoy the games that you never thought you would understand; you can understand more than you think.

    Hiragana In Depth

    In terms of the syllables used, Hiragana is basically the same alphabet as Katakana. It has symbols for all of the same letters, it follows the same letter modifications when softening the sounds, and in fact, all that is different is the shape of the actual characters. Even then, many of the characters are alike; in Hiragana many of the characters are simply more rounded versions of their Katakana counterparts. The following table demonstrates the basic Hiragana characters:

    Like with Katakana, with most basic Hiragana, if a small ” or ° mark is added to the top-right of a character, this softens the initial consonant. For example, the letter ‘ka’ is softened to a ‘ga’ sound. The following table demonstrates the changes made

    In Hiragana, if you see a normal character followed by a subscript ‘ya’, ‘yu’ or ‘yo’ symbol, this technically removes the vowel of the preceeding character. For example, ‘ka’ followed by a subscript ‘ya’ would sound like ‘kya’ rather than ‘kaya’. This happens to most of the series, as is detailed in the following table:

    Double consonants also feature in Hiragana, much like in Katakana, and a subscript ‘tsu’ symbol placed before any symbol effectively doubles the following symbol’s initial consonant. For example, in the Japanese word for ‘settings’ - settai no - the characters ‘se’ subscript-‘tsu’ ‘te’ ‘i’ would be used.

    The Japanese word for settings is a good example of where Hiragana is used. This is probably because the Japanese already had a word for ‘settings’, so they did not need to import the English equivalent into their language. Luckily, the word is still fairly similar, but the case is not necessarily the same with all Hiragana words.

    The most obvious example of Hiragana words featured in games, are the Japanese words for Yes and No. They are spelt in Hiragana, and are nothing like their English counterparts.
    Yes = ‘ha’ ‘i’
    No = ‘i’ ‘i’ ‘e’

    In this screenshot, it is possible to translate some of the Katakana and Hiragana. Looking at the text at the top, you can see the characters "mis syo n", or "mission". So it is very possible to translate partial menus with just knowledge of Katakana.

    The two options to select from in the menus are quite obviously the Hiragana words 'yes' and 'no'. Though this is very basic Japanese to learn and they're easily recognisable, if you don't know them you'll be pretty stuck.

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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. nakamura's Avatar
      nakamura -
      Nice one Charles. Interesting topic and it was the way I taught myself katakana! Gaming!

      I used to translate all of the Winning Eleven names for my friends. After a while I started to notice a pattern to it and started to guess the katakana before selecting it. Luckily on Winning Eleven it had a option for the commentator say the name with a simple press of the triangle button.