When I announced my intention to date a virtual girl in the newest iteration of Love Plus by asking all of you to help me choose which romantic foil to go after, I noted that it would not be my first dating sim. Moreover, I mentioned that dating sims are the best tool I know of for expanding your Japanese ability.
Back in 2004, I was in college and studying intermediate level Japanese. I had average grades in the class and spent my free time playing games, watching anime, and hanging out with friends who were also studying Japanese.
One of these friends studied abroad in Japan for half-a-year and when she returned, she brought with her a Japanese PS2 and the game Tokimeki Memorial: Girl’s Side. This dating sim, designed for girls, is a school life simulator where you improve your stats via school life activities, meeting various boys, and attempting to woo them in the three years before you graduate.
All my female friends proceeded to play it obsessively.
At first, I didn’t think much of it. I had never played a dating sim and honestly looked down on the whole genre as being for losers who couldn’t get a real girl—instead of what they really are: interactive romance novels. But over the coming weeks, I noticed something. My female friends’ Japanese was getting much better than mine. In class or while doing homework, they would answer questions I had no idea about. When I asked how they knew, the answer was always the same: “Girl’s Side.”
Thus, the following year when I moved to Japan for my final year of college, I immediately found a game store near my host-family’s house and walked out with Tokimeki Memorial 2 on the PS1. As I played it, I not only enjoyed the story but learned a lot of useful Japanese.
And when you think about it, it’s pretty obvious why. Getting real conversation practice is often neither easy nor practical—especially if you don’t live in Japan. As a dating sim set in the real world, Tokimeki Memorial 2 is the next best thing. After all, it's built entirely around real world-style conversations.
The characters talk about going to see movies, watching TV, their hobbies, their likes and dislikes, school life, and any number of other common topics. Moreover, as kind of a comprehension challenge, the end of each date has a question you must answer correctly to earn the maximum amount of love points.
The other incredibly useful aspect of dating sims is that the vast majority of them that have come out in the past decade are fully voiced. To understand why this is important, you need to know a bit about the Japanese language.
Japanese has three alphabets. Two are phonetic (meaning each letter has one specific sound) with 46 letters apiece. The third alphabet, “kanji,” is pictographic with over 2000 letters in common usage that have several different pronunciations each. In practice, sentences use a mix of the three alphabets. So that means if you run across a kanji letter you have never seen before, there is no way to guess either its pronunciation or meaning.
Of course, if you are able to hear a voice reading a sentence along with the text, words are a million times easier to look up and subsequently remember—not to mention that you may already know the word and just not happen to have learned the kanji. Thus, I easily learned 100 new kanji in the first two weeks I spent with Tokimeki Memorial 2.
And that is why whenever anyone asks me what game to play to expand their Japanese, I always suggest a dating sim. Unlike JRPGs, they not only are fully voiced, but also are likely to use vocabulary you know from class and teach you new words likely to come up in everyday conversation. They're great listening, reading, and conversation practice. Not to mention, dating sims are more than a little addictive as well as fun.