This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of AJATT's patrons!

If you would like to support the continuing production of AJATT content, please consider making a monthly donation through Patreon.

Right there ↑ . Go on. Click on it. Patrons get goodies like early access to content (days, weeks, months and even YEARS before everyone else), mutlimedia stuff and other goodies!

Are L1 (English) Subtitles The Devil?

There’s a word for this in Japanese.


ちょうれいぼかい. Choureibokai 1, for the uninitiated. Literally, it means: “morning orders changed at sunset”. It usually has a negative connotation. Flip-flopping. Sort of a Mitt Romney thing.

Well, I am going to do what Romney could not. I am going to say it loud. I am a flip-flopper and I’m proud. 朝令暮改 for life, son!
And you know why?
Because 朝令暮改 is about admitting that, while preternaturally handsome and horrifically intelligent, I am not omniscient; I am not so perfect that I get everything right the first time. My decisions are not so perfect that they cannot benefit from being changed. My writing is not so perfect that it cannot be edited. Far from it.
So does this mean I should be president of those united states? No. But this isn’t politics.

Back on topic: Are English subtitles the devil?

No. English subs are not the devil. Romaji is the devil 2. English subs are the devil’s handmaiden. Or cousin. I don’t know; I don’t check these metaphors; I just spew them out.

My original position was essentially a 100% rejection of L1 subs. I’m off that train now. I was wrong. This is me eating humble pie. Savor this moment. I’m anorexic when it comes to humility pastries.

Which is not to say that I’m riding 100% in the opposite direction: you do want to avoid L1 (English) subs as far as possible. I know too many people who’ve been watching substantial amounts of subbed anime for a long time and don’t have much actual Japanese knowledge to show for it; that, indeed, is the origin of the thoroughgoing rejection of subs. At the same time, it is better to watch Japanese with L1 (English) subs than to watch no Japanese at all. A lot better. Some Japanese is better than no Japanese. Infinitely better. So don’t get anal about it. If it takes L1 (English) subs to keep you 3 engaged and involved in Japanese, then so be it: go with the L1 (English) subs. But do try taking them off as often as is possible and sustainable for you.

There are many possible L1 subtitle usage schemes. Here are just a few:

  1. Read L1 synopsis, then watch without L1 subs
  2. Watch first with L1 subs, then without L1 subs
  3. Watch first without L1 subs, then with L1 subs
  4. Turn L1 subs off but turn them on occasionally
  5. Turn L1 subs on but turn them off occasionally
  6. Watch with L1 subs

Stay in the game. By any means necessary. Avoid L1 subs if you can, but don’t be too hard on yourself. If you feel you need them to stay interested, then turn them on. Maybe try one of those subtitle usage schemes up there from time to time. And, of course, L2+ 4 subs are always cool.


  1. I eat hypocrisy for breakfast
  2. Yeah and I even have some on like the third line of this post, so…queue irony flakes
  3. and, perhaps, the people you love and/or live with
  4. So, L2, L3 and beyond

  18 comments for “Are L1 (English) Subtitles The Devil?

  1. Houston
    November 5, 2012 at 00:36

    Im glad you put this out, having just stared sentences I really had no grasp of japanese, even after finishing 2000+ kanji. I felt isolated from japanese without subs. I could only find some media I wanted to watch with subs though and having them didn’t hurt me during the kanji phase. Infact I think having L1 subs during the kanji phase is perfect. I would watch L1 sub material while doing kanji reps and as a result wasn’t reading the subtitles, instead I was listening to the japanese and glancing at the action occasionally between reps, but the subs were always there to be like, OH thats what this phrase means! Because I wasn’t getting that initially with literally NO background knowledge of japanese. When not doing reps I resigned to no L1 Subs and video games exclusively in japanese. Now that Im doing sentences its no L1 subs anymore but I still glean as much information as before due to my growing japanese exposure. I felt that I moved fast and covered kanji in 6 months, but hell, thats a long time to be not really “be getting used to” japanese yet, it’s a highly english phase, and probably the hardest.

    TLDR; Katz I love your method, please give thought to (some) L1 subs during the oft-forgot long-ass kanji phase that seems to drag on forever without any discernable increase in japanese skill (even though there is quite the increase)

    • kai
      November 11, 2012 at 11:54

      I love your idea about doing the srs reps and watching something fun at the same time. Years of schooling have taught me that you are either studying or playing, but never both at the same time. I think I might have to try doing both simultaneously. What a gem. This plus Lazy-kanji-Orig possibly equals “winning! =D”

  2. November 5, 2012 at 03:11

    Japanese is a little different because of the writing system, but I’ve found with Spanish and any other language that uses the same basic alphabet that English does that L1 subs are never necessary (though they are occasionally useful to help you understand the contextual meaning when you run into an oddball idiom or expression that doesn’t make sense even when you know the literal definitions of all the words in it), just use L2 subs, they’re far better. The best learning tool I’ve found yet for Spanish is Spanish language movies and TV shows with Spanish subtitles, nothing beats that.


  3. Oliver
    November 5, 2012 at 11:19

    Here’s another scheme:

    VI. Read the L1 subtitles, then watch without subtitles, then (hopefully some time later, maybe after listening to the audio in the background) watch the episode or movie with subtitles.

    A lot of, errr, “downloadable” anime comes with L1 subs that you can extract as text. You can also extract subs while ripping DVDs with a bit more effort.

    I remember my subtitle-less purist days. I once made my fellow AJATTer sit with me through the movie Outrage (『アウトレイジ』) … maybe not the best choice, given that most of the movie is people screaming このやろう! while killing each other, unless you catch how the characters are related to each other. (I appreciated a bit more on the second watch-through.)

    • フレヂィー
      November 7, 2012 at 10:52

      Ha! I remember the same exact thing happening to me. Watching アウトレイジ thinking, “wtf! this is a scream fest.”

  4. アンソニー
    November 5, 2012 at 14:42

    I used this philosophy in the beginning and it worked out beautifully for me. For example, I watched となりのトトロ once with L1 subtitles, and proceeded to watch it around 500+ times in the past four years, without subs. If I wouldn’t have watched it once with subs in the beginning, by now I probably, would of watched it 0 times with or without subs. So in short, do whatever you need to do to have fun with Japanese, as long as you have the general direction in mind (eventually no subs) you should be fine 😉

  5. ミル
    November 6, 2012 at 23:26

    Guysssssss. just found this out a few days ago while looking for a better way to watch skyrim w/ out worrying about studying jap in between. Also if you’re looking for a better way to watch jap RAW w/ out subs this is great(can’t believe I never thought of it before lol)

    go to youtube->game you like in japanese + 実況(or not.. it usually just pops up) = win. Make sure someone is talking in the background. These have no subs, so I often keep my 互いに辞書 next to the video to quickly type words here and there.

    Also for those who like call of poopy games, you’ll find a plethora of voice overs for them in jap!! I think I saw one video on part 100+ something.. so there’s a lot lol.

    Oh and one of the great thing about this… no anime voice, or movie drama voice.. straight raw from someone our age ^_^

  6. フレヂィー
    November 7, 2012 at 10:49

    Today, as a matter of fact, I watched Friday the 13th (the OG) over at, but I didn’t really watch it watch it, I was at work so I just let it sit prettily over in one of my corners while i got to it! To my amazement, after the movie was over, I’d say that I was able to follow about 80% of the movie, the more surprising thing is that it was all or mostly all by listening only, which made me a bit more excited and that much more motivated. Those in the intermediate phase will know my feeling.

    You can find it [the movie] at, just type in the keywords 日本語 吹き替え and you’ll come across quite a few movies…oldies but goodies 懐ムービー!

  7. jc
    November 8, 2012 at 05:08

    I think the trouble with L1 subtitles is really in the earlier stages when you know very little and your brain can’t parse longs streams of the ‘foreign’ sounds into words. It is just a stream of noise and you don’t get a lot of benefit as the whole line is usually a blur except for the occasional very short sentence or exclamation where your brain can match up “Oh, that’s how you say ‘Shut Up!'”

    Even then, you often don’t hear things clearly (Did that word start with a “D” like sound or a “CH” like sound?)

    But as you get more into the intermediate stage L1 subtitles can be useful when you know many/most of the words said in a line. You can then match up individual unknown words (and get a LOT of grammar listening practice.)

    Sadly, you will still have to deal with the clarity issue.

    I really favor L2 subtitles (I’m learning Cantonese, so finding good audio/video with closely matching subtitles is a bit of a challenge as the written language isn’t word for word with the spoken language.)

    Most of my studying involves mining words and sentences from videos with (often lame) L2 subtitles. It has increased my abilities a LOT. I don’t even try to SRS the stuff, I just keep watching / picking out words and sentences and saving them in a big spreadsheet. The repetition in the videos themselves is consistently increasing my comprehension and making the process faster and faster.

    “Better than nothing” is exactly how’d I’d describe L1 subtitles. But if it keeps you going, it is golden. The worst method is the one that makes you quit. As in most of life: Success = Persistence.

  8. ijp
    November 8, 2012 at 22:32

    My technique for dealing with hard-subbed DVDs I’ve occasionally obtained from the World Cinema section of HMV has been to have a strip of paper (with some japanese on it) that covers the subtitle area. It roughly corresponds to (4) in your list, since it doesn’t always do a great job.

    I’m not sure I’d recommend this for widescreen usage though, but then again, it’s just more space for Japanese 🙂

  9. Extract
    November 10, 2012 at 20:50

    Khatz, or any other well practiced Japanese-teer 🙂

    over at D-addict they have quite a list of subs (in many different languages)
    I’m just starting to do Sentences (figured it would be a little more helpful than MCD’s early on, I mean to my understanding the real benefit of MCD comes from the context, but if I can’t read any of the context it wouldn’t help me much, right?).
    So my question is would be be safe to turn the J/E subtitles into srs cards?
    My main concern is I may not get some of the nuances, since I’m JUST starting out with the sentences, my knowledge is quite small.

    thx in advance to anyone that can help me.

    • Extract
      November 10, 2012 at 23:11

      sorry for double post but I also want to know what others used when just finishing RTK, and starting to do their first sentences.

    • ahndoruuu
      November 30, 2012 at 15:35

      Go for it. I’ve seen some horrible fansubs in my time but if you can watch the show and actually feel like you understand what’s going on from reading the subs, they’re probably good enough for starting out.

      That said, you are dead on about missing nuances. A lot of (maybe most?) fansubbers are not actually fluent in Japanese and it shows.

  10. kai
    November 14, 2012 at 02:45

    Has anyone tried having Eng subs but cover over most of that part of the screen. I mean just put a strip of tape over the area where the Eng subs come up, just 3/4 of the area. It’s extremely tacky but my reasoning is that it allows you a bit of the context but not enough to fully understand what is going on. Depending on how much you cover you possible would be forced to listen more than you read due to not having to much to read but still never being completely lost of long periods of time. This would work best for talk shows and such, shows with a lot of dialogue. Also if you just can’t find L2 subs for the show. This might work well in the beginning stages before you have the kanji down.

  11. Amphy64
    November 16, 2012 at 14:56

    Oh, I like that phrase, 朝令暮改, huh? *Adds it to deck*

    Anyway, it’s nice to see a more positive view on L1 subs, that was something I’d come to decide for myself over a course of trial and error, and hoped it could be reconsidered. I think the thing is, people who are at a more advanced stage often forget what it’s like to be a real beginner, and don’t necessarily fully appreciate that perspective. At the real beginning, you don’t understand *anything*. It’s often difficult to keep things fun when that’s the case. Feeling obliged to listen to a lot of weird sounding gibberish you don’t understand, even if you have pretty pictures to go with it, is potentially a good way to end up frustrated and disliking your target language – especially if you really wanted to watch that show and now you can’t enjoy it fully because you have no idea what’s going on. I find I actually pick up far more words when I use the subs, because there’s an easy way to make the connection between a word and its meaning, and it’s easier to pick up on it when a word is being used multiple times. For instance, to use a simple example, if the subs say:

    ‘What pretty flowers!’
    ‘Yes, the flowers are at their best this time of year, aren’t they?’

    and you’re listening attentively, you can pick up that the word はな keeps being used in sentences that you know are likely to (not 100% guaranteed, because subs aren’t always totally literal) to contain the word flower. jc’s example of ‘Shut up!’ made me smile, as that’s actually how I learned that, from keeping hearing ‘Urusai!’ and seeing that the subs said ‘Shut up!’ (thank you, Tales of the Abyss for that one). Without the subs? It’d just have been another word in a mass of incomprehensible words. I might have looked it up eventually, but I think it would’ve taken me much longer to click ‘Hey, this word keeps coming up, what is it?’, and look it up in a dictionary to see what it meant. In the meantime, I would’ve become extremely frustrated by the amount I didn’t understand. It wasn’t a particularly efficient way to learn words, or even get used to the sounds of Japanese.

    So what I do now is, I watch with subs, then put the audio on in the background later (especially while doing reps, and when I get bored of music. I use episodes of anime as a reward for doing reps, it’s not a bad timeboxing method, reps, episode, more reps). Or sometimes, now I’m getting better able to understand a bit more, if it’s still entertaining without subs, I’ll watch without them, then with them so I can understand the show fully and check I wasn’t totally wrong about what I thought I understood, then audio in the background again. As you say, there are lots of ways to use subs. What is important however is that the person listens *attentively*. You need to be able to listen to the Japanese, as well as reading the subs (so a fast reading speed helps). I know myself, if I didn’t pay attention, I’d remember the show as though I’d seen it in English (although this is becoming less of a problem as I become more accustomed to Japanese). So, there is still some caution recommended, but it can work out fine if you’re aware of the potential issues and engaging actively with the target language.

    So, 朝令暮改? Definitely think it’s a good thing in this case. : ) And now I’m going to watch Durarara!! With subs. (that show is also great as it has a lot of written Japanese on screen so you get a little reading practice too, recommend it)

  12. jennifu
    November 27, 2012 at 14:20

    I dunno… I’ve been watching subbed anime for 10 years and I still don’t know a lick of Japanese (currently studying Mandarin). I mean, I picked up a few words and phrases, but in the 65 full days I’ve spent watching anime according to MyAnimeList, I’m sure I know a fraction of what I could have known watching it all raw.

    • Amphy64
      November 29, 2012 at 09:58

      Yeah, I’d been watching subbed anime for years and not picked up any Japanese, too – until I actively started trying to learn it. That’s what I mean by saying you need to listen attentively, I think you have to engage more actively with the material. For you, Mandarin is your priority, so maybe your focus just isn’t on Japanese so much. : )

      As it is, I can definitely say I’ve learned stuff from watching subbed anime, although my MAL total days is just a meagre 8.9. XD

      • November 29, 2012 at 23:17

        I’d have to say I’m inclined to agree with the whole listening attentively thing. I think probably my biggest downfall is that unless I’m extremely into an anime that I’m watching, I find myself tuning out. And it’s not even as if I start doing other things, I just start to think about random stuff in English >.<"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *