Japanese Radio Dramas: a unique and interesting way to study the language

By | February 17, 2022

My “method” for learning Japanese (if you can even call it that) is based on the idea of immersing yourself in the language and trying to actively use whatever you have learned whenever an opportunity presents itself. I’m guessing the majority of my readers are not actually living in Japan––though my stats do point to a pretty large number of readers from Japan––which means getting something close to true immersion requires quite a bit of effort, especially in the form of searching out and experimenting with various types of media.

I’ve advocated reading children’s books as good reading practice for beginning students (example) and also listening to podcasts. More recently I’ve gotten into audio narrations (called 朗読), and there are countless other types of media that can be helpful (and entertaining) for language learners. Now that there is so much content available (both video and audio) on sites like YouTube, the problem is more about what you consume than where/how you consume it.

One form of media that lately came to my attention is radio dramas (in Japanese ラジオドラマ). Radio dramas have been around in Japan nearly as long as they have been around in the Western world, which is the early 1920s. Of course radio dramas are associated with radio stations, which are becoming less and less popular as other media like YouTube take over, but the good news is you can listen to many radio dramas on YouTube or other places on the internet.

Radio dramas can be roughly described as audio-only movies, although given the diverse set of genres that movies cover this doesn’t help much to describe the content one should expect in a radio drama. To give you a better idea of the types of radio dramas I have been listening to and recommend to Japanese learners, you can check out the ラジオドラマ名作劇場 YouTube channel (roughly translated as “Radio Drama Masterpiece Theater”). As the name indicates these are closer to what you would expect to see (hear) in a theater, and are perhaps pretty similar to classic western radio dramas. A second channel that focuses on classic radio dramas that I recommend is 今日のアンビエンス.

So what differentiates these from podcasts, audio narrations, anime, movies, and TV dramas? In fact, radio dramas share things in common with each of these categories, but I think radio dramas generally have more dramatic acting, as well as good production in terms of things like sound effects and music that really help to establish the atmosphere. Radio dramas on those two channels (and other similar channels) also seem to target the general adult audience, which means you will get more down-to-earth stories and less crazy settings like you would find in anime.

But for me the best thing about these classic radio dramas––the majority I have listened to on those channels are several decades old––is that the way people speak and the content of what is being said is often closer to real life exchanges compared to conversations found in those other types of media. For sure, the extra-dramatic acting often feels a little “cheesy”, but ironically I feel that such sentimentality or exaggeration has roots in real people’s emotions and real experiences.

To be honest, these radio dramas can sometimes be difficult to follow. Even for someone like me with over two decades of Japanese study, the first few minutes can be a puzzle until I figure out what is going on. Often it is not the individual words they are saying but the big picture, what the story is really about. But I like how I can really focus on what is being said without being distracted by visual information (though surely visual cues can help understanding in some cases). Sometimes it feels like I have been teleported to someplace in Japan, and native speakers are speaking all around me.

Regardless of your skill level, like with literary audio narrations I don’t recommend listening to radio dramas as a background activity. I would give the majority if not all of your attention for best results and enjoyment. To me, going for a walk while listening to a radio drama is the ideal environment (with listening in a car second).

To close, I’ll introduce two radio dramas that I enjoyed to give you a place to start:

飢えなかった男 (The Man Who Didn’t Starve) is based on a SF work by Komatsu Sakyou, a pretty famous author, and is about a man who manages to survive for several months after being lost in a jungle following a plane crash. While it has some otherworldly elements, overall the conversation is pretty down to earth, and I like the ending.

もう一度あなたと (With You, Once More) is a heartwarming work about a divorced man and woman who happen to meet each other in a boating club after many years apart. It’s one of the more down-to-earth stories I’ve listened to, and the language is much easier than 飢えなかった男.

Finally, if you want to read more of my tips about language learning and maintaining motivation when learning a language, please check out my E-book “Language Motivation”

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