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Why the Japanese Nintendo 3DS Is an Amazing Device for Learning Japanese

In my ongoing (and perhaps never-ending) quest to achieve full Japanese literacy, I’ve developed a reputation for being a digital flashcard addict. However, effective as they are, flashcards alone are not enough to become fully literate in Japanese (as friends and colleagues often remind me). Going beyond textbooks and immersing yourself in native Japanese content is also a critical part of the learning process. Attempting to consume relevant native material (books, movies, video games, etc.), creating and drilling custom flashcards, and then reattempting to consume the same native content is a virtuous cycle that promotes knowledge acquisition and keeps motivation levels high.

Last year, I spent most of my immersion time reading and attempting to read Japanese books. This was a rewarding experience; however, books are a static medium. When the difficulty level spikes, you have no choice but to brute-force your way through pages of intimidating content. Doing so is necessary for improvement, but it can also be demotivating if you’re strapped for time. This year, I realized that certain video games, thanks to their interactive and often non-linear nature, can maintain motivation and keep me immersed in Japanese for longer periods of time.

These days, wherever you are in the world, your options for gaming in Japanese are infinite, and most Japanese learners are likely gaming on PC or the Nintendo Switch. These are great options, but in this article, I’d like to propose an unorthodox choice: the Japanese Nintendo 3DS. Why would I recommend the 3DS, a handheld console that Nintendo stopped producing in 2020, for studying Japanese? Read on to discover the primary reasons behind this recommendation and learn how you can get ahold of your own Japanese 3DS, while supplies last.

Forced Immersion

Modern gaming certainly has its issues. However, one positive industry development is the plethora of region-free software that you can play regardless of where you purchased your gaming device of choice.

However, for Japanese learners, the ability to instantly switch the language in which you game can be both a blessing and a curse. Switching back and forth between Japanese and English or relying on English subtitles for Japanese audio are great ways for beginners to start consuming native-level content. However, intermediate and advanced learners should strive for full immersion in the Japanese language, with no English to fall back on.

Fortunately, 3DS systems are region locked. If you buy a Japanese 3DS, you can only play games intended for the Japanese market, and most of those games are entirely in Japanese. From the moment you fire up the console you’re forced to use Japanese for everything from the hardware user interface to in-game text and audio.

This takes willpower out of the equation and creates an immersive environment that forces you to use Japanese at all costs. As Atomic Habits author James Clear writes, “The environment you surround yourself with determines the default actions that you take on a day–to–day basis. Guess what? This is good news because you can design your environment for success!” He continues, “By changing your surroundings, you can place a hurdle in the way of bad behaviors and remove the barriers to good ones. I like to refer to this strategy as environment design.”

By playing Japanese games on a Japanese 3DS, you are designing an environment that removes distractions and the “bad behavior” of switching to English when the going gets tough.

Hardware that Begs You to Study Japanese

A big part of crafting an environment for learning Japanese involves the 3DS hardware and the Japanese-learning software it inspired. Sure, the portable console is famous for its glasses-free 3D effects and dual screens (hence the clever “3DS” moniker). For Japanese learners, however, the most important feature is stylus support. The thin plastic cylinder that comes with every 3DS is the inspiration behind countless software titles exclusively dedicated to the art of writing and memorizing kanji characters. Most of these titles are designed to help users pass Japan’s premier kanji exam: the Kanji Kentei. Sure, there are plenty of cellphone apps that allow you to draw kanji with your finger. However, when it comes to writing kanji, using a stylus is much more accurate and feels so much more rewarding. To be fair, the Nintendo Switch also supports stylus use, but the amount of available Japanese learning software pales in comparison to what you’ll find on the 3DS.

A program to learn kanji is opened on a  Nintendo 3DS

In addition to the stylus, the simple, portable nature of the 3DS means that you’re always only seconds away from a chance to immerse yourself in Japanese. Sure, the Nintendo Switch can be used on the go, but at its core, it’s still a home console—bulky when compared to the 3DS and a device that comes with various miscellany that detract from the mission of owning a hardcore Japanese study tool. The 3DS is more akin to the portable electronic dictionaries that were popular in Japan during the pre-smartphone era. This analogy doesn’t sound exciting for gaming, but it’s a welcome comparison when it comes to learning a language.

A Vast and Varied Software Library

A stack of Nintendo 3DS games in Japanese

The aforementioned benefits of the 3DS would be meaningless without its massive software library. If the console’s 500-plus Japanese software cartridges weren’t enough, the 3DS is backward compatible with software designed for its predecessor: the Nintendo DS. This grants you access to nearly 2,000 more titles. In fact, you’ll find most of the best software for learning Japanese within the legacy DS catalog.

Between both software libraries, there’s a wealth of titles to aid you on your quest for Japanese mastery. For example, beginners can learn hiragana, katakana, and elementary-school kanji with Doraemon as a guide. Or, stylus in hand, you can start your quest to tackle the Kanji Kentei with popular titles such as DS Kageyama Method: Tadashii Kanji Kakitori-kun – Kondo wa Kanken Taidaku Dayo. Finally, if you prefer to learn kanji in an environment devoid of animated characters and mascots, you can’t go wrong with the more serious approach to learning  kanji presented in 財団法人日本漢字能力検定協会公認 漢検DS3デラックス (as no official roman-character title exists for this software, let’s just call this one Kanken DS3 Deluxe).

The cover of a Kanji learning game for Japanese 3DS

A lot of the kanji training software available for the 3DS, such as Tanoshiku Omoshiroku Kanken Shogakuse, are designed to help Japanese elementary students master kanji, but these titles are also great for people of all ages and nationalities who are interested in learning how to properly write over 1,000 kanji characters.

And when it’s time to put what you’ve learned to the test, all you have to do is swap cartridges and start playing a game from one of your favorite brands. Whether you’re a fan of classic Mario and Zelda titles or you prefer tales of tactical espionage in Metal Gear, you’ll find endless amounts of inspiring, immersive content within the 3DS game library.

The screen of a Nintendo 3DS shows a Metal Gear Solid Japanese game being played

Bonus: What to Buy and Where to Buy It

The final reason that the 3DS is an excellent Japanese learning tool is a fleeting one. Although the 3DS and its games are no longer being produced, plenty of consoles and physical software titles, new and used, are still on the market (digital titles will only be available until March 27, 2023). If you shop for used software, you can scoop up several titles for the price of a single PlayStation 5 game. If you live in Japan, all you have to do is browse amazon.co.jp or drop into any shop that sells used games. If you’re not up for a trip to Akihabara, your local Book Off is a great place to start. If you live abroad, obtaining a Japanese 3DS is going to take more effort, but the usual suspects (Amazon and eBay) should work fine.

When it comes to hardware, keep in mind that Nintendo produced six variations of the 3DS over the course of its lifespan, with each one varying in size and features (two of these models are actually 2DS systems). I opted for the New Nintendo 3DS LL—one of the final iterations of the console that’s still relatively easy to find brand new. However, a variety of factors including price, condition, and features will influence your decision. Videos like this can help you decide: “Best 3DS Console to Buy | Neander Meander.”

As for software, this Game Gengo YouTube video is an excellent starting point: “Top 5 Nintendo DS Kanji Games.” This channel introduced me to the idea of considering a 3DS for Japanese study, and it’s how I learned about a couple of the titles featured in this article. Lastly, if you’re interested in a deep dive into my 3DS collection, check out my contribution to the Mic Will Experiment YouTube channel: “Why I Bought a Japanese 3DS.”

Who Says Learning Can’t Be Fun?

Although I’ll never give up my various flashcard routines, it’s time to spend more time engaging with native-level Japanese content. This might sound odd coming from someone who lives in Japan and uses Japanese on a regular basis for daily life and work. However, it’s important to remember that most of the time, I’m using Japanese that I’m already comfortable with, and we all know that growth occurs outside our comfort zone. So why not combine the pursuit of Japanese literacy with a favorite pastime and make the expedition into the unknown realms of kanji, vocabulary, and grammar an enjoyable one?

If you enjoy video games—especially the classics, I hope this article will motivate you to combine your passion with the pursuit of knowledge. And, if you aren’t into video games (thank you for reading this far), I hope you’ll apply the concept behind this article to whatever hobby, interest, or passion that inspires you.

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.

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