Japanese: A High Context Language

By Jessica Hutchison

Are The Subtitles Screwed Up? 


Have you ever watched something in Japanese and the subtitles don’t quite match up? Well, today I’m going to explain why. Pretty much every Japanese learner has had this experience. A great way to solidify language learning is to watch things in that language. When you do this, it gives you a chance to hear vocabulary and grammar structures in context. It’s not quite as good as a full immersive experience, but sometimes that just isn’t available.  


Watching movies, dramas, and anime isn’t going to teach you Japanese, but it can at least give you some good listening practice (plus, there’s some really great shows out there). If you do, you’re probably going to have subtitles on just because a lot of shows have very specific vocabulary that you might not understand from learning normal conversational Japanese. Even after studying Japanese for over six years, I prefer subtitles for this exact reason.  As you learn more Japanese and reach more intermediate and advanced levels, you might start to notice that the subtitles and the Japanese don’t quite match up. At first, you might be a bit annoyed by this. Or maybe you don’t care. I was annoyed by it. Some of it comes from whoever translated it, but a big part of it is that Japanese and English grammar are very different. 


One key difference 

is this fancy grammatical thing called context. If we take English as our comparison, it’s pretty easy to see why context is important in Japanese. English is what is known as a Low Context Language. That means you generally won’t need much background knowledge when talking to someone. If we talk about ourselves, we generally will say “I” or “me” or something like that in the sentence. The subject and object of the sentence are sometimes replaced, but usually not omitted.  

You can see an example of this in a sentence like “Sarah ate pie.” Sarah can be replaced by “she” and pie can be replaced by “it” without changing the meaning. But if you shorten the sentence to “Sarah ate,” it changes the meaning. All the words are necessary in this sentence for it to stay the same.  Now let’s take a look at the same sentence in Japanese. 


If we directly translate this sentence, we would end up with something like: 

“Sara ga pai wo tabeta” (サラがパイを食べた). 


There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, but there are definitely a few grammar things we can talk about here. Japanese, unlike English, is a High Context Language. This means that when you speak with someone, they expect you to have some background knowledge of what they are talking about. This can make language a bit more confusing for a learner, but it also makes it a lot more efficient.  If you are talking to someone, and you are already talking about Sarah, there is no reason for you to say her name again, unless for emphasis. So this sentence could become “Pai wo tabeta,” and it would mean the exact same thing. If you are already talking about the delicious pie your friend made, and someone asks you who ate it, you could reply with “Sara ga tabeta.” And if you have been talking about Sarah and pie the whole time, you could just say “Tabeta,” and it would still mean “Sarah ate pie.” You can do all this because of context. Sure, you can use the whole “Sara ga pai wo tabeta” sentence, but it sounds like a little much in most circumstances. 

Less Sometimes is More 


The way you phrase things can really affect how they are emphasized in Japanese, so it’s important to be aware of context in your conversations. This all translates back into those subtitles I was talking about. Sometimes in Japanese TV shows and movies, a character will just say something like “Tabeta.” The problem for translating that into English is that “ate” isn’t a sentence. This is why the subtitles don’t always match the dialogue. If you’ve ever watched one of those old dubbed over Godzilla movies, you can see it there too. The English voices will be either hilariously short or long compared to how long the Japanese actors move their mouths. We sometimes make fun of that, but it really shows that translating between Japanese and English can be quite challenging. 


 As you keep learning Japanese, the idea of high context is good to remember. It makes conversations go a lot smoother when you know what you can assume the listener knows. It can also help you sound more fluent when you speak with natives. But another thing to note is that it’s okay to ask when you don’t understand the context. Because Japanese is such a high context language, it’s pretty common for a speaker to assume the listener knows something they actually don’t. So if someone says “Tabeta,” to you, and you don’t know who ate what, feel free to ask. Japanese people are super nice and really appreciative of any effort you make to learn their language. 


So with that, keep on working on your Japanese! Use subtitles from shows and movies to help you learn more about context. It’s easy to see where things are omitted in Japanese when you compare subtitles to dialogue. 

 If you are looking to continue to improve your Japanese, be sure to check out our daily podcast! 

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