The Anime Controversy: English Dubs vs. Subs vs. Japanese Dubs

For those who only watch mainstream Anime on Toonami or Cable TV you might not be aware that the majority of native English-speaking Anime fans prefer to watch their Anime with the original Japanese audio. I prefer watching my Anime dubbed into English but from what I’ve been seeing I’m in a shrinking minority.

Why do most American Anime fans prefer their Anime in Japanese? There are many reasons but these are the reasons I see and hear the most:

  1. “I don’t like the way they sound.”
  2. “That’s not exactly what they say in the original Kanakata/Hiragana”
  3. “They always censor/change stuff on purpose.”
  4. The audio doesn’t match the mouth flaps.”
  5. “After what 4Kids did to <Insert Anime Here>, I can’t trust English Dubs.”
  6. “If I watch it in Japanese enough times I’ll learn the language.”
  7. I know enough Japanese to watch undubbed.”

These are the seven I hear the most. Before I comment on them I do want to make it clear I respect a person’s preferences. While I don’t agree with most of the commonly given reasons listed above, as the saying goes “To each their own”. I can understand #1 though with all due respect, I think it’s a pretty stupid reason to refuse to watch an Anime’s English dub. I think Seth McFarline is one of the worst voice actors ever but it doesn’t stop almost everyone I know from watching Family Guy. The same arguement can be made in this case.

#2 and #3 are really the same thing when you think about it. It’s been explained so many times over the years yet folks REFUSE to accept the truth. The fact of the matter is Japanese and English are VERY different. Translating something from Japanese to English is much harder than translating from French, Spanish or German to English. The reason: The three languages I just listed as well as English use letters and syllables from a 26-letter alphabet. The Japanese Alphabet has over 400 letters and Syllables. BIG difference. Just like there are strict grammar rules for English, there are strict grammar rules for Japanese.

Here’s a few:

  • A person’s first name and last name always ends with a vowel (A,E, I, O and U).
  • The letters L and R do not exist in the Japanese Language.
  • There are no silent syllables or sounds in the Japanese language. For example in the word “Knife” the “e” is silent. In Japanese you would either drop the “e” or pronounce it with the “e”. In short, there is no “waste” in the Japanese language.
  • While Letters and Numbers (A-Z, 0-9) are usually read from left to Right, Japanese is read from right to left (Manga translated into English is kept in the “Right to Left” format to let the reader know what they’re reading was originally written and published in Japan).
  • Honorifics are used when speaking with someone. Depending on the level of the relationship you use a different type of Honorific. Only siblings or those who are romatically close to each other can be on a first name basis with no Honorifics. In Japan, some slack is given to those who don’t know the rules but once you do, you’re expected to comply.
  • Going with the above: Acquaintances address each other by their last name, or Family Name.  So for example John/Jane Smith would be Smith John/Jane (or Smith-san) in Japan. If you become a good friend of John/Jane you can move to first name but need to put an honorific at the end of their name: -chan for a female and -kun for a male. Senpai is a title used when talking to someone who is your senior or intructor but not as formal as Sensei (Japanese for Teacher or Master). Senpai literally means “One who has come before” and is most commonly used in high school and certain work settings.

I could go on and on but hopefully now you get the idea. In recent years I’ve noticed some Anime do keep the Honorifics in the English dub. Clannad and Persona 4 are two such examples.

Moving on to #5…whew. There is so much hate for 4Kids even 19 years later it’s not even funny. What IS funny is the hate is actually justified. 4Kids gained imfamy from this picture:

Left: The Scene uncensored.
Right: The same scene censored by 4Kids in the U.S.

For those who don’t know, this scene is from an episode of the original Yu-Gi-Oh! Anime series. The fact the REAL first season never came to the U.S. aside (here’s a hint: Heart of the Cards is actually the first episode of the SECOND season), this scene takes place right after Bandit Keith (left in both screenshots) loses his duel with Joey (again: sidestepping the whole “Americanizing” thing this scene made 4Kids famous for. Joey’s real name is Jonouchi). He jumps over to Pegasus (right in both screenshots) and…you can see what happens above.

4Kids refused to air The Legend of Dratini during the first season of Pokemon. Why? Because a gun is brandished in that episode (but is never fired). The bigger problem with not airing this episode is Ash catches nearly two dozen Tauros during that episode (though he only uses one in during the Indigo League). Unless you knew the episode in question was skipped in the U.S. this raises the obvious question when Ash returns home in a later episode “When did Ash catch all those Tauros?!”

Don’t get me wrong, other companies have censored things but nowhere near on the level 4Kids has and continues to do. I put up with the 4Kids censorship until I got the feature film Mewtwo Returns on DVD about 10 years ago. This video comes with a bonus movie excluded from the U.S. theatrical and home releases of Mewtwo Strikes Back. I’m talking about The Birth of Mewtwo, which is the prequel to Mewtwo Strikes Back. Why was it left out of the highest-grossing Pokemon movie ever made? Because a then young Mewtwo is traumatized by the deaths of his close friends. He is so upset at the loss of his friend, the scientists wipe his memories out of fear he will die too. It was considered “too dark” or a “kid’s show” so…yeah. Speaking of which: In Mewtwo Returns Mewtwo and Giovanni have an exchange of words. Mewtwo says “I would rather leave this world than serve you.” It’s a roundabout way of saying “I’d rather die than be your puppet”.

Moving on to #6 and #7: Any native English speakers who’ve learned Japanese will tell you this is not only the worst way to learn Japanese but it’s very ineffective. Sure I can articulate many Japanese words and phrases like a fluent speaker but that is the extent of what I can do. That and read Romanji. Romanji is Kanji and Hirangana translated into the Western Alphabet (usually for enunciation purposes for native Japanese speakers learning English). It was never meant to be used as a “back door” to learn Japanese. I’m not ashamed to say I tried.

In recent years the dub vs. sub debate has spilled into Video Games. The same reasons listed above apply here more or less. This has resulted in some Japan-based video game companies releasing games with both Japanese and English Audio or in some cases, just the Japanese dub with English subtitles. If you see a game with the words “International Edition” on the box that means it has both English and Japanese audio. The first game I played like this was Samurai Warriors 3 for the Wii.

Now me, let me restate weather it’s a Game or Anime if it’s available in English I will get it in English. If there is no English Dub available and I’m still interested I will watch/play it anyway. Warriors Orochi 3 (Xbox 360) and Samurai Warriors Chronicles (3DS) are both Japanese Audio only but that didn’t keep me from enjoying both games. KOEI (The makers of the Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors and Warriors Orochi games) has said they will release games with both English and Japanese Audio budget permitting.

I have more of a beef with the industry-threatening precident the Japanese Dub crowd has unknowingly set. Funimation, Gonzo Entertainment, Viz Media and other companies specialize in localizing Anime. As I learned when I met David Matranga at Anime Boston last year, being a voice actor for Anime isn’t exactly profitable unless your name is Luci Christian or Johnny Bosch Young. What I’m sure these and other companies are thinking about is if it’s worth comitting resources to localize Anime if the demand is for them to be subbed and not dubbed.

Unlike American voice actors who do work for American programs, Anime voice actors usually don’t get paid much for their work. Whereas American voice actors are signed to an exclusive contract with the network for the duration of the season, their Anime counterparts are paid upfront per season and do not  collect royalty fees their American counterparts do. Also unlike their American counterparts Anime voice actors are usually in the recording booth alone (hard to believe, huh?).  Even so, They do what they do because they like doing it.

This changing preference sets a dangerous precident for those who might be interested in pursuing a career in voice acting. Now don’t get me wrong, even the sub crowd has their favorite voice actors. The fact is, the company that buys their services gets the final say. As a consumer, if you think, say Tom Wayland should voice Goku instead of Sean Schimmel (the latter being Goku’s actual English Voice actor), call the company that does the dubbing which is in this case Funimation.

Ok, look: I don’t have a problem with the Japanese language. In fact, most of the music I’ve been listening to over the last 3 years is sung in Japanese (mostly from Anime). One of my favorite rock bands was STEREOPONY before they broke up in the fall of 2012 (I bought a copy of what ended up being their final Album together, A Hydrangea Blooms), which was replaced with AKB48 after listening to their hit single Sugar Rush (also from the Wreck-It Ralph soundtrack). I love Jun Maeda’s work on the Clannad Anime and Shoji Meguro’s work on Persona 4 (both the video game and the Anime) is simply amazing. It also goes without saying I’ve also been attending Anime Boston since 2010 so…yeah.

Even so, when I watch Anime my preference will always be in watching the English Dub. I have about a dozen Anime DVD sets. You know what? I watch the English tracks with the subtitles turned on. Why? So I can get an idea of the conversion from Japanese to English. As I saw in Clannad and History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi (Kenichi the Mightiest Disiple in the U.S.) some lines were slightly tweaked so they will make sense to an American audience. During Siegfried’s intro episode in Kenichi The Mightiest Disciple, two of the masters are having a discussion about the Norse figure Siegfried and the Las Vegas Entertainer Siegfried. Sakaki gets the two mixed up so Koetsuji corrects him. According to the subtitles they’re talking about a coke float, which wouldn’t make any sense in the context it was used.

This now brings me to the third camp that refuses to even watch the “official” sub and will instead watch fan-subbed Anime (usually on You Tube). Their reasons lie in the example I just gave you: They only want to watch with the literal translations without it being “culturally corrected”. One of the things commonly removed from Anime dubbed into English is Honorifics though in recent years they have been getting better about leaving them in.

In my experience, most of the people who feel this strongly are actively studying Japanese either for school or for a trip to Japan but as I said above, it’s been proven you can’t learn Japanese from just watching Anime undubbed. It’s great if it gets you interested in learning Japanese but if you want to learn to SPEAK the language, there are much better and productive ways out there.

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