10 Shows and Movies That Will Help You Understand Japanese Culture

Have you been spending so much time at home lately that you’ve run out of things to watch? Even if ordinarily you’re not an avid binge-watcher, when you’re stuck inside most of the day, it doesn’t hurt to know a few shows and movies to fill your time. And why not take the chance to broaden your horizons and learn more about other cultures?

One of the best ways of attaining a greater understanding of another country is exploring its cultural output. Fortunately, nowadays, we have services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and VPNs that make it easier than ever to stream foreign movies and TV shows.

Japan is a nation of contradictions that can make it seem strange to outsiders. However, our list of shows and movies will help you gain a bit of insight and perhaps even pick up a few Japanese words and phrases for your next vacation.

The Birth of Sake

The Birth of Sake is an award-winning documentary that takes a deep dive into the lives of sake artisans from the Yoshida Brewery. In their quest to preserve two thousand years of tradition, they have to endure the extreme winters typical of northern Japan and brave some rather unusual working conditions. Since sake drinkers are spoiled for choice, the industry is intensely competitive.

The documentary focuses on the lives of these veteran sake workers and the sacrifices they make to maintain Yoshida’s world-class reputation.

Tokyo Idols

If you travel to Japan, you’ll quickly notice all the advertisements for girls and young women who sing and dance to pop music wearing matching outfits. This is idol music, and it’s largely unique to Japan.

Tokyo Idols is a documentary that investigates this Japanese cultural phenomenon and its super fans. We get to see the roots of a fascination with female sexuality and how it has become an obsession in this hypermodern society. As the internet is becoming more influential, idols are getting younger and younger.

The Garden Of Words (2013)

Japan is famous for anime, and if you want to see how well this medium can tell a mature and compelling story, you need to watch The Garden of Words. It’s a 50-minute romantic drama from powerhouse Studio Ghibli centers around a high school student who skips his morning lessons and goes to a garden where he encounters a 27-year-old woman who is also skipping work.

Their unexpected meeting changes both their lives. We don’t want to give you too many details, but we can say that the animation is absolutely gorgeous.

Why Did You Come to Japan?

“Why Did You Come to Japan?” is a great option for those thinking of moving to Japan but are still not sure. The presenters ask foreigners who have just arrived at Narita airport what they’re doing in Japan. Some are there to work or study while others are getting married, visiting friends, or have hobbies related to Japanese culture.

You’ll need to use a VPN that allows you to watch Japanese TV outside Japan, but it’s a great show since you get to see the country through the eyes of other foreigners who are just as enthusiastic about its culture as you.

Chef’s Table Season 1: Niki Nakayama

In this episode of Chef’s Table, we get to find out more about Niki Nakayama, a very successful chef, and restaurateur. She was born in the US to Japanese parents and is now the owner of Michelin-starred restaurant in Los Angeles called N/Naka, which specializes in modern kaiseki. Kaiseki is an expertly constructed multi-course dinner that uses various cooking techniques to bring out the finest flavors from each ingredient.

The camera crew follows Niki around as she performs the day-to-day duties inherent to running a Kaiseki restaurant. We learn more about her career and the adversities she’s had to overcome to get to where she is.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Jiro Ono is the owner of one of Tokyo’s most renowned sushi restaurants. It’s located at a subway station, has ten seats, and serves a fixed menu that costs a minimum of $270. Jiro Ono, 85, is on a relentless pursuit of perfection. His apprentices have to spend a decade focusing solely on preparing rice before he lets them move on to the fish.

We also get to explore his relationship with his oldest son and eventual heir, Yoshikazu, who is struggling to live up to his father’s legacy.

Solitary Gourmet

Let’s flip the script and explore Japanese cuisine from the perspective of restaurant customers. In Solitary Gourmet, we get to follow Goro Inogashira, played by Yutaka Matsushige. He’s a traveling businessman that goes to different places in Japan and finds new restaurants to try local specialties.

It’s hard to explain why a show that revolves around a businessman who eats alone can be so compelling, but once you listen to Goro’s inner monologues about the food he’s eating and the people around him, you’ll understand.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Japanese people have a reputation for being very polite. However, this façade of politeness often hides loneliness. It’s precisely this emotional contrast that’s shown in Tokyo Story. An elderly couple visits their kids in the city, but the smiling faces and deep bows mask heartbreak and resentment.

It may not be the most cheerful movie you could watch, but it does an amazing job at telling a deeply-affecting tale in a gentle way.  

Japanese Style Originator

Japanese Style Originator is the perfect show for those who want to know everything about Japanese culture from traditions, etiquette, how to make miso soup, or how to wear yukata. The show is full of interesting factoids, history, and trivia.  

Terrace House

If you generally don’t like reality shows like Big Brother because they’re too over the top and don’t feel real, you might want to try Terrace House that features more nuanced and well-adjusted people.

The show centers on a group of young Japanese men and women who meet for the first time and start living together, but unlike Big Brother, they can leave the house and go about their lives.

This makes the show feel a lot more authentic and down-to-earth. You get to see what ordinary Japanese people talk about during dinner and gain insight into what everyday life is like for them while exploring themes like relationships and romance.

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