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15 Best Documentaries About Japan To Watch

These are 15 of the best documentaries about Japan selected for different genres to help understand the country better. They give a very good insight into Japanese culture and Japan as a whole and I highly recommend all of them.

Do not be surprised that there are a bunch of food-based documentaries as Japan’s food culture is a big part of Japanese tradition and Japanese food is famous all over the world.

After spending several months travelling around Japan and writing travel guides for the places I visited I decided to write articles about Japanese culture, books, movies, and more (links in this article to some of those posts).

So if you’re planning a trip to Japan or are just interested in Japan, then these will all give a good insight into the Japanese way of life.


Disclaimer: I own none of the images in this post. They are used in fair usage terms to publicly discuss the documentaries about Japan.

Note: I’ve added links in the article to where you can watch some of these documentaries on Japan at Amazon and they are affiliate links which means I get a small commission at no extra cost to you if you watch them there. Thanks.


Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)

best documentaries about Japan - Jiro Dreams of Sushi

If you love sushi then you will love this documentary. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about Jiro Ono an 85-year-old sushi master (his age when the documentary was made in 2011) and his son who is learning the business from his father.

Jiro has a tiny sushi restaurant in Tokyo that only takes 10 people at a time. Watch this especially if you are interested in sushi and exploring parts of Tokyo.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan (2019)

Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan is one of the best new historical documentary series about Japan based around the samurai.

It explores the tumultuous period of Japanese history known as the Sengoku period, which lasted from the late 15th century to the early 17th century and was characterized by political upheaval and almost constant military conflict among various daimyo (feudal lords) vying for control over Japan.

The series uses a combination of dramatic reenactments, expert interviews, and historical analysis to look into the lives of key figures from the Sengoku period.

It also explores the strategies and battles that shaped the course of Japanese history during this time. If you want to learn more about the age of the samurai in Japan, this is the documentary series for you.

You can watch this series on Netflix:

Trailer:


Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands (2015)

Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands is a nature documentary series that consists of three episodes, each focusing on a different aspect of Japan’s diverse natural environment. The series explores the wildlife, landscapes, and ecosystems that make Japan unique.

The three areas explored in the three episodes are:

  1. Honshu: This episode explores the main island of Honshu, where Tokyo and Kyoto are located. It showcases the contrast between the bustling urban areas and the serene natural landscapes. You get to see iconic landmarks such as Mount Fuji and the snow monkeys of Jigokudani.
  2. Hokkaido: This episode focuses on Hokkaido, the northernmost and least developed of Japan’s major islands. It highlights the island’s wildlife, including the brown bears and the red-crowned cranes, as well as the winter landscapes that attract skiers and snow enthusiasts.
  3. Kyushu: The final episode explores the southern island of Kyushu, known for its volcanic landscapes and unique wildlife. It showcases the active volcanic region of Aso, the hot springs of Beppu, and the marine life around the island.

This series is easily my favourite out of these documentaries about Japan for the nature of the country.

Watch it here:

Clip from episode one:


The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)

animation documentary

This is one for the Japanese animation fans.

It follows one year in Studio Ghibli, the most famous of all Japanese animation movie studios.

It’s where Hayao Miyazaki (see another documentary below) has made his famed animation movies over the decades, such as Spirited Away.

If you’re in Tokyo and love Japanese animation then going to the Studio Ghibli Museum is a must. Be aware though it gets booked up weeks/months in advance so get your tickets beforehand.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


Joanna Lumley’s Japan (2016)

Joanna Lumley is one of my favourite TV travel presenters and in the documentary series that consists of 3 episodes she travels across different parts of Japan exploring all she can see.

She starts in the far north in Hokkaido, then visits some of the main sights on Honshu, before ending in Kyushu in the far south.

This will give you a great insight into some of the best things to see and do in Japan while having a look at the culture and people of the country.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)

Ok, I’m biased on this one as I love Japanese samurai movies.

This documentary focuses on the career of Toshiro Mifune the ultimate samurai actor in chinbara (sword fighting) movies in Japan.

He’s the actor in many of Akira Kurosawa’s (legendary Japanese filmmaker) movies, such as Seven Samurai.

If you have any interest in Japanese samurai movies and Japanese movies then watch this.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


The Birth of Sake (2015)

sake documentary

Set at the Tedorigawa Brewery in northern Japan this one is for those interested in traditional sake making, which is part of Japanese culture.

It follows the family-run sake business for one winter season.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


Tip: You can get a 1-month free trial of Amazon Prime (get with that link) where you can watch these documentaries about Japan if you don’t already have an account.


Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki (2016)

documentaries about Japan Hayao Miyazaki

As mentioned in the previous documentary Hayao Miyazaki is the most famous of all Japanese animation movie creators.

This follows the last days of his time making animation. An intimate portrait of a Japanese animator legend.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009)

Japanese documentary

Did you know Japan likes insects? Or has an obsession with insects you could say.

This takes a look at the culture and history, such as the insect-selling businesses in Japan from the early 1800s, all the way to today.

Japan has some strange fascinations and this shows just one aspect of that and shows it beautifully. This is one of my favourite documentaries about Japan.

Fun Japanese insect fact: The first emperor of Japan named Japan the ‘Isle of the Dragonflies’.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


The Inland Sea (1991)

the inland sea documentary

The Inland Sea is based on the same book written by an American (Donald Richie) in Japan in the 1970s where he wrote about his travels on Japan’s western coast.

The documentary follows in the footsteps of his time spent there and shows good insight into rural Japan and the traditional culture that is slowly disappearing.

Get The Inland Sea on Amazon.

This is the link for the book on Amazon that the documentary is based on.

Trailer:


The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2011)

tsunami documentary Fukushima Japan

After the disastrous tsunami of 2011 in Japan survivors and residents of some of the hardest-hit areas are inspired by the cherry blossom season and the new hope it brings.

A look at the tsunami of 2011 and the courage of the Japanese people to rebuild their lives. It’s a short documentary but a good one to watch about the tsunami.

Trailer:


Budo: The Art of Killing (1979)

Budo: The Art of Killing is a great Japanese documentary about martial arts in Japan, such as karate, aikido, and judo.

It shows the philosophy of martial arts as well as the history behind them and the ultimate budo samurai way of life.

If you have any interest in Japanese martial arts then watch it in high quality on Amazon:

You can also watch the documentary for free on YouTube but the quality is very low (240p).


A Normal Life. Chronicle of a Sumo Wrestler (2013)

A Normal Life follows a teenager as he joins a sumo-wrestling stable only to be confronted with the hardships of life as a sumo wrestler.

This is a good one to watch if you want to learn more about the traditional sport of sumo in Japan.

Watch it here:

You can watch the trailer here.


Miso Hungry (2015)

Miso Hungry is a great food documentary about Japan from a foreigner’s perspective as it follows comedian Craig Anderson for 12 weeks in Japan where he just eats Japanese food.

Watch this documentary about Japan if you love Japanese food and have an interest in the Japanese diet.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


James May: Our Man in Japan (2020)

James May our man in Japan documentary

I’m adding just one more to the list that isn’t a documentary on Japan in the strictest sense as it’s a travelogue series but it is a lot of fun to watch.

James May, a British journalist and TV presenter, has always had a fascination with Japanese culture and in this series, he explores everything he can about Japan.

It’s funny, interesting and recent (released in 2020) so gives an up-to-date view of all things Japanese.

Watch it here:

Trailer:


One extra for the foodies…

Ramen Heads (2017)

Looking for the perfect ramen?

The ramen dish (soup and noodles) is a staple of Japanese food and is found everywhere in Japan, with most regions having their speciality.

Osamu Tomita, the ‘king’ of ramen, shows you his life in the creation of making the best ramen in Japan, if not the world.

Love Japanese food? Then watch Ramen Heads.

Trailer:


Top tip: There is an excellent channel on YouTube called NHK World-Japan that has many documentaries about Japan, some short and some long.

Some are news style, some are travelogue style, but most cover various aspects of Japanese life, from the old traditions to the modern.

They have so many documentaries which are more web-based and not famous which is why I didn’t add them here, but you can find some of the best information on Japan there.

This is my favourite channel on YouTube for everything Japanese-related.


Best Documentaries About Japan

There are lots of other documentaries about Japan to watch but these are my favourites that I have seen so far and that I recommend to you.

Tip: You can get a 1-month free trial of Amazon Prime (get with that link) where you can watch these documentaries about Japan if you don’t already have an account.

If you have a favourite documentary on Japan that is not shown here then mention it in the comments.

More Japan reading:

10 of the best movies about Japan


If you liked this article about the best documentaries about Japan a share would be cool:

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