These are 10 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 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.
Now, documentaries about Japan…
Note: You can find many of these to watch on Amazon Prime (click that link for a 30 day free trial. Affiliate link.)
Some of these documentaries are free to watch on YouTube and I provided the links for those.
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
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 at 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 Tokyo.
Trailer for Jiro Dreams of Sushi:
The Birth of Sake (2015)
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.
Trailer for The Birth of Sake:
Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015)
Ok, I’m totally 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 so many of Akira Kurosawa’s (legendary Japanese film maker) movies, such as Seven Samurai.
If you have any interest in Japanese samurai movies and Japanese movies then watch this.
Trailer for Mifune:
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013)
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 next 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.
Trailer for The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness:
Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki (2016)
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 in making animation. An intimate portrait of a legend.
Trailer for Never-Ending Man:
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 its own speciality.
Osamu Tomita, the ‘king’ of ramen, shows you into his life in the creation of making the best ramen in Japan, if not the world.
Love Japanese food? Then watch this.
Trailer for Ramen Heads:
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009)
Did you know Japan likes insects? Or has an obsession with insects you could say.
This documentary takes a look at the culture and history, such as the insect-selling businesses in Japan in the early 1800’s, all the way to today.
Japan has some strange fascinations and this shows just one aspect of that and shows it in a beautiful way.
Fun Japanese insect fact: The first emperor of Japan named Japan the ‘Isle of the Dragonflies’.
Trailer for Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo:
The Inland Sea (1991)
The Inland Sea is based around the same book written by an American (Donald Richie) in Japan in the 1970’s 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.
Donald Richie talks about The Inland Sea:
Children of Hiroshima (Gembaku no ko) (1952)
Japanese citizens deal with the devastating aftermath of the explosion of the atomic bomb.
Much of the film is filmed in Hiroshima which is where the first atomic bomb was ever dropped at the end of WW2.
You can see the full documentary free on YouTube:
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2011)
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.
Trailer for The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom:
And just one more – James May: Our Man in Japan
I’m adding just one more to the list that isn’t a documentary on Japan in the strictest sense as it’s a series but it is fun to watch.
James May, a British journalist and TV presenter, has always had a fascination about Japanese culture and in this series he explores everything he can about Japan.
It’s funny and interesting and very recent (released in 2020) so gives an up to date view on all things Japanese.
There are lots of other documentaries about Japan to watch but these are my favourites that I have seen so far and what I recommend for you.
You can find many of these to watch on Amazon Prime (click that link for a 30 day free trial. Affiliate link.)
If you have a favourite documentary for Japan not shown here then mention it in the comments.
More Japan reading:
*Disclaimer: I own none of the images in this post. They are used in fair usage terms in order to publicly discuss the documentaries recommended in this post.
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