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: 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.
You can find many of these to watch on Amazon Prime where you can actually try for free if you don’t have an account yet (click that link for a 30-day free trial).
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 exploring parts of Tokyo. You can watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Amazon.
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. Watch the Birth of Sake on Amazon with that link.
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. Watch Mifune on Amazon.
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.
WatchThe Kingdom of Dreams and Madness on Amazon.
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 an Japanese animator legend.
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 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 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 1800s, 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’.
WatchBeetle Queen Conquers Tokyo on Amazon.
The Inland Sea (1991)
The Inland Sea is based around 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.
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.
WatchChildren of Hiroshima on Amazon.
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.
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 the 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 Budo on Amazon.
A Normal Life. Chronicle of a Sumo Wrestler (2009)
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 A Normal Life on Amazon.
Mishima: The Last Debate (2020)
Mishima: The Last Debate is the so-called “rumble in the academic jungle” and shows a famous debate in 1969 between an acclaimed author and poet, Yukio Mishima, and 1000 students from a movement in Tokyo University.
This is a great old Japanese story told today. Yukio Mishima killed himself one year after this debate by doing a ritual suicide.
Miso Hungry (2015)
Miso Hungry is a great food documentary about Japan from a foreigners 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 Miso Hungry on Amazon.
James May: Our Man in Japan (2020)
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 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 and interesting and very recent (released in 2020) so gives an up to date view of all things Japanese.
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 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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