Documentaries About Japan You Can Watch For Free

You can read about Japan for years and learn a lot about the country; but there’s something missing if you can’t hear and see those same things.

That’s why I love documentaries about Japan so much. They give you a look into some of the most interesting things happening in Japan without having to buy a plane ticket there.

Cruising around YouTube, you can find a lot of documentaries about Japan that you can watch for free that cover lots of different subjects and angles. Here are some of the most interesting ones I’ve found:

Children Full of Life (2003)

Japanese school children consistently score incredibly high in virtually every subject compared to children in the rest of the world. Some of that it’s because the Japanese method of teaching is very different from, say, the American way of teaching.

Sometimes though, children thrive not because of the teaching methods, but because of their enthusiastic and dedicated teacher. Such is the case with Children Full of Life, which follows Japanese school teacher Toshiro Kanamori and his students.

Kanamori’s methods are unorthodox, even in Japan, but his results are evident. The children clearly love Kanamori, and learn empathy, openness, and other life lessons that usually aren’t found in school curricula.

Children Full of Life is an emotional, touching documentary and an incredible look into the world of a Japanese child.

Suicide Forest in Japan (2012)

You might have read our post about Aokigahara: the infamous suicide forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji, but have you seen it for yourself? Vice, a magazine that does a lot of bizarre documentaries (including a great series on North Korea), visited Aokigahara and talked to Azusa Hayano, a man who’s ventured into the infamous forest for decades.

It’s a disturbing documentary for sure, but also incredibly eye-opening. If you’ve ever wondered about what the depths of Japan’s infamous suicide forest looks like, then be sure to check this out.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)

For better or worse, many people still think about WWII when they think about Japan. You’ve probably learned a bit about Japan’s takeover of Asia, its bombing and defeat, and its occupation and reconstruction.

But in between all of that big picture stuff, things fall between the cracks. One of those lost stories is of Kenzo Okuzaki, a former soldier in Japan’s imperial army who’s come to repent for his former life and rebel against a system with which he’s become so disillusioned.

He went to prison for crimes such as murder, slandering the emperor, and shooting a slingshot at the Imperial Palace. Okuzaki’s car is plastered with political messages (and a beginner’s sticker), and he’s incredibly aggressive in his everyday life about his message.

Okuzaki’s story is a microcosm of post-war regret, shame, and anger that most people outside of Japan aren’t really aware of. Japan did horrible things during WWII, and Okuzaki’s story is just one of the most extreme examples of the country’s post-war introspection.

A Normal Life: Chronicle Of A Sumo Wrestler (2009)

Sumo wrestling is one of the most readily identifiable Japanese things out there; ask people around the world what they think about when they think of Japan, and no doubt sumo is one of the top subjects.

A Normal Life is a French documentary that follows the beginning of a career in sumo through the eyes of Takuya Ogushi, a young man from Hokkaido. You get to see his first nine months at a Tokyo sumo stable, learning the basics, dealing with homesickness, and bulking the hell up. Gotta put on mass!

It’s nice to have a look at sumo in a modern-day context, seeing all of the ins and outs of the sport, rather than relying on old images and stereotypes. And you really start to feel for Ogushi, who quickly realizes he’s in over his head.

Interview with a Cannibal (2012)

We’ve written before about Japan’s most famous cannibal, Issei Sagawa, but the difference between reading about him and listening to him speak is massive, and disturbing.

It goes without saying that this interview is unsettling and a bit graphic, so be prepared before watching this upsetting video.

Baby Drain (2013)

It’s no secret that Japan’s population has been slowly, but steadily shrinking for decades now, but the practical effects of smaller population aren’t always talked about.

The short documentary Baby Drain takes a look at one of the most visible effects of the shrinking population. The results may seem obvious in retrospect, but it’s not until you see the effects first-hand that they really stick.

Baby Drain looks at schools with class sizes of one, hospitals that care for the elderly, and the fantasical future of robotic care.

The movie is a little alarmist (the narrator claims a few times that the Japanese could go extinct) and, coming in at a mere 17 minutes, Baby Drain isn’t a typical, feature-length documentary; but it’s still incredibly insightful.

The Japanese Version (1991)

If you’ve studied Japanese culture, The Japanese Version can come across as almost laughably naïve. The documentary opens up with astounding revelations like Japanese people “take off their shoes indoors” and “they eat strange things.”

But this early 90s American documentary shot by two guys who basically know nothing about Japan is valuable not for the deep insights that it provides, but for the perspective it’s made from.

The fact that the filmmakers have no clue about Japan means that you get to see the country and the culture through a different set of eyes. The Japanese Version is almost less about Japanese culture and more about the filmmakers’ own biases and preconceptions.

The Japanese Version is dated, focuses a little too much on “weird Japan,” and there are some inaccuracies/simplifications (“the whole [Japanese] language comes from China”); but it’s still an interesting and educational snapshot, if you understand the context.

Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail (2012)

We wrote about Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail at length last year, so I won’t talk too much about it; but it’s definitely worth a mention here.

Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail is refereshing because, unlike a lot of documentaries about Japan, it doesn’t deal with the very basics of Japanese culture, nor does it go for the “weird Japan” angle.

You can read our full write up and find all five parts here.


Bonus!

Check out some wallpaper-sized and animated GIF versions of the header image of this post, courtesy of our hard-working illustrator, Aya!

Animated GIF (1280×800)

Wallpaper (2560×1440)

  • Brad Garrett

    These look awesome!

  • http://giannii.com/ Michael Giannii Calvert

    Awesome, thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kate.harrison.5817 Kate Harrison

    I love documentaries, so this is basically the best thing ever. thanks!

  • JOkoth

    Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/intheinaka Matthew Loten

    The Emperor’s Naked Army Goes Marching On is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, for a variety of different reasons, but it’s not easy viewing. At times you wonder how the events that are recorded could possibly have been allowed to play out, and it’s incredibly upsetting on more than one occasion. Well worth watching, but certainly not light-hearted fare.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Well said, I completely agree!

  • DAVIDPD

    I would love to see something about traditional tattooing in Japan.

  • http://twitter.com/kantanda Mizuu

    Wow, that’s very helpful, Hashi! Thanks!

  • Daniel Koon

    Japan – A Story of Love and Hate BBC (English language).

    It shows a life of two people who struggle for happiness in their “wealthy” country.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_l5b6lZ0mM

  • http://www.facebook.com/LukeHero Luke Hero

    Sweet! I’ve seen the Vice ones before, pretty gloomy! Looking forward to these others :)

  • ステイブン

    とてもおもしろかったです。

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi
  • EspadaKiller

    I’ve watched this 2 weeks ago, and I must say this documentary is really interesting.

  • koi

    The cannibal documentry just really screwed with my head… wow.

  • http://www.facebook.com/helenadetroy Helen Kirifides

    I am sure i have seen something about this… but i don’t remember what it was. If i find anything, i’ll post it. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/helenadetroy Helen Kirifides

    I can’t waiiit to watch all of these! I <3 docu's. Thanks Hashi!

  • http://www.facebook.com/helenadetroy Helen Kirifides

    The Japan segment of the documentary Global Metal is really so great too. Of course it’s only a snippet of Japan’s rock, metal, and visual kei scenes, but the full documentary covers a bunch of countries, so this video is short, but it’s still so interesting! :) http://youtu.be/prjSkkEdvY8

  • Furamon

    I’m so happy you mentioned Yukiyukite Shingun. I’m currently writing a term paper on it, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the character of Okuzaki Kenzo, both how he is constructed in the film and how he actually was in reality. I also think it’s important to note that the film is not necessarily completely about Japan’s past – a lot of it is also very much about the the modern late Showa era itself, and notably the film never cuts to archive footage or things of that sort. For further reading I recommend a Japanese book called 「群論ゆきゆきて神軍」 (Gunron Yukiyukite Shingun) which gathers up a lot of critical reaction to it – the story of how the movie was received in Japan is just as fascinating as the movie itself, and some of Hara Kazuo’s other documentaries like Extreme Private Eros and Sayonara CP could also deserve a spot on this list.

    Thank you for all these documentaries! I’ll definitely be watching them… after I finish my term paper. ;P

    And if you just don’t have enough Okuzaki in your life, check out 「神様の愛い奴」 (Kamisama no Ui Yatsu) but beware… it’s not pretty. Only watch it if you want to see a far more “personal” side of him than you’ve ever gotten before!

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    I really enjoyed the sumo one. It was much more of a pure documentary, using the characters’ own words. Why do so many documentaries about Japan (including Children Full of Life) feel the need to include commentary by a Western narrator? Like you wouldn’t understand what you were seeing without some foreigner explaining it to you. Apparently, the desire to explain stuff, even stuff you don’t know well, is almost irresistible.

    Now that I think about it, a lot of misunderstanding about Japanese culture is perpetrated by foreigners trying to explain it. Remember: Don’t trust anyone over 30. Or anyone not Japanese explaining Japan. I mean, except the articles I write. Now those you can believe.

  • Michael Broderick

    Kintaro Walks Japan is also a really good one!

    http://youtu.be/OJKZpl8opCw

  • Henro 88

    I watched Baby Drain the other day, and it left me with a deep pit in my stomach. I worked at a school (two, actually) once with classes of two or three kids only, so I know a bit about that.

    You hear a lot about sexless marriages in Japan, but it’s worse than that. When I read the local crime news, I see a lot of crimes by men against women – every day, it seems, another woman is killed by a man in her life. The worst is the constant, random violence women face here. A random stabbing here, a serial upskirt taker on the train. Always aimed at women. Just the other day, we had another woman on the news, killed by her boyfriend, and it nearly brought me to tears. It seemed like…when will this end??

    And that’s not even getting into how many children are in the news each day dying of neglect, carelessness or stupidity on their parents parts. Or the number of children who ride in cars without child seats – without seatbelts. I never, ever feel that the children in my life are being kept safe, or being taught how to stay safe.

    Japan is a fine country…but this is honestly just tragic. Japan is facing a population crisis, and instead of facing it head-on they are neglecting the very people who can turn the country around and put it on the right track.

  • Henro 88

    Anyone who studies culture knows that you absolutely cannot rely entirely on the things people tell you about their own culture. For example, ask a Japanese person about homelessness or crime in Japan. A whole lot of people here think that there are no homeless people in Japan, and that all the crime here is committed by zainichi Koreans (both pathetically wrong answers). Just as a thought experiment, imagine asking someone at a Tea Party similar questions about America. Think you’d get an accurate answer?

    The honest truth is that, sometimes, a foreigner is far, far better suited to describe a culture than a native. Talking about culture is just a maze of biases, and you really have to judge for yourself who you can and cannot trust. Some people are outcasts and don’t “get” their own culture; others are just plain stupid. Some are fanatical nationalists.

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    Well hmmm, I doubt you can rely entirely on the things people tell you about anything.

    Homelessness and crime frequently appear in the news, so I don’t know any of these mythical people who are unaware of them. In terms of who “gets” Japan more, yeah, actually I’d take a Japanese person. Lots of foreigners talk about Japan, and not that many even speak Japanese. Few seem to get it right.

  • DAVIDPD

    Please do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/OttoOlx Otto Olx

    NHKWorld shows a series of documentaries called “NHK Documentary”, which you can stream from their website when it’s on, or download for free from hellofuntime.com

  • Henro 88

    I’m definitely not referring to mythical people, but you’re right: “Few seem to get it right.” But I think Japan is especially wrapped in this shroud of mysticality – a lot of people insist that foreigners could never understand Japan, and a lot of us foreigners believe it.

    The funny thing about a culture is that a native will always know more intimately HOW it works – but an outsider will often be able to more clearly see WHY it works that way. You’ve never heard a Japanese person declare “sho ga nai” about a problem with a completely obvious solution?

    Totally “getting” the culture requires a little bit of both.

  • Xaromir

    I’d love to see something about food. <3 Nice list though, maybe another some day?

  • Kris

    This one is not exactly about Japanese culture, its about the opinions of 19 foreigners who have moved to Japan and lived there for several years. I found it interested at least.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prNYOW0_kms

    There is also this one, about Japanese history and culture from the Warring States period to the time Japan was opened up to the West.

    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/japan-memoirs-secret-empire/

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    Nope, definitely never heard that. Is that what they say when they run out of ginger?

    Just kidding. Yeah, I hear it every day. It never fails to amaze me how quickly Japanese people roll over. Boss asking you to work late? Shou ga nai. Friend’s getting married and you have to pay 400.00 to go to the wedding? Shou ga nai. Found your wife in bed with someone else? Shou ga nai.

    I’ve been asked several times how we say that in English, and my usual response is, We don’t say it–we freaking do something about the problem. But that’s just how Japanese folks are. Shou ga nai.

  • Henro 88

    Yeah, and I mean – “sho ga nai” is usually the ceiling past which people can’t think about their own culture. “Why are things like this? Why don’t you change it?” “Hm…because sho ga nai.”

    Oh, well. Yes. That is clear as mud, thank you.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi
  • http://www.facebook.com/gavinw1 Gavin Williams

    I came across this on youtube and, whilst it’s a very difficult watch, I personally think that it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in Japan or thinking of visiting/living there. I was appalled by the sheer loss of life and destruction but what really hit me was the selfless acts of those who did their best to aid those around them, even if they were complete strangers. The documentary is a little over-dramatic in places but it’s the content that’s important. It’s a humbling view.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tU1dLutdRAM

  • Gokiburi

    How could you you forget “the great happiness place”?!?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL1pA0McgvM&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  • Lauren

    here’s a japanese documentary in japanese

    http://varadoga.blog136.fc2.com/blog-entry-26752.html

    it’s about sex ed!

    http://girlschannel.net/topics/18621/

    the part with the hiragnaa picture book
    had me cracking up forever.

  • Lauren

    this is a japanese tv show but i think it sorta relatesto documentaries
    It’s just about this awesome elemntary school in japan that everyone wished they went to.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RD1ExT-2pB0

    this is a japanese show that’s about businesses which is a boy love cafe in this case lol

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sUqIP_UXHvw

  • Guest

    “There are some inaccuracies/simplifications (“the whole [Japanese] language comes from China”)”

    I agree with this. However, according to the article which I was reading just now Tofugu apparently has the same opinion, as it bluntly states “Japan has China to thank for the Japanese language, which is also where ramen is from.”
    Although much of Japanese orthography is derived from Chinese, it is a misconception to say that Japanese language in its entirety is derived from Chinese, as Japanese script does not equal the Japanese language as a whole.

  • lieke

    “There are some inaccuracies/simplifications (“the whole [Japanese] language comes from China”)”

    I agree with this. However, according to the article which I was reading just now Tofugu apparently has the same opinion, as it bluntly states “Japan has China to thank for the Japanese language, which is also where ramen is from.”
    Although much of Japanese orthography is derived from Chinese, it is a misconception to say that Japanese language in its entirety is derived from Chinese, as Japanese script does not equal the Japanese language as a whole.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=742104313 Adam Goodwin
  • marksball

    I have watched both Children Full of Life and A Normal Life. I watch these documentaries as both a teacher and a coach. Children Full of Life really warmed my heart. Those moments where you can see true growth in the child is what keeps me coming back each year. Kanamori has inspired me to keep being a defender of children’s innocence, as American public education continues to move towards standardization and robotic teaching methods and away from trying to produce good people.

    A Normal Life really hit me. It was difficult for me to watch Ogushi hit the wall and not get over it. Fresh out of high school, far from home, told not to come back until he is successful, that is quite the position to be put in at 18. I was really dissapointed to see him quit. As a coach I would have liked to see him do what it takes to get out of the school. Then again, he knew that he was not interested in Sumo. It sounded like he was living his father’s dream, which is quite in line with what happens in the states. He also seemed incredibly lonely. Honestly, it was like he never really wanted to be there.

    Thank you for sharing Tofugu!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    If you’re looking for food movies, check this out:

    http://www.tofugu.com/2013/04/05/the-tastiest-japanese-food-movies/

  • Sjembekshine

    You forgot Tokyo Rising! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvJgzXGVPQU It’s not very long but I enjoyed it alot!

  • Michelle

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oo0SHLxc2d0

    This is a pretty recent documentary done by an Irishman living and working in Japan for the UN. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in East Asia (second only to South Korea) and this documentary examines why that is and why it persists. It’s very eye opening and sad but if you are considering living or working in Japan I highly suggest it. I cried when I watched it- but I also became hopeful. This documentary made me want to help in whatever way I can.

    Very informed and valuable. Check it out.

  • Shortfilms IN

    Good

    I really liked this,Many Skills used as well. I Love it.

    Welcome to mydocumentarys.com

    What We Still Don’t Know: Are We Alone? (BBC)

    – To see more at:http://mydocumentarys.com/video/O8M2SO4G75HK/Realities-Are-We-Alone-13

  • Mwani

    Thanks for all the great suggestions. I’ve watched “A normal life” befor and I thought it was really amazing. A really good choice. I look forward to checking out these others at some point. I also wanted to mention the NHK World documentary series “Begin Japanology” It’s been one of my favorite ways to learn fascinating new things about Japanese culture, and more. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssvTE8fE4KE

  • MoiKnee

    I just heard about this yesterday, thanks for the link.