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)
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.
A Normal Life: Chronicle Of A Sumo Wrestler (2009)
*Note: This one used to be free, but now you have to rent it for $2.99. It's worth it.
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 fantastical 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.
Cycling Japan's Abandoned Rail (2012)
Cycling Japan's Abandoned Rail is refreshing 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.
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.
The Japanese Version (1991)
*Note: This movie used to be free, but YouTube took it down. Thankfully someone transcribed the whole thing (What?!), so you can still read it at least. That's just as good. Right? Right?!
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.