When you think of TV series from Japan, the first thing that comes to mind is most likely the huge output of anime processed in the country.
However, aside from quality animation, there is also a huge range of television content produced in the country, from entertaining reality shows to high-class dramas.
Below you’ll find a list of the 15 best Japanese TV shows produced in the country that are essential viewing to get a good sense of local culture before your trip.
Table of Contents
A single-season Japanese TV series released on Netflix in 2015, Atelier is a classy drama that all fashion lovers will enjoy, as well as fans of the film The Devil Wears Prada (2006) .
Also known as ‘Underwear’, the series follows Mayuko Tokita, a new employee at high-class lingerie design house Emotion, based in the Ginza district of Tokyo, and her clashes with the owner, who has been compared to Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
One of the best examples of Japanese anime available on Netflix, Beastars is an adaptation of the popular Japanese manga series of the same name.
Similar in concept to the well-received Disney feature film Zooptopia (2016), the story follows the budding relationship between a wolf and a rabbit and takes place in a world of civilized anthropomorphic animals where a divide between carnivores and herbivores threatens the peace.
A live-action series based on a Japanese manga also known as “The Town Where Only I Am Missing”, Erased is a popular story that has also spawned an anime adaption and theatrical film, all of which are available on Netflix.
The 2017 live-action series is the most faithful to its source material, and follows a young man called Satoru who possesses an ability called “Revival”. This allows him to travel 18 years into the past, where he tries to solve a mystery surrounding the death of his childhood friends.
Although Giri/Haji (which translates to ‘Duty/Shame’) is a British-produced series, it takes place in both Tokyo and London and features dialogue in Japanese as well as English.
Described by Rotten Tomatoes as a ‘near-perfect crime thriller’, the series follows Kenzo Mori, a Japanese detective who travels to London to search for his missing brother, who has become mixed up with the Yakuza in the city’s dangerous criminal underworld.
The series was praised for its vibrant depiction of both of the cities where it is set and the performances, as well as for having a surprisingly enjoyable dark sense of humor.
James May: Our Man in Japan
Perhaps one of the best series you can watch to get an idea of what it’s like to travel in Japan as a foreigner, this Amazon travel documentary follows former Top Gear host James May as he journeys through the whole country from north to south.
As well as providing insight into popular destinations such as Mount Fuji, Kyoto’s many temples and shrines, and the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the series is well-worth watching for May’s priceless reactions to Japanese phenomena like cat cafés and J-pop concerts.
If you’re a fan of Japanese movies like Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002), then the name Ju-On will probably ring a bell. The legendary horror series has already spawned a Hollywood franchise (known as The Grudge), and now even has its own TV show.
The first series adaptation of Ju-On features all of the familiar spooky elements of the franchise that fans have come to expect, from a creepy cursed house in suburban Tokyo to the terrifying ghost of a little boy who screams like a cat.
However, the extended length of the story allows a more complex narrative to unfold.
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories
A hit show in Japan since 2009, Midnight Diner was picked up by Netflix in 2016 and the two latest seasons were produced by the streamer for international distribution under the subtitle Tokyo Stories.
Exclusively set in a small bar-restaurant in the bustling Shinjuku district of Tokyo, the series centers on “The Master”, a sympathetic chef who attempts to bring comfort to his patrons by preparing their favorite meal and offering life advice.
The series blends touching drama and delicious food to mesmerizing effect, and each episode ends with Master giving a demonstration of how to prepare the Japanese dish he served the main character in the story.
A perfect way to brush up on Japanese cuisine before your trip!
Another series from Japan that emphasizes the importance of food in Japanese culture, Samurai Gourmet is a slice-of-life drama based on a popular manga by Masayuki Kusumi.
The show follows a recently retired man struggling to adjust to his new life and quieter routine, until he discovers his inner persona: an ancient samurai warrior.
However, instead of inspiring violence, this spirit guide encourages the man to live life to the fullest. This largely involves indulging in extravagant, delicious-looking meals that will leave you eager to travel to Japan to do the same!
Rilakkuma and Kaoru
An ideal series to watch with kids before traveling to Japan, Rilakkuma and Kaoru is an adorable story told through sublime stop-motion animation and brings one of Japan’s most beloved characters to new life.
Rilakkuma is a cute bear who lives with his owner Kaoru, a thirtysomething office worker Kaoru, and always tries his best to help her overcome life problems and cheer her up.
Charming and beautifully animated, this is a lovely show the whole family can enjoy.
10 Years with Hayao Miyazaki
If you’re a fan of classic Japanese animated features like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001), and are planning to visit the Studio Ghibli museum while in Japan, then this biographical documentary is a must-watch.
Over 4 episodes, the series closely follows master animator Hayao Miyazaki through his creative process over 10 years, giving a behind-the-scenes look into the production of Ghibli’s later classics like Ponyo (2008) and The Wind Rises (2013)
Often cited as Japan’s answer to Big Brother, Terrace House focuses on a group of young people who agree to live together in a house, primarily located in Nagano prefecture, which is completely rigged with cameras.
Although this sounds like the typical reality TV premise, Terrace House stands out for the hilarious commentary provided by a panel of Japanese comedians, who poke fun at the interactions between the housemates.
Terrace House is also a rare opportunity for international audiences to observe how Japanese people interact in an informal (although heightened) setting and pick up conversation patterns and slang they might not otherwise hear.
The Naked Director
A popular Japanese comedy-drama produced by Netflix, The Naked Director is based on the real-life story of Japanese adult film director Toru Muranishi.
Taking place in the late 1980s, the series follows the initially unassuming Muranishi, who, after losing his job and finding out his wife is cheating on him, decides to take a stab at producing adult videos.
After finding great success in distributing his content in the booming age of VHS tapes, he embarks upon a surreal and unlikely rise to the top of the adult film industry in a time when such things were still very taboo in Japan.
The Queen’s Classroom
The Queen’s Classroom follows teacher Maya Akutsu and her 12-year-old students over a year in her class. A strict perfectionist who seeks to wake the children up to the realities of the world, she inflicts strange punishments on the kids, who slowly begin to unfold under the pressure.
This thought-provoking Japanese drama series first aired in 2005 and has since gone on to spawn a prequel series as well as a South Korean remake in 2013.
If you’re planning to visit the northernmost island of Hokkaido while traveling to Japan, then this adventure documentary series produced by NHK is a must-watch.
The 4 seasons of the show currently available cover a wide range of popular destinations on the Hokkaido, from the capital of Sapporo to the lavender fields of Furano, and gives an in-depth look at the variety of wildlife and stunning landscapes you can expect to enjoy.
Why did you come to Japan?
Hosted by Japanese comedy duo Bananaman, this entertaining reality show follows presenters as they interview passengers arriving in Japan, particularly at Narita Airport, to find out their reasons for coming to the country.
This leads to some interesting, and often hilarious, responses, and has even resulted in some surprise run-ins with international celebrities such as Doctor Strange actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
In some cases, the crew continue to follow the tourists on their journey around Japan, giving travelers insight into some of the top destinations and activities they can expect to enjoy during their own trip.