TV Shows And Documentaries About Japan

It seems the idea of a TV station sending some kind of celebrity to the land of Japan is not going to end anytime soon with programme after programme continuing to be churned out by television networks each and every year. As well as the ‘fish out of water’ concept there have also been a wealth of documentaries covering all kinds of subject matter from the land of the rising sun…if I can use that overly used description of this country which no-one actually ever says!

Having made similar lists on ‘Songs about Japan‘ and ‘Music Videos filmed in Japan I thought it was about time to compile as many of the English-language TV shows about Japan. This is by no means an exhaustive list but if you know of something missing then please let me know and I’ll add it to this list. I have only included links for the video’s of episode’s which are on YouTube but please remember that things are taken down from there all the time so some links may not work. Others are available on other search engines (Putlocker, Sockshare etc) so if you really want to see a programme then you’ll have to look around the internet for it.

Globe Trekker (S01E08S10E01, S16E12, S17E05, Channel 4/Travel Channel (1994 – Present) – The long running adventure tourism series has called in to Japan a fair few times over the years. It’s premise is similar to the Lonely Planet guidebooks in that it often tries to go beyond popular tourist destinations in order to give viewers a more authentic look at local culture.

The Simpsons Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo (S10E23), Sky One (1999) – The dysfunctional family take a cheap last-minute flight to Tokyo. The episode references and mocks several aspects of Japanese and American culture, as well as differences between the two. More details here

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A Cook’s Tour (S01E01 & S01E02), Food Network (2001) – Short 20 minute episodes and Anthony Bourdain’s introduction to TV following the acclaim surrounding his memoir, ‘Kitchen Confidential‘.

The Tom Green Subway Monkey Hour, MTV (2002) – The Canadian comedian basically torments the Japanese people with a load of sketches including monkeys, temple tours, slurping noodles, musical performances and so much more.

Jonathan Ross’ Japanorama (3 seasons), BBC Three (2002 – 2007) – 18 episode’s from the TV and radio funny man with each one focusing on a different theme, around which he presents cultural phenomena, films, music, and art that exemplify facets of Japan. More details here

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Adam & Joe Go Tokyo (8 episodes), BBC Three (2003)  – Magazine-style show with a Japanese band, a couple of guests and funny features on each episode. More details here

Geisha GirlDocumentary, BBC1 (2005) – Documentary about a 15-year-old Japanese girl’s arduous training to become an apprentice geisha.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (S02E01/S02E07, S04E16S07E08S08E05), Travel Channel (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012) – Similar format and content to his previous show with the host visiting worldwide cities and countries as well as places within the U.S. with an emphasis on local food and culture. Japan-based episodes didn’t just focus on the capital city but also Hokkaido, Nagano, Ishikawa and Osaka. More details here

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Jack Osbourne Adrenaline Junkie (S02E03), ITV2 (2005) – Not even a full episode was dedicated to Japan but following some white-water rafting in New Zealand, Jack comes this way and embarks on some more spiritual challenges. More details here

Kelly Osbourne Turning Japanese (S01E01S01E02S01E03), ITV2 (2006) – Kelly spends five weeks in Japan trying her hand at a number of different jobs; both weird and traditional. More details here

Journey’s Into The Ring Of Fire Japan (S01E04), BBC1 (2006) – Four part documentary series looking at how geology has shaped human history and culture in Pacific Rim regions. More details here

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Top Gear (S11E04), BBC2 (2008) – Jeremy and a Nissan race across Japan against James and Richard, who are on the shinkansen (bullet train). This challenge comes to a climax at Nokogiri-yama mountain in Chiba.

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Japan: In Search Of Wabi SabiDocumentary, BBC4 (2009) – Marcel Theroux sets off across Japan to define the elusive concept of wabi sabi; an idea at the heart of the Japanese psyche but so difficult to define. More details here

Japan: A Story Of Love And HateDocumentary, BBC4 (2009) – About a 56 year old  postal worker who had it all during the bubble era before losing it in the early 1990’s. Thrice-divorced and dating a much younger girl he has long been an outsider in Japan. They share a shoebox room with no windows, he’s a house-husband with only a part time job whilst she has three jobs to support them both. It also focuses on meeting each others families in order to save the relationship. More details here

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Fish! A Japanese Obsession, Documentary, BBC4 (2009) – Investigation into the Japanese love of fish and their need to eat so much with particular reference to whale. It details the emotional attachment to it which Japan just doesn’t have as they continue to hunt these huge specimens which may become extinct. More details here

Great Railway Journeys: Tokyo To Kagoshima, Documentary, BBC4 (2009) – Part of the Japan season on this BBC4, Fergal Keane travels through Japan, starting with the shinkansen (bullet train) in Tokyo and journeying through the countryside where he contemplates the old and the new. More details here 

Justin Lee Collins Turning Japanese (3 episodes), Channel Five (2011) – The comedian throws himself in at the deep end as he travels to Tokyo and Osaka on a cultural trip where he gets involved in a few challenges such as performing as part of a Japanese comedy duo. More details here

An Idiot Abroad (S02E07) Japan: Climbing Mount Fuji, Sky One (2011) – Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant monitor the progress of Karl Pilkington who has no interest in global travel. In series two Karl chooses activities from a general (but not his) “bucket list” with one of them being to climb Japan’s iconic mountain. More details here

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World’s Busiest Train Station, Channel 5 (2013) – Documentary detailing 24 hours in the life of the dedicated staff at Shinjuku station in Tokyo. More details here

The Moaning Of Life Kids (S01E03), Sky One (2013) – Karl sets out to learn why people have children and in Japan he attends the Kanamara Matsuri a.k.a. the penis festival where he assists other men in carrying a large portable shrine shaped like a phallus. Karl has no kids or interest in having them but he decides to have his sperm tested to see if he is capable of fathering children.

Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown Tokyo (S02E08) CNN (2013) – Bourdain is back in Tokyo again and this time his aim is to seek out the city’s dark, extreme, and bizarrely fetishistic underside featuring some unique subcultures. More details here

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Hairy Bikers Asian Adventure (S01E04S01E05), BBC2 (2013) – The British duo travel around Asia on their beloved bikes with two episodes in Japan taking in Tokyo, Fuji, Kyoto and Kobe whilst trying the local cuisine, meeting local people and cooking some native dishes themselves. More details here

Tom Daley Goes Global (S01E02), ITV2 (2014) – The Olympic diver (and his best friend Sophie) takes six weeks off his training to go backpacking around the world to get life-changing experiences and to try some extreme sports to raise money for charity.  More details here

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The Charlotte Crosby Experience – The Furisode-San of Tokyo (S01E02), TLC (2014) – The English reality TV star spends time in different extreme cultures living with some of the world’s unique communities and that of course includes Japan. More detailshere

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Grand Designs (S14E09) The Japanese House: Revisited (Revisited from S13E06), Channel 4 (2014) – Presenter Kevin McCloud revisits a unique Japanese-Welsh fusion home which was completely transformed from a damp old forester’s house.

If you know of any more programmes which could be added to this list (and there are many!!) then let me know in the comments or tweet me using @tokyofox

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown – Japan

Japan has featured a fair few times now in Anthony Bourdain’s previous TV work (‘A Cook’s Tour‘ and ‘No Reservations‘) but this was the first time to visit here since he joined CNN. The seventh episode of the second season of this travel and food show aired this Sunday just gone with Tokyo, the penultimate episode in a series that has taken the  witty, sarcastic and profanity-using American chef/TV personality to Israel, Spain, New Mexico, Copenhagen, Sicilly and South Africa thus far.

You can watch the episode here

Much is known about the dedication, conformity and daytime life of the city’s salarymen but this show, as ever, tried to do something different and saw Bourdain going in search of the city’s dark, extreme and bizarrely fetishistic underside. It starts with quite an intense intro featuring him talking about his early experiences in Tokyo whilst sat in the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Hotel; the very same bar which featured quite famously in ‘Lost In Translation‘ (2003). The programme then picks up pace with loads of footage in a montage thrown together in a quick moving package of highlights.

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First up is the Robot Restaurant (below) in Shinjuku’s kabukicho nightlife district which first came to my attention when I saw it in Muse’s ‘Panic Station‘ video a few months back. Bourdain went to see one of the evening show’s at this place and was thoroughly impressed calling it afterwards ”the greatest show in the history of entertainment.” I’ve been fairly indecisive recently about whether to cough up the 5000 yen entrance fee for this or not but after recent glowing reviews from friends…. and Bourdain I may just have to give it a go soon.

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Some of the weird and perverse acts which happen in the underbelly of Shinjuku’s darkest district are described as being more about a field of dreams and fantasies rather than the act of sex. Bourdain talks to his Japanese accomplice about the host clubs where middle-aged women go to be entertained by these very feminine-looking young guys. Bourdain brings up the irony of such a thing in an area where there are many guys hoping to get laid but his sidekick tells him that people don’t like getting rejected so they pay lots of money to go to these host clubs where they’re made to feel like a princess or whatever.

Nearby is the Golden-gai district (below left) of Shinjuku; a few narrow passageways possessing many shanty-style micr0-bars, clubs and eateries which I have never been to as they don’t seem to foreigner-friendly and to be honest I really don’t have any real urge to go to one just to tick that box to say I’ve done it. However, Bourdain visits a bar called Albatross to find out about such places and the code of confiding in the bartender.

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Both martial arts and making sushi are two things which most people know about when it comes to Japan but perhaps they don’t know how the techniques for each are so similar. This is shown when he visits his old friend and mentor Yasuda-san (above right) at Sushi bar Yasuda. The guy is an ex-karate expert who lived in New York for over a quarter of century and he said a couple of things which the average punter may be unaware of. Firstly, he said that rice is the most important part of sushi and that fresh sushi is not the be-all and end-all of fine raw fish dining. I always watch these shows on Tokyo and Japan hoping to see something new about the city I reside in and so it was nice to learn something I didn’t know about sushi.

Daitoryo is a street bar in Taito-ku where Bourdain and some other mavericks of Japanese culture (below left) eat grilled fermented fish and yakitori (skewers of meat) and some motsu nabe (intestine stew with miso) and talk about bondage, fetishes and all other parts of popular Japanese fantasy culture. We find out (if you can really believe these sources!) that all men like to tie up women and also be tied up!

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Bourdain later meets up with the creator of tentacle porn (above) at Mie no Umi restaurant where he samples a particular nabe (hot pot of meat and veg) and talks about the violence, murder, rape and incredible sexual fetsishes that feature in Japanese porn.

You can’t deny Bourdain has a strong affection for this country and he doesn’t judge or laugh at the way things are done in Japan such as when discussing otaku culture which is of course different from his homeland where people are taught to put away the likes of comics and figures as they get older.

Merging Moon‘ is the Japanese metal band (below) featured in this episode. They have self released their previous albums and have no record deal but no doubt that will change given such promotion on the might of CNN as well as the programmes Facebook page…..oh and of course Tokyo Fox!!

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Since his move to CNN I sometimes feel the food part of his programmes have taken a bit of a back-step so it was quite a relief to see it still included here although it did seem to be of secondary importance most of the time. One final trip to a tiny place in Naka Meguro saw him hook up with Yasuda again to sample some shrimp, basel, octopus, quail eggs and the place’s take on okonomiyaki (above) braised with worcester sauce.

Yet again Bourdain chooses to mention Lawson convenience stores (albeit vert briefly) as indeed he did on his last show in this country; ‘No Reservations – Japan: Cook It Raw‘ which makes me wonder if he’s being paid to promote such a place!

I’ve been watching Bourdain’s shows for many years now and have always enjoyed them but I’ve always been a bit wary that the stuff he does may not actually be that unknown and I guess it probably isn’t to most locals but with the programme geared towards the millions of CNN viewers in the USA and around the world I guess it really doesn’t matter. I did think that ‘Parts Unknown’ may have not offered anything too new for me and whilst I’m far from being a Tokyo specialist I was more than happy that it delivered a few things I didn’t know too much about.