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

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Tom Daley Goes Global – Japan

Having seen the opening episode on Thailand I have to admit I wasn’t expecting too much excitement in episode 2 in Japan. Both episodes were mildly interesting for me but I imagine they weren’t too captivating for whoever was tuning in on ITV2 to see them……..if they wanted to see in-depth travel-related matter! However, if they just wanted to see some mindless entertainment and a very pleasant, mild mannered and humble young man experience a bit of actual living then this was the perfect showcase for it!

You can watch the episode here on YouTube

Not much really happened in either the Thailand or Japan episodes and Tom didn’t really have too many words of wisdom to add to the pictures we saw. Of course he’s been training to dive since a very young age so hasn’t had the kind of normal life that most people have had. He’s never been backpacking so this style of travel is all new to him and he can’t be blamed for taking up the opportunity to make this series as ITV continue to do their best to promote him as a TV personality. He wasn’t alone though as he had best friend Sophie with him for support. Of course they’re not an item given Daly’s announcement back in December last year that he was in a relationship with a man. Who knows what everyone was thinking last Summer though when it was filmed!

Beforehand I was expecting yet another typical UK television programme following the same old tired format and while its not wildly different or life-changing at least this programme did feature a few things I’ve not seen on TV in the past and amazingly the ‘Turning Japanese‘ song never featured once!!

Kumamoto appears in the final half which took me greatly surprise, and as we’re going there next month I was delighted to see some scenes of a place I know very little about. Tom and Sophie went there to join in with a lantern festival where Tom held the mikoshi(portable shrine) during a parade which to be fair wasn’t particularly interesting to watch and almost makes you realise why producers crave the crazy stuff most of the time.

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In episode one we had tension supposedly building up ahead of Tom’s big charity skydive in Bangkok and the threat of whether he would or wouldn’t be able to do it due to the quite dramatic thunderstorms. What symmetry in this Japan episode then as a very similar situation occurred at Mount Kuratake (originally intended to be at Mount Aso but changed due to the weather) with his paragliding venture. Can’t say I was on the edge of my seat! With a bungy jump coming up in New Zealand for episode 3 this series is perhaps closer to Jack Osbourne’s ‘Adrenaline Junkie series than his sister Kelly’s ‘Turning Japanese‘ one, both of which were also on ITV2!

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Long before that, the pair arrived in Tokyo and started off in the electric town of Akihabara where they spent the night at a manga cafe. These places are everywhere in Tokyo and used as hotels by some people who want cheap shelter for the night….and some wi-fi action. There are also usually manga comics galore, video games, drinks, snacks and communal bathrooms but there are no beds! This seemed to bemuse Tom and his trusted companion who seemed to think they were staying at some kind of hostel. It’s basically just a place to crash for the night and once realised they start to embrace the idea a bit more.

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What followed thereafter was more of the usual tried and tested formula of portraying the whacky side of Tokyo as they did some cosplay and karaoke supposedly with some people they just met. Actually there were quite a few obviously set-up situations throughout which were made to appear like they were just chance encounters.

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I really ought to make a Bingo game of stereotypical Japan references on UK TV (sushi, robots, toilets, sumo, maid cafes, sumo etc) for viewers to play whilst watching these shows and this one included the ubiquitous mention of bullet trains and geisha!

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Tom and Sophie take the former from Tokyo station to the Gion district of Kyoto where they meet a maiko and get invited to a teahouse for some traditional food and a dance.

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Tom Daley is of course a bit of a British icon and for someone who is only 19 he has a wise head on such young shoulders. He’s nothing but likeable and it’s not his fault that the programme comes across, in terms of content, as being a little grey at times. It’s just that its yet more typically tacky fodder from ITV2 where little thought has really gone into the show beyond the “oh lets just send this popular young celebrity to some far flung places and see what happens” type attitude.