Since coming to Japan a few years ago, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and various other streaming services have found plenty of eager Japanese subscribers ready to consume Western content.
These days, though, Netflix and Hulu offer far more than just American movies and comedy shows. The services are adding more and more new Japanese content every month, too. This extra material brings with it a great opportunity to not only brush up Japan’s multifaceted pop culture memes but also improve your Japanese.
Some shows will be more accessible than others, of course, especially to those of us who are just beginning to study the language. So, which shows offer the best blend of education and enjoyment for language learners?
Here are my personal top five Netflix and Hulu shows to bring you up to speed on Japanese culture — and the language itself.
1. Terrace House
OK, I’ll be honest: I am not a big fan of reality shows in general. Then again, that’s largely due to being forced to watch the freak show of banality that was Big Brother when I was living in Scotland. Thankfully, Netflix Japan’s first big entry into the “reality TV” genre is a bit more nuanced and features, for the most part, relatively normal, well-adjusted people.
The premise centers around a group of young Japanese adults — an equal number of men and women — who were (until the show started) complete strangers. Unlike Big Brother, these people are free to enter and leave the house as they wish to engage in work, relationships or their studies. This lends the show an authenticity and a grounded feeling that so many shows in the reality genre lack. It’s this “down to Earth” and relatable nature of the personalities on this show that makes it useful for learning Japanese.
What do ordinary Japanese men and women talk about over dinner? How do complete strangers form relationships, even romances, out of nothing? Just how do people in Japan talk to each other beyond what a textbook can tell you?
Terrace House explores all of these themes and in doing so, it becomes an excellent study tool to those wanting to learn to speak natural, relaxed Japanese outside of the formality of textbooks. It also gives those of us new to Japan a fascinating insight into what everyday Japanese people are like.
Just how do people in Japan talk to each other beyond what a textbook can tell you?
For those of you still mastering the basics of the language here, the show is one of the few Japanese originals on Netflix that also has English subtitles.
I would recommend beginning with the first season, released in 2015. The commentary offered throughout that first season is as informative as it is amusing.
Last year, The Guardian newspaper described Terrace House as: “A show where nothing happens… but it’s still a must-watch.”
I tend to agree.
- Terrace House is available on Netflix Japan.
2. Ultimate Beastmaster
In the days before I came to Japan, my earliest exposure to Japanese TV came through the crazy game show Takeshi’s Castle. Ever since that show went off the air in the early ’90s, Japanese action game shows have become more focused on physical prowess and less on comedic gimmicks.
The annual Sasuke event (broadcast overseas in a serialized form as Ninja Warrior), remains hugely popular across the world to this day. The BBC even did their own take on the genre, known as Wipeout, fronted by former Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond.
Now, Netflix is getting in on this genre with an international game show that retains a distinctly Japanese flavor.
Executive produced by none other than Sylvester Stallone, Ultimate Beastmaster, pits athletes from a selection of different countries against each other for a winner-takes-all cash prize of $50,000. The competing countries rotate each season. Japan was featured in season one and this is where the Japanese learning opportunity comes in.
Netflix Japan actually has two versions of Ultimate Beastmaster available to view: a Japanese version and a U.S. version. Both cover the same event, but from a cultural and a linguistic standpoint, it’s really interesting to observe just how differently the Japanese presenters react to events as they unfold, compared to their American counterparts.
… if you want to brush up on your Japanese superlatives, then these lovably hyperactive presenters have got you covered.
Obviously, for Japanese study purposes, I recommend watching the Japanese perspective on the first season. However, all three seasons are available in both Japanese and English. I’m just about to start season three, so no spoilers in the comments please!
Also, if you want to brush up on your Japanese superlatives, then these lovably hyperactive presenters have got you covered.
I remember one of my friends at university telling me how, as a child who had newly moved to the U.K. from Poland in the early ’90s, he loved watching the classic game show Gladiators. He said the physical nature of the show made it easy to enjoy even when he couldn’t speak English, but the passive learning he did from listening to the English commentary on the various events in the show really helped him in the long run.
Perhaps, as Gladiators’ spiritual successor, Ultimate Beastmaster can be of similar help to those of you who are new to Japan.
- Ultimate Beastmaster is available on Netflix Japan.
3. Downtown TV Specials
For the past two years, my girlfriend and I have started something of an annual tradition. We always watch the New Year’s Eve special from the manzai (two-person comedy act) duo of Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada known as Downtown.
Now, Hulu has collected all of these annual specials going as far back as the year 2000. Having grown up on movies like Police Academy, Airplane and Naked Gun, as well as being a big fan of Jim Carrey, I love absurdist physical comedy. Few in Japan do it as well as Downtown, last year’s “blackface” racism debacle notwithstanding.
… amid the laughs, you can practice both your listening and your reading.
In addition to the slapstick style of the gags being easy to follow even if you don’t speak any Japanese, like many variety shows in Japan, there are also large, easy-to-read Japanese captions splattered across the screen at regular intervals to accentuate the on-screen action. So, amid the laughs, you can practice both your listening and your reading.
- The Downtown TV specials are available on Hulu Japan.
4. Solitary Gourmet
Alongside comedy, another of my great loves (as you can probably tell by my photo) is food. So Solitary Gourmet (Japanese reading: 孤独のグルメー) really hits the spot with me — both as a Japanese learner and a lover of food culture.
In each episode, our protagonist Goro Inogashira (played by Yutaka Matsushige), a traveling businessman, seeks out a new restaurant or bar in a new place in Japan and tries the local specialties. That’s it really. No drama. No conflict. Just a busy, lone traveller,enjoying the very best — and the most — Japanese cuisine has to offer.
Much like Terrace House, it’s kind of hard to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it why exactly something so seemingly boring as a businessman eating alone is, in fact, compulsive viewing. For me, it’s the passion, the color and the detail that Goro brings to each of his meals with his descriptions and running commentary of his food experience.
Solitary Gourmet offers a great chance to brush up on your Japanese adjectives…
From the learner’s perspective, Solitary Gourmet offers a great chance to brush up on your Japanese adjectives and will probably add a few new ones, too.
You can also impress your workmates the next day by casually name dropping some obscure Japanese food they wouldn’t expect a foreigner to know about, but thanks to the intrepid Goro, you now have third-hand accounts of its details.
- Solitary Gourmet is available on Netflix Japan.
5. Midnight Diner
This intriguing show appears, on the surface at least, to follow a similar premise to Solitary Gourmet. However, where Solitary Gourmet allows the food to take center stage as the main topic of interest, in this series of individual dramas, all concerning visitors to a late night eatery in Tokyo, it’s the people, their lives, loves, hopes and dreams that are at the forefront of the plot.
For the language learner, the dialog provides great insight into what current and colloquial Japanese actually sounds like when native speakers let their guard down.
As many of us will know, a bit of late night food and drink is a sure fire way to loosen the tongue of even the most uptight Japanese person. The people who frequent this particular eatery all have their own issues and they often address them in a direct, frank and honest way. It is a million miles away from the keigo, or honorific, structured formal language and forced, uneasy “small talk” that characterizes most Japanese study textbooks.
… the dialog provides great insight into what current and colloquial Japanese actually sounds like …
For beginner language learners, Midnight Diner is perhaps the least accessible of the shows I have listed here due to its lack of formality in the characters’ speech and the tendency to occasionally slip into regular popular language and slang.
However, if you persevere, you may well find it to be the most rewarding of them all.
- Midnight Diner is available on Netflix Japan.
Whatever kind of TV or movies you are into, today’s online streaming services have a wealth of Japanese language content to suit all tastes. For many of us, myself included, the thought of picking up a study textbook or doing a language class after a long, hard day at work just doesn’t bear thinking about.
What better way to improve your listening skills, then, than by relaxing, pouring yourself a drink, putting your feet up and watching some TV?
What TV shows or movies do you recommend for fellow Japanese learners? Leave a comment and let us know your own recommendations!