Posted: 30th June 2023
Welcome to a post I've been brewing up for a while!
Ever since I started learning Japanese back in 2012, one of my favourite ways to gain exposure to the language has been through watching TV shows. As well as being a great way to get to know Japanese culture and sense of humour, Japanese shows are of course a wonderful way to pick up common phrases and test out your listening skills without the pressure that can come from feeling like you're "studying".
Although you may not use Netflix, today's post focuses on five of my top picks available via Netflix in the UK. (If you're elsewhere and can't access these shows, consider using a VPN to change your location. Also don't forget you may be able to find these shows somewhere other than Netflix. This is not sponsored in any way!)
There's a lot to be said about how to learn from Netflix or Japanese TV shows in general which won't fit into this post, but needless to say: be sure to make use of the subtitles. My personal approach to subtitles is:
- Use English (or your most familiar language) subs when tired and just needing something to relax into.
- Turn on Japanese subs if you want to try and read along. Even if you only know hiragana, it's a good way to practise recognising characters and simply get used to seeing Japanese "in the wild". Remember you can always pause to check what's written.
- Try watching completely without subs if you're up for a challenge. If you're feeling extra studious, watch an episode once through without subs then another time with subs for extra practice and to check your understanding.
...but as always, don't forget to play around and find what works for you!
How did I pick the shows in this list?
The shows listed below are all ones that I've recommended to students at one time or another - or indeed that I've used in class. They're also shows that I've personally enjoyed watching as a learner of Japanese.
When making this list, I felt like I was including a good variety of genres. It turns out, however, that it mostly spans two categories: reality TV and animated shows (both anime and stop animation). If neither of these sound like your cup of tea, I encourage you to have a look regardless, as a) they may not be quite what you expect b) there's a big difference between watching a show purely for the show itself and watching it as a language learner!
Age Ratings & Content Warnings
Before we go any further, just a wee note to say that any age ratings are copied from Netflix as displayed at the time of writing. Please double check content warnings on Netflix or elsewhere if you have any concerns.
If you'd like to skip ahead to a particular item in this list, you can do so by clicking any of the following links.
In no particular order, the shows I recommend are:
- Old Enough（はじめてのおつかい）
- The Way of the Househusband（極主夫道）
- Love is Blind Japan（愛は盲目）
- Rilakkuma and Kaoru-san（リラックマとカオルさん）
Note: none of the links in this post are affiliated, which means I don't make money when you click them.
1. Old Enough!
- Japanese name: はじめてのおつかい (hajimete no otsukai)
- Age rating: PG
Old Enough! is a reality TV show, but probably not as you've seen it before.
The premise of this show is perhaps more easily understood through the Japanese name, which translates to "[My] First Errand". Followed by an attentive camera crew, young children venture forth into the world to run their very first errands, picking up food from the supermarket, making deliveries and generally getting into all sorts of scrapes along the way.
While the creators of the show have gone to some lengths to publicise how carefully each errand is supervised both by the crew and local community, Old Enough! has generated quite some discussion over whether children so young should be being sent out into the world by themselves at such a young age. If you're interested in this show, it's worth looking into, as there are some interesting differences between Japan and many other places in the world particularly when it comes to the age at which children start commuting to school without an accompanying adult.
From a Japanese language perspective, I think this is a great show to watch especially because of the everyday nature of the scenes being portrayed. While the narrator often uses some quite complex/flowery Japanese, the interactions between children, parents and others around them in the community tend to be a lot simpler. It's also a great window into day-to-day life across many different areas of Japan, and while it may be pretty hard to pick up on unless you're a more advanced learner, Old Enough! portrays a great variety of regional dialects.
Finally, one major bonus to this show for learners of Japanese is that the Netflix version generally runs from just 10-20 minutes per episode - nice and bite-sized!
Watch an excerpt from Old Enough! below:
2. The Way of the Househusband
- Japanese name: 極主夫道 (goku shufu dō)
- Age rating: 12/15 (depending on season)
Next up in this list is an entry I imagine pretty much any anime fan will be familiar with.
As someone who is generally not that much into anime, I was pleasantly surprised by this series, which is a humorous take on the life of an ex-yakuza member turned househusband.
- Fun fact: the word for househusband is the same as that of housewife - just spelled with different kanji. While both words are pronounced “shufu”, the kanji are 主夫 (househusband) and 主婦 (housewife).
As with many anime, The Way of the Househusband has its origins in manga, and has also gone on to get a live action adaption.
Filled with scenes in the which the past and current lives of the main character, Tatsu, are juxtaposed to hilarious effect, The Way of the Househusband is another great choice if you want to get a feel for day-to-day life in Japan as we follow Tatsu on his various quests, be it going shopping at the grocery store, preparing meals for his wife Miku, cleaning the house or facing up to spending time with his in-laws.
While the Japanese in this show may prove challenging at points due to its use of yakuza-style language from Tatsu and some others around him, there's plenty of more everyday Japanese that I'm sure anyone from beginner to advanced level will be able to benefit from hearing.
Finally, if you're a music fan keen to hear some Japanese music that's a little different from your standard J-pop, the opening theme of this anime may just be right up your street. This song is written and performed by punk rock band 打首獄門同好会 (Uchikubigokumon-Doukoukai) who you can listen to here on their YouTube channel. Disclaimer: I am a little biased in recommending their music as I saw them once as a support act in Osaka and was quickly won over by them throwing うまい棒 (umaibō - "delicious sticks") out into the crowd!
Watch the trailer for The Way of the Househusband:
3. Love is Blind Japan
- Japanese name: 愛は盲目 (ai wa mōmoku)
- Age rating: 12
Next up is a show you may already be aware of in its non-Japanese form: Love is Blind.
Billed as a social experiment, Love is Blind is a reality TV show in which single men and women go on a series of dates in which they cannot see one another, with those who really hit it off getting engaged before seeing one another's faces even once.
If you haven't seen this show before, it may make a little more sense to watch the trailer below to see exactly how it works. However, as mentioned at the top, even if the words "reality TV" tend to put you off, don't forget: we're here as Japanese learners! (An excellent excuse to sit back and consume junk TV if I do say so myself.)
I'll be honest: I think I owe a lot more to Japanese reality TV and soppy dramas than I usually admit. As you can imagine from the description above, Love is Blind creates a pretty much perfect recipe for emotions to run high, not to mention plenty of scope for conversations between people who are trying to find out more about one another as complete strangers.
If this doesn't sound like the kind of thing that might be useful to you as a Japanese learner, think again! At least in my experience, going to Japan - whether to travel, work or study - can be a pretty emotionally intense journey, and having ways to express yourself and let those emotions be known can be incredibly valuable. Not only that, but as you continuously introduce yourself to new people, you will almost surely need some questions up your sleeve akin to those being asked by those featured in Love is Blind. If nothing else, observing how people interact when meeting for the first time can be an interesting cultural comparison. What kind of info do they give about themselves? What kinds of questions do they ask? How do people react to one another?
Similarly to Old Enough!, Love is Blind throws up a slight linguistic challenge in that the narrator and presenters tend to speak quite quickly, using more complicated language than those featuring in the show. However, stick with it and you're bound to find snippets you can follow even if you're still in the early stages of your Japanese learning.
Watch the official trailer to Love is Blind Japan below:
- Japanese name: アグレッシブ烈子 (agresshibu retsuko - "Agressive Retsuko")
- Age rating: PG/12 (depending on season)
The second-last item on today's list is Aggretsuko.
Another anime that I recommend even if anime isn't usually your thing, Aggretsuko follows its main character Retsuko, a creation of Sanrio (of Hello Kitty fame).
As a 25-year-old single person working for the accounting department of a Japanese trading firm, Retsuko's life mirrors that of many young adults starting out in their careers in Japan - with the slight difference that she is in fact a red panda.
One of the endearing features of Aggretsuko is that each character in the show is a different animal that reflects their various personalities - with the exception of character's family members, who tend to be the same animal as them. However, far from being a cutesy series aimed at kids, Aggretsuko is in fact a firm contender for the darkest entry in this list.
Five years into the world of full-time employment, Retsuko is surrounded by pressures from coworkers, her boss (トン部長 - Ton-buchō) and, particularly in Season 2, her mother, who is desperate for her to find a husband. Faced with all this, we learn from early on that Retsuko’s go-to method of blowing off stress is to go to karaoke and sing death metal - something I wish I'd thought of trying back when I was dealing with similar stresses in Japan!
While Aggretsuko depicts some difficult topics, and as such is a show I would advise some caution over for those with experience of work-related anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, in among the darkness are plenty of moments of good humour, friendship and catharsis. I particularly recommend this show to more advanced learners interested in hearing a whole range of different speech styles. (My personal favourite is slang expert フェネコ - Feneko, a fennec fox.) However, whatever your level, Aggretsuko is an invaluable window into the issues facing many young working adults in Japan – not to mention an excellent way to blow off steam if you feel up to joining Retsuko in one of her karaoke sessions.
Watch the trailer for Aggretsuko below:
5. Rilakkuma and Kaoru
- Japanese name: リラックマとカオルさん (Rirakkuma to Kaoru-san)
- Age rating: PG
Last but certainly not least, the final spot in this list goes to a show that, while narratively not dissimilar Aggretsuko, is a whole other level of wholesome.
Described by one reviewer as "a love letter to the need to escape", Rilakkuma and Kaoru is a beautifully crafted stop-animation show telling the story of Kaoru-san, an アラサー女性 (arasaa josei - woman around the age of 30) who is - you guessed it - unhappy with the daily slog of her life as an office worker. However, unlike your average employee, Kaoru-san has some quite special roommates to come home to each day: Rilakkuma, Korilakkuma and Kiiroitori.
While this whole setup is probably best experienced rather than explained, if you’re keen for a bit of Japanese reading practice, you can find out more about the story and characters on the official Rilakkuma and Kaoru website.
If you're totally new to Rilakkuma and Kaoru, my suggestion is to just dive right on in there! Although some of the conversations between adult humans can be a fair bit trickier to follow, personally, I think that this may be the best item in this list when it comes to Japanese for every level, plus - you guessed it - valuable insights into Japanese culture and daily life. I've certainly used this show in classes multiple times thanks to its handy depiction of key cultural (and often seasonal) themes that can be seen in episode titles such as Cherry Blossom, Rainy Season, Fireworks and Getting a Job.
Finally, like many of the shows is this list, Rilakkuma and Kaoru is also a great shout if you're a little short on time, as each episode is only around 10-12 minutes long.
Watch the trailer below:
You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.
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