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Top 10 Japanese Documentary Shows I Have Loved: 1991~2011

We talk a lot about dramas and anime, but there’s definitely more to life and media than fiction. For someone who basically only reads non-fiction, I’ve pretty much short-changed the heck out of you AJATTeers when it comes to recommending Japanese documentaries. Until now.

All those famous English-language docs you love so much, from Sicko to Supersize Me, are available dubbed in Japanese. But that’s all I’ll say about those. Today, let’s focus on domestic, homegrown Japanese stuff.

OK, anyway, in no particular order, here we go:

  1. ガイアの夜明け (Gaia’s Dawn): Business-based show. Follows innovative companies in one industry per episode. A bit 會社萬歳 (“long live any and all corporations” 1) for my tastes at times, but still…you get exposed to some really inspiring people and ideas; you get them horizons broadened…
  2. トリビアの泉 (The Fount of Trivia): Not really a documentary show, but then not really a quiz show either. Basically a bunch of famous people gather in a studio, are shown some trivia, and then react to how awesome it is.
  3. 爆笑問題のニッポンの教養 (Bakushoumondai’s Education for the Nation): One hour, one thought leader (usually a Nobel-level college professor), one field of expertise, two comedians taking the mickey. Pretty sweet.
  4. BSマンガ夜話 (Manga Nighttalk): One night. One hour. One manga. A bunch of wacky, intelligent people.
    • I was watching this show even back before I could understand what was actually being said. The panelists were like my uncles and aunts, sitting at the grown-up table discussing grown-up stuff whose importance I could feel but whose meaning I could not fully grasp. Plus there were pretty pictures. I love this show as much now as I did then. I like people. But I love this show.
    • Sidenote: the MC (大月 隆寛/OOTSUKI Takahiro), a professor of folkloristics 2, is a total jerk to women — and not in a sexy “kiss me, you fool!” way — he’s not negging, he’s just being…abusive. But…he grows on you 😉 3. I mean, one thing you can say in his defense is that he doesn’t suffer fools; he has no patience for women who pretend to like comics just to look cute; he seems to want people to actually know what they’re talking about (and he did finally get a female assistant MC — 笹峰 愛/SASAMINE Ai — who could hold her own).
    • Before Ai became a de facto regular, one of Ootsuki’s eye-candy assistants was actually illiterate. She was hot. Of Japanese descent. But couldn’t read. On a show about books. Ootsuki was…let’s just say he didn’t seem too thrilled 😛 . It was a real miscast, and the fault lies with the talent agency, not the performer (Tina NAKAMURA) herself. Nakamura’s particular energetic, kawaii-kei style would have fit really well on a lighter, fluffier program. Despite appearances, 夜話 (Nighttalk) is ultimately quite a dense, literary show, one that demands a fair amount of cultural and intellectual depth of its panelists, whose nonchalantly delivered insights are rooted in an abyssal familiarity with both the work at hand and some aspect of the wider context. Forcing poor Tina to go on live TV and stumble every two seconds in a valiant attempt to read kanji she hadn’t learned yet was a nonstarter — distracting and unnecessary.
    • Speaking of regulars, one of the show’s panelists happens to be a certain 夏目房之介/NATSUME Fusanosuke: manga critic and grandson of 夏目 漱石/NATSUME Souseki…that’s like being Charles Dickens’ grandson, dude. I dunno. I thought it was pretty cool 😀 . He likes to joke about how his dad (Souseki’s son) was a total slacker who spent his life living off Souseki’s royalties, funding the worldwide hookers and blow industry 4. BTW, Souseki’s works are all public domain now, so…yeah.
    • Similar/related/spin-off shows — often featuring the same panelists — include:
  5. 博士も知らないニッポンのウラ (Dr. Suidoubashi’s Japan Uncovered): Words cannot describe the awesomeness of this show. It was web-original and web-only, allowing its host and guests to say things that supposedly apparently can’t be said on regular Japanese TV. Golden stuff.
    • A sequel series, 博士の異常な鼎談 (Dr. Suidoubashi’s Talky Threesome), was made for real TV. Um…I’d like to complain that it wasn’t as good as the web show, but it was pretty darn good. I think I might have preferred the guests on the original, but that’s probably just the fanboy inside me finding fault.
  6. プロジェクトX〜挑戦者たち〜 (Project X: Challengers): Ever wonder about the backstory behind all the legendary Japanese technology that has brightened our days and nights since we were but babes? That’s what this show is all about. A tad hagiographic at times, but still good stuff; I mean, it’s nice to see Japanese people genuinely pat the nation on the back, because that’s something I feel happens all too rarely. What else — oh yeah, the theme song for this show got pretty famous and has been subject to a lot of parody…some junk about the Pleiades (=Subaru)…I dunno.
  7. カンブリア宮殿 (The Cambrian Temple): I don’t actually like this show that much (there was, like, one really interesting episode once somewhere), but…a lot of people do. I dunno, man…it has its moments. But if Gaia is company worship, this is like…unzipping the company’s fly and performing a televised public sex act. I mean, really. Stop riding the CEO already. Gol darn, yo.
  8. NHKスペシャル (NHK Special): NHK Special isn’t a single documentary series. Rather, it’s an umbrella thingy housing multiple independent documentary series. Pretty much anything that bears the “NHKスペシャル” name turns to gold — talk about parastatal agencies getting it right, huh? Who’d have thought? I guess the sun shines on everybody’s behind at some point, doesn’t it? 😛 So, yeah, pretty much anything that is NHKスペシャル is the shizzle. But were I required to whittle it down, I’d say that two of my personal favorites have been:
  9. NHK BS世界のドキュメンタリー(NHK Satellite — World Documentaries): NHK takes the best documentaries from around the world, sticks some preliminary commentary on the front end, and dubs the main content into Japanese.
  10. NHK クローズアップ現代 (NHK Close-Up On Our Times): More wide-ranging in scope than a regular newsmagazine, a tad bit narrower perhaps than a regular documentary, but overall it makes for really good TV. I won’t lie, dude, NHK can seem sterile and lame, but they get it right a lot. I mean, they made サラリーマンNEO/Salaryman NEO, a vicious satire on modern employee life in Japan; these people don’t mess around; they don’t only use those license fees for hostesses, hookers and Dom Pérignon

And that ends my list for today. It’s not really expansive (exhaustive?) or anything, it’s just stuff that I’ve watched and thus know about, that you might not otherwise have heard of. Um…it’s a bit NHK-heavy; it totally wasn’t my intention to big-up the old Nihon Housou KyouKai, but, I mean, they are the ones spending cash on educational TV — quite unlike the private terrestrial TV stations, who mostly focus on pouring out a steady stream of unfunny, low-budget “variety” shows that show an increasing lack of variety 6. So…yeah…there you go.

Let’s hear your recommendations! 😛

PS: You can buy many of these these shows on DVD via Amazon Japan: ← Use this link and I get a kickback, which makes the world happy.


  1. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not from hippie from Portland or anything. I’m all about bling, hookers and blow. It’s just…this show likes to make out working for a company to be this normal and wonderful thing, which, in Japan, it generally just isn’t. Working for most Japanese companies is a crock of bull. That’s an elephant in the room that I want pointed out, not ignored or filed under しょうがない (“can’t be helped”).
  2. Fear not. This show strikes a delightful balance in that the commentary is intelligent but never pedantic or self-indulgently academic; these guys know what they’re talking about, but they make you, the viewer, feel like an equal. Like a friend.
  3. Why am I winking?
  4. Except he’s not joking 😛
  5. OMG…I sound like such a little collectivist hippie today 🙂 !
  6. Oh, I’m not bitter…

  11 comments for “Top 10 Japanese Documentary Shows I Have Loved: 1991~2011

  1. あんど
    June 22, 2011 at 02:45

    >a steady stream of unfunny, low-budget “variety” shows that show an increasing lack of variety [Oh, I’m not bitter…]
    If there’s anything in this world you’d be 100% justified in being bitter about, it’s this. Because I sure am.

    Anyway, these sound pretty tight. I’ve already pulled up an episode of 知らないニッポンのウラ to watch. I’ve a hard time with TV keeping my attention, so hopefully these’ll be interesting enough, haha. Thanks for this list, brah.

  2. June 22, 2011 at 09:14


  3. jumbocrunk
    June 22, 2011 at 10:09

    If I was to add anything I would give 情熱大陸 and プロフェッショナル a mention. Depending on who they have on the show, they can be great shows.

  4. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    June 22, 2011 at 12:19

    地上の星 was a great song. Be very ashamed! D:

  5. Robert
    June 23, 2011 at 00:08

    Thanks khatz!! A variety of media recommendations are always in need, keep ’em coming お願いします

  6. David
    June 23, 2011 at 04:15

    I think this sort of post is what we need more of – a broadening of horizons, very practical information over simple maxims.

    I mean, maxims are great, don’t get me wrong, but hard information is undeniably useful. Kudos.

    ps When I first watched 地上の星’s PV, I wondered, ‘man what in the world am I watching,’ because it was the only Japanese video I’d seen that had no Japanese people in it. Except the singer. It’s quite a lovely song.

  7. June 23, 2011 at 12:22

    For you would-be (or existing) Remember the Kanji folks, I started a new video series called “Bite Size Kanji” on my youtube channel. Might be worth a look if you a) are considering the James Heisig method, or b) if you want to review. I’ll keep the vids coming as long as there is interest.

  8. June 23, 2011 at 16:18

    Very cool! I MUST find some equivalents in Spanish! I believe there was one called “The Take” about unions in Argentina that was in Spanish with English subtitles that got really popular within the last couple years, that would be a good start…


  9. KB
    June 24, 2011 at 04:26

    This post is seriously, seriously awesome. Thank you so much for this!

  10. Chagami
    June 29, 2011 at 07:18

    Khatz, another worthy addition to your media recommendations would be your top 10 favourite Japanese movies!

    Anime has been the backbone of my immersion environment since the beginning, but after seeing the movie Fujoshi Kanojo, I’ve gotten the urge to put my inner Otaku aside for a while, and bring forth the Movie Critic within! (Ironic, if you’ve seen the movie :P)

    Recommendations from other AJATTeers are also welcome too! 😀

  11. John
    April 14, 2013 at 12:03

    How can get these shows with English subtitles?

    Thank you

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