Japan has always been considered a bit weird when it comes to Japanese culture. On the one hand, Western TV would have you believe Ultimate Warrior and Human Tetris are like the Japanese Olympics, up there with classic cultural icons like ninjas and Samurai. On the other you have the Japan-obsessed who believe every anime has artistic merit and nothing is more beautiful than white-faced geisha.
Having lived in Japan for 8 years though, I can tell you that neither depiction is correct. There is far more to Japanese culture and society than these often-portrayed stereotypes; but it’s not impossible to learn about them. Here’s my selection of 5 great YouTube videos and series’ to learn about the real Japan.
The Queens Classroom
This is a fairly typical Japanese TV drama series – 11 episodes in total, each an hour long. Although the storyline is superficially an exagerrated tale of an elementary class and their battle with a seemingly evil teacher – it’s actually a heartwarming and accurate portrayal of Japanese school and family life. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it has me in tears everytime I watch it.
If you have any interest in learning about the Japanese school system – or if you’re thinking about participating in the JET program yourself – this is about as realistic as you can get.
Japanorama With Jonathan Ross
This BBC mini-series does admittedly play to the stereotypes, but it covers such a wide breadth of ground that I can forgive it those shortcomings. Think of it as one man’s mission to experience all the wackiness that one can encounter while in Japan, and this does it well. None of this has anyone to do with day to day Japanese life of course, but Jonathan Ross is an endearing presenter with an open mind.
I should note that none of the stuff portrayed is made up or acted, though some of the artists he interviews are just as irrelevant in the real world as their Western counterparts.
Host Club Documentary
Anyone who visits a major Japanese city after dark will know the phenomenon of host and hostess clubs, where individuals deprived of human contact can go to spend the evening hanging out with a cute guy or girl. Make no mistake, this is not prostitution (though quasi-legalized prostitution does abound in other types of establishment), though it’s safe to assume that continued patronage of these clubs is for many, based on the unrealistic hope that one day their chosen host will give up the thousand-dollars-a-day job and turn into their exclusive real boyfriend.
The costs of visiting a host club – to chat, and drink in the company of pretty boys – are extraordinary; $200-$1,000 for one evening is not unusual. Ultimately though, these places play no less of a role in society than the respected tea houses where young geisha girls in-training play shamisen, dance and play bar games with rich clietele.
This documentary gives the inside story on how the host clubs work and the type of guys who do it, and it’s a fascinating look at one of the darker sides of Japan.
Real Life Of Geisha
Speaking of geisha, this 6-part mini series from 1999 is quite thorough in explaining their life and very much still relevant; from being adopted into a tea house anywhere from 12 years old, right through their special “maiko” schooling, nightly performances and final debut as a fully qualified geisha.
The customs and way of life have changed very little in hundreds of years; the maiko and geisha culture is something that Kyoto values very much.
The Japan Channel
This guy has an absolutely immense collection of just under 1,000 videos uploaded, totalling 24 million views. Though some of the videos are amateur and some are a bit of fluff, if you drill down into the categories you can get a good idea of what’s it’s like living as a foreigner in Japan.
This video, for instance, shows one of the numerous festivals that occur throughout the year in every Japanese town and city; most consist of carrying a shrine around town while getting drunk.
I think these videos are invaluable to anyone living or thinking about coming to Japan; I would have loved to have a resource like available when I first arrived.
Have you ever been to Japan? I’ll have to be honest and say I love the place. There are parts I hate too though, of course – anyone who dedicates a good portion of their life to something ought to be able to see a balance and not simply blind themselves with those rose-tinted spectacles that so many foreigners can’t seem to shake.
I hope these videos I’ve outlined will be able to give you a balanced view too, and take your knowledge of Japanese culture beyond the random weirdness (or at least, expand your knowledge of the random weirdness?). For the best enjoyment of Japanese media, learning Japanese online with these 6 free tools is a good idea.
If you want to know more or have any questions about something you see in the videos, do ask away in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you’ve found any other great Japan-related videos or made some yourself, post them too please!