Top 10 Anime to Understand Japanese Culture in Depth [Best Recommendations]

Ikoku Meiro no Croisée wallpaper

Mention ‘Japanese culture’ to any foreigner, and ‘anime’ is going to be one of, if not the first thing that pops up in their heads. In fact, we all know that anime and manga occupies a central position in Japanese popular culture, and thus consuming this particular form of entertainment is undoubtedly a good way of gaining knowledge on Japan. This writer, for one, learned, or at least think he learned, a lot about Nippon through anime.

However, making a list of anime that can help you understand Japanese culture a somewhat complicated task: without getting too technical, one has to point out that ‘culture’ is a hopelessly vague concept, and thus the task of trying to introduce ‘Japanese culture’ can easily become a confusing one. For the purpose of this article, however, culture basically encompasses everything that has ever been done or thought on the Japanese territory, just to keep it simple.

Anyway, no matter how we understand ‘Japanese culture’, the task of introducing such a complex thing in mere ten series and 2000 words is difficult to say the least, and, consequently, this list will be an inconsistent mash-up of all kinds of stories, styles and subject matters, but will hopefully help you gain a deeper understanding of the culture of the land of the rising sun.

10. Dragon Ball

dragonball z dvd 02
  • Episodes: 153
  • Aired: 1986 – Apr 1989

A lot of those interested in Japan tend to overlook the fact that much of what we think of as ‘Japanese’ indeed came from other places, with those ‘other places’ often being China: though entertaining enough, people like Atsugiri Jason should really be yelling “WHYY CHINA!”.

Along with stuff like kanji and ramen, the premise of the Dragon Ball manga was borrowed from slash inspired by the novel A Journey to the West, one of four novels considered as the great classics of Chinese literature. That is not to say that writer Toriyama Akira blatantly copied the story of Sun Wukong's (who became Son Goku) journey to collect Buddhist sutras (which, in turn, became dragon balls) – although the main protagonist maintained his monkey tail, martial arts skills, strength and carefree attitude, this is merely the premise of the story.

One could in fact claim that an important part of Japanese culture is the peculiar way imported elements are slightly changes before being absorbed, be it philosophy, food or language. Just think of Waseigo, even though the components of word like paso-kon comes from English (personal and computer, respectively), it is dissected and put together in a new way, creating something almost entirely different from the original source material. A prime example of this is Dragon Ball (including, of course, Dragon Ball Z), which is a good reason to pick it up (again, if you’ve already watched it).

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DRAGON BALL: 1st Trailer (1986) FR / ENG


9. Danna ga Nani wo Itteiru ka Wakaranai Ken / I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying

danna ga nani wo itteiruka wakaranai ken dvd
  • Episodes: 13
  • Aired: Oct 2014 - Dec 2014

Otaku culture is referenced in pretty much every anime, but few go as far as I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying, this tale of the daily life of a stereotypically normal Japanese girl marrying a stereotypical otaku male can be treated as an encyclopedia of everything essential to this stereotypically Japanese subculture. If you take the time and google all the things referenced, you’ll end up with a knowledge of the otaku culture that will surpass even the frequent patrons of Akihabara’s maid cafés.

As important as this, however, is the fact that the story is told from the perspective of the absolutely-not-otaku-at-all Kaoru, which also teaches a lesson: most regular Japanese people would react in the same way as ‘we’ do when observing some of the strange customs and obsessions of otakus, thus giving a more unbiased view on the subject matter.

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Danna ga Nani o Itteiru ka Wakaranai Ken Trailer #1


8. Imouto Paradise

Imouto Paradise dvd
  • Episodes: 2
  • Aired: Dec 2011 - Apr 2012

Obviously, one of the picks had to be sex-related. If you were to make a list of movies that would help a foreigner understand American culture, something along the lines of Deep Throat would be an obvious choice, right?

Japan has a flourishing pornographic industry as well as a long history of erotica. Sex is, as everywhere else, everywhere in Japan, though not in the same way as you’d see it in other countries – what many foreigners that come to Japan or watch anime for the first time will react to, is the widely used image of ‘the schoolgirl’, in the innocent, slightly suggestive, and straight out sexualized form.

So I decided to choose one that combines everything that’s wrong with temporary anime (and, consequentially, the people that consume it): a disturbing fascination with high school prepubescent-looking girls, almost comically stereotypical objectification of women, as well as a lust for something forbidden – incest in this particular case.

Of course, what needs to be underlined is that including Imouto Paradise in this list doesn’t mean that this genre represents the cup of tea of most Japanese people – as we all probably know the ‘weird Japan’ stereotype is vastly overstated – but it does have an audience and thus represents a subculture worthy of attention.

Imouto Paradise wallpaper


7. Ikoku Meiro no Croisée

Croisee in a Foreign Labyrinth dvd
  • Episodes: 12
  • Aired: July 2011 - September 2011

The 19th century saw great changes in Japan’s relationship with the outside world: Before 1853 the country had been isolated under what was known as the sakoku policy, and any Japanese trying to leave the country faced the death penalty. After the so-called Meiji-restoration this all changed though, and Japan was opened up.

This is the historical context of Ikoku Meiro no Croisée, where a young Japanese girl named Yune follows a visiting Frenchman back to France and eventually starts working in his family’s ironwork shop. Life in Japan is obviously a lot different than that of her home country, and the cultural differences she encounters is indeed one of the main themes.

Apart from the occasional hafu tsundere character, foreigners and foreign cultures aren’t a very prominent element in anime, and that’s what makes Ikoku Meiro no Croisée stand out. Its premise gives us a different perspective on Japanese culture by contrasting it with that of 19th century Paris, meaning that there’s a lot to learn from this East-meets-West SOL.

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Ikoku Meiro no Croisée - The Animation Trailer Wonder Festival


6. Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei / The Tatami Galaxy

The Tatami Galaxy dvd
  • Episodes: 11
  • Aired: Apr 2010 - Jul 2010

University life is one of the subjects left largely untouched by the vast majority of High School obsessed anime writers, despite the fact that the time spent as a university student surely is an important period of many Japanese people’s life.

Tatami Galaxy is, apart from one of the arguably best and most original anime series to date, an interesting look into the daily life at one of Japan’s most prestigious educational institutions, Kyoto University. Set in one of the most beautiful cities of Japan, it depicts an unnamed protagonist’s struggles with choosing the right student circle to join, as this apparently has a definitive impact on one’s social life on campus.

Tatami Galaxy is packed with references to traditional and modern Japan, introduces one of the most iconic universities in one of the most iconic cities in Japan, and has one of the best sidekicks in recent anime.

The Tatami Galaxy (2010) – Trailer


5. Samurai Champloo

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  • Episodes: 26
  • Aired: Mar 2004 - Mar 2005

A swordsman and a ronin (masterless samurai) with opposite personalities decides to help a 15-year-old girl named Fuu search for the ‘Samurai who smells of Sunflowers’, all while sick hip hops beats float in the background. Break dancing samurai – it sounds like a ridiculous concept, but under the direction of a genius like Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop) Samurai Champloo naturally became a masterpiece.

Part period drama and part cultural mashup almost bordering the parodic, Samurai Champloo is set in one of the greatest eras of Japanese history, the Edo period, like the genre known in the west as Samurai cinema (chanbara in Japanese). Although its handling of history is sometimes questionable (and it probably never meant to be taken seriously on this point), it does include several events that actually occurred, providing more or less relevant information for the history-interested.

The image and ‘way’ of the samurai occupies a large space in Japanese culture, both in the version perceived by foreigners and the one seen by natives. A mix of old and new, traditional and modern, Samurai Champloo is probably the ultimate samurai anime.

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4. Shirobako

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  • Episodes: 24
  • Aired: Oct 2014 - Mar 2015

Ordinary working life is not that common of a theme in anime, and this makes Shirobako a welcomed addition to the world of anime. A story of five high school friends that all decide to pursue a career in anime, making Shirobako kind of a unique peak into the ups and downs of everyday work.

As most Japanese, instead of piloting EVAs, hanging out with their magical girlfriends or getting forced to work at strange bathhouses, are probably a) going about doing their comparatively mundane jobs or b) watching anime like the above mentioned, Shirobako is a good pick because it offers insights into both the anime industry as well as the ordinary office life that so many Japanese experience every day. And, on top of that, it is a brilliant series.

Shirobako CD

Shirobako - [Anime] Trailer


3. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi/Spirited Away

spirited away dvd
  • Episodes: 1 (movie)
  • Aired: July 2001

It’s obviously hard to pick just one anime from a studio that is regularly hailed as one of, if not, the greatest in the business, but if we had to do just that Spirited Away wouldn’t be a bad choice. For one, it was a definitive hit not only in Japan – the highest grossing film in Japanese history – but also in the US, where it was the first anime ever to win an academy award.

Most of you will probably know the story, which revolves around ten-year-old Chihiro who after a mysterious chain of events is forces to work at an old bathhouse which happens to serve as a resort for various deities. Many will also have recognized the universal elements of the story, such as the coming of age of Chihiro or environmentalism, there are other more Japan-specific elements that are easier to miss.

Ecology and respect for nature are common theme in Miyazaki’s movies, and these thoughts as well as the images used to portray them often exhibits influence from Shintoism and Buddhism. Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are the most obvious examples of these kinds of movies, and the many gods and spirits that appear resemble the gods believed to exist in living things and natural phenomena.

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Spirited Away - Official Trailer 2001 [HD]


2. Urusei Yatsura

urusei yatsura DVD
  • Episodes: 195
  • Aired: Oct 1981 - Mar 1986

Another obvious pick, Usurei Yatsura might be old but is still running strong – main protagonist Lum Invader can still be seen promoting products in commercials on the Tokyo subway, proving that she is alive and kicking in the collective Japanese pop-cultural consciousness.

As with many other series on this list, there are two main reasons to check out this series: firstly, it’s regarded as a classic and has, as stated above, has a lasting impact on Japan, but also, secondly, it’s packed with references to pretty much everything Japanese: from old superstition and customs via folklore and mythology to classical literature.

A word of warning: you will definitely need good subtitles with good footnotes as well as an episode guide for this unforgivingly dense anime.

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うる星やつら 映像特典CM集


1. Sazae-san

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  • Episodes: 7181
  • Aired: Oct 1969 - ongoing

Sazae-what?

Upon asking a Tokyo friend which anime series would be suitable for a list like this, I was told that ‘Sazae-san’ was a must. I’d never heard of the series before, and was embarrassed to find out that such a large hole existed in my Japanese pop culture knowledge.

Sazae-san is the character that gets the whole family gathered in front of the television at 18:30 on Sundays, and has been doing so since 1969. Adapted from a newspaper manga strip that ran from 1946 to 1974, it is the longest running animated television series in the world with 7181 episodes (compared that to the Simpsons, only 574 episodes!), and still tops TV ratings per 2015.

The upbeat and cheerful Sazae-san is a housewife in a happy but turbulent marriage with Fuguta Masuo, who lives together with Sazae-san’s family in Tokyo. Even though the titular character originally was somewhat controversial for being ‘left-leaning’ and ‘liberated’, the main selling point of the anime is the nostalgic appeal it gives – a throwback to a time where several generations where living under the same roof, where mothers were happy housewives and fathers would come home early and play with the children.

Through Sazae-san you can learn a lot about Japanese family life, as well as pre-otaku, pre-anime (ironically) and pre-bubble economy Japan. Sazae-san and her family often participates in Japanese traditional festivals (matsuri), and offers a good chance to get to know a thing or two about traditional Japanese customs.

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Sazae San Opening Theme


Urusei Yatsura lum fan art

You can obviously learn something about Japan from every anime because it was, per definition, made in Japan, and there’s a lot to take from, so please leave your objections in the comment section!

Magnus

Writer

Author: Magnus

Hello there, I’m Magnus (no relation to Vampire Hunter D villain Count Magnus Lee), and I hail from the cold, northern part of the European continent. I like music, anime, movies and literature (aka ‘anything remotely artsy’), and am currently living in Tokyo, attempting to slay the dragon that goes by the name of ‘Japanese’, as well as figuring out the meaning of life. Recently started podcasting: https://soundcloud.com/helpodcast

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