Need a break from Japanese textbooks and vocabulary flashcards? Then it’s time to chill with some Japanese dramas!
J-dramas are easy to get sucked into, especially because they’re so different in format from most Western shows. And they’re a fantastic way to gain some insight into Japanese culture, language, and locales in Japan.
One nice thing about Japanese dramas? They’re usually only one season long and about 10-12 episodes. While there are some shows that have long runs or multiple seasons, they’re not as common. What’s great about that is you don’t get stuck in one type of story or character set — you can binge through one show, and then jump to a new one! And by doing that, you’re increasing your exposure to different language usage and dialects.
Now you may be wondering, “Can I really learn Japanese from watching dramas?” After all, we’re ingrained to think that study time equals textbooks and classes, and TV is mind-numbing.
Well, you can learn Japanese from TV shows! In fact, I highly recommend including Japanese TV shows as part of your language learning routine. All work and no play makes language learning dull. And even if you passively watch the shows, you’re still exposing yourself to the tones, body language, and culture — and understanding all of these is necessary to truly become fluent.
But, if you want to really learn something from Japanese dramas, you have to learn how to use your TV time effectively. So how can you do that?
Editor's note: before we get started, if you’re looking for an online Japanese course, here’s the course I actually recommend: Japanese Uncovered – Learn Japanese Through the Power of Story, a course with a fascinating new method.
How to Learn While Watching Japanese Dramas
If your hope was that you could sit in front of the TV and suddenly begin to understand, well… That’s not how this works.
Like I said, watching TV passively — i.e. not actively trying to learn, but just sitting back and watching — can have some benefits. Most notably, you’ll gain cultural insight. That’s a plus! And, it can be a great brain break while still immersing yourself in your target language.
Keep in mind that, as far as a study method goes, it’s not the best. There are a lot of issues with passive learning, and it will take far too long to really grasp anything of use. There are much faster ways to learn Japanese!
But TV, when used properly, can be a form of active study and listening practice.
First, you’ll want to pick a show that’s really interesting to you. If it’s on a topic you know you’ll want to talk about in everyday life, even better! You’ll learn useful vocabulary and phrases that are relevant to you. Make sure this show has subtitles, ideally in both your target language and native language.
Next, look up some information about the show. Pick up some of the character names, the general plot, and maybe look at some relevant vocab so you have a starting base when listening.
Watch the episode all the way through with subtitles in your native language. As you gain experience with the language (at least on an intermediate level), I suggest reversing this process. Watch the show without subtitles, or with subtitles in Japanese initially. That way you’re relying on how much you know first, focusing on real listening comprehension. Then, go back and watch it with your native language subtitles. Write down any words or phrases that you understood by using context or subtitles. You can also write down words to look up their meaning afterward.
Then, go back and watch the episode again. It’s best if you break it down by scene, plot point, or clip. Watch the scene several times. Use the target language subtitles, or if they aren’t available, try to write down what you hear as best you can. Pick out new words again, and write them down to look up after.
Then watch it again without subtitles to see what you know.
Yes, this is more work. Yes, it will take you longer to get through a show. But, you’ll notice a rapid improvement in your listening comprehension and vocabulary memorization! Plus, this is way more fun than staring at a vocab list in your textbook.
The Best Japanese Dramas to Binge Watch and Learn Japanese
Where should you begin in your hunt for J-dramas to watch? Here are some top choices, many of which you can find on Netflix.
Japanese Title: 僕だけがいない街
Suspense. Murder. Time travel. This epic Netflix Original is based on the manga by Kei Sanbe. It follows a manga artist (漫画家, mangaka, in Japanese) with the ability to travel back in time and stop fatal accidents from occurring. When his mother is murdered, he travels back in time where he must save the lives of three children in the past, and his mother in the present.
Million Yen Women
Japanese Title: １００万円の女たち
Based on the manga by Shunju Aono. A novelist, Shin Michima, lives with five other women who rent out space in his home. They each pay him 1 million yen every month — much higher than necessary — under the condition that no questions are ever asked about the women. But what are they hiding? This rom-com mystery stars Yojiro Noda from the band RADWIMPS.
Japanese Title: 宇宙を駆けるよだか
In a Freaky Friday-esque scenario, popular Ayumi and her unpopular classmate Umine suddenly change bodies on the day of Ayumi’s big date with a close friend. However, no one believes her, and Umine refuses to switch back. Now, Ayumi must find a way to get her body back.
Japanese Title: パーフェクトクライム
If you’re a fan of “Terrace House,” you’ll recognize the female lead in this show as Triendl Reina! She plays Kaori, an interior designer, who is having an illicit affair with her married boss. Her new work partner, Haruto, catches them one day. Is Kaori’s fate sealed or will it change for the better?
Japanese Title: 野武士のグルメ
A retired salaryman discovers the joy in having time on his hands and day drinking. It brings out his fantasy inner persona — a wandering samurai — who inspires him to eat and drink freely and discover amazing food.
Good Morning Call
Japanese Title: グッドモーニングコール
High schooler Nao is renting her dream apartment, but she’s surprised to discover she’s sharing it! And with her popular, handsome classmate Hisashi, no less. They realize they’ve been scammed and both leased the apartment, but they come to an agreement to live together and split the rent… But no one must find out! Cue typical rom-com misadventures and romance in this cute drama.
Japanese Title: アンダーウェア
Set in the Ginza district in Tokyo (which is the fancy, high-end shopping area), Mayuko begins working at a small, upscale lingerie shop called Emotion. It’s owned by the thorny Mayumi Nanjou, who is trying to keep her shop going while refusing to compromise her style of single-production items. Mayuko struggles to fit into her new work environment, in a very “The Devil Wears Prada” setting.
The Many Faces of Ito
Japanese Title: 伊藤くん A to E
In this romantic comedy, a rom-com screenwriter tries to get fuel for her screenplay by tricking four women into sharing their real-life stories. As it turns out, all four women are in love with a man named Ito. Discovering this similar thread in each story, she digs deeper to discover the truth as to who Ito really is.
Japanese Title: 火花
An unpopular stand-up comedian, Tokunaga, is trying to make it big as a Manzai comedy style. Manzai is a style of comedy where a duo uses puns and misunderstandings to shoot off many jokes in a silly manner. Tokunaga meets another experienced Manzai comedian, Kamiya, who takes him under his wing as an apprentice and inspires his creativity.
Your Home is My Business! Counterattack
Japanese Title: 家売るオンナの逆襲
Literally translated as “Counterattack of home-selling woman”, this drama stars popular actors Keiko Kitagawa and Shota Matsuda. Leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, real estate in Tokyo has skyrocketed. Real estate agent, Machi, uses her unique method of being too involved in her clients’ lives in order to always make a sale and outsell her competitors.
Final Fantasy XIV: Dad of Light
Japanese Title: ファイナルファンタジーXIV 光のお父さん
Based on a heartwarming true story, Akio hatches a plan to reconnect with his dad through Final Fantasy. He secretly interacts with him online in game, to find out why his dad has withdrawn and quit his job.
99.9: Criminal Lawyer
Japanese Title: 99.9-刑事専門弁護士-
Starring Jun Matsumoto of the popular band Arashi, he plays lawyer Hiroto Miyama. He seeks justice and truth for the innocents against Japan’s 99.9% conviction rate. However, he can’t seem to make any money in his cases… And then he’s approached by a big-time law firm.
Japanese Title: 海月姫
Based on the famous manga series, Princess Jellyfish is about a young woman whose shyness and awkwardness keep her from pursuing her dreams of becoming an illustrator. She lives among otaku women and is obsessed with jellyfish because of memories with her deceased mother. Happenstance thanks to a jellyfish leads her to new people, new opportunities, and changes in her life.
The Best ICYMI Japanese Dramas
Still looking for more awesome dramas to watch? Well here’s your ICYMI (in case you missed it) list. If you haven’t seen these favorites listed below, then it’s time to go back and watch them! These series are iconic, cult classics, and rom-com favorites. Take note, too: this was the era of Oguri Shun, who pretty much starred in everything in the early 2000s.
- Hana Yori Dango (花より団子)
- Gokusen (ごくせん)
- Mischievous Kiss: Love in Tokyo (イタズラなKiss～Love in Tokyo)
- Sailor Uniform and Machine Gun (セーラー服と機関銃)
- 1 Liter of Tears (1リットルの涙)
- Song of the Sun (たいようのうた)
- JIN (JIN-仁-)
- Absolute Boyfriend (絶対彼氏)
- Bambino! (バンビーノ!)
- Rich Man, Poor Woman (リッチマン、プアウーマン)
- Hanazakari no Kimitachi e (花ざかりの君たちへ)
Get on Netflix and Learn Japanese!
There you have it — all the best Japanese dramas to get started watching and learning. Plus, tips for how to transform your Netflix addiction into an active study session to master Japanese!
Ready to learn more? Learn the 101 core Japanese words to pick out the most in every conversation (or show!), fast.
And, if you want even more listening practice, why not try podcasts? JapanesePod101 is my favorite for learning Japanese at any level, with fun and engaging topics. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.
What’s your favorite, binge-worthy Japanese drama? Share it in the comments!