What do great Japanese learners have in common?
Discipline, dedication, and quite often…
…also a love of Japanese dramas!
After all, what better way is there to learn Japanese while actually enjoying it?
Why Learn Japanese with a Drama?
Learning with Japanese dramas works because:
- Japanese dramas are just fun and entertaining. You can reserve them for times when you’re just too exhausted to do anything more intense (eg. like talking to your language partner or doing flashcards).
- They also tend to use natural conversational Japanese.
- Dramas aren’t out of reach for anyone—it’s possible to hear the Japanese you do know and infer the rest just by paying attention!
- Japanese dramas are a wonderful way to get culturally fluent. Talking about a popular Japanese drama is a great way to connect with Japanese friends. Just think about all the English conversations you wouldn’t be able to participate in if you didn’t know any celebrities.
Tips on Learning Japanese with Dramas
To learn Japanese as effectively as possible, it isn’t enough to just watch the dramas and expect to soak up the vocabulary through osmosis. You should watch actively.
If you hear an unfamiliar word, you should write it down and look it up in a good dictionary. And ideally, you would review them on a regular basis and use them with your Japanese friends.
OK, so you might be thinking that after you do all that work, it’s not fun anymore.
If you’d like to learn more efficiently and still have fun, you might want to check out FluentU.
Learn Japanese with Drama: The 20 Best Japanese Dramas to Get Started
How to Choose Which Japanese Dramas to Watch
My selection of 10 Japanese dramas to watch has been dictated by my own personal preferences, and it’s also on personal preference that I recommend you discover your own favorite dramas to watch.
By personal preference I mean either someone famous in Japan who you know or you like, or just to think of what kind of story you like.
An unusual aspect of Japanese fame is that an actor isn’t just an actor, a model isn’t just a model and a singer isn’t just a singer, so if there’s a model that you like then there’s a good chance that he or she may also be in a drama, or if there’s a singer then he or she may also be a model as well as in a drama.
For example, one drama I’ll introduce has Aya Ueto (上戸彩, うえとあや) as the main star, I first saw her in the movie “あずみ” (Azumi) and later I found out she was a prolific singer and model. I then started following her TV career and discovered many great dramas in which she had acted.
My choices below also reflect the kind of stories I like, so below you’ll find family, romance, a bit of Sci-Fi, tragedy, betrayal, mystery and even one drama focused on the world of オタク (someone with obsessive interests, often equated to geek). I would also recommend that you base your choices on the kinds of stories that you like.
7 Great Family/Romance Japanese Dramas to Learn Japanese
ビューティフルレイン (びゅーてぃふるれいん) — Beautiful Rain (2012)
Watch It On: FujiTV (VPN Required)
This drama is called “Beautiful Rain” in English, and just seeing the title regularly is enough to help your katakana.
It stars veteran movie and TV star Etsushi Toyokawa (豊川悦司, とよかわ えつし) as a widowed father bringing up his young daughter, child superstar Mana Adashi (芦田愛菜, あしだ まな).
After a small injury at work, Etsushi’s doctor makes the unwelcome discovery that he has Alzheimer’s disease. Each episode focuses on how this very happy father-daughter duo deals with this situation and raises questions about how Alzheimer’s disease is viewed in Japan, the fears they face and the hard decisions that have to be made.
Around them, they have a very supportive unofficial family of co-workers and friends who also have to learn with how to deal with this situation. Just as the title of this drama is “Beautiful Rain,” the story itself is very beautiful and it’s a real tear-jerker. However, I would also recommend this drama as so much of the dialogue is either by a child or by an adult speaking in a simple way to a child. As such, even without subtitles, it’s mostly easy to follow apart from some technical points about Alzheimer’s disease.
もう一度君に、プロポーズ (もういちどきみに、ぷろぽーず) — I Propose to You Once Again (2012)
Watch It On: Amazon Prime Japan, Paravi (VPN Required)
This drama, titled “Will You Marry Me Again” in English, is a very interesting romantic drama. Emi Wakui (和久井映見, わくい えみ) plays a happily married wife who faints due to a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Upon hearing this, her husband—played by Yutaka Takenouchi (竹野内豊, たけのうち ゆたか), an extremely popular model and TV star—rushes to the hospital and is there when she wakes up.
Unfortunately, she has lost several years of her memories including her whole life together with her husband and has no idea who he is. In the belief that being home would help her regain her memory, and with everyone assuming that this is only a temporary occurrence, she lives with her husband despite being obviously uncomfortable.
This quickly becomes unbearable for her as she doesn’t view it as her house, her things and can only see her husband as a stranger. So she moves back in with her family. The plot thickens as it turns out her younger brother disapproved of her husband in the first place and her ex-boyfriend makes an appearance, while her husband appears to have a big admirer of his own at his workplace.
This is a highly addictive drama as we have to question if they were meant to be together, about what love truly is and, of course, what the end result will be!
絶対彼氏 (ぜったいかれし) — Absolute Boyfriend (2008)
Watch It On: FujiTV (VPN Required)
“Absolute Boyfriend” looks at the dynamics of what a relationship is.
Model and popular TV star Saki Aibu (相武紗季, あいぶ さき) plays a single girl who keeps failing to catch the man she likes and gets unwittingly picked by a scientist to be part of a trial using the first human-like robots.
She names her robot Night—played by Mokomichi Hayami (速水もこみち, はやみ もこみち) who is also a model and even has his own cooking show—while at the same time romance begins to blossom between herself and her boss. Although she initially rejects Night and his attempts at romance, gradually her walls are broken down by his unflinching loyalty to her and his devotion to her happiness.
Meanwhile, her boss represents the human side of relationships in contrast to her relationship with her robot. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for the viewer to identify with Night and we can only feel that this story is going to end with heartbreak for someone. As Night is a robot his Japanese is quite easy to follow, and the dialogue itself is quite simple.
家政婦のミタ (かせいふのみた) — Housekeeper Mita (2011)
Watch It On: Hulu Japan (VPN Required), Amazon Prime
“Housekeeper Mita” has to be included in any list of Japanese dramas to watch as it gained some of the biggest audiences ever in Japan.
It was so popular that it reached the point that every single Japanese person had either seen it or was planning to see it; it is really recommendable to watch just for being a conversation starter! Mention that you have seen this TV show (家政婦のミタを見ました。そのドラマが大好きです! (かせいふのみたをみました。そのどらまがだいすきです!, I saw “Housekeeper Mita.” I loved it!) and you will quickly be in a deep conversation with your Japanese friend about it.
The plot is about a family, consisting of a father and four children, dealing with the recent death of their mother and who hire a housekeeper. Housekeeper Mita is no ordinary person and her refusal to say anything about herself, and to do absolutely anything she is told to do, represents a real mystery to the whole family. However, their attempts to discover her secrets only end up with their own family secrets coming to the surface.
The story includes some lighter moments, and you will also spot Saki Aibu in a supporting role as a clumsy aunt, but overall this is a very intense drama that had the whole of Japan holding its breath when it was originally aired. Good aspects of the Japanese language in this drama include the formal speech that Mita always uses and the relatively easy and casual language used by the children.
5時から9時まで (ごじからくじまで) — “From 5 to 9” (2015)
Watch It On: n/a; DVD Only
It’s fairly common to find dramas that are based on manga, and “From 5 to 9” is one of them. This drama stars famed idol Tomohisa Yamashita, also known as Yamapi, with Satomi Ishihara as the leading lady.
Satomi Ishihara plays a 28-year-old English teacher who is chronically single and aims to move to New York one day. One day at a funeral, she trips and knocks the incense ash onto a monk (Yamapi), much to her embarrassment. When her family sets up a matchmaking session to get her a husband, it turns out that the match they have in mind is none other than the monk. Following this revelation, he is determined to marry her, although she’s not entirely sold on the matter.
This romantic comedy leans more towards comedy than anything steamy, but it’s a fantastic watch for any fans of the genre. Yamapi’s stoic demeanor leads to many quirky and cute situations, and Satomi’s dynamism steals the show. It’s interesting to see how the traditional notions of Japanese womanhood contrast with the modern working woman that Satomi’s character desires to be.
家族ゲーム (かぞくげーむ) — Kazoku Game (2013)
Watch It On: n/a; DVD only
This show is a modern reboot of an award-winning novel and movie from the 1980s. Rather than showing the family dynamics of the 80s, this reboot brings contemporary issues in Japanese society to the spotlight. Sho Sakurai, a member of the famed Japanese boy band Arashi, takes center stage. Keep Arashi in mind—another drama on this list will feature one of its members!
The Numata family is left at a loss with their second son, who is unmotivated to study and refusing to go to school. Desperate for help, they hire a home tutor (Sakurai) to help him get back into his education. The tutor agrees, on the condition that the family does not question his methods. As Sakurai tutors the son in a rather unconventional manner, he begins to get involved with the lives of the family and uncovering their complicated inner workings.
In this drama, you’ll discover the complex issues that surround the Japanese family. From parents worrying about the family’s image to bullying endured by children, every member of the Numata family has their demons drawn out by Sakurai and are forced to overcome them. Sakurai does a fantastic job at portraying the creepy but compassionate tutor. As this show centers around the home, you’ll get plenty of chances to hear family-centric vocabulary.
のだめカンタービレ (のだめかんたーびれ) — Nodame Cantabile (2006)
Watch It On: Amazon Prime Japan
Hey, music enthusiasts! This drama about a romance between classical musicians is right up your alley.
Shinichi Chiaki, played by Hiroshi Tamaki, is destined for greatness in the world of music. Not only the son of a famous pianist, but he’s a top student at a musical college who has been groomed to become a prodigy. Though he dreams of being a conductor in Europe, his fear of flying keeps him grounded in Japan. Meanwhile, his neighbor Nodame, played by Juri Ueno, is a free spirit and notorious slob who learns music by ear, though she has a true gift for the piano.
When the two meet, Nodame falls head over heels, but Chiaki couldn’t be less interested. However, their paths in life become intertwined and end up challenging each other to overcome the challenges of concerts, personal relationships and their own fears.
Offering a silly, lighthearted tale of love and music, this drama is bound to play at your heartstrings. If your appetite for the warm, funny characters isn’t satisfied after 11 episodes, then treat yourself to the four subsequent specials!
6 Workplace-based Japanese Dramas to Learn More Formal Japanese
リッチマン、プアウーマン (りっちまん、ぷあうーまん) — Rich Man, Poor Woman (2012)
Watch It On: FujiTV (VPN Required)
This drama, “Rich Man, Poor Woman,” and the following two dramas are relatively more difficult to follow due to the more complex language used and, as such, you might want to watch with subtitles.
“Rich Man, Poor Woman” follows the story of a rich and successful man played by Jun Ogura (小栗旬, おぐらじゅん), who you may have spotted in a small role in “あずみ” alongside Aya Ueto and in a more expanded role in its sequel, and a poor girl who manages to get a job in his company, played by extremely popular actress Satomi Ishihara.
This story includes a lot of workplace speaking, but is complemented by a great plot of developing relationships, personal conflict, betrayal and ambition. It addresses the phenomenon of people who have gained fame and fortunes through the development of Apps, etc, as well as questions certain corporate practices.
アテンションプリーズ (あてんしょんぷりーず) — Attention Please (2006)
Watch It On: n/a; DVD Only
“Attention Please” is focused on a rock chick, Aya Ueto, who ends up applying to be an air stewardess because the boy she likes doesn’t view her as a real girl, but who shows an interest in air stewardesses.
Somehow she passes her interview and begins training to become a real air stewardess. The story is quite entertaining and informative about the training that a Japanese air stewardess goes through, but also it’s a really great resource for improving your formal Japanese.
The style of Japanese speaking that they all have to master is very common in Japan if you go to a shop or office, and it’s really essential to gain at least a working understanding of this kind of language.
MONSTERS (もんすたーず) (2012)
Watch It On: n/a; DVD Only
SMAP is a massive pop sensation that has had a dominant position in Japanese entertainment for around 20 years. All the members of SMAP frequently appear in dramas and TV variety shows, and “MONSTERS” sees SMAP member Shingo Katori (香取慎吾, かとりしんご) as a very unusual detective.
Although he’s always smiling and very polite, he’s unpopular as he does what he wants when he wants and purposely intrudes into places where he shouldn’t. His superiors are suspicious as to why he is able to solve so many mysterious and thus place a rookie detective to work with him and try to discover any secrets that Katori may have.
It’s a very good police drama with each episode featuring a new crime to be solved, as the language can be quite formal with a lot of crime vocabulary it’s best to be watched with subtitles first of all, and then to watch again without subtitles.
99.9 刑事専門弁護士 (きゅうじゅうきゅうてんきゅうけいじせんもんべんごし) — 99.9 Criminal Lawyer (2016)
Watch It On: n/a; DVD only
This legal comedy stars Arashi member Jun Matsumoto as eccentric defense attorney Hiroto Miyama. His goal is to find the glimmer of truth hiding within every case he takes on.
One day, he’s found by Haruhiko Madarame, played by veteran actor Ittoku Kishibe. Madarame was a friend of his deceased father and offers him a job at his law firm in the new criminal defense division. Though initially, Hiroto turns him down, he ends up agreeing to work for Madarame. Once at the firm, he joins a team consisting of former prosecutor Atsuhiro Sada and fellow lawyer Ayano Tachibana to take on clients who face the brutal 99.9% conviction rate of Japan’s criminal justice system.
Full of wit and humor, this lighthearted drama features compelling mysteries in every episode. Miyama’s bizarre investigation methods (such as asking his clients every detail about their lives, starting with when they were born) get the job done, though they drive his colleagues up the wall. With a high rewatch value, you’ll be excited to go back over every scene to catch those legal terms!
リーガルハイ(りーがるはい) — Legal High (2012)
Watch It On: n/a; DVD Only
“Legal High” features two lawyers who, despite being on the same side of the law, couldn’t be more different in personality. Kensuke Komikado, the high-rolling litigator who has never lost a case. He chooses cases solely based on their profit and seeks to indulge himself in women and luxury. In contrast, there’s the strong-willed rookie who seeks justice, Machiko Mayuzumi. She sticks to her guns no matter what and is determined to make the world a better place. Though these two frequently clash, they’re determined to win cases for their clients.
Despite all appearances, this is a legal comedy that pokes fun at stereotypes found in many mainstream dramas. The balance between the cynical Kensuke and the fiery Machiko is perfect, making their scenes a sparkfest worth watching. Viewers are guaranteed to have sore sides after every episode. It’s completely ridiculous, dramatic and hilarious.
コールドケース ～真実の扉～ (こーるどけーす しんじつのとびら) — Cold Case: Door of Truth (2016)
Watch It On: Amazon Prime Japan, UNEXT (VPN Required)
Don’t be surprised if the name of this show rings a bell. This is a Japanese remake of the American show “Cold Case,” and a rather good one at that.
Actress Yoh Yoshida, who’s won numerous best actress awards, takes on the role of Yuri Ishikawa, a homicide detective in Kanagawa Prefecture. Together with her team, she investigates cold cases in order to bring justice to victims thought to be lost to time. The episodes flash between the past and the present, showing the events the witnesses in the present day describe as they unfolded years earlier.
Many of the cases in this adaptation are taken from the American show, which is a great opportunity to see how the same story can be interpreted between cultures. This show has also been popular enough in Japan to earn two sequels!
The Doctor Is In: 3 Japanese Medical Dramas to Learn Medical Japanese
ドクターX (どくたーえっくす) — Doctor X (2012)
Watch It On: Amazon Prime Japan
This famous series boasts a whopping six seasons, nearly unheard of for a Japanese drama. That should give you plenty of binge material!
Ryoko Yonekura plays Michiko Daimon, a freelance surgeon who works at various hospitals throughout Japan, represented by her manager Akira Kanbara. A lone wolf, she takes on the most challenging surgeries, snubbing hospital politics in order to treat her patients. Nobody knows how she obtained her skills, but her ability to operate successfully despite the highly delicate procedures required has earned her another nickname: Doctor X.
If you enjoyed the American show “House, MD,” you’ll love this drama. Medical mysteries abound at every turn, and it also dives into the politics of Japanese hospitals. Michiko is immune to it all, simply going about her business as a doctor. Her aloof demeanor and mysterious aura are absolutely captivating, as are her performances. There have also been references to “Doctor X” in other dramas and Japanese media, so catching up on this one is a great first step into understanding Japanese pop culture references!
アンナチュラル (あんなちゅらる) — Unnatural (2018)
Where to watch: OnDemandChina
This medical drama takes a different take on the genre: by looking into the world of forensic pathology, a science that determines the cause of death in those who have died in an unusual manner.
Featuring a new case every week, “Unnatural” features forensic pathologist Mikoto Misumi (Satomi Ishihara) and her team at a medical research institute called the UDI, who uncover the mysteries behind bizarre deaths. Not only does this show examine the deaths, but societal issues that occur in Japan, ranging from a woman leading in a male-dominated field to conflict around modern technology.
This show plays very true to life, taking realistic approaches to not only the medicine, but also to the bereaved families and their grief. And I’m not alone in praising this show—it also won a swath of awards at the 96th Drama Academy Awards in 2018, including Best Drama!
JIN-仁- (じん) — Jin (2009)
Watch on: Amazon Prime Japan
One of the most popular dramas of 2009, “Jin” combines medical science and time travel all in one engaging package.
The titular character, Jin (played by Takao Osawa), is a brain surgeon struggling with the guilt of putting his fiancée into a comatose state during an error he made during her surgery. After an accident, he finds himself waking up in the closing years of the Edo period (1603-1867). Having to live in this new world, he opens up a clinic to tend to those in need of care, while at the same time trying to find a way back to his own time. All the while, he struggles with his fears of changing the future in a time of intense political unrest in Japan.
This drama provides a wonderful look into the political drama of 1860s Japan while at the same time showcasing the medical treatments Jin has to perform without the benefits of modern technology. If you want a different take on a “time-traveling doctor,” give this award-winner a shot!
Survival of the Fittest: 1 Sci-fi Japanese Drama
今際の国のアリス （いまわのくにのありす) — Alice in Borderland (2020)
Watch on: Netflix
Based on a manga of the same name, this is one of the newest Japanese dramas to target an international audience. It was so popular after its December 2020 release, Netflix renewed it for a second season just weeks after it aired!
“Alice in Borderland” stars Arisu, a shut-in who’s obsessed with video games. When he’s not gaming, he’s goofing off with his two friends. One day, after hiding from the cops in a bathroom after a prank gone wrong, they come out to find Shibuya completely empty. They’ve been transported to a world of survival games, where they have to compete against the other players to stay alive.
Each game features a category and a difficulty level, and they have to figure out how to survive. They encounter other players who they form alliances and rivalries with, including Usagi, a mountain climber who’s determined to survive the game.
“Alice in Borderland” is a brutal, heartbreaking series that’s great for lovers of survival horror. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as Arisu struggles to unravel the twists and turns through the games. Fair warning, though: this series does contain graphic content, so keep that in mind before clicking on that first episode.
Going Back to School: 2 School Japanese Dramas to Learn Japanese
大切なことはすべて君が教えてくれた (たいせつなことはすべてきみがおしえてくれた) — You Taught Me All of the Important Things (2011)
Watch It On: n/a; DVD Only
“You Taught Me All of the Important Things” explores the relationships between teachers and students, and is very good for improving your casual Japanese language skills.
Haruma Miura (三浦春馬, みうら はるま) plays a teacher who wakes up with a hangover to discover an unknown girl in his bed, she keeps most of her face covered and as he has to rush to work he gives her his key in order to lock up when she leaves. He apologizes and leaves; at work, we find out that he is a teacher to a bunch of teenagers. At the end of the class, one of the students remains behind, calling out 先生 (せんせい, teacher) he looks at her to discover she is holding up his key.
Miura is engaged to another teacher who works at the same school, but things quickly escalate as he has to deal with his guilt about what happened, fend off the attentions of a girl who’s also in his class, while the student simultaneously works to destroy his relationship with his fiancée. However, all is not as it seems as something quite complex is driving both of these characters, and ultimately we have to wonder what actually happened on that first night.
35歳の高校生 (さんじゅうごさいのこうこうせい) — 35-year-old High School Student (2013)
Watch It On: Hulu Japan (Requires VPN)
This school-based drama starts with a very unusual premise: a new student is going to join the class and she is 35 years old.
Of course, all of the students are very suspicious as to why this woman has joined their class, and we also quickly understand the complex dynamics of the class with popular and unpopular kids, others who are bullied and one who constantly sits in silence in the corner.
In each episode, the 35-year-old unravels a different student’s problem. However, this just makes everyone more and more suspicious about her intentions. The audience as well has to wonder what is driving her, and it turns out that there are secrets behind her—tragic secrets.
1 Final and Very Famous Japanese Drama to Watch
電車男 (でんしゃおとこ) — Train Man (2005)
Watch It On: n/a; DVD Only
This particular drama is in the same league as “Housekeeper Mita.” It came from an extremely popular book that was pulled off from the apparently true story of an オタク which was posted on a public forum. It spawned this drama and also a movie version.
It follows the trials and tribulations of an オタク (someone with obsessive interests, often equated as geek) who helps a girl being harassed by a drunk on the train and who starts dating her. It is a romantic story that also attempts to rehabilitate オタク people as being just normal people, who are also incredibly supportive of each other, although it must be noted that the Train Man’s efforts to be a suitable boyfriend do lead him to be less of an オタク.
I think one of the best things about this drama, besides its really good plot, is that you can also go online and read the actual transcripts from the original forum where the real Train Man posted.
Conclusion: Learning Japanese by Watching Japanese Dramas
The above are my recommendations and include particular dramas which were very successful in Japan, but as I said before the best kind of drama to watch is one which attracts you. This can either be through the people who were cast or through the kind of storyline that you like.
If your Japanese level is intermediate or higher I would recommend watching without subtitles, but if you are a beginner you can still watch with subtitles and enjoy these great TV dramas.
After watching with subtitles it is a good idea to watch again without subtitles, soon enough you will find that your Japanese comprehension has improved!
And One More Thing...
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