If you’re a foreigner in Japan, it sometimes feels like nothing is easy to understand. Basic things like going to a convenience store or paying an electric bill are entirely different than back home.
TV in Japan is no exception. But here’s a quick guide to the primary broadcast channels in Japan and a show on each that might be especially relevant to us, gaijin.
NHK is the big daddy of Japanese TV stations. This publicly-supported company was founded in 1926 as a radio network based on the BBC. Indeed, the station is still financed by a license fee paid by everyone who owns a television in Japan.
News programs are some of NHK’s more notable programs. NHK News 7 is broadcast daily with an English track, perfect for keeping up with what’s happening. NHK also broadcasts earthquake and tsunami warnings, as well as baseball games and international sporting events.
Can’t Miss Show: Cool Japan
Cool Japan is NHK’s show focusing on non-Japanese living and working in Japan. Foreigners opine on everything from delivery services to onsen etiquette. Heck, you probably even know someone who’s made an appearance.
While Cool Japan focuses on the country’s positives, guests often discuss what they miss from home. It can be a great way to commiserate at the end of the day or at least an English-language program.
TV Asahi was formally launched under that name in 1973, following a significant shuffle in ownership of top Japanese TV stations. The station and several others currently hold the rights to FIFA world soccer events and broadcast several foreign animation programs like Freakazoid and Care Bears.
Before the Asahi name, the network was officially known as Nippon Educational Television. The network keeps that educational heritage alive by broadcasting several programs aimed at children.
Can’t Miss Show: Doraemon
He may not be as well known in the West as Hello Kitty or Pikachu, but you already know that Doraemon is one of Japan’s most popular anime characters. The franchise has spawned bestselling manga and classic movies in addition to the wildly popular TV series.
If you have kids, Doraemon is a fun show to enjoy together. And if you don’t, the speech’s slow pace and simple vocabulary can be a great way to develop Japanese skills for beginners.
Nippon TV was the country’s first commercial broadcaster, getting its license in the same year as NHK. They were also the first to try TV transmission from the US during the aftermath of the JFK assassination and experimented with color TV programming.
These days, Nippon TV is still innovating and currently owns the Japanese division of Hulu. It was also one of the first stations in Japan to ditch analog broadcasts in 2011.
Can’t Miss Show: Old Enough! (Hajimete No Otsukai)
This show about Japanese children performing their first out-of-the-house errand is a Japanese institution. Children from the show’s first years are now grown up with their own kids, some of whom have even appeared on the show more recently.
Since appearing on US Netflix in March 2022, the show’s also become a phenomenon there. So maybe watch an episode before your next Skype with your parents and tell them you have a TV show in common now.
Beginning broadcasts in 1959, Fuji Television is known for a younger vibe, expressed in its longtime slogan, “If it’s not fun, it’s not TV!” They’ve also been involved in the video games business since their 1986 partnership with Nintendo to create All Night Nippon Super Mario Brothers and Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic.
The show was also home to the popular 90’s franchise Iron Chef and showcased wacky anime and variety shows from up-and-coming creators. It’s also home to much South Korean content, which previously got the channel in PR hot water.
Can’t Miss Show: Layton Mystery Detective Agency
If you grew up playing the Professor Layton video game series for Nintendo Game Boy and DS, you already know about the title character’s quirky appeal. This anime follows the adventures of his daughter, Katrielle Layton, as she solves mysteries around London with her sidekicks.
Provided you can follow the Japanese, this show is both a great way to catch up with beloved characters and a family-friendly anime everyone can enjoy. And if you like the show, you can even check out Katrielle’s own video game for the Nintendo Switch.
TBS is probably the goofiest network broadcasting TV in Japan. It also features a lot of popular domestic drama series. The Takeshi’s Castle series and Ultraman have programs that perfectly fit the western stereotypes about Japanese TV.
The network was accused, in the 90s, of biased news coverage of the fringe religious group Aum Shinrikyo. In the thirty years since, though, the network is better known for its youthful feel and silly shows.
Can’t Miss Show: Why I Love My Cat!
If you’re a cat-lover, this show is an absolute must. It’s a reality show that visits the homes of cat owners, including music stores, clothing shops, and public baths. It’s a lighthearted look at how obsessed owners can be with their cats.
Whether or not you speak enough Japanese to understand the dialogue, the video of adorable, happy cats is enough to fulfill even the strongest cute cravings.
TV Tokyo is well-known around Japan for its anime-heavy schedule. It’s home to popular series like Bleach and Boruto and smaller ones like Spy Family. These shows range from more educational children’s offerings to programs that are definitely for adults.
You can recognize this network by the logo for its animation division; a banana bent into the number seven. The channel’s also home to the runaway YouTube hit Why Did you Come To Japan? Which interviews tourists who have just landed at an international airport.
Can’t Miss Show: Peppa Pig
If you have kids, you already know that Peppa Pig is appointment TV no matter what country you’re in. But even if you don’t have kids living with you, this surprisingly chill show for kids can be a great way to learn basic Japanese.
If Peppa’s adventures aren’t your thing, TV Tokyo features other western children’s cartoons like Paw Patrol and PJ Masks.
This is the only network on this list that exclusively serves Tokyo, so you may not be able to watch it if you live outside the capital. But if you live in the city, the network has excellent local news reporting and televises most speeches and press conferences that local officials hold.
Aside from the news, Tokyo MX shows classic anime series like Heidi, Girl Of The Alps, and Dragon Ball, and newer series like Broken Blade and Attack on Titan.
Can’t Miss Show: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
Jojo is an anime series that is monstrously popular all over the world. It follows a young Englishman who battles his stepbrother to control the family fortune. It’s known as an innovative series for the way it combines fantasy, adventure, and comedic elements.
Catch the newest episodes before your friends get them on streaming services in the US and Europe.
Television — A Great Way To Learn About Japan
Whether you’re watching to improve your language skills, gain cultural knowledge, or just unwind, TV in Japan has excellent content. Many of these channels also have streaming or on-demand services that give you access to shows no matter where you are!