15 Best Anime About Japanese Culture and FolkloreThis post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something we may get a small commission at no extra cost to you. (Learn more).
The beautiful thing about anime is that you truly get a sense for the Japanese culture, or at least some part of it.
But what if you’re not satisfied with just understanding “itadakimasu” and how bath houses work?
What if you want an even more authentic experience? Well luckily there are a bunch of anime out there that cover Japanese culture in much greater detail.
From Japanese traditions to their myths and legends, you can learn quite a bit from some shows. And for this ranking we’ll take a look at some of the best ones to check out.
Barakamon is a very light-hearted and wholesome show centered around the art of calligraphy.
The protagonist is a well-respected artist in the field that has always done everything by the book, leaving little room for creativity.
It’s only after he goes to an island filled with some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet, that he finally lets go of form and follows his heart.
I honestly never thought that I would be interested in calligraphy. But this show has opened my eyes to a whole world of nuances and creative expressions in this art form.
14. Golden Kamuy
Golden Kamuy offers a rather enticing story where the end goal is collecting all the pieces of a map left behind by a mass murderer, which leads to gold.
Now you might be wondering “what does this have to do with Japanese culture?”
Well, the gold was taken from a tribe that used to occupy Japan, called the Ainu. This gives the whole store some historical background.
One of the protagonists is also a young Ainu girl, who has her sights set on finding the gold that was taken from her people.
So if you’re really into history and are curious about the Ainu people, give it a watch.
13. Karuta: Chihayafuru
Here’s a great anime on the Japanese game of Karuta.
In this game, there are 100 poems spread on the table. A third party reads a clue, and the two players have to quickly identify which card that clue corresponds to.
It might sound dull, but trust me – that is far from the case.
Not only do you get to learn about a traditional Japanese game, but you also get a very gripping high school story.
Who knows, you might just want to try the game out for yourself.
12. Natsume’s Book Of Friends
With Natsume’s Book Of Friends, you’ll learn about the youkai and how one boy decides to make peace with all of them.
Natsume was gifted a particular book by his grandmother, that has the names of countless youkai, and places them all under his control.
However, good guy Natsume decides to free all of them.
The story is very touching, and it’s easy to see where most of the youkai designs came from.
The anime feels like a deep dive into Japanese folklore, where everything is mystical and beautiful in its own way. Plus, Madara is hilarious.
11. Those Snow White Notes
This show is all about music.
However, unlike K-On or Your Lie in April, the star of the concert is the shamisen – a traditional Japanese string instrument that resembles a guitar.
The show is rather new and only started airing semi-recently, so I can’t tell you too much about it yet.
However, the shamisen music alone is sure to enthrall you in a piece of Japanese musical tradition.
If you’ve watched all the other shows on this list as a Japanese culture veteran, then maybe at least give this one a try.
10. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu
This show goes a long way when it comes to originality on this list.
It sets its sight on the art of comedic storytelling that’s present in Japan.
The protagonist is a bit different from what you would expect, being that he’s a recently-freed criminal and all.
But that just adds to the charm.
And he’s a complete novice when it comes to the art form, so we actually get to learn alongside him too.
The show is unlike anything I’ve personally seen before, and will surely scratch that Japanese culture itch.
This one came as a surprise even to me, and I’m the one writing this article.
But believe it or not, Naruto is actually chock-full of innuendoes related to Japanese folklore and mythology.
And I don’t mean just the obvious stuff like the nine-tail fox.
But if you have plenty of time to kill, I strongly encourage that you try and find all of the Japanese inspirations that are present within Naruto.
Even if you can’t find anything, you still get to watch a rather iconic show, so it’s a win-win.
But for a Japanese perspective, I suggest looking at the three sannin first, and then moving onto the Uchiha clan and their abilities.
8. Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke tells of a tale as old as time: the battle between humanity and nature.
And it does so in the most Ghibli way possible, with countless youkai and spirits wandering around the forests, threatening to go to war with the humans if they don’t leave them be.
Although I couldn’t really pinpoint any specific story or myth that the anime draws from, the movie is so distinctly interwoven with Japanese culture that I couldn’t help but put it on this list.
Plus, you can never go wrong with studio Ghibli.
7. Spirited Away
Speaking of Studio Ghibli, here’s another masterpiece.
This movie doesn’t even feel like a movie, either. It feels like being sucked into Miyazaki’s fairy tale and living that fantastic life until you’re suddenly dropped back into reality.
In terms of Japanese culture, Spirited Away is a bit more on the nose than Princess Mononoke. This is because most of the story takes place in a bath house, with dozens of youkai roaming around, and so much symbolism (with so many Easter eggs) that you just might need to watch the movie a few times to get it all.
This is Ghibli’s magnum opus, and an absolute must-watch for any anime lover.
Have you ever thought to yourself “man, I wish there was an anime where the characters were all Japanese deities”?
Then you have very specific taste, but I’m here to help.
Noragami is just that, with characters such as Bishamon, the warrior god, the poverty god Kofuku, as well as a slew of others.
The story is rather great in its own right. But when you couple it with knowledge of Japanese mythology, it only gets that much better as you get to compare the original myths to the anime adaptations.
5. GeGeGe no Kitaro
Now this show actually has quite the legacy, as the newest season celebrates the manga’s 50-year anniversary.
The show starts a young youkai boy whose goal is to make peace between humans and his own species.
He acts as a mediator, protecting innocent people from evil youkai, as well as the occasional Western monster.
The show is rather simple in concept, but it’s executed brilliantly.
I mean, there’s a reason why it has lived to see such a massive milestone when it comes to longevity. Not many series are around this long.
Mushishi is among the more famous youkai-centered shows, which takes a rather psychological approach to these creatures.
I mean, they’re actually called “Mushi” within the show. And their existence is much larger than just as supernatural entities, perhaps even leading to the answer of the origin of life itself.
Each episode more or less covers a different Mushi and how they affect a certain individual, making it play out as a collection of folk tales, which is a major plus for this list.
3. Hotarubi No Mori E
When it comes to folklore, a lot of the series I’ve mentioned here feature a whole plethora of ideas – and feel like a collection of short folk tales.
But this movie is different.
It’s all about a singular mountain spirit and his relationship with a young girl who happened to bump into him.
It’s a really good romantic movie that just oozes inspiration.
In terms of cultural symbols, it’s probably on the lower end when it comes to this list. But it’s just such a wonderful movie that I just couldn’t help myself.
And I’m glad that it’s only a singular myth/story, as you truly get to experience the idea in its entirety.
2. The Boy And The Beast
This is the most Ghibli-esque non-Ghibli film you’re likely to find, and that’s a tall older when it comes to compliments.
As you could have guessed based on how this list has been going so far, The Boy And The Beast features a dynamic duo made up of a young boy and a depiction of a Japanese spirit.
The movie has some beautiful animation, and even features a lot of fast-paced combat scenes too – which is somewhat rare for these kinds of movies.
It’s a very enjoyable watch for sure. And there are probably plenty of hidden concepts in here that I’m just missing.
1. Go: Hikaru no Go
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been curious about the Japanese game Go.
You see it from time to time in a lot of anime, but it’s almost never explained, leaving you to guess what just happened.
Well no more!
Go: Hikaru no Go takes an in-depth dive into this game, and showcases the beautifully complex game of Go through an impressive run of 75 full episodes.
If you finally want to get what it’s all about, and don’t feel like watching a YouTube video about it, this is a great anime to watch.