Audio Stories relating to Japan

Here’s a collection of new and old audio features and documentaries about aspects of Japan, people and things Japanese, in no particular order. This is an unfinished collection, suggestions welcome!

Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare Poster

Return of the Yokai – this 99% Invisible (hosted by Roman Mars) episode airing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic looks at Japanese folklore and the Amabie. Lay eyes on a picture of the Amabie and you’ll be cured of viral infections….I love how this story weaves together myth and hope, while giving us insight into Japanese storytelling traditions, ubiquitous mascots, and the un-feline Hello Kitty! (34 mins 55)

The Wind Phone – a telephone box in Iwate Prefecture connects those who died from the 2011 tsunami to the grieving. This story has many incarnations, including an NHK documentary and even a This American Life episode. But this particular version I find is most reflective. Produced by Sarah Cuddon of the always amazing Falling Tree Productions for the BBC, first broadcast in 2019. Presented by Miwako Ozawa. (26 mins)

Hybrid Wrestling – by Tony McGregor is a series of 18 ‘audio snapshots’ taken on his travels to Japan in 1993. This feels so refreshing for its wide-eyed wonder, compared to many of today’s Wikipedia inspired opinionated commentary that masquerades as cultural insight. The scenes are so quintessentially 90s. Who didn’t get lost looking for a hidden bar in the giddy days of the bubble years? The sing songy ‘ishiyakiimo’ announcement should bring back memories for anyone who lived in Japan last century. Broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio National’s Elsewhere program in 1995.

Hybrid Wrestling

What Tokyo? – a collage of found sounds, sound effects, music, voices, reflections, ideas that evoke the paradox that is Tokyo. Created by friend and mentor Tony Barrell, producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), What Tokyo won an award at the Prix Marulic in 2003. Tony died in 2011, leaving us with a prodigious legacy of stories about Japan.

What Tokyo

Tokyo’s Burning – also by Tony Barrell, this ABC documentary about the WWII fire bombing of Tokyo won the prestigious Prix Italia and is still one of one of the most exquisite audio documentaries around, despite being 25 years old (1995). It’s simple linear storytelling resting on a bed of sounds and sound effects that draws the listener in to an aural experience of Tokyo going up in flames. Delicately executed by sound engineer Russell Stapleton.

Tokyo’s Burning

Madame Butterfly Effect – What is it about white men who have a ‘thing’ for Asian women? A frank, sometimes uncomfortable, but possibly humorous investigation into a syndrome that might be an obsession. Produced by me, for Radio Eye/360 Documentaries on ABC RN, first broadcast in 2008. Supervising Producer Natalie Kestecher, Sound Engineer Steven Tilley.

Madame Butterfly Effect

Deline and the Bomb – The First Nations people of Deline in Canada’s Northwest Territories believe they were complicit in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 8, 1945. They mined the uranium which they believe went into the bomb. But were they complicit, or were they also victims? This short documentary from the CBC aired on August 6, 2008 was produced by Dave Miller. It’s a powerful story, told simply. Love the use of language, how it adds another meaning to the story. (14 mins 29)

Photo by Jonathan Aubry; CC BY-NC 2.0

Sougetigai ‘beyond imagination’ – is one way to describe the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis. This rich, multilayered documentary is part reportage, part meditation, part first person narrative, created by Malte Jaspersen. He’s a long term resident of Kyoto, giving him another perspective on Japan, which feels both intriguing and inspiring. Originally produced in German and Japanese for Deutschlandradio Kultur and the Bayerischer Rundfunk, this story won the President’s Cup at the 2012 Prix Italia. Souteigai was reworked by Nicole Steinke in English and Japanese for ABC RN’s 360 Documentaries in 2012. The sound engineers were Andrei Shabunov and Phillip Ulman.


Waiting for the tide: abalone diving in Japan – this story is about the 海女 ama, literally sea women, who free dive for abalone. With rare recordings by sound artist Ros Bandt of the ama and their isobue or sea whistle, which is a way women communicate at sea. Beautifully produced by Sharon Davis and sound engineered by Andrei Shabunov, narrated by Kumi Kato. What I find puzzling but interesting is the way the women were recorded. The voices feel so distant, as if we’re listening in from afar. Given the mystique that surrounds the ama, also pearl divers, who are often photographed with exposed breasts and buttocks, I feel this distance exoticises the ama-san. Yet the same distance makes ama-san feel like a memory, their stories and voices an object of nostalgia. Indeed, there are very few ama-san left today. This project was the outcome of Ros Bandt’s Radio National Radiophonic Artist residency, supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, and Waiting for the tide was broadcast on ABC RN’s Radio Eye in 2007. More of Ros Bandt’s isobue recordings can be found here. (37 min 29)

Sonic Kyoto – I love this gorgeous soundscape of Japan’s ancient capital, a ‘city of a thousand springs and a million loudspeakers, and three sonic anachronisms…’ by composer and producer Robert Iolini. This piece conveys so much more about Japan than wordy, over narrated documentaries because it encourages us to remain immersed in the space around the sounds. Broadcast on ABC RN’s Into the Music in 2011. Sound Engineer was Mark Don. Listen for the ‘three sonic anachronisms…’

Sonic Kyoto
Lucy Dann and her mother, Biddie Boxer (right) (c) Mayu Kanamori 2000

Heart of the Journey – this moving story about Lucy Dann, who travels from Broome to Japan in search of her father with producer Mayu Kanamori incited that ‘driveway moment’ for me. This narrative goes to the heart of what it means to be Australian. First aired on ABC RN’s Radio Eye in 2000, and received a Special Commendation at the UN Media Awards as well as recognition at the NAIDOC Awards in 2001. Produced by Mayu Kanamori, Lucy Dann and Nick Franklin. Sound engineering by John Jacobs.

The Heart of the Journey

 ….more stories coming…currently chasing up Japanese War Brides by Dai Le, The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Male by Roger Pulvers, Australia/Japan: A love story by Virginia Baxter and Keith Gallasch…among others….keep an ear out!

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