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Understanding Japan: A Cultural History

Understanding Japan: A Cultural History

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Understanding Japan: A Cultural History

In partnership with
Professor Mark J. Ravina, Ph.D.
Emory University
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4.8 out of 5
98 Reviews
93% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 8332
Streaming Included Free

Course Overview

Japan’s extraordinary culture is like no other in the world. The 2,000-year-old civilization grew through periods of seclusion and assimilation to cultivate a society responsible for immeasurable influences on the rest of the world. What makes Japan so distinctive? The answer is more than just spiritual beliefs or culinary tastes. It’s the ongoing clash between tradition and modernity; a conflict shaped by Japan’s long history of engagement and isolation.

We’re all aware of Japan’s pivotal role in global economics and technological innovation. We know that the future of the West (and the entire world) is inextricably linked with the island nation’s successes and failures. But Japanese culture—its codes, mores, rituals, and values—still remains mysterious to many of us. And that’s unfortunate, because to truly understand Japan’s influence on the world stage, one needs to understand Japan’s culture—on its own terms.

Only by looking at Japan’s politics, spirituality, cuisine, literature, art, and philosophy in the context of larger historical forces can we reach an informed grasp of Japanese culture. One that dispels prevalent myths and misconceptions we in the West have. One that puts Japan—not other nations—at the center of the story. And one that reveals how this incredible country transformed into the 21st-century superpower it is today.

In an exciting partnership with the Smithsonian, The Great Courses presents Understanding Japan: A Cultural History—24 lectures that offer an unforgettable tour of Japanese life and culture. Delivered by renowned Japan scholar and award-winning professor Mark J. Ravina of Emory University, it’s a chance to access an extraordinary culture that is sometimes overlooked or misrepresented in broader surveys of world history. Professor Ravina, with the expert collaboration of the Smithsonian’s resources, and brings you a grand portrait of Japan, one that reaches from its ancient roots as an archipelago of warring islands to its current status as a geopolitical giant. The journey is vibrantly illustrated with stunning images from the Smithsonian’s vast collections of Japanese artwork and archival material. Here for your enjoyment is a dazzling historical adventure with something to inform and delight everyone, and you’ll come away from it with a richer appreciation of Japanese culture.

Uncover How History Shapes Culture

Japan’s cultural history, according to Professor Ravina, is something of a paradox. It’s insular. It’s exclusive. It prides itself on adhering to traditional ways of life. And yet it also owes much to historic interactions with other countries, from China and Korea to Great Britain and the United States. Professor Ravina guides you through landmark periods of Japanese history, from the struggle between ancient Japan and the Asian mainland, through the long peace of the Tokugawa Dynasty, to the totalitarian nightmare of World War II. This approach illustrates in vivid detail how broader events and movements introduced, innovated, and revised everything from spirituality to popular entertainment. Tour Japan’s rich history through:

  • Early mainland influences (700 A.D. to 900 A.D.): Travel back to the formative centuries of Japanese history, where you’ll bear witness to the codification of ancient mythologies, the rise of Confucianism and Buddhism, and early styles of statecraft and writing—all of which, in some manner, were adapted from those of mainland China and Korea.
  • First contact with the West (1300 to 1600): Discover the roots of Japan’s complicated relationship with Western civilization by getting the full story on how Japan established international trading posts, how it engaged in its first contacts with Europe, and the surprising effect of guns and Christianity on Japanese life.
  • The Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1905): Visit the revolutionary years that gave birth to the modern Japan we’re familiar with today, and learn how this iconic period of imperial rule was the catalyst for modern approaches to everything from clothes and food to educational policies and human rights.
  • Global war and defeat (1931 to 1945): Get a perspective on World War II that goes beyond kamikaze pilots and Pearl Harbor (which Professor Ravina considers a defeat for the Japanese military) and reveals how a cacophony of political voices and a lack of military planning led to a crushing defeat for a once-powerful nation.

In exploring these periods and others (including the rise of the first warrior dynasties and the economic miracle years of 1955 to 1975), each lecture has the feel of a journey into the past with an expert guide right by your side. Instead of just being told a litany of facts, you’ll actually make connections between history and culture, time and place—and how they’ve all come together to shape the millennia-long story of Japan.

From Food to Art to Philosophy

One of the greatest joys of Understanding Japan: A Cultural History is what Professor Ravina reveals about Japan’s culture, covering everything from food to art to philosophy. His lectures masterfully introduce you to cultural practices you never knew of—and add new levels of understanding to ones you may already be familiar with, such as:

  • Myths and legends: How was Japan created? Who were the nation’s foundational heroes, divine beings, and natural spirits? Join Professor Ravina for an unforgettable walk along the “way of the gods” (Shinto)—Japan’s indigenous religion.
  • Art and architecture: Learn what defines a Japanese aesthetic by strolling through transcendental gardens (including Kyoto’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion) and poring over Katsushika Hokusai’s massive collection of sketches (manga).
  • Religion and philosophy: Several lectures take you inside Japan’s spiritual history, including intricate Buddhist schools of thought and the warrior ideology of bushido, which, it turns out, is less about the fire of war than nostalgia for the past.
  • Novels and poetry: From Lady Murasaki’s epic novel The Tale of Genji to the haiku of Basho, read between the lines of excerpts from Japan’s rich literary heritage and see how novels, poems, and plays cemented cultural norms—and changed them.

And there’s so much more to enjoy in these lectures, including:

  • the daily lives of freelance samurai (known as ronin) coping with political changes;
  • the distinct eating and cooking rituals of foods like tempura and yakitori; and
  • the international appeal of Akira Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers.

Fascinating Visual Archives

Every lecture of Understanding Japan: A Cultural History draws extensively from the Smithsonian’s vast collection of art, photography, and artifacts, making this cultural journey come to life in lavish visual detail. Instead of relying on mere description, Professor Ravina lets the country’s art, architecture, landscaping, literature, and food speak for itself. Along with helpful maps and timelines, hundreds of carefully curated images from the Smithsonian give you the chance to examine Japan’s cultural history up close, including:

  • terracotta figures recovered from royal burial grounds;
  • Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print The Great Wave of Kanagawa; and
  • historic photographs of samurai dressed for battle.

Encounter the Soul of Japan

The cultural exactitude in these lectures is impressive; so much so that the attention to detail goes right down to the design of our studio set (which itself pays homage to Japanese aesthetics).

With the same superb lecturing ability he’s demonstrated during public appearances on CNN, NPR, and The History Channel, Professor Ravina knows how to make Japan accessible and familiar to you—while at the same time honoring and respecting cultural traditions. You’ll come away from Understanding Japan: A Cultural History with a stronger sense of this one-of-a-kind nation—its history, its attitudes, its very soul.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Japan: A Globally Engaged Island Nation
    How has Japanese culture been shaped by powerful cycles of globalization and isolation? When was the earliest human habitation of Japan, and what are the origins of its rich culture? These and other probing questions are the perfect starting points for dispelling common Western misconceptions about this great island nation. x
  • 2
    Understanding Japan through Ancient Myths
    Get an engaging introduction to ancient Japanese myths, collectively known as Shinto (Way of the Gods"). Focusing on the oldest written compilation of Japanese oral tradition, the Kojiki, you'll examine fascinating stories about gods and heroes, the origins of the universe, the Rock Cave of Heaven, rival clans, and more." x
  • 3
    The Emergence of the Ritsuryo State
    In the late 500s, Japan began an unprecedented project of state building that evolved into the highly centralized, emperor-led Ritsuryo state. As you examine the state's laws and accomplishments, you'll uncover how this political centralization was actually inspired by - and responded to - the emergence of powerful states in China and Korea. x
  • 4
    Aspects of the Japanese Language
    Make sense of one of the world's most complex writing systems, and discover how spoken Japanese reflects a long-standing concern with order, hierarchy, and consensus. Why is social context so important when speaking Japanese? And what are the linguistic consequences of adopting Chinese characters in Japanese writing? x
  • 5
    Early Japanese Buddhism
    Professor Ravina explains why Buddhism was so appealing in ancient Japan. He reveals three key observations about the religion's earliest form (including its spread with direct support from Japanese rulers) and discusses the two main strands of Japanese Buddhism: the more esoteric tradition of Shingon and the more accessible Pure Land. x
  • 6
    Heian Court Culture
    Journey through Japan's first period of isolation (from the 800s to the 1300s) and the rise of the Heian court, ancient Japan's cultured and exclusive aristocracy. Along the way, you'll meet the powerful Fujiwara family and unpack how the novel The Tale of Genji reveals the court's penchant for scandal and intrigue. x
  • 7
    The Rise of the Samurai
    Turn away from the court in Kyoto to the countryside, where political infighting led to the rise of Japan's first shogunate ("warrior dynasty") and the emergence of the samurai. You'll also explore the rise of warrior culture through the lines of The Tale of the Heike, an epic ballad spread by wandering minstrels. x
  • 8
    Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism
    How did the decline of the court and the rise of the warrior class shape the evolution of Buddhist aesthetic, spiritual, and philosophical concepts? Find out in this illuminating lecture, which covers the massive growth of Pure Land Buddhism (the dominant form in Japan today) and the two main schools of Zen Buddhism. x
  • 9
    Samurai Culture in the Ashikaga Period
    Samurai culture was not fixed but constantly adapting to larger social and cultural changes. Central to these changes was the Ashikaga dynasty. As you'll learn, political turmoil under the Ashikaga led to the samurai defining themselves with a culture of extreme loyalty and a new sense of valor, independent of imperial court culture. x
  • 10
    Japan at Home and Abroad, 1300 - 1600
    Japan's second great wave of globalization, the subject of this lecture, stretched from the 1300s to the early 1600s. It's a fascinating period that includes competition with China's Ming dynasty; the new influence of the West (which brought with it guns and Christianity); and the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan's most powerful warlord. x
  • 11
    Japan's Isolation in the Tokugawa Period
    Lasting for over 250 years, the Tokugawa shogunate curtailed both globalization and Christianity. How did this feudal government come to power? How did its policies isolate Japan? Along the way, you'll get an insightful look at what we really mean by "isolation" - and how Japan was shaped by foreign cultures even when most Japanese were banned from traveling overseas. x
  • 12
    Japanese Theater: Noh and Kabuki
    Explore two major forms of Japanese theater: Noh (the high classical form) and Kabuki (the more popular form). In looking at two important theatrical works - Atsumori, rich in lofty ideals and elegant aesthetics, and The Scarlet Princess of Edo, full of crude decadence and mayhem - you'll uncover what these traditions share, and what they make their own. x
  • 13
    The Importance of Japanese Gardens
    Japanese gardens are popular tourist destinations, cultural treasures, and even UNESCO heritage sites. Here, consider the splendor and harmony of some of Japan's most important gardens (including tea gardens, rock gardens, and strolling gardens) as part of a history of aesthetics and also as expressions of religious and cultural ideals. x
  • 14
    The Meaning of Bushido in a Time of Peace
    Professor Ravina adds more depth to your understanding of Japan's warrior ethos, bushido ("the way of the warrior"). As you look at historical snapshots, such as a samurai's petulant memoir and the vendetta of the 47 ronin, you'll discover the deep nostalgia that lies at the heart of this misunderstood aspect of Japanese culture. Bushido is full of a longing for a lost age. x
  • 15
    Japanese Poetry: The Road to Haiku
    Journey through some of the best-known styles and voices of Japanese poetry. You'll start with the oldest surviving Japanese poems and follow the development of tanka, the classical five-line form, and renga, a single poem written by multiple poets. We conclude with the master poet Bash? and the emergence of haiku, now Japan's most famous and popular form of poetry. x
  • 16
    Hokusai and the Art of Wood-Block Prints
    Katsushika Hokusai, the renowned Japanese artist, is the perfect entryway into the history of both Japanese wood-block prints and late Tokugawa society. Among the topics covered are ukiyo-e ("floating world") pictures; Hokusai's iconic masterpiece, The Great Wave off Kanagawa; his encyclopedic collection of manga ("sketches"); and more." x
  • 17
    The Meiji Restoration
    Investigate the Meiji Restoration: the start of the third major period of Japanese globalization, defined by a vibrant synthesis of tradition and modernity. From the abolition of the samurai class to the creation of a new educational system to the restructuring of land ownership, how did Japan achieve revolutionary change through a smooth political transition? x
  • 18
    Three Visions of Prewar Japan
    Take a fresh approach to the story of early 20th-century Japan. Rather than a review of major events, focus instead on the ideologies of three individuals whose competing views shaped Japan's actions on the eve of World War II: Nitobe Inazo and Shidehara Kijuro, both proponents of democracy and international cooperation; and Ishiwara Kanji, a die-hard militarist. x
  • 19
    War without a Master Plan: Japan, 1931 - 1945
    A political culture dominated by fanatics. The quagmire of the Sino-Japanese War. The takeover of Manchuria and the puppet government of Manchukuo. Japan's surprising failure in attacking Pearl Harbor. Learn about all these and more in this lecture on the disorganized chaos (and legacy) of World War II-era Japan. x
  • 20
    Japanese Family Life
    You can't truly grasp a country's culture without understanding its ideas about the family. Explore the three main models of Japanese family life: the aristocratic model (uji), the samurai model (ie), and the postwar model. Along the way, learn about shifting attitudes toward domestic life, including women's rights and family planning. x
  • 21
    Japanese Foodways
    There's so much more to Japanese cuisine than just sushi. Move beyond the basics and plunge into the enormous diversity and complexity of Japan's culture of food. How do foods like soba noodles, tempura, and yakitori (and the rituals of eating them) reflect the waves of globalization and isolation you've explored in previous lectures? x
  • 22
    Japan's Economic Miracle
    From 1955 to 1975, the Japanese economy grew more than 435% - an astonishing rate that economists refer to as the Japanese Miracle." Take a closer look at the six factors that led to this unprecedented growth, including the country's cheap and motivated workforce, as well as the critical influence of the United States." x
  • 23
    Kurosawa and Ozu: Two Giants of Film
    Meet Japan's greatest filmmakers: Ozu Yasujir? and Kurosawa Akira. How do their best films reflect lasting connections to world cinema? Revisit Ozu's 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story (inspired by an American domestic drama) and Kurosawa's rousing 1961 adventure Yojimbo (which fused samurai culture with the American Western). x
  • 24
    The Making of Contemporary Japan
    What makes 1989 the turning point for contemporary Japan? Explore four pivotal moments from that year whose repercussions are still being felt in the Japan of the 21st century: the death of Hirohito, China's Tiananmen Square Massacre, the bursting of the Japanese real estate bubble, and a dramatic stock market crash. x

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  • Audio tracks are taken directly from the video. Your 12 CDs include all 24 lectures of this course.
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Your professor

Mark J. Ravina

About Your Professor

Mark J. Ravina, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Mark J. Ravina is Professor of History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1991. He received his A.B. from Columbia University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. He has been a visiting professor at Kyoto University’s Institute for Research in Humanities and a research fellow at Keio University and the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. He has also received research grants...
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Reviews

Understanding Japan: A Cultural History is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 98.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Great Courses Course This course far exceeded our expectations - with excellent course design, brilliant and idiosyncratic presentation - plus superb illustrations, graphics and sound. All the lectures were of real interest while the segments on language, poetry, theater, and pre-post WW2 were each worth the price of admission on their own. More on music would have been nice - though that's not a complaint but an expression of interest in more on the topic. The undoubtedly challenging 24 * thirty minute lecture structure forced focus in a most productively educational way - which leads us to hope for more similar courses - as in how about understanding the cultural history of the US - or of France - or of China?
Date published: 2017-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Eastern hemisphere comes alive! I have listened closely to a couple of lectures, on the Tokugama and Meiji periods, and both were very well presented. I found the content informative and the delivery engaging. I will continue to use the lectures as I continue strengthening my knowledge of Japan.
Date published: 2017-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding overview This engaging course provides a perspective on Japan that is detailed and organized. Covering politics, food, and culture you gain a greater understanding of modern Japan through its changes over the centuries. An outstanding course that I highly recommend.
Date published: 2017-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding Japan One of the best Great Courses I've ever purchased (and I have a lot). Professor Mark Ravina is an engaging and authoritative guide to Japanese history and culture. I looked forward to each of his lectures.
Date published: 2017-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good overview of Japan's history and culture I am planning on taking a trip to Japan in the next year or two and decided to purchase this course, for a general understanding of Japanese history. I got this and then some. The professor also gives fascinating lectures on religion, Japanese food, theater, literature and film. I knew very little going in, and it has me eager to learn more. I would recommend the video format if you're unfamiliar with famous Japanese historical figures or following. A visual of the name and person can help keep them in your mind. I found the lecturer's enthusiasm for all things Japanese contagious. I highly recommend this to anyone who'd like to learn about Japan.
Date published: 2017-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun and educational Fantastic course on understanding Japanese history and culture and the nuances of the language. Course is full of amusing stories that aid learning. Professor is "very high level" (Japanese term translated)
Date published: 2017-09-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Verythorough review of history of Japan by a professor who has deep knowledge of his subject
Date published: 2017-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from High quality presentation which both my wife and I are greatly enjoying. I was stationed in Japan for two years, and my wife has visited there, so this course was highly interesting to us and greatly enhances our memories of the country, as well as greatly enhancing our knowledge of its culture and history. Kudos to Professor Ravina!
Date published: 2017-08-12
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