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Understanding Japan: A Cultural History

Embark on an unforgettable tour of Japanese history and culture in this engrossing course made in partnership with the Smithsonian.
Understanding Japan: A Cultural History is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 198.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating course! My husband and I had planned a trip to Japan - but then the pandemic hit, so we cancelled all travel plans. I was delighted to discover this course, so we could learn more about Japan before making a future trip. It is a fascinating blend of history and culture. Dr.Ravina is an excellent lecturer - very well organized, clear, very knowledgable and has a dry sense of humor. We looked forward to every lecture and were never disappointed. We also enjoyed the visual elements - beautiful Japanese prints, the scroll and ikebana flower arrangement in the "stage set" behind Dr.Ravina. We found the history event timeline graphic at bottom of the screen very helpful. At the end of this course, my husband said he was so disappointed that it was over, that he thought he would watch it all over again! I have now bought the next course by Dr.Ravina, The Making of Modern Japan and we look forward to that very much. I also hope that The Great Courses develops a course on Japanese ceramics/decorative arts; perhaps a course on the history of ceramics including Chinese, Japanese, influence on European porcelain (Meisen, etc.). Also a course on the history of Japanese and Chinese textiles would be interesting: silks, brocades, kimonos, Japanese blue/white block printed textiles, influence on European textiles etc. Maybe a collaboration with the Smithsonian Museums or Bard Graduate Center (Decorative Arts) in New York? Not a "how to" craft course, but an art history course.
Date published: 2022-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Introduction to the Japanese People The course content was fascinating for me, as I had little previous knowledge about the Japanese people. Dr. Ravina's lecture style is very formal and austere. If that sounds like he may be dry or boring, he is not! He doesn't use verbal gimmicks or jokes; he is just a great storyteller. He is an extraordinary lecturer.
Date published: 2022-01-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Interesting Cultural Look at History of Japan I've had an interest in all of Japan's history and culture, both historical and current; so much so I wound up purchasing the entire 6 volume Cambridge set on Japanese history and in 2004 two books on the Jomon era. So when I saw this I just had to purchase it. Professor Ravina's approach to the subject is very engaging and informative. It actually gave me a lot of 'ah' moments of animes and dramas (online) I've watched before and remembered. He was humorous but not at the cost of the subject he was lecturing on and the lectures all fitted smoothly together. Keep in mind, I consider myself a novice, so for me, it was very educational. I do hope he'll do one on Japan in the late 20th Century to the Present because he really is an excellent lecturer who keeps the topic fresh and interesting. I'm not sure if it'd be he his field, but I'd also love to see a series on Prehistoric Japan more in-depth (particularly the Jomon and Yayoi era) and an in-depth one on Japanese poetry, both historical and current, and its body of literature. As someone who's always fascinated by cultures of the past and present, I'd enthusiastically recommend this program. It's also great at a general audience level and Professor Ravina gets his topics across clear enough a general audience has no trouble following. I actually have it as a streaming video and audible, but it's on my list to purchase as a DVD. Sadly, I just purchase a whole bunch just recently, so I'll have to wait till I can afford to do so.
Date published: 2021-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommended historical and cultural survey Mark Ravina's love for Japan is clear. His presentation style is formal, but delivered with real enthusiasm, and the occasional wry smile. There is a huge amount of information here. The course is thematic - focusing on Japans alternating periods of internationalism and isolation, with separate lectures describing elements of Japanese art and culture. There is some repetition, but it is a course of lectures covering thousands of years of history. It can be difficult to follow the succession of warlords, shoguns, emperors etc - so I wrote myself out a time line which I kept up to date while watching the lectures, and I found this very helpful. This is not a reflection of the course but as a non-Japanese speaker (I am still trying and trying to learn) I wish there were better (more modern) translations of some of the literary works e.g. the Basil Hall Chamberlain translation of the Kojiki might be accurate - but it is so dry and I found it inaccessible. Perhaps this will drive me to study harder. Overall, an excellent course.
Date published: 2021-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very detailed and in-depth introduction to Japan There was so much information in this course, it will take several repeat viewings to take it all in. The coverage of Japan's history and culture was extremely comprehensive, and the presentation was a joy to watch and listen to.
Date published: 2021-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Description of the History and the Cul If I could, I would rate it 4.8 stars. Of course that is not allowed so, I rated it 5 stars. Why the slightly less than 5 star rating? In lecture 18, the lecturer, Professor Mark J. Ravina, discusses Japan’s involvement in WWI. I knew that Japan was one of the combatants but I could not from his lecture ascertain on which side. I had to review my history. They were with England, et. al. Other than this one shortcoming, this is an excellent series. There is perhaps a little more focus on the culture than on the history of Japan. Professor Ravina discuses the Japanese language, its religion (primarily various forms of Buddhism), theater, language, poetry, bushido (the code of honor and morals developed by the Samurai), gardens, family life, foodways, cinema. Of these topics, what I found of the greatest interest was foodways, language, gardens, and cinema. Foodways - I had no idea that the major cities of Japan have far more restaurants per capita than probably any other city in the world. The reason is that Japanese homes are too small to allow for entertaining, hence they almost always entertain in restaurants. The restaurants are small and specialize in the type of food they offer. Language – I was amazed at the complexity of Japanese language and wondered if this was not a factor in the Japanese exceling in math and science. Gardens – Extraordinarily beautiful. Professor Ravina compares these gardens to those of England and France. He states that the orderliness of the latter two reflects a control of nature; whereas the Japanese gardens reflects a union with nature. To me, all are beautiful, but the Japanese gardens have greater appeal. Cinema – Professor Ravina discusses two directors how are considered the giants of Japanese cinema – Ozu and Kurosawa. Ozu’s films are filled with sweet sadness and acceptance; Kurosawa is known for his action films. Both principally borrowed from American writers, but in turn, European and American directors borrowed from them, in particular Kurosawa. His films became the basis for the Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. In Professor Ravina’s discussion of the history of Japan, he emphasized that it has oscillated between isolation and globalization. His lectures clarified for me how Japan came under the rule of a military leader, Shogun, and also what was meant by the Meji Restoration. This was the abolishment of the Shogunate in approximately 1860 and the restoration of the Emperor as the supreme ruler of Japan. I have always been extremely impressed by Japan’s transformation from a feudal society in 1860 to a modern super power by 1910. No other country has ever made such a rapid transformation. It took the West several centuries. I was equally impressed by Japan’s transformation from the broken military power of 1945 to the industrial superpower of the 1980s. Professor Ravina gives several reasons for this transformation. Number one was the support of the United States. The US wanted to have a successful democratic government in the region to counterbalance the effect of Communist China, but another probably equal reason was that Japan had a highly motivated workforce. To quote Professor Ravina “workers were also highly motivated because Japanese management made sure that the gains realized during times of economic growth were reflected in worker paychecks. Further, in many large companies, workers could count on lifetime employment. A sense of allegiance to a company was also supported by the corporate pay scale. In Japan, the management-to-worker salary ratio was astonishingly small—in the teens, compared to a modern U.S. ratio of 350 to 1 (annual pay rate of an average U.S. CEO to an average worker). For all these reasons, workers felt a connection to their employers. ….A related factor in Japanese economic growth was the ability of Japanese businesses to motivate their workers to embrace quality targets. Workers were treated with respect and dignity and paid well; those who pointed out inefficiencies or defects were praised, and their insights on improvements were sought. As a result, everyone in the company felt responsible for, and proud of, the product.” America are you listening! In 1989, the asset bubble burst, the stock market crashed, and the Emperor died. Japan ceased to be the industrial superpower that it briefly was. Despite this gloomy financial picture, life in Japan has improved in several other areas. It has the longest life expectancy in the world, the lowest crime rate of any nation, and its people are the most frugal in the world so much so that several environmentalists have looked to Japan as the model for sustainability. Myself, I find it to be a remarkable culture.
Date published: 2021-08-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just excellent Brilliant course and extraordinary lecturer. Needs a follow up. Please more courses on Asia!
Date published: 2021-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from OBJECTIVE It was pleasant to view a course so objective and avoiding the typical academic bias. Great presentation, compressed as it was necessary but not missing much. The political views were much appreciated, especially in contrast to 1940s US propaganda. I should like to see courses on details of Japan, its crafts and work.
Date published: 2021-06-01
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Japan's extraordinary 2,000-year-old civilization has grown through periods of engagement and isolation into a society responsible for immeasurable influences on the rest of the world. Discover what makes Japan so distinctive in Understanding Japan: A Cultural History . These 24 fascinating lectures, produced in partnership with the Smithsonian, offer an unforgettable tour of Japanese history, life, art, and culture.


Mark J. Ravina
Mark J. Ravina

When people ask what I love about Japan, my quick and simple answer is, Japan is the most foreign, the most exotic place you can go with first-world telecommunications, first-world health care, and first-world hygiene, and that’s as true today as it was when I first went to Japan 45 years ago.


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 from the Fulbright Program, the Japan Foundation, the Academy of Korean Studies, and the Association for Asian Studies. Professor Ravina has published extensively in early modern Japanese history, with a particular focus on the transnational and international aspects of political change. He has also published research on Japanese and Korean popular culture, Japanese economic thought, and the history of science. As a public intellectual, he has appeared on CNN, CNN International, NPR, and The History Channel. A former director of the East Asian Studies Program at Emory University, Professor Ravina has also served as president of the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies. In addition, he is on the editorial board of The Journal of Asian Studies. Professor Ravina’s books include The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori and Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan.

By This Professor

Understanding Japan: A Cultural History
The Rise of Modern Japan
Understanding Japan: A Cultural History


Japan: A Globally Engaged Island Nation

01: 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.

34 min
Understanding Japan through Ancient Myths

02: Understanding Japan through Ancient Myths

Get an engaging introduction to ancient Japanese myths, collectively known as Shint? ("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.

30 min
The Emergence of the Ritsuryo State

03: 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 Ritsuryō 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.

30 min
Aspects of the Japanese Language

04: 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?

33 min
Early Japanese Buddhism

05: 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.

31 min
Heian Court Culture

06: 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.

28 min
The Rise of the Samurai

07: 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.

29 min
Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism

08: 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.

30 min
Samurai Culture in the Ashikaga Period

09: 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.

29 min
Japan at Home and Abroad, 1300 - 1600

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.

30 min
Japan’s Isolation in the Tokugawa Period

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.

31 min
Japanese Theater: Noh and Kabuki

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.

28 min
The Importance of Japanese Gardens

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.

30 min
The Meaning of Bushido in a Time of Peace

14: The Meaning of Bushido in a Time of Peace

Professor Ravina adds more depth to your understanding of Japan's warrior ethos, bushidō ("the way of the warrior"). As you look at historical snapshots, such as a samurai's petulant memoir and the vendetta of the 47 rōnin, you'll discover the deep nostalgia that lies at the heart of this misunderstood aspect of Japanese culture. Bushidō is full of a longing for a lost age.

29 min
Japanese Poetry: The Road to Haiku

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.CHECK THIS RECORD

32 min
Hokusai and the Art of Wood-Block Prints

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.

30 min
The Meiji Restoration

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?

30 min
Three Visions of Prewar Japan

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 Inazō and Shidehara Kijūrō, both proponents of democracy and international cooperation; and Ishiwara Kanji, a die-hard militarist.

32 min
War without a Master Plan: Japan, 1931 - 1945

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.

29 min
Japanese Family Life

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.

29 min
Japanese Foodways

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?

28 min
Japan’s Economic Miracle

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.

31 min
Kurosawa and Ozu: Two Giants of Film

23: Kurosawa and Ozu: Two Giants of Film

Meet Japan's greatest filmmakers: Ozu Yasujirō 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).

29 min
The Making of Contemporary Japan

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.

36 min