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 190.
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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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It made my Japan experience more meaningful I watched it twice, before going to Japan and after my 1.5 years of stay. It made my visit to the 47 prefectures more meaningful as I understood the context of the things I saw.. The lecture also gave me ideas on places to visit and experiences to try.
Date published: 2021-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good course A very good course & easy to follow in the gym while working out.
Date published: 2021-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course with good mix of subject matter I'm hoping to visit Japan when travel is again permitted and watched this course to give me a basic understanding of Japan's history. I knew very little about pre-20th century Japan before watching the course but now feel to have a good high-level understanding of the themes and trends that shaped the country's development. Having completed the course I read a brief history of Japan, which really helped consolidate my knowledge - but reading the book also made me realise how much content the course contains. I also enjoyed the lectures on some of the cultural aspects of Japanese life - poetry, gardens, woodblocks etc. Dr Ravina did an excellent job putting those aspects into the context of the rest of the course, for example by showing the influence of religion in garden design. He was an engaging presenter and watching the course made me want to meet him! I would happily have watched another 24 lectures by Dr Ravina. So I would highly recommend the course to anyone interested in learning a bit more about Japanese history and culture. It's not a travel guide for those hoping to visit Japan, but it doesn't set out to be.
Date published: 2021-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great presentation Impressed by the knowledge of this professor. Great job. Learned a lot
Date published: 2021-03-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A good place to start I had a Japanese-American roommate in college, and other Japanese-American friends. But my prior understanding of Japan mostly came from reading about World War II, and from Dan Carlin’s wonderful podcasts, “Supernova in the East” (and from James Clavell’s novel, Shogun, which I read several decades ago). I did not understand how a “civilized” people could be so fanatical, treacherous, and so often systematically cruel. What was it that allowed or compelled these people to torture and murder American POWs, to seek glory in dying for the emperor? I was sure my viewpoint was distorted by the limits of what I had been exposed to. I was sure the answers must be deeply rooted in Japanese history, and that there was much more to the story. I wanted to gain some understanding of that, and that’s why I bought and took this course. Do I understand Japan now? No. That is far too ambitious a goal for any 12-hour course. This barely scratches the surface. But perhaps I do have a better, deeper understanding. This is an ancient society. It emphasizes consensus, and the individual as subject to the common welfare. Emperors were for centuries thought to be divine. Buddhist precepts are deeply ingrained. Sacrificing one’s life in a perceived noble cause is viewed positively. Further there is a millennia-old cycle of global contact and isolation, and deeply ingrained suspicion of foreigners, along with a desire to borrow and adapt from the foreigners whatever might be useful. Loyalty can turn defeat into victory. In fact, loyalty became the most important value in some ancient stories, valued in the abstract for its own sake. One group of kamikaze pilots in World War II called themselves “Seven Lives,” evoking a 14th century story (Lecture 9). All these themes, and others, help make Japanese culture and history a little more explicable. Lecture 17 on the Meiji restoration is especially enlightening, explaining the restoration in terms of a synthesis: Japan imitating the western colonial powers, but with a distinctly Japanese twist. This dynamic does much to explain the imperialistic and militaristic Japan of the 1930s and 1940s. The Japanese felt need for consensus and distaste for overt disagreement also do much to help explain why Japan did not avoid the disastrous road to 1945. If you want to increase your understanding of Japan, this is a good place to start, albeit it a cursory one. Professor Ravina is an engaging enjoyable lecturer. His tone and inflection are just right. He is clear, organized, fluid, articulate and enthusiastic, and there are flashes of a sense of humor. He follows the guidebook closely and is easy to listen to. My only critiques are mild. He sometimes talks too slowly. And for me, he could have skipped the forays into theater, cuisine and cinema, and dived more deeply into the political, military and economic history of the last century.
Date published: 2021-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lecture series The content of "Understanding Japan: A cultural History" is the best series we have purchased. The lectures cover a wide variation of different aspects of the history and culture through looking at the effects of periods of Globalism and Isolation. Dr. Ravina is an outstanding lecturer and brings great depth of knowledgeable to his subject. They were incredibly fascinating and entertaining. Highly recommend
Date published: 2021-03-09
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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


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 Ritsury? State

03: The Emergence of the Ritsury? State

In the late 500s, Japan began an unprecedented project of state building that evolved into the highly centralized, emperor-led Ritsury? 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 travelling 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 Bushid? in a Time of Peace

14: The Meaning of Bushid? in a Time of Peace

Professor Ravina adds more depth to your understanding of Japan's warrior ethos, bushid? ("the way of the warrior"). As you look at historical snapshots, such as a samurai's petulant memoir and the vendetta of the 47 r?nin, you'll discover the deep nostalgia that lies at the heart of this misunderstood aspect of Japanese culture. Bushid? 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....

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 Inaz? and Shidehara Kij?r?, 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 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)....

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