Understanding Japan: A Cultural History

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Worth the Time I don't often write reviews and I almost never watch or read something a second time, but I am expecting to do both with this course. I thought Dr. Ravina (who is now the Chair at UT Austin, FYI) did a fantastic job providing an organized, coherent, thematic, and well-supported overview of the history of Japan. He is an engaging lecturer with a sense of humor that prevented any of the lectures from seeming too pedantic. Like other reviewers, my wish is that he would have spent more time on my favorite subjects (gardens, woodblocks, etc), but this did not limit my enjoyment of the lecture series. Instead, I feel like Prof. Ravina has given me many jumping off points with which to continue my education about Japan.
Date published: 2021-02-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is One of the best Courses I've done This was a great survey of Japanese Culture. The professor did not get caught up in terminology and in himself. His presentations were well organized and thought out wrt the content. It was obvious that he loved his subject.
Date published: 2021-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots of information! I've been passionate of Japanese since I was a young child who grew up watching Japanese animation since the age of 6 and finding out 25 years later that all my Japanese friends grew up watching the same ones. This courses is a good first immersion in all that is Japan as it touches on all topics. I really enjoy it because of that. One minor thing that got me confused and made me tilt my head to the side and made my brain hurt a little was the use of the word "Onomatopoetic" which is very unusual in the English language, an archaic form really. The commonly used word is on·o·mat·o·poe·ic /ˌänəˌmadəˈpēik,ˌônəˌmadəˈpēik/ (there is not T). Just in case I was wrong (I studied Latin for 6 years but I'm a bit rusty, and yes, the original word is Greek but the modern word comes from the Latin adaptation to the Greek) I did some research on that and all searches on "Onomatopoetic" referred back to "Onomatopoeic" . Anyway, aside from this little note I truly enjoyed this course as it filled me in topics that I was little familiar with.
Date published: 2021-01-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course This was a topic that I knew little about, but was very interested in learning more. Professor Ravina has a great teaching style - the content is organized well, and presented clearly and enthusiastically. I found the course very enlightening and informative.
Date published: 2021-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course on Japan and its culture We just finished Understanding Japan with Dr. Mark Ravina. We have about 100 of the Great Courses, and have enjoyed them all. Dr. Ravina is in our opinion, one of the best course instructors we have experienced. He combines a deep knowledge of the subject, facility in the Japanese language, an understanding of the Japanese culture with academic professionalism. His teaching style is clear and direct, and includes photos, videos and graphics to enhance each topic. Add to all that a presentation style that is worthy of a consummate showman. Our next purchase will be Dr. Ravina's course on Understanding Russia.
Date published: 2020-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highest Possible Recommendation If you have even a passing interest in the culture or history of Japan, I would give this course the highest possible recommendation. Dr. Ravina provides a broad survey of Japan through time, fleshing out individual topics with fascinating details, and tying it all together with an important and meaningful framework. The course title is true to it's name - when you are done listening, you won't simply feel like you are more knowledgeable about Japan, you will feel that you have gained some understanding of Japan. From an organization standpoint, the course moves from ancient Japan into modern times, taking occasional detours to discuss language, art, food or other elements of Japanese culture. Additionally, each historical and cultural element is examined through the lens of repeating cycles of Japanese isolation and globalization. This lens is both a key insight and a fantastic framework for the listener to organize and associate the individual topics. As an example of how effective this course is in helping someone understand Japan, I would point to the chapter on Japanese Gardens. This is a topic that would normally be of little interest to me, but is made utterly fascinating by the context provided Dr. Ravina. We learn that different styles of gardens are influenced by differences between Buddhist sects. And while listening, we can recall earlier lessons where we learned how the different sects view the path to Nirvana. Which in turn, connects to a prior discussion on the role of politics in Japanese religion and how global and domestic politics influenced the rise and fall of various Buddhist sects. And therefore, when the lesson on gardens discusses the arrangement of rocks or the changing vistas, the listener has the context in which to place these items of seemingly pure aesthetics into a much broader understanding of Japan. It feels deeply and truly revelatory. I've listened to or watched a dozen or so Great Courses over the years. This is hands down the gold standard for what these courses can be. Enjoyable, educational and insightful. You won't be disappointed.
Date published: 2020-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course indeed!!! A masterpiece of information about everything that is odd and familiar about Japan
Date published: 2020-10-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid Review of Japanese History and Culture Having lived in Japan, I was extremely interested in watching and listening to what Professor Ravina had to say about the countries history and culture. For the most part I was highly impressed with his presentation. The organization of the history was well thought out and constructed. The explanation of the influence of eastern religious thought, illustrated by the variants of Buddhism, was especially interesting and informative. His discussion of the Samurai rise and decline was thoughtful and illustrative. The one area that I was a little disappointed was in his cultural summations. I felt it was not presented in an neutral perspective but was tempered somewhat because of Dr Ravina’s long association with the people which, in my opinion, caused him to have a generous description of the customs and traditions. However, in total, the course is valuable and merits its inclusion in the Great Courses curriculum. I recommend the course.
Date published: 2020-10-15
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Understanding Japan: A Cultural History
Course Trailer
Japan: A Globally Engaged Island Nation
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....

34 min
Understanding Japan through Ancient Myths
2: 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
3: 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
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?...

33 min
Early Japanese Buddhism
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....

31 min
Heian Court Culture
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....

28 min
The Rise of the Samurai
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....

29 min
Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism
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....

30 min
Samurai Culture in the Ashikaga Period
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....

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
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.


Stanford University


Emory University

About Mark J. Ravina

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.

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