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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 225.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Shogunate and Siebold museum visit in context I recently watched the Disney Shogunate tv series. I then visited in my home country the Siebold house in Leiden in Holland where the unique traces of Dutch-Japanese relationships are documented. This course I needed to inform me about the cultural history to make more sense of the t.v series and my museum visit.
Date published: 2024-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth binging Plausible, captivating, a piece of art. Mark used a top notch vocabulary, at the edge of poetry, to illustrate the history of Japan in this series of episodes about different eras of Japan, cultures and idiosyncracy.
Date published: 2024-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Excellent course that helped us prepare for our trip to Japan giving a huge benefit of better understanding the culture, traditions, and history of this incredibly beautiful, interesting, and complex country and society. Many details and stories from the course came alive during our trip to five big and small cities, site seeing, and communications with locals
Date published: 2024-04-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A remarkably good course. Each lecture was fascinating and I was sorry when it ended that there wasn't more. Prof. Ravina held my attention every moment. Overall, extremely informative--even eye-opening. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history or culture.
Date published: 2024-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent insight into Japanese culture. Prof. Ravina is an expert in this field with a excellent command over the language. The course is very well organized using historical time periods to help understand the changes that took place. It covers everything from the tea ceremony to theater, art, film making. I came away with a much better understanding of the history and culture of a fascinating country.
Date published: 2024-03-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Superb Introductory Course for Japan. Professor Ravina has done a fantastic job of selecting his topics to cover a wide range of subjects, and he does so with enthusiasm and excellent delivery. Simply reviewing the list of lectures shows that this course extends far beyond history and includes religion, literature, the arts, language, contemporary life, and economics. One of the aspects I truly appreciated was his synopses of literature interspersed in various lectures. And although I tend to lean more toward the arts and early and ancient history, I found Lecture 19 on the Second World War stunning. Although I have traveled in China and had heard of the atrocities that happened during the Japanese invasions, I had never connected it with Pearl Harbor. This is an outstanding and insightful lecture. The course is generously enhanced with graphics, so I would recommend the video version. These include helpful timelines, graphics to illustrate some historical and cultural concepts that are unfamiliar to Westerners, and lots of Japanese art through the ages, many from the Smithsonian collection judging by the credits. The only fault I could find with this course is that it wasn’t 36 lectures, or longer. Certainly the material is there, but the selection of material covered was still judicious and fascinating. While this is not a “Great Tours” treatment, I would still highly recommend it for those considering or planning travel to Japan. The lectures on Shintoism and Buddhism will help travelers understand the differences between various shrines and temples. Many of the sites associated with myths and histories are respectfully preserved and locations are often available to visit. For example, Lecture 2 covers two very important myths – the story of Izanagi and Izanami, and the story of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. The Shinto Izanagi-jingu Shrine is located on the island of Awaji and Amaterasu’s cave is reputed to be Amano Iwato in Takachiho. The Japanese respect for history has insured that many ancient sites have been preserved. Built in 780, the East Pagoda of one of the earliest Buddhist temples mentioned in Lecture 5, Yakushi-ji, is preserved at Nara although it is overshadowed by the awe-inspiring Todai-ji temple. One can even visit small enclaves of samurai neighborhoods in some towns and small cities. Lecture 13 lists a nice selection of Japanese gardens that cover a range of historical periods and cultural influences. I have traveled to Japan in all four seasons for about a total of five months and thought I had an "Intermediate" acquaintance with the country until I took this course. I've even studied the Warring States" period, but I learned so much, I changed my "prior knowledge" to novice.
Date published: 2024-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative content, wonderful insight I have been taking a course from the Great Courses on Understanding Japan, a cultural history. This is one from Professor Mark Ravina Ph.D. I have found this course very informative and insightful. Of particular note is Class 19 of this course, War without a Master Plan. The first 5 minutes present a unique parallel to the USA since 2020 or perhaps a bit earlier. He presents "Group Think" of the Japanese, with a strong emphasis on quieting dissension; much like the Nazi pre-WWII. Japan created a "country run by slogans and not by reason." (Psychology of Ultranationalism) Maruyama Masao. A country run by slogans and not reason, YIKES! Thank you Dr. Ravina.
Date published: 2024-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Historical and cultural insights This course enhances understanding of Japan by presenting valuable insights and comprehensive explanations of historical events and culture. The material fosters a greater appreciation for the evolution and uniqueness of Japan. The presenter's enthusiasm is genuine, his comparative observations are helpful, and his humor always seems appropriate and entertaining.
Date published: 2023-11-09
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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

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 Shintō ("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