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Summary

Japan's extraordinary culture is like no other in the world, and it 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.

In an exciting partnership with the Smithsonian, The Great Courses presents these 24 lectures that offer an unforgettable tour of Japanese life and culture. Professor Ravina, with the expert collaboration of the Smithsonian's historians, brings you a grand portrait of Japan.

From the dawn of Confucianism and the Meiji Restoration to World War II and the economic miracle years of 1955 to 1975, you'll explore landmark periods of Japanese history and learn how broad events and movements introduced, innovated, and revised everything from spirituality to popular entertainment. Along the way you'll get revealing insights into Shinto (Japan's indigenous religion), the art of Katsushika Hokusai, literary works like The Tale of Genji and the haiku of Basho, the everyday lives of samurai, the universal appeal of filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, foods like yakitori and tempura, and so much more.

You'll come away from Professor Ravina's final lecture with a stronger sense of the very soul of this one-of-a-kind nation.

©2015 The Great Courses (P)2015 The Teaching Company, LLC

What members say

Average customer ratings

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    5 out of 5 stars

Fascinating Introduction, Well Worth It

This course covers Japanese culture and history for the past 1500 (ish) years. It is very different to the other Great Courses history courses in that it mixes historical lectures with those about Japanese culture. I hope they do many more in this format as it is gives a very good overview of the country, without getting bogged down in too many details.

The two themes of the course are globalisation and isolation, and how these have combined to create Japan's unique culture, cuisine and history. The history lectures will sometimes cover up to 200 years in one lecture, so if you want detailed accounts of major events you should go elsewhere. I found the history very approachable and interesting, and I will certainly be following up with other lecture courses to fill in the gaps.

As for the culture lectures these are interspersed throughout the history lectures so that when they occur you have the full historical context needed in order to understand the importance and relevance of the cultural movements. The topics covered include Shintoism, Buddhism, theatre, poetry and family life. All of these are introduced and discussed in historical context and with a discussion of how they impacted the culture.

My favourite of these culture lectures was certainly that on cinema, specifically on the work of Ozu and Kurosawa. This meshed very well with the themes of globalisation and isolation as these two film makers exemplify these contrasting aspects of Japanese culture.


I wholeheartedly recommend this course and hope they extend the format to other countries!

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Japan cultural history

The author describe Japan history and culture. He is obviously passionate about Japan. So I am. So I love this course. One of my favortite chapter was about food. I regret that the world war 2 and imperial Japan was not discussed in more details. The angle (phases of globalisation vs. isolationism) is deep and profound.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Alistair
  • KIRKWALL, United Kingdom
  • 09-10-16

A lesson on how Japan became Japan

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

I would definitely recommend this to any friends or listeners who want to learn about the real Japan, as opposed to the image of Japan thst Westerners give themselves through some niche elements of Japanese culture or history - such as Japanese anime or the pop culture versions of samurai and ninjas - which can give a completely wrong impression.

I admit I have never been to Japan myself but having listened to this excellent series of lectures - I particularly enjoyed the theme of the different phases of globalisation and the lectures on the true history of the samurai - I feel that if I ever went I would find it much easier to understand why certain things were the way they are.

The lectures were all at a perfect pace and I came away from each one feeling like I knew more about the subject having listened to it and looking forward to the next one. I would not be surprised if I listened to these again in the near future or recommended them to some close friends in particular.

What about Professor Mark J. Ravina’s performance did you like?

Professor Ravina was a man I coukd have listened to for hours. His voice was very measured and calm befitting the subject matter but his clear interest and passion was infectious and obvious. Half the time I couldn't help but smile.

By the time I finished the lectures I felt sad to be leaving his virtual classroom. If he ever gives another series of lectures for The Great Courses I will be sure to get them from Audible.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Yes completely and totally. I was enraptured from beginning to end and found the entire thing fascinating. I truly hope they release more lectures focused on Japan or Asia in general as I'm sure I would love every minute of it like I did these. I have come away truly thinking I know far more about Japan's history and culture than I did when I entered. I cannot recommend these enough.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Japan - Culture and History

This was absolutely brilliant. I loved it having been a consumer of Japanese culture. However I feel it should have been much longer. o would have preferred double. Much more on history esp 1900 onwards and more on the Japanese psyche again with reference to modern Japanese culture. Would have loved half hour lectures on Yakuza and origami as well as onsen. Overall this is the only audio set / book on Japanese culture and history and essential for everyone.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Learning on the walk

I have simply adored this. Heard the entire book during my trip in Japan and it was amazing walking by the places mentioned. the lectures were very informative but never boring. i felt like I was understanding better the way Japan came to me and it helped my journey to be more culturally informed. I found myself laughing at some of the stories in the train. The narrator is absolutely amazing. Loved it.

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excellent

Really enjoyable, felt like a learned a lot, plus confident clear delivery. Really great resource.

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Overview of japan

Good overview of japan. It feels a little general but it makes sense given the scope of the enterprise. I would suggest to listen to it on 1.25 or 1.5x

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Excellent introduction to Japan

Absolutely brilliant course on Japan's history, economy and culture. The reader is passionate and engaging. Absolutely recommended

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Good introduction into key concepts of Japan

A very engaging introduction into the key concepts of Japanese life and culture.
Good read!

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Really excellent introductory course.

This proved to be an excellent companion to my first trip to Japan, and I'll be looking for similar courses on other countries for future travels!

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 04-04-16

Very interesting and informative

What made the experience of listening to Understanding Japan the most enjoyable?

This course is a delight to listen to with a lot of information and a great narrator. My only complaint is that there is no PDF booklet to accompany the course like the other Great Courses. Hope it shows up soon!!!

25 of 27 people found this review helpful

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  • Chris K. Jones
  • 15-12-15

Entertaining and Informative

Professor Ravina did an amazing job. The wealth of diverse knowledge of history, culture, economics, and philosophical explanations was awesome. I was particularly amazed by is precise and profoundly simplistic explanations of high Buddhist concepts and how they integrate into the thoughts, words and culture of the Japanese people. Being formally trained in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism Professor Ravina's grasp and ability to explain concepts of all kinds is a gift. As someone who has been fascinated with Japan and competes in its national sport of Judo it was so great to get the deep dive into the past, present and future of Japan. It is a great primer if you are making a trip to Japan. I'm very excited about being able to talk about history and cultural icons with my Japanese friends and colleagues. Thank you Professor incredible job and you had me laughing many times. Going to listen to it agin before my trip to Japan next year.

13 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Finn
  • 09-12-15

Great Overview of Japanese History

While there are lots of juicy details that the course glosses over, the breadth of coverage is awesome. The professor is a really excellent speaker and knows the subject matter really well.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Emma Bennett
  • 16-09-16

Too much history, not enough culture

There were several aspects of this lecture series that I really enjoyed, but the negative outweighed the positive. The lecturer, Mark Ravina was very enthusiastic. He seemed to be very knowledgeable of Japan’s customs, culture and history. If Ravina were to ever write a book about Japanese culture or his personal travels and experiences in Japan, I would read it. Unfortunately only five out of the twenty-four lectures were memorable for me: Understanding Japan through Ancient Myths; Aspects of the Japanese Language; Early Japanese Buddhism; Japanese Family Life; and Japanese Foodways. All the other lectures were too heavy on the politics and history for my liking. If this had included more information about modern Japanese culture and what it’s like to live there, I think I would have enjoyed this more. I am not a history buff, so I kind of zoned out during some of the lectures that were more historical than cultural. I ended up listening to a few of the lectures twice because I didn’t get anything out of them the first time around. And even after two listens, some of the lectures still didn’t stick.

I’m surprised that Audible didn’t include a course guide or, at the very least, a glossary of people, places, and terms.

This was not a bad listening experience, so don’t be turned off by my low rating. It just wasn’t exactly what I wanted or expected. I even considered abandoning it around Lecture 10, but decided to power through. In the end, I don’t regret listening to the entire thing, as a couple of my favorite lectures were numbers 20 and 21.

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • brenty
  • 01-09-15

Informative, entertaining, and well-presented!

I really enjoyed this overview of Japanese culture. My only complaint is that it ended. :)

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • Katie Lowry
  • 31-12-15

Found it very useful when moving to Japan

Fantastic! Incredibly engaging overview of Japan which uses history and culture to explain where Japan came from and what it looks like today.
I downloaded this course as soon as my company moved me to Japan and have had a much better appreciation for this country since understanding the nuances explained in this course.
Thanks Professor Ravina for making this foreign culture understandable and accessible!

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • sng
  • 30-12-15

Excellent!

Wonderful narration, easy to understand and remember. Covers everything from current day culture, attitudes towards the world to food, movies to origins of them

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Robert Everman
  • 04-10-15

One of the best

I liked everything. The professor was very passionate and taught the subject matter very well. I only wish there was a little more on the modern dynamics between Korean and Japanese relations.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Clavius
  • 03-10-15

Excellent Review

This is a great overview of Japanese history with an emphasis on the cultural aspects. The professor is excellent. His presentation is very good, making it easy to follow in the audio program.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • J
  • 23-07-16

Good overview, very academic

TL;DR: I have lived in Japan 20+ years, so have some perspective. Worth listening too, but light on modern times.

So, it's a "Great Course" (tm). I get that. And perhaps a cultural history of Japan will space things out more, so that we spend a whole chapter on Shinto Gods and how things worked back before time really started. The one takeaway from that chapter was "even in Japanese mythology, decisions are made by committee and take time".

Professor Ravina's modern stuff is somewhat disappointing, though. More than most societies, Japan has undergone two complete transformations since the mid-1850s, and while the book talks about that, I believe half of the focus or more should have been spent on that, rather than on the older discussions.

The books I wish I could find on audible are George Bailey Samson's 3 volume series on Japanese history, followed by Christopher's "Japanese Mind". They would, of course, take up more time than these short courses, but would be worth it.


5 of 6 people found this review helpful