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Understanding Japan: A Cultural History
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Understanding Japan: A Cultural History

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  399 ratings  ·  53 reviews
Japan’s extraordinary culture is like no other in the world. The 2,000-year-old civilization grew through periods of seclusion and assimilation to cultivate a society responsible for immeasurable influences on the rest of the world. What makes Japan so distinctive?

The answer is more than just spiritual beliefs or culinary tastes. It’s the ongoing clash between tradition an
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Published July 24th 2015 by The Teaching Company (first published 2015)
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4.27  · 
Rating details
 ·  399 ratings  ·  53 reviews

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Clif Hostetler
Apr 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, lecture
These are twenty-four lectures on the history of Japan that provides extensive coverage of cultural components in additional to the usual political aspects of history. This production by The Great Courses is published in partnership with the Smithsonian which I suppose made available their collections of Japanese artwork and archival material. I listened to the audio version, so any visuals were not available to me. The lecturer, Mark J. Ravina, has extensive background in studies of East Asia a ...more
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This course was awesome! I'm not sure it's a great fit for experts of Japanese history... But for me it was perfect. After dipping my toes into Japanese history over the past few decades I wanted an overview of its different eras. Unfortunately, it's been surprisingly hard for me to find something like that. I feel like my libraries always seem to have that dumb Bill O'Reilly book about WWII, or a lot of dated books from decades ago that take an orientalism POV on Japan's history. Not really wha ...more
Lubinka Dimitrova
The author's love for his object is obvious, and maybe that's one of the reasons this book is such a delight. It explores many and various aspects of Japanese history, language, culture and weltanschauung in general. I thoroughly enjoyed mr. Ravina's style, and was actually sorry to reach the end of the book so soon.
Jingwei Shi
Feb 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
The professor gives a comprehensive review of the Japanese mentality and thought. The book summarizes all key aspect of Japanese history, culture and daily life. I would have preferred a deeper dive into the history of Japan and a deeper dive into the economics.
Jan 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
For a history lover like me, the right mix between the history and culture of Japan. If you’re just looking to learn about Japan’s contemporary culture, you may want to find another book. As for me, I’m glad to own this instead of borrowing it from the library, because I know I’ll be listening to this one again sometime.
Graeme Roberts
May 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An excellent history, delivered with elan by Mark Ravina, who could make a shopping list fascinating. It opened vast new vistas of understanding for me. I listened to it in the car, so I quickly became confused by all the Japanese names, forgetting them too soon. Next time, I will use the accompanying notes, delivered as a PDF, to reinforce my understanding.
Sep 15, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: audio, 2016, history
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 t ...more
Oct 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
The course offers exactly what the blurb suggests - a lot of information about a culture and society that would appear quite exotic to any foreigner. The pace is reasonably quick and the subjects covered are vast - from the Japanese art/literature/architecture to the religious practices, dress, mannerisms, values (including Bushido), food and of course history.

To a degree, the course tries to stay as criticism-free as what the general Japanese mores would permit: it refuses to detail the atroci
Sep 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
Audio download...24 lectures, about 30 minutes each.
Mark Ravina has prepared a thoroughly enjoyable set of lectures intended to introduce you to the history and culture of Japan. His preparation, organization and presentation are nearly prefect, especially the synopsis of the early history and the description of modern Japan. For those considering a purchase, you won't be disappointed...wait for a coupon and sale, and consider the video.
Why the brief review? We are planning a brief visit to Japa
Oct 20, 2015 rated it liked it
Some of these lectures are terrific, some less so, but what halts me from a fuller rating is that there need to be chapter notes the same as how podcasts have show notes. I wanted to look up some of the names and dates after the fact but it isn't available in-product and thus lessens my ability to retain information.
Jan 27, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: audiobooks-read
I definitely feel that I've learned a few things from this book, though im not sure it's exactly what I was hoping for. The lecturer did a good job of making this interesting, and its evident that he's passionate about his subject, but there was something missing for me. Worth a listen, though.
Joshua Peters
Sep 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Really fantastic overview of Japanese history and culture; I really enjoyed Professor Ravina's lectures.
Mar 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Super good survey course of Japan. I thoroughly enjoyed this and learned a lot.
Maurício Linhares
Mar 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
With it's complicated and cyclic openness and closeness to the world, it's culture going from liberal to conservative and it's great spurs of growth and stagnation, Japan looks like a microcosm of the world. Going from nation in danger of being invaded by foreigners (like the Mongols) to a nation that took over the Korean peninsula and then try to take pieces of China, triggering the World War 2 in the Pacific Theater, the effects and changes caused by Japan to itself and the rest of the world a ...more
Deeparnak Bhowmick
Jul 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
My original plan when I started reading this was to finish it before my Japan trip. But the lectures were so engaging and informative, that I gave up my normal pace to take detailed notes. Therefore, I was only halfway through when I visited the country.

What makes this set of lectures very engaging is Prof. Ravina's personal experiences which build upon his extensive knowledge of Japanese culture and history. Unlike typical books that try to simplify a complex foreign culture, these lectures go
Scott Wozniak
Dec 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was my first "Great Course" experience, where a notable professor lectures on his specialty. It was wonderful. He was articulate and managed to be engaging while covering a huge amount of information. He did this not by swamping you with all the details, but by cutting to the root and sharing the patterns and big ideas. He made comparisons to things we know.

I've heard it said that great experts can show you how even simple things are actually complex, while great teachers can make even the
Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
I greatly enjoyed this"little" jaunt into an area of history I knew little about. The opening lecture matched largely with my ideas of what was, and revealed flaws in a kindly way.

Each of the lectures just 30 min each was distinct and interesting but kept cohesive to the overall narrative. The speaker's time is good, and he allows him self levity and minor tangents that bring life and detail to the history.

I found many of my notions of samurai and Bushido shattered, which pleased me greatly as t
Feb 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: great-courses, japan
Absolutely loved this one. It was worth the wait. I had to kind of rush through some lectures at the end because my library rental was about to expire and the wait time to request it again was about 16 weeks, but it wasn’t even hard with this lecture series. There were some I didn’t care for as much, like honestly the whole lecture on two Japanese directors I just kind of tuned out for, but overall it was awesome. My favorite bar far being Lecture 21 about food!
Shana Yates
Oct 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, culture
Very good set of lectures. Professor Ravina's love of Japanese culture shines through and he has done an admirable job breaking down many interesting aspects of that culture into 24 lectures. From explorations of Japanese gardens, poetry, and theater, to historical overviews of various cycles of isolationism and international enrichment, to religion and foodways, the lectures cover a wide range of topics to paint a fuller picture of Japan. Recommended.
Dec 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was an excellent overview. I've had a few less than stellar experiences with the Great Courses (along with some good ones, too), so I've been avoiding them a bit, but this one covered a lot of ground, and left me feeling like I'd learned a lot about Japanese history, including several aspects of art history, and a number of cultural insights I hadn't learned about, despite already having read quite a bit. I would definitely recommend this if you are interested in learning more about Japan.
Koda Whitney
Apr 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a fantastic orientation to Japan and Japanese cultural history. I found that the depth was not overly excessive and will serve me well in going forward to understanding Japanese society. I did find that some of the key themes around globalisation to be a little restrictive. The lecturer is incredibly engaging in his passion for the subject.
Sep 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic! Very well written, it is also very entertaining. Not too deep or too shallow. It tells the history of the country, explain it’s culture, religion, architecture and a bunch of other interesting topics.

I didn’t know much about Japan’s history and wanted to brush up my knowledge prior to a trip to Japan. It was exactly what I needed.
John Dembowski
Jan 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
My understanding of eastern history has been a blindspot in my overall understanding of global history. These series of lectures have a great introductory insight into a culture that can be easily misunderstood, sometimes due to their re-editting of their own history. Highly encouraged for anyone like me who feels they need to fill any gaps in their cultural knowledge.
Joshua Shioshita
Dec 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you ever wanted a more comprehensive overview of Japanese culture and history, this is a great starting point. Ravina's passion and knowledge regarding the subject shines through and really gives context to a lot of cultural elements many people may know of but few understand.
Cav Harris-Brandts
Sep 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A great course. Informative and interesting. Professor Ravina has a great lecture style, that keeps the listener interested.
Some of the lectures were a bit esoteric, but many others were extremely interesting.
I would recommend these lectures to anyone interested in the cultural history of Japan.
Isabelle Duchaine
Sep 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a wonderful introduction to Japanese history and culture. Thoughtful, insightful and funny. Explores a number of themes, including food, conflict, poetry, business and religion. Loosely chronological and very much worth the investment.
Troy Kramer
An amazing history that provides real insight into Japan. I would strongly recommend this for anyone who is planning to visit Japan for the first time as an excellent piece of prep work to better experience some of the rich culture Japan has to offer.
May 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook
I listen to the book before going a month to Japan and it was really helpful to understand a little more of Japan's culture. I liked it so much that on the way back to my home country I replay some parts again (like Buddhism/Shinto chapters).
Nov 09, 2018 rated it it was ok
Far too 'cultural' a history for my tastes. I'd have much rathered a more linear telling of the story of the archipelago. That said my disappointment is entirely of my own making given the title.
Jul 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Japanophiles, otaku, weeaboos, anyone interested in the greater Japanese culture and history
Recommended to Chris by: Audible
Excellent survey of Japanese culture and history.
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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 rece ...more