« History & the Arts/History & archaeology

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As an island nation, Japan’s culture is fascinatingly different from its Asian neighbours.

During two and a half centuries of self-imposed isolation in the pre-modern period, Japan developed cultural traditions so strong that they still intrigue the foreign visitor today. 

Using an abundance of visual material, this course will survey Japanese history and culture from its beginnings to the end of the 20th century, with due consideration of how Japan’s geographical position next to the Asian Continent and some hundred active volcanoes dotting the islands, frequent earthquakes, tsunamis, heavy monsoon rains and typhoons shaped the ethos and lifestyle of its people.

Course outline

  1. Introduction: the geographic and climatic features shaping Japanese history and culture. Where did the first people on the island chain come from? Jômon culture with its fantastic pottery and masked statues followed by a new wave of immigrants bringing rice cultivation, mega tombs, mirrors, swords and the governance of a female ruler. 
  2. The religion of Shinto and the sanctuary of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the progenitor of the imperial line. The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century, the architecture of its temples that withstood earthquakes for well over a thousand years, the imagery of Buddhist statues.
  3. The founding of the imperial capital of Kyoto. The refined culture of the aristocracy. The rise of the samurai: recruited to serve the emperor, they usurped his political authority and created their own warrior culture. The attempted invasion of Kublai Khan and the divine winds (kami kaze) that saved the country.
  4. The Christian Century: from missionary success to persecution and martyrdom. Artistic and cultural gains from the encounter between East and West. The three great unifiers of Japan and the politics of the tea ceremony.
  5. The Tokugawa military rulers (shogun) and 250 years of peace and closure of the country.  The much-maligned “Dog Shogun” and the eye-witness account of a foreign visitor. 
  6. The growth of the mega city of Edo (Tokyo), and the flowering of what is celebrated as traditional Japanese culture today, such as haiku, kabuki, the art of the geisha and the woodblock print. The passion for travel: the Japanese inns and the cultural life on the busy highways.
  7. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions in the 18th and 19th century, the arrival of the Americans, the restoration of imperial rule.  
  8. The 20th century: The strive for emancipation as a world power: rapid Westernisation and the role of the military. Victory and defeat and the post-war commercial boom.

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this course, you should:

  • appreciate how the environment has shaped the culture and history of Japan
  • understand to what extent China, Korea and the West impacted on the culture and history of Japan
  • be aware how frequent natural disasters shaped religious believes and philosophical tenets in Japan, differing from those of other countries
  • know the difference between Buddhism and Shinto and the political role played by these two religions
  • have some appreciation of the role of Christianity in Japan
  • know about the origins of samurai culture and the role it played over the course of Japanese history
  • be aware of how the position of Japanese women changed over the course of Japanese history
  • understand how even after the so-called closure of Japan, cultural exchange led to advances in science and the arts in Japan and the West
  • appreciate how under the infamous Dog Shogun, laws were promulgated some of which appeared in the West only 200 years later
  • have learned about the life in Edo/Tokyo, perhaps the largest and most densely populated city in the world, twice the size of London in the pre-modern period.

Who should enrol

Anyone desiring to understand and appreciate the history and culture of Japan.