Education About Asia: Online Archives

Japanese History and Literature

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WASHINGTON, DC  20004-2037


Designed as a resource for teachers of world history and literature courses, this group of materials can be used as part of faculty development institutes, in-service workshops, or as a resource for individual instructors. Three video tapes survey premodern Japanese history with special reference to selected works of literature: (1) Classical Japan and “The Tale of Genji” (45 minutes), (2) Medieval Japan and Buddhism in Literature (45 minutes), (3) Tokugawa Japan and Puppet Theater, Novels, and the Haiku of Basho (70 minutes).

A printed guide includes a script of the narration, plus materials to be xeroxed for video viewers—study questions and excerpts from literature being discussed.  An appendix provides an instructor’s overview, map exercises, bibliography, and recommended resources.

The project team has addressed an extremely difficult problem—how, with a limited budget, to use a visual, action-oriented medium to create enthusiasm for the study of texts. The video programs primarily consist of what the TV generation calls “talking heads,” but the speakers are impressive authorities: Donald Keene, Paul Varley, Carol Gluck, Haruo Sirane, and Henry Smith. The narrator is Robert Oxnam, President Emeritus of the Asia Society.  Even luminaries can be deadly on camera, and taped lectures hardly engage the potential of the video medium. The best that can be hoped for is that the lecturers will communicate their personal enthusiasm for the topics. These “heads” deliver. Experiencing Sirane’s explication of a Basho haiku is a geniune delight. There are a few stiff moments, but the speakers provide us with credible expressions of their excitement and pleasure as they dispense solid background information teachers can use.

These videos are genuine resources, not plug-and-play classroom modules. The information, while basic, is a bit concentrated for the target audience of teachers largely unfamiliar with things Japanese. The printed script will be particularly valuable for such individuals.  As recommended by the project editors, those segments useful for high school or college student viewing, such as direct comments about literary selections, need to be carefully extracted by the classroom teacher who has already absorbed the video lectures. Attempts to compare Japan’s historical and literary achievements with those of other cultures are left largely to the viewer.

The video production has some problems. The decision to illustrate several battle scenes by moving the camera around a two-dimensional painting suggests a low budget. The repeated use of a percussion ensemble for the soundtrack becomes irritating. Video strobing during sequences panning calligraphy looks technically unprofessional. Employing slides, several poorly reproduced, to depict Japanese historical sites is disappointing. Video clips of nature scenes, often illustratively weak, are so generic they could well have been taken in rural New England.

Aspects of the printed study guide need improvement also. The hand-drawn maps teachers are invited to duplicate are aesthetically out of touch with the fact that increasingly, secondary school teachers and their students have sharp, computer-generated materials available to them.  The “homemade look” no longer wins points. The one professional looking map, borrowed, but poorly reproduced, from Japan Today, has serious pedagogical  design flaws for those unfamiliar with Japan’s geography. Injecting hand-written Japanese characters into printed English text in this day of multi-lingual word processing looks crude.  Missing among the list of resources and much more useful in explaining premodern Japan than The Pacific Century Video Series, is the old, but still serviceable, fourteen-part series, Japan: The Living Tradition by the University of Mid-America.

In summary, the content of this video series is strong, and the experts are engaging; however, the general production quality is not up to the usual Annenberg/ CPB Collection standard.