Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Teaching about Japan: Films About Japanese Culture, Literature and History

Teaching about Japan: Films About Japanese Culture, Literature and History

Kokoro: The Heart Within (1998), Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment, 55 North 300 West, Suite 315, Salt Lake City Utah, 84110-1160. 300 minutes (five 60-minute tapes). $99.95 for the entire series on as of May 5, 2003). Scott Featherstone, producer, director, and script writer.

Kokoro means “heart.” Featherstone, who lived in Japan for eleven years, has created a magnificent depiction of traditional Japanese values and aesthetics and how these influence contemporary Japanese. Although the series is five years old, it remains current and is well worth its price. It intelligently and without sentimentality explores deeply held Japanese attitudes. The cinematography is superb. I have used two of the segments in a teacher workshop and received very positive responses.

The series covers a wide range of ideas influencing modern Japanese life: the role of the seas, Shinto (the indigenous religion), Buddhism, Bushido (the Way of the Warrior), and traditional arts such as tea ceremonies and flower arranging. All receive thorough, accessible treatment. Featherstone uses crisp narrative, beautiful nature scenes, and enlightening interviews with a wide variety of Japanese. The stunning footage and aesthetics treatment gives it a spiritual quality as it provides a deeper understanding of Japan. This series is highly recommended for World History or Literature units, as introductory material to assist students in better understanding how Japanese feel about the world and how this influences their actions. However, teachers should balance Kokoro with teaching strategies that also make it clear that Japan is one of the world’s most modern countries, and not as steeped in tradition as students might be left to think. Do teach about Japan’s rich traditional culture, but avoid the origami syndrome!


Japanese History and Literature: Classical Japan and the Tale of Genji (552-1185); Medieval Japan and Buddhism in Japanese Literature (1185-1600); and Tokugawa Japan and Puppet Theater, Novels, and the Haiku of Basho (1600-1868). 1996, Annenberg/CPB Collection, 1-800-Learner. Time ranges from 45-70 minutes long, can be ordered as single copies or as a set of three. The complete series is $110 without the teacher’s guide, $125 with.

Columbia University is the national leader in producing high-quality teaching materials on not only Japan, but all of East Asia. In teaching NCTA seminars I always use one or more of the Japanese History and Literature video series, which feature the commentaries of Columbia University Japanese studies faculty along with striking background art. The supporting teacher’s guide includes primary source-based lessons utilizing passages from the Japanese literary canon to reinforce the video.

Although slower-paced than Kokoro, this series has very solid content. An attentive viewer will know more about masterpieces of Japanese literature than 99 percent of Americans do. The series also does an excellent job of relating historical events–including wars, Buddhism, the rise of the commercial classes, and aristocratic and popular values–to the featured literature. Although at times the series suffers slightly from the “talking heads” syndrome, the commentators (5-6 are used for each video) are among the world’s foremost experts on the subject literature.

I recommend this series for high school World History or Literature students who are at or above grade level and for teacher professional development programs as well. The series’ construction makes it very easy to use segments on particular works of literature (e.g. The Tale of Genji).


While the above videos are economical, I recently learned of a web site,, sponsored by the Indiana University Department of East Asian Studies. K-12 teachers may borrow a variety of Japan and East Asia videos for free classroom use, paying nothing but the cost of return postage. Numerous titles are available.

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