"I used to be OBSESSED with Japanese culture," wrote an uncommonly thoughtful Youtube commenter. "I miss that part of me. Trying to search for it again. That's when I was the happiest." Many of us westerners — or really, many of us non-Japanese — go through similar periods of affinity and avidity for all things Japanese. Some of us put it away with our childish things; some of us make Japanese culture a lifelong interest, or even the stuff of our professions. I myself got into Japan early, at some point found myself put off by the just slightly too obsessive Japanese pop-culture fan community in the West (though I admittedly read that comment below a music video with four million views), and later returned with a much more serious intent to understand.
But to understand what? The Japanese language, certainly, and Japanese film, Japanese cities, Japanese aesthetics, Japanese technology — all the fruits of the culture that stoke in the rest of the world both deep envy and, sometimes, faint suspicion. Why do they persist in using writing systems that, despite their considerable beauty, come with such aggravating difficulty? The comprehensive subway networks in metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka function day in and day out with astonishing reach and reliability, but why do their riders tolerate crowdedness even to the point of getting uncomplainingly crammed inside the cars by white-gloved attendants? And why, despite the Japanese love for elegant design and advanced consumer technology, do their web sites look so jumbled and confusing?
NHK World can put you on the road to understanding these and other questions with Japanology, their series of English-language documentaries exploring the things large and small, all surprising to the foreigner, that make up the fabric of Japanese life. BEGIN Japanology, their series for the Japan-intrigued but not necessarily Japan-experienced, has come to six seasons so far.
At the top of the post, you can see its episode on bento, those painstakingly prepared lunch boxes, simplified versions of which even those who know nothing of Japan have seen at grocery stores the world over. To learn more about bento's place in Japanese culture, proceed on to the relevant episode of Japanology Plus, NHK's series for the even more insatiably curious Japanophile. And couple with an episode on Ramen above.
Japanology Plus also dedicates one of its half-hour programs to the Shinkansen, commonly known as the "bullet train," that quintessentially Japanese mode of transportation that, with its impeccable half-century record of speed, safety, and punctuality, has become the pride of the land. (I, for one, hold out hope that Obama will make The Onion's "Ambitious Plan to Fly Americans to Japan to Use Their Trains" a reality.) But if you don't feel quite ready yet to board a Shinkansen, much less learn about its inner workings, try the Begin Japanology Special Mini series, which offers five-minute distilled documentaries on such icons of Japan as tea gardens, hot springs, and Mount Fuji. Watching all these, I feel glad indeed that I've already got the tickets booked for my next flight over there. Do you have yours?
You can find Japanology added to our list of 200+ Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.
Colin Marshall writes elsewhere on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.