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Moore, Aaron, 21H.522 Japan in the Age of the Samurai: History and Film, Fall 2006. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare),  (Accessed 10 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Japan in the Age of the Samurai: History and Film

Fall 2006

Japanese woodblock print of Mt. Fuji, circa 1850.
View of Mount Fuji from Numazu, part of a series by Hiroshige, published 1850; an example of ukiyo-e artwork, or "pictures of the floating world." (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Course Highlights

This course features a full set of notes on the lectures, an extensive reading list and a full set of assignments.

Course Description

This course covers medieval Japanese society and culture from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries, when political power rested largely in the hands of feudal warriors. Topics include religion (especially Zen Buddhism); changing concepts of "the way of the warrior;" women under feudalism; popular culture; and protest and rebellion. Presentations include weekly feature films. Assigned readings include many literary writings in translation.


This page includes a course calendar.


Special thanks to John Dower for the course conception and many of the course materials.

Required Texts

 Sadler, Arthur, tr. The Ten Foot Square Hut and Tales of the Heike. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2005. ISBN: 9780766193369.

 McCullough, Helen Craig, eds. Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology. Stanford, CA: Standford University Press, 1991. ISBN: 9780804719605.

 Saikaku, Ihara. Five Women Who Loved Love. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 1955. ISBN: 9780804801843.

 Kokichi, Katsu. Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1988. ISBN: 9780816510351.

 Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. New York, NY: MJF Books, 1997. ISBN: 9781567311242.

Recommended Texts

 Souyri, Pierre Francois. The World Turned Upside Down. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2001. ISBN: 9780231118422.

Course Description

The objective of this class is to introduce students to the historical development of early Japan through lectures, films and discussion of readings by Japanese authors in translation. The course surveys pre-modern Japan from the late 1100s to the mid-1800s, when Japan was governed by a warrior class. We will study the experiences of nobles and courtiers, warriors, poets, female authors, monks, and merchants in order to complement our mythic notions of an eternal Japan, characterized by samurai, swords, honor, and duty. The most distinctive feature of the course is the screening of classic Japanese feature films dealing with medieval themes. History 21H.522 thus offers not only a historical introduction to pre-modern Japanese society and culture, but also a graphic impression of how traditional society has been visualized in modern times.


Arrangements have been made to put two copies of each film on reserve at the Humanities Film Office for checkout. Most films are also available at local video stores or on Netflix. It is desirable to review them in preparing for the required essays and students are encouraged to make active use of more Japanese films than just those required here. (Check with the instructor, however, for recommendations for the best supplemental films.)

Grading Policies

Class Participation 20%
Three Essays 45%
Short Exam 10%
Final Exam 25%

Grades are based on class participation, three essays, a short exam and a final exam.

  1. This course will be run in part as a seminar. Class participation counts for 20% of your grade and is judged on attendance, your contributions to class discussions. In addition, students must post weekly reading responses to the course Web site's forum. These are intended to help you analyze the readings / films and prepare you for discussions. Responses must be posted by class time on Thursdays (unless otherwise noted), printed out and brought to class. In most cases, I will post a question beforehand on the Web site. Students may skip one response; however, they are still expected to participate in discussion for that day. With respect to class discussions, if students are not adequately prepared, or are not contributing constructively, then weekly quizzes may be given.
  2. The three essays make up 45% of your grade and should each be at least 1,500 words in length (six typewritten, double-spaced pages). They should discuss specific themes in the readings and are due at class time on Ses #10, Ses #17, and Ses #22. You must hand in all three essays to receive credit for this portion. Late papers will be downgraded. See below for the essay questions.
  3. The short exam is worth 10% of your grade and will be given in class on Ses #6. You will be asked to write a capsule paragraph or two identifying and explaining the salient aspects and significance of basic subjects in the assigned readings and class discussions up until then (primarily the Historical Background readings and the Tale of Heike). Lists of potential "ID" topics will be distributed beforehand.
  4. The final exam comprises 25% of your final grade. It will include both ID mini-essays and one or two longer essay questions that look back over the course as a whole. The possible ID topics as well as the essay question(s), will be distributed beforehand.

Guidelines to Grading

A student's course grade is based on a combination of class attendance and participation, a series of three essays, a short exam and a final exam. As mentioned above, class participation involves both attendance and active engagement in discussion sections. Students are expected to be civil, mature and respectful of diverging points of view in class. Personal attacks will not be tolerated. It is especially important that those who are not particularly talkative do the response papers on the readings. (These are not graded, but I check them off and will do my best to periodically make comments on them. They are intended to get you started writing analyses of the readings.)

Excusable absences include illness and hospitalization, family emergencies, national guard duty, and official university functions. (Work is not an excusable absence. If you are on a sports team, then your program director should contact me.) If you know that you will be missing a session, then you should see me prior to that class to discuss your assignment to make up for that session.

The three required essays are fairly short (around 6 pages, or 1800 words, each), but address broad questions. You should imagine you are preparing each essay for a general audience of educated readers with broad cultural interests. Each essay should show familiarity with the readings, films, discussions, and lectures in the pertinent segment of the course. You should present a thesis or argument at the beginning and logically organize the steps of the argument throughout the essay. The papers are graded on the basis of the cogency of the argument, the essay's insight and organization, and the articulateness of the writing. Spelling and grammar count. Short papers will be down graded. Late papers will also be down graded. You must properly acknowledge sources with footnotes. Any quotation, paraphrase, or use of another person's theory or analysis that is not properly attributed with a footnote or endnote constitutes plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a very serious academic violation and it is the responsibility of the student to know exactly what it is. Please refer to Plagiarism for a definition and some useful links on plagiarism. The offense is punishable by grade reduction, course failure and/or suspension from the Institute. If I catch you plagiarizing someone else's work, I will fail that paper. Depending on the intent and severity of the offense, I might also fail you for the course and forward materials to the Committee on Discipline.

My grading standards for the essays are as follows:

A - Your paper must be well beyond the norm to receive one. It must be intelligent, articulate, well-organized with a strong, well-defended thesis that displays a familiarity with all course materials - especially the films and the numerous primary materials available in translation. It should conform to academic style (i.e., no personal confessions or testimonials). It should not, of course, display any prejudice, ethnocentrism, or gender bias.

B - Papers in this range may have decent ideas but be marred by basic flaws or crucial omissions to the paper's main argument. The interpretation may be pedestrian or the organization might not be very tight. If the essay spends too much time simply recounting the content of the readings and films, it may receive a B or lower.

C - Papers will receive this grade when they are not of the required length and present a superficial thesis or argument. Essays that fail to engage the readings and films, are poorly written with numerous spelling and grammatical mistakes, and that generally show a lack of effort may receive a C or lower. If the problems mentioned here are severe enough, I will fail the paper.

The same standards for your papers apply to the essays on the exams. Essays that present an intelligent, articulate, well-organized argument will get A's; those with some good ideas but certain problems in the presentation will get B's; those which are short, superficial, and poorly written will receive C's or below.

My grading scale for the exams is:

A = 96-100
A- = 91-95
B+ = 87-90
B = 82-86
B- = 78-81
C+ = 74-77
C = 69-73
C- = 65-68
E = 55-65
F = Below 55


1 Introduction Watch The World of the Heike (23 min) and Hôichi the Earless (excerpted from Kwaidan by Kobayashi Masaki, 1964; 50min) by Ses #3  
I. Ways of The Warriors
2 Historical/Geographical Overview    
3 Emergence of the Warrior Ethos

Watch Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954; 160 min)  by Ses #5


4 Zen    
5 Zen and the Samurai Watch Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, 1957; 105 min) by Ses #7  
6 Short Exam    
7 Bushidô    
II. Spiritual and Supernatural Worlds
8 The Forty-Seven Ronin 47 Rônin (Mizoguchi, 1941; 241 min)  
9 The Forty-Seven Ronin (cont.) 47 Rônin  
10 Ugetsu Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, 1953; 94 min) Essay 1 due
11 Medieval Aesthetics Onibaba (Shindô Kaneto, 1964; 103 min)  
12 Medieval Aesthetics (cont.) Onibaba  
13 Zen and the Tea Ceremony Sen no Rikyû (Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1990; 116 min)  
14 Christianity Sen no Rikyû  
III. Worlds of Pleasure/Worlds of Pain
15 Tokugawa Urban Life Utamaro and His Five Women (Mizoguchi, 1946; 106 min)
16 Saikaku Utamaro and His Five Women  
17 Chikamatsu Double Suicide (Shinoda Masahiro, 1969; 105 min) Essay 2 due
18 Ecstasy and Self Destruction Double Suicide  
19 Women under Feudalism Samurai Rebellion (Kobayashi, 1967; 120 min)  
20 Saikaku's Amorous Woman/Mizoguchi's Tragic Heroine Samurai Rebellion  
IV. Reassessing The Samurai
21 Oharu

Finished Samurai Rebellion

Watch Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, 1952; 136 min)

22 Repression and Protest in History and Film Harakiri (Kobayashi, 1962; 134 min) Essay 3 due
23 Rebellions Harakiri  
24 Failed Samurai Kagemusha (Kurosawa, 1980; 179 m)  
25 Failed Samurai (cont.) Kagemusha  
26 Conclusion; Review for Final Finished Kagemusha  
  Final Exam   Tell A Friend