Fall 2024

Japan from Shamans to Samurai

Listed in: Asian Languages and Civilizations, as ASLC-175  |  History, as HIST-175


Trent E. Maxey (Section 01)


(Offered as HIST 175 [AS/TC/TE/P] and ASLC 175.) Contrary to images of a uniform and stable culture, the Japanese archipelago possesses a history marked by fragmentation, violent conflict, and dynamic cultural change. This course traces that history from the beginnings of human history on the archipelago to the establishment of one of the most stable and peaceful regimes in human history, the Tokugawa shogunate. Our survey will be organized around a central riddle: why was it so difficult to produce a stable, unified polity on the Japanese archipelago? Placing Japan within the broader regional context of East Asia, we will answer this riddle by following the rise of successive political authorities, from the sacral rulers of the tomb period to the samurai. Prominent themes include the rise of early polities, contact with the Chinese continent and Korean peninsula, the aristocratic culture of the Heian court and its displacement by medieval samurai rule, the role of Buddhist thought and institutions, the “warring states” period of the sixteenth-century and cosmopolitan contact with Christian Europe, and the Tokugawa peace and its urban cultural forms. Throughout, we will read a variety of sources, including eighth-century mythology, aristocratic literature, war chronicles, religious and philosophical texts, as well as modern fiction and film. This is a writing attentive survey of Japan’s history from antiquity through the eighteenth century. It traces political, social, and cultural developments in order to provide basic literacy in pre-modern Japanese history and a basis both for comparative history and further course work in Japanese history. Classes will combine lectures with close readings and discussions of the assigned texts. Requirements include short Moodle posts and topical essays. Three class meetings per week.

Fall semester. Professor Maxey.

How to handle overenrollment: null

Students who enroll in this course will likely encounter and be expected to engage in the following intellectual skills, modes of learning, and assessment: This course will ask you to read primary sources in translation as well as historical scholarship. You will practice synthesizing these sources and critically assessing them through active class discussion and graded and ungraded writing exercises. Written work will stress the importance of historical analysis over summary.

Course Materials


2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2015, Fall 2024