Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (audio)

Overall an engaging lecturer and super interesting subject. Would have greatly informed my trips to Japan. Most of these are quick notes about things that were new to me:

Lots about Buddhism:

  • There's a super interesting argument that the fact that Shinto traditions are completely illogical is proof of the divine origin of those teachings.
  • There were multiple streams of Buddhism commonly practices in early Japan. Pure Land Buddhism is very similar to Christianity's because of the centrality of salvation through belief. Also there are multiple streams of Zen Buddhism. One focuses on koans and the other focuses on meditation.
  • Key idea of zen gardens is that you get a new view from every step in the path. This is a metaphor for human nature, which is prone to seeing the world very differently depending on emotional state. Constant reminder about the limitation of the senses.
  • In Pure Land Buddhism, gardens include a bridge to paradise. Dry landscaping.


  • "Tycoon" comes from tai + kun, a made up title (great lord) for the Japanese Emperor as a result of a Japanese-Korean treaty. It was invented to avoid direct vassalage to the Ming.
  • Interesting oscillation between isolationism and globalism. 1600-1860 was complete isolation. Hardly knew about the pre-WW2 Japan with Manchurian ambitions.


  • Apparently the tea ceremony inspired the English Arts and Crafts movement. Also a part of minimalism. (Check out Okakuro's "The Book of Tea" from 1906).
  • (Check out Nou theater but it's unclear if I'll be able to follow it. Not much interest in Kabuki.)
  • Haiku is young. Started in 1890. Fascinating idea of pivot words: homonyms that can be used just once but translated into multiple of its meanings. Also renga is an interesting chain of poems each written by another poet.
  • Hokusai invented the comic book. What.

Lecturer provides a good summary of why he is interested in Japan: it's incredibly interesting and exotic, but still has enough western services.