Japan and Korea are considered together in this segment only for their geographical proximity and because, I regret to say, they are places I have not visited. This is not for lack of interest or desire, but merely a matter of diminished opportunities. There is a fresh opportunity in this omission, however, for an interesting experiment in reporting on the destinations chosen for this project. Except for random items from the print media, my main source of information on Japanese and Korean culture is the movies. Japan, as is well known, has an especially rich film tradition.
To the uninitiated, such as myself, Japan is familiar to the popular imagination in two ways. First, for its feudal past and second for its impact on the Pacific Rim during and after World War II. The feudal legacy of Japan is most famously covered in the films of Akira Kurosawa whose best known work was produced in Japan’s period of reconstruction after World War II. Yasujirō Ozu (1903-63), Kurosawa’s slightly older contemporary, made films that concentrated on the simple lives of postwar Japanese people who wished to put memories of war behind them.
My experience in trying to get a broad purchase on Japanese history from watching the relevant Japanese and Hollywood movies impressed on me the need to grasp the meaning of three words: emperor, shogun, and samurai. The lineage of the Japanese emperors is said to reach back as much as 2,600 years. From that time to the present, their role has fluctuated between undisputed power and a strictly ceremonial function. In the last millennium, powerful military figures, called shoguns, took on the rule of the country at the implied behest of the Emperor. The highly disciplined samurai warrior class arose at the same time.
In the 1980s, the American television miniseries, Shogun, achieved great popularity. Based on a novel by James Clavell, it took on the task of educating the American public to Japan’s feudal past with an eye to understanding the reforms of the present. The Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, set in the 1870s, marks the end of the feudal era and the emergence of modern Japan as a militarized state.
North and South Korea have very little representation among movies offered in the American market, though there are a few from the south that have won some attention. The King and the Clown (2005) is an enjoyable adventure film set against the historical backdrop of Korea in the early 16th century.
Note: The photo above is from Epcot’s Japan, Orlando. It’s as close as I ever came.