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Online courses about Japan you can attend for free

These English-language university-level courses cover everything from Japanese literature and history to architecture and business. Best of all, they’re free

By Emma Steen

Ever wanted to learn more about Japan but didn't have the time? With Covid-19 limiting our travel and social life, this might be a good opportunity to go back to uni – without the caffeine-fueled all-nighters and exorbitant school fees, of course.

Through online platforms like edX, you can take courses on Japan from the world’s top universities for free. These courses are self-paced, so you can watch the lectures and complete the exercises in your own time. 

These English-language courses range from Japanese architecture to Japanese literature and are offered by prestigious Japanese universities like the University of Tokyo or even a few US Ivy League schools. So get your notebooks ready and start studying.

RECOMMENDED: How to explore Japan from home

School's in

Photo: Ivan Davydenko / Unsplash

Visualising the Birth of Modern Tokyo

Course by: MIT

In this course from MIT’s Visualizing Cultures project with the Smithsonian Institution, you can explore the history of modern Tokyo from the Meiji Restoration to the mid-1900s through artworks from the period. Rather than a traditional course of long lectures and text-heavy PowerPoint slides, this unit feels more like a visual narrative as you are virtually guided through the Smithsonian and introduced to key works like Kobayashi Kiyochika’s series ‘Famous Places of Tokyo’ (1876-1881). Topics covered include the emperors of modern Japan, how Tokyo was rebuilt after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the city’s nightlife and café culture during the 1930s. There are five modules in total and each week of the course takes  three to five hours to complete.

Tokyo Olympic Stadium
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Four Facets of Contemporary Japanese Architecture

Course by: The University of Tokyo

This archived series of courses from the University of Tokyo is instructed in part by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who is also a former professor of Tokyo University. With a focus on analysing the four pillars of modern architecture (theory, technology, city and humans), the courses feature discussions by some of the top Japanese architects of their generation, including Tadao Ando and Shigeru Ban. 

Together with Kuma and his colleagues professor Yusuke Obuchi and professor Toshihiko Kiuchi, you’ll get to visit some of Tokyo’s most iconic landmarks, like the Yoyogi National Stadium, and gain an understanding of what makes their designs uniquely Japanese. Note that of the four courses that make up this series, just three are still available to access on the EdX website: theory, technology and city.

Japanese depiction of Perry's Black Ship
Photo: MITx

Visualizing Japan (1850s-1930s): Westernization, Protest, Modernity

Course by: MIT/Harvard University

This EdX course about Japan’s transition into the modern world is a collaboration between Harvard and MIT. After getting a grounding in the methodology of studying history, take a look at Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan, which forced the nation to open its doors to the rest of the world and triggered dramatic westernisation in the latter half of the 1800s. In the final module, learn about the social unrest in Imperial Japan before concluding the course with a study of Japanese consumer culture in the '20s and '30s through the long-established Japanese makeup brand Shiseido.

Two laptops on a desk with paper
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Japanese Business Management

Course by: Waseda University

The burst of the Japanese economic bubble in the early '90s triggered an era of transition as companies worked to overcome a stagnant Japanese market and re-evaluate their business strategies. In this course on business leadership, you'll learn about some of the biggest and most enduring Japanese brands, such as Toyota and Softbank, as well as their management styles, business strategies and performance over the past few decades. 

Photo: edx.org

Modern Japanese Architecture Part 1: From Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War

Course by: Tokyo Institute of Technology

Walking around some neighbourhoods of Tokyo, you can read the history of the city in the different architectural styles of its buildings. The late 18th century was the beginning of an increasingly westernised Japan as architects began making buildings based on European and American designs. This course looks at the beginnings of modernist architecture in Japan and explores the influence made by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus. 

Tokyo cityscape sun
Photo: Steven Su/Unsplash

Visualising Postwar Tokyo, Part 1

Course by: The University of Tokyo

The World War II devastated Japan and its people, yet within just a quarter of a century, the nation went on to host the Olympic Games for the first time and transformed into a economic powerhouse, giving Tokyo citizens in particular an impressive standard of living. Using archived photographs, films and documentary footage, this course focuses on key events that shaped postwar Tokyo, including the 1959 royal wedding and 1964 Summer Olympics.

Photo: edx.org

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books

Course by: Harvard University

In this nine-week course, you'll explore the contents of ancient Japanese manuscripts and learn how they were made. Gain a deeper understanding of the historical figures behind the texts and images, as well as the technology used at the time of each manuscript's production. The course concludes with an overview of Japan’s most celebrated work of fiction, 'The Tale of Genji', and how the story has been told differently over time, from the 11th century to the present day. 

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