Posted in Thoughts

Learning History the Easy Way: The Path of the Amateur Historian

It just keeps repeating…

‘Sup folks. I know it’s been a little while since my last post, but for those who’ve been paying attention, the irregularity in the posting schedule is about par for the course. You should really be used to it at this point.


Today’s post is going to be a bit different from the usual fare on this site. Instead of a list of music or a list of games or a list of… okay, I get it.

Today, I’m going to talk to you about my journey attempting to learn history on my own. The reason why I decided to talk to you about this in particular will be made clear later, but suffice it to say that I found recently that my experience left a profound impression upon me which I thought might warrant some elucidation. What better way than to write endlessly on the internet on the off chance that someone else might read it?

So this journey actually first began about 3 years ago, or thereabouts. I had always been somewhat curious about East Asian cultures, and with the growing popularity of cultural exports such as anime, I was interested in learning more of the history about the countries of that region where those exports come from. I decided that I would try and learn “Japanese history”. I write this in quotation marks simply because I I had no real idea of what “Japanese history” is. Think about it. The history of any nation is HUGE, and never as simple as “the events that took place there”.

As far as I was concerned at the time, to learn Japanese history was nothing more than finding “the book” that had “the answers”, or essentially the entire history from beginning to end, like some sort of paperback novel. History, as I would find out much, much later, is far more complicated than all that.

And so, where did I turn to for my first Japanese history lesson? Well, the freely available media format which I was most used to accessing at the time was the podcast. I had more than a passing familiarity with the format by that point, although the podcasts I listened to at that time were almost exclusively in the realm of radio comedy.

I found two podcasts, and eventually landed on one: History of Japan Podcast by Isaac Meyer. Meyer was only beginning the podcast when I first found it. He dedicates the first 20 to 30 or so episodes to doing a brief overview of the landscape of Japanese history from the origins of civilization on the island until about 1992 or so when the economic bubble bursts. After these summary episodes, he proceeds to cover various topics ranging from ancient Japanese literature to Meiji-era historians to a review of the James Clavell novel Shogun.

Now, if this was a simple story, it might end here. I listened to podcast, became overly-educated, and lorded my vast, though deeply lacking, knowledge of Japanese history over my lesser-nerds. However, this story is not so simple. You see, as I started listening to the podcast, I became… hmm, what is the word? Ah yes. BORED!!!

You see, I started the journey of learning Japanese history with just some vague desire to HAVE that knowledge. The process of acquiring it was not so important to me, and so I gave it little thought until the process began. And I had to sit there and pay attention. Screw that noise! It is a shame looking back now, as I think how better I would have been had a tried to have a little bit more patience for the learning process.

So it is probably clear at this point, I did not listen to this podcast for very long. In fact, my memories, which are unreliable anyways, are very vague regarding that time, and so I only remember starting the podcast and just never listening to very much. I just stopped and some point. Ah, what a waste.

Now I could stop the story HERE, and just say “pay attention to da podcasts in your life”, but that’s not the full story either. There’s a bit more to it.

About 9 or some months ago, I came to live in Japan (oh dear, my time’s running out!). I thought it might be fun to learn some history while I was here. And lo and behold, where do I go to find some resources? Mr. Meyers handy-dandy Japan-o-pedia.

I started listening from the very beginning (I had no recollection of what I first heard all those years ago). It had been quite a long time since I first laid eyes on the podcast, so that I had a lot of catching up to do. However this time around, I did not find it boring at all. In fact, I was so deeply concentrating on the learning of this information that the rest of my time became almost a blur, as I tried to remember names and dates, and re-listened to episodes again and again, just for the heck of it. It was so drastically different from my first experience, and… well, I DON’T KNOW WHY!

And that’s really the whole thing. That’s the whole purpose of this. I feel as if my desire to know the story of Japanese civilization and culture was greater 3 years ago, but my ability to patiently learn what was required is far better now than it was then. And to be honest, I feel like I can appreciate the history more now than I could’ve then.

It is strange, but I feel like history, and the pursuit of historical stories, requires a huge deal of patience that is not immediately clear from the outset, and that prerequisite was never really mentioned during any rudimentary standardized history lessons I had. You need patience because when you learn something like history, you can’t half-ass it.

It might be best to provide a detailed example. So in the case of Isaac Meyers podcast, he begins at A beginning, not necessarily THE beginning. Of course, you need to set some markers for yourself. If you want to study Japanese history, the beginning could theoretically be the point at which life began on Earth. That scope overlaps with a lot of history (literally ALL human history), but you definitely don’t miss anything. But there is not so much that you miss by just saying, “Okay, let’s draw the line a bit farther up the time line”. And so you can set the beginning as something like the first recorded histories of Japan, and for a more thorough understand, the first archaeological evidence of life, inhabitants or cultures in the landmass which now makes up Japan.

However, you need to patience to think of all of that. You can’t just jump in willy-nilly thinking, “I’m going to go on a swashbuckling samurai adventure and learn about that economic bubble burst that my parents used to talk about. Oh, and maybe I’ll learn about British people coming here too.” As a matter of fact, that stuff does get covered, but without prerequisite knowledge of the VAST expanse of history preceding those brief periods of history which get the most media coverage, you lose a lot of the understanding behind why people acted the way they did. History can be really interesting, but something that historians don’t tell the uneducated masses is that understanding WHY it’s interesting, or why a certain period of history ever even happened, can be just as, if not more, interesting as well.

This is something that may sound obvious (and like many things, it is obvious mostly because it becomes clear in hindsight), but one’s mindset plays an extremely significant role in our interpretation of… well, just about anything. Obviously, I’m referring to the fact that nobody informs you when you’re younger just how unprepared you are for some things, mentally that is, and it is only because we experience things that we truly learn what that experience feels like. The reason I think to mention it now is because of just how important it was that my mindset changed. I did not focus on any one moment of history. Sure, I was looking forward to certain characters of aspects showing up, but the more I heard about various periods of Japanese history, and the transformation of the culture, the more intrigued I was by other things, things which I had never heard of. If I had not had patience or an open mind, I can only assume that, and pardon the pun here, history would have repeated itself.

So what has all of this blathering amounted to? Just this: Keep your mind open. At least for learning history, although it probably applies to learning anything, leave your opinions at the door. You need to be willing to be ready to be impressed. Don’t assume you know everything, otherwise it will be that much more difficult and less satisfying when you hear things that you don’t know. You have to have faith that the knowledge you have yet to gain can be just as great if not greater than the knowledge you already have. And unless you are some all-knowing being, that will most likely be the case.

Alrighty folks, I’ve kept you here long enough with my rambling. Thanks for reading, and have a great day!



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