I recently discovered the website nippon.com. Run by Nippon Communications Foundation, the people behind Japan Echo (published until 2010), with support from the Nippon Foundation… admittedly, these are not organizations with which I am familiar, but as compared to certain other sites, they do a truly excellent job of providing quality content. Nippon.com’s articles are not superficial treatments or basic summaries of the most canon Japanese tourist sites & cultural experiences, aimed at first-time (and possibly one-time-only) visitors to Japan; rather, they are aimed at those with a more serious interest in Japanese culture, who may be relative beginners but who are serious about learning more, and engaging with issues related to culture & heritage preservation, traditional arts, and historiography.
The articles on Nippon.com go far beyond the standard stories in several ways – both going deeper, as in the case of articles about specific goings-on in the kabuki world & interviews with kabuki actors in place of the very superficial and generic “kabuki is a traditional theatre form dating back hundreds of years, with colorful costumes and bold action. Even if you’re only in Tokyo for a few days, you should definitely try to check it out!“, and going beyond in the sense of discussing aspects of Japan way off the beaten track. Take for example Nippon.com’s series of articles – yes, an entire series – on Islam in Japan, including two on Tokyo’s largest mosque, and one interview with a Japanese convert to Islam who makes efforts to combat stereotypes and ignorance, and to educate people about Islam.
I am particularly impressed by the site’s use of interviews with, and articles by, prominent experts on the subject, where many other sites and publications simply use their own internal tourism/journalism staff, who repeat commonly-held beliefs or attitudes, without any true expertise. One of the first posts on Nippon.com I discovered, which immediately told me this was a very different kind of site, is one entitled “Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion.” The misconception that Japan was “closed” or “isolated” during the Edo period (1615-1868), the connected idea that Edo period Japan was “dark,” regressive, or backwards as a result, and the continued use of the term “sakoku” (lit. “chained country”), is truly one of my greatest personal pet peeves as a historian. I know it sounds terribly obscure and picky and geeky, but this is actually a big deal – it has a major impact on how we, as Americans, as Japanese, as Europeans or Chinese, view and understand Japan. Scholars such as Arano Yasunori and Nagazumi Yoko in Japan, and Ronald Toby among others in the US, have been arguing since the 1980s that Japan was not “closed,” that it was quite active in international interactions and cultural exchange, and that we should stop using the word “sakoku,” and yet, today, far too many sources (tourism websites, guidebooks, popular magazines, TV shows, even supposedly top-rate newspapers and, sadly, occasionally, scholarly works) still continue to reinforce these misconceptions. And since TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and tourist materials are so much more widely consumed than history books and scholarly journal articles are, these misperceptions persist. I don’t know their numbers – hits, readership – but Nippon.com represents a more widely accessible and more “popular” form of media – an online popular magazine, if you will – and Arano Yasunori’s article on their site is a truly excellent treatment to the subject. It is thorough and reflective of the latest research, and genuinely informative, as well as easy to read, clear, and engaging, with lots of nice diagrams and images, and all while being relatively short.
Nippon.com goes further, with equally interesting articles on “The Ainu and Early Commerce in the Sea of Okhotsk,” “The Dutch East India Company and the Rise of Intra-Asian Commerce,” “Historical Trends in Eurasia and Japan: Mongols to Manchus,” and “The Extra-National Pirate-Traders of East Asia.”
The breadth and depth of articles on this site is truly incredible. I wish I had the time to read more of these articles, on everything from “The Xinhai Revolution and Sino-Japanese Relations,” to “The Dolls that Sparked Japan’s Love of Robots: “Karakuri Ningyō”,” to The Aichi Triennale and contemporary art in post-3/11 Japan, to the history of asadora (TV morning dramas).
I am really impressed with this site, and think it may be one of the best on the Internet, for high schoolers, college students, armchair historians, or anyone interested in learning more about Japan, through short but high-quality articles introducing a truer, more complex, vision of Japan – a Japan with a long history of interactions with Russia, a Japan with a contemporary Muslim population, a Japan wrestling with maintaining, preserving, protecting, and changing traditions.