With COVID-19 raging worldwide, Japan has seen foreign visitor volumes drop 99.9% from last year. Furthermore, travel restrictions and rising xenophobia have created a global chilling effect upon cross-cultural exchange. Amid these challenging times, those interested in Japanese culture may find solace in the soothing presence of Peter Barakan—host of public broadcaster NHK’s popular Japanology docu-series.
For the past 17 years, Barakan has introduced international audiences to myriad aspects of Japanese life through Japanology’s various renditions. The docu-series started as Weekend Japanology in 2003, became Begin Japanology in 2008, and evolved into Japanology Plus starting 2014. Japanology airs in approximately 160 countries through NHK World, making Barakan a global ambassador for Japanese culture.
Yet, as Barakan tells Cinema Escapist, his journey to Japan and Japanology seems almost accidental.
An Individual Path
Though he’s now spent the majority of his life and career in Japan, Barakan was born in London to Polish Jewish and Anglo-Burmese parents. As a result of this multicultural upbringing, Barakan realized that identity doesn’t always have to anchor to a single nationality.
“Our family was not a typical British family,” said Barakan. “Although I was born in London, grew up in London, and went to schools in London—and definitely have a London sensibility—I’ve never felt that my identity was ‘British.’ More than anything…I just feel like an individual.”
Barakan also had a knack for languages. He enjoyed studying Ancient Greek and Latin as a child, and thought of languages as intellectual puzzles. Yet, his decision to study Japanese at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) felt like a complete fluke.
“I really don’t know why I picked Japanese—maybe in another life I was Japanese,” said Barakan. “I didn’t know much about Japan at the time beyond stereotypes like Mount Fuji and geisha. I might’ve only seen one Japanese movie at that time—not even Seven Samurai, but rather one called Woman in the Dunes. It was a fairly strange movie, and definitely wouldn’t have made me want to go to the country because it was so strange. I’d never seen any documentaries about Japan, and I didn’t know the language had three ways of writing. I had a pretty rude awakening when I started my [university course].”
Bringing the World to Japan
Yet, that fateful decision to study Japanese shaped the rest of Barakan’s life. In 1974, he accepted an offer to work at a music publishing company in Japan—combining a passion for music (Barakan is also a noted DJ/radio host) with his Japanese language skills. Barakan helped import foreign songs into Japan, kicking off his role as an inadvertent cross-cultural ambassador. However, the job didn’t last long.
“My taste in music didn’t jive very well with what was popular in Japan, so I would get quite frustrated with work,” said Barakan.
Fortunately, another cultural ambassadorship opportunity arose in broadcasting. In the late 80s, Tokyo Broadcasting System launched a Japanese edition of the American news show 60 Minutes—and brought Barakan aboard as a Japanese-language host.
“I introduced short documentaries, made in America, to a Japanese audience [who did not have a deep understanding of American culture],” said Barakan. “As a result, a lot of people in Japan knew me… and had a mistaken idea that I was a journalist, which very much wasn’t the case.”
Bringing Japan to the World
Barakan’s broadcast experience eventually led him to NHK’s Japanology in 2003. This reversed the direction of his cultural ambassadorship. With English narration and dialog, Japanology takes international viewers into every nook and cranny of Japanese culture—from Shinto to hot water bottles.
“The NHK staff who put together each episode curate the video material very well, and it’s all very well researched,” said Barakan. “I learn about a particular topic just as much as anybody else. Every expert I speak is someone who really knows their chosen field.”
Though most fans know Japanology as a show that involves a sole Barakan zipping around Japan and speaking to a variety of experts on location, it wasn’t always like that.
“When I first did Japanology in the very early days, it was a studio-based show with two presenters. They would have a script, and they would want us to stick to the script. I kind of rebelled against it, especially when there were things in the script that sounded to me almost nationalistic,” said Barakan. “I guess their brief was to show Japan in the best possible light—regardless of circumstances.”
Honesty and Reliability
In Barakan’s book, having an honest and reliable discourse is critical to a documentary series’ success.
“I think for any TV show, you have to feel that there’s a relationship with the person on the screen, and you have to trust them. If you don’t, you’re not going to watch the program. If you feel they’re giving you a propaganda job, you’ll say ‘screw that’,” said Barakan.
Accordingly, Barakan has tried making Japanology a more honest show.
“Japanology has changed over the years. I became the sole presenter, and I’ve gotten more freedom,” said Barakan. “I do have a script—I think every TV show has a script—but it’s definitely not as strictly adhered to as it used to be. I’ll know who I’m talking to, what I’m talking about, and the kinds of things they want me to ask. However, once we start having a conversation, it’ll take its own path.”
Still, Barakan feels there’s always room for improvement.
“I feel a lot of Japanese TV is still very formulaic. For example, with documentaries—even Japanology—there’s too much narration. The trend in documentaries these days—globally—is to use as little narration as possible, and to have as much on-screen talking as you can.”
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, filming of Japanology has been on hold, though it might resume in the summer. Barakan is sheltering in Tokyo, a city he’s called home for the past 46 years.
“After what’s been happening worldwide for the last three months—will we ever go back to the way we were before? I don’t really know,” said Barakan. “[Because] the larger and denser a city is, the more intense the infection might be, a lot of people may want to live in a smaller place, where the communities are slightly more spread out.”
Barakan isn’t sure if such a move is in the cards for him though.
“The only two places I’ve lived are London and Tokyo, which are these vast metropolises. Whether I could actually move to a smaller place, I don’t know,” said Barakan.
Barakan describes his relationship with Tokyo and Japan using the phrase kusare-en.
“It’s like you’ve been friends for fifty years and you can’t stand each other, but you can’t separate from each other either,” said Barakan.
Even with the pandemic, it seems like Barakan’s days as an “accidental ambassador” between Japan and the world are far from over.
Stream select episodes of Japanology for free on NHK World.