By Tomomichi Amano
One of the hottest television shows here this spring revolved around…. a Harvard professor standing in front of a classroom lecturing about philosophy.
NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, picked up in April the PBS show featuring Michael Sandel’s lecture show, titled “Justice.” Rebranded as “Harvard Hakunetsu Kyoshitu (Harvard’s Heated Discussion Classroom),” the show quickly drew wide notice and topped the list of downloads from “NHK On Demand,” an online pay-per-view service.
Spurred by the weekly Sunday evening showing, which ended this past weekend, Prof. Sandel’s book “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” now ranks first in the foreign books section of Amazon Japan, and the online bookstore is currently out of copies. The 57-year-old academic now has a book tour slated in Japan for August 23 to 27. During his stay, NHK plans to tape a special lecture with the Professor in Japan, and is seeking participants from the public.
One Japanese fan, self-identified as “Greenbellove,” tweeted: The show is “intellectually stimulating. Professor Sandel might be my ideal guy. I should seriously consider making him the wallpaper for my cell phone.”
“I am astonished and delighted by the popularity of ‘Justice’ in Japan,” Prof. Sandel told JRT by email. “There seems to be a great yearning, in Japan as in the U.S., for public discussion of big ideas, especially about ethics and values.”
Japan is the only country outside the U.S. to have picked up the show, though the BBC is now eyeing broadcast starting January.
Japanese commentators are debating why a college lecture on philosophy has gotten such popularity amid a lineup dominated by cooking shows, slapstick/comedy variety shows, and dramas.
Chiba University law professor Masaya Kobayashi, who does the commentary and helps translations of the lectures, says the interactive, discussion-style lecture — unusual in Japan — is one reason for the show’s appeal. Prof. Sandel is well known for making students express their opinions in front of a thousand peers, and personally remember the names of the students who speak. “He’s good at embedding the student’s comments into the flow of the class” says Prof. Kobayashi.
In the Japanese school curriculum, “moral ethics” is one subfield of “social studies,” and thus, names of philosophers are often well known even to high school students. However, such classes are usually focused more on memorizing the name of thinkers in the past, and the books they wrote. Discussion is rarely conducted.
In addition, “in Japan, there are no lectures which connect the names of old philosophers with specific examples,” says Prof. Kobayashi. He believes the program gives the public a chance to analyze politics from the perspective of political philosophy. Inspired by the program’s success, Prof. Kobayashi has started to implement discussions in his own lectures as well.
On the social-networking service, mixi, the program’s group page exhibits a lively discussion about “why people should follow justice, assuming that it does exist.” A twitter hash tag “#nhk_harvard” has been prepared for viewers to tweet as well. Such online activity is evidence of the program’s popularity among the young as well.
Kiaro1000 tweeted: “I’m not bored even though it’s a university lecture. lol”
The show can still be watched online here.