ERIC Identifier: ED282796
Publication Date: 1987-04-00
Author: Wojtan, Linda S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Teaching about Japan. ERIC Digest No. 38.
According to Ambassador Mike Mansfield, the interactions between two
nations, Japan and the United States, are the most important bilateral
relationship on earth. Sometimes it also seems to be the most difficult one as
well. Newspapers carry daily accounts of U.S. trade deficits and slipping ratios
of the U.S. ollar to the Japanese yen. Communities compete for Japanese
enterprises while U.S. businesses protest the preferential treatment given to
these companies. Because of its growing importance in world affairs, American
educators are increasingly asked to teach about Japan.
How can teachers present an accurate historical and contemporary picture of
Japan? What is a balanced view of U.S./Japan relations? This digest examines (1)
the importance of teaching about Japan, (2) useful strategies for teaching about
Japan, and (3) the place of Japan in the curriculum.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO TEACH ABOUT JAPAN?
We are in the age of the ascendency of the Pacific Rim area, expecially the
Asian sector. Daily, 4 out of 5 of the world's jumbo jets are found above the
Pacific, not the Atlantic. There has been a profound shift in importance and
influence toward the Pacific. The past decades have witnessed unprecedented
growth in this area. Today, Japan is the pre-eminent nation in this region and,
more importantly, a harbinger of future developments. Through Japan, the larger
topic of the Pacific Rim can be explored, and students can be introduced to some
of the realities of this part of the world.
JAPAN AND THE U.S. ARE INCREASINGLY INTERDEPENDENT
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of interdependence can be found in the
economic realm. Japan has very few of the natural resources needed for
manufacturing. Currently, the U.S. supplies many of these raw materials to
Japan. That is, however, only part of the picture. The U.S. also supplies the
Japanese with the everyday staples of life, such as razor blades from Warner
Lambert (70% market share), disposable diapers from Proctor & Gamble (50%),
instant cameras from Polaroid (50%), computers from IBM (40%), wine glasses from
Owens-Illinois (70%), and even Tupperware from Dart & Kraft (30%).
Currently, 50% of the Japanese caloric intake comes from imported food. Much of
this comes from the U.S. in the form of such items as Coke, Del Monte tomato
juice and Meiji Borden dairy products (a joint venture between Japan and the
U.S.). The U.S. also supplies legal and insurance services. Japan provides the
U.S. not only with manufactured goods, but also with investments. For example,
in 1986 Japanese real estate investment in the U.S. was between $3 and $4
billion and should exceed $5 billion in 1987.
Perhaps the most obvious examples of interdependence are in the auto
industry. The joint venture between Chrysler Corporation and Mitsubishi Motors
Corporation, which will soon be operative, will employ both Japanese and U.S.
workers, and receive supplies from places such as Gadsden, Alabama and Union
City, Tennessee. Is this a U.S. plant or a Japanese plant? Is this a plus or a
minus on the U.S. balance sheet of trade? A study of Japan can introduce
students to the intricacies of this interdependence.
JAPAN PROVIDES AN EXAMPLE OF MODERNIZATION WITHOUT EXCESSIVE WESTERNIZATION
Outward aspects of westernization abound in Japan. Kentucky Fried Chicken,
MacDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, and Shakey's Pizza are pumping calories into the
Japanese diet at an unprecedented rate. But to a large extent, this is
superficial, a veneer that catches the eye and diverts deeper analysis. While
Japan may look somewhat like the U.S., it remains very different. Aspects of the
Shinto, Buddhist, and Confucian religions continue to undergird the system;
traditional values hold sway. An examination of the role played by these
traditional values can provide clues to a modernization scheme quite different
from our own western model.
JAPAN CONTINUES TO BE A MISUNDERSTOOD COUNTRY
Some textbooks and courses of study continue to lump Japan into an
all-inclusive "Third World" category. This leads to confusion and
misperceptions. Students blame cheap Japanese labor for our trade deficit. Few
students learn that the yen appreciation has made Japanese employees the best
paid in the world. Further, attempts at understanding Japan often exchange one
stereotype for another. For example, we hear that Japanese society works well
because of cooperation among groups. What are the historical, economic,
geographic, and sociological reasons behind the propensity for such behavior? A
detailed examination of Japan is needed to rectify the stereotypes of the past
and update textbook treatments.
THE STUDY OF JAPAN HAS AN IMPORTANT MULTICULTURAL DIMENSION
Japan is no longer an abstract textbook subject, far removed from everyday
life. The proliferation of Japanese companies in the U.S. has brought with it a
number of "corporate sojourners." These Japanese nationals, usually here for a
set number of years, are today part of many communities. These communities are
calling for increased study of Japan in order to facilitate cross-cultural
WHAT ARE USEFUL STRATEGIES FOR TEACHING ABOUT JAPAN?
Study of Japan should be used to introduce multiple perspectives. The U.S.
media, to a large extent, present only the U.S. perspective and approach to many
aspects of U.S./Japan relations. What are other ways of looking at issues?
1. Require students to examine an issue from at least one other cultural
perspective. Fortunately, there are many useful materials that present the
Japanese perspective. This is especially true regarding trade issues. The
Japanese Consulates General, Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) offices,
and Japanese Chambers of Commerce are all excellent resources.
2. Present a historical perspective whenever possible. This notion is very
closely tied to the idea of multiple cultural perspectives. Both Japan and the
U.S. have a national historical consciousness of past events, and these often
differ markedly. Furthermore, these historical perspectives often influence
contemporary concerns such as trade and diplomatic relations. For example, U.S.
textbooks inevitably herald the coming of Perry to Japan. The good Commodore is
credited with the "opening of Japan." Most textbooks then go on to extol the
virtues of increased trade. Japanese textbooks, however, stress that raw silk
production at that time could not match market demands. Domestic shortages and
rice hoarding ensued. Soon traders cornered the market and prices rose
dramatically. Domestic economic chaos resulted. Two very different history
lessons are taught here.
Similarly, Japanese textbooks characterize the United States after World War
II as a "taikoku" or "huge country." Profitable trade, burgeoning industry, and
a high GNP are stressed. This image of the U.S. continues today. Is it any
wonder that Japanese trade negotiators seem surprised that a nation like the
U.S. feels economically threatened by Japan? These images die hard, but they can
be used to help enhance historical and cultural understanding.
3. Ask students to examine values implicit in certain practices of Japanese
society. This can be a key to greater understanding of the Japanese people and
their society. Much has been written about the Japanese education system, but
values inherent in that system usually are not stressed. For example, we hear
that Japanese children greatly respect their teachers and that in general,
respect for learning is fostered. What is the importance of this value in later
life and how does it manifest itself? Japan has one of the highest literacy
rates in the world and a reputation for the painstaking collection of data.
Similarly, we hear that Japanese children clean their own school and often
maintain the grounds. Perhaps this early training leads to the much touted
Japanese work ethic. Is it any wonder that labor productivity has increased 80%
in Japan in the past decades while in the U.S. if has increased by only 15%? A
careful study of the values inherent in Japanese institutions provides insights
into contemporary society and also provides a mirror for examining our own
4. Introduce the Japanese language. Many students never learn that other
languages employ different alphabets, let alone syllabaries or ideographs. There
are a number of useful introductory units on the Japanese language. They train
students in proper pronunciation of terms and, more importantly, introduce them
to a language that reflects historical realities. Chinese influence is seen in
the Kanji (ideographs) and western impact is reflected in the use of romaji
(Roman characters or western alphabet). But perhaps the biggest reward gained is
a demystification of the Japanese language. Most students have no idea how to
even approach the language. It is sometimes described as "chicken scratch" and
relegated to the realm of meaningless babble. It is difficult to respect or
understand a culture that seems to have an entirely meaningless way of
communication. Taking some time to emphasize the language will reap rich rewards
in later lessons.
WHERE DOES JAPAN BELONG IN THE CURRICULUM?
Teaching about Japan is appropriate at every level of the curriculum and in
virtually any subject. Fortunately, many excellent materials are available.
At the elementary level there are exciting trunk kits and artifact boxes that
entice students into historical investigation as well as exploration of
contemporary culture. Japanese festivals can be studied and celebrated through
books, films, artifacts, and craft kits. Reading materials can be supplemented
with children's literature about Japan. Care should be taken that selections are
not limited to folktales. A steady diet of folktales can lead to the
misperception that all foreign cultures are quite bizarre and locked in a time
Some schools have had success with grade-wide or school-wide fairs focusing
on foreign cultures, including Japan. Students are often eager to display their
acumen to peers, younger or older students, and even parents or teachers. A
community-wide fair focusing on Japan is an excellent way to involve Japanese
nationals in cross-cultural learning and increased understanding.
Demonstrations, discussions, displays, lectures, and specialized classes can all
be part of this endeavor.
A study of Japan is particularly appropriate in geography classes. In
comparison to the United States, Japan is roughly the size of Montana, has about
half the population (121 million), is about 80% mountainous, and has little in
the way of natural resources. The story of how the Japanese produce one-tenth of
the world's gross product while living on one-fourth of 1% of the world's land
is a fascinating geography lesson.
All of the teaching suggestions mentioned here are pragmatic. They can be
carried out through materials that are readily available and listed in the
bibliography below. Together these resources can help enhance teaching about
Japan, remove stereotypes, and prepare students to understand the growing
significance of the Pacific Rim in world affairs.
History of Japan - Offers a good overview of the history of Japan.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bernson, Mary Hammond and Elaine Magnusson, eds. MODERN JAPAN: AN IDEA BOOK
FOR K-12 TEACHERS. MULTICULTURAL EDUCATION RESOURCE SERIES. Olympia, WA: Office
of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, 1984. ED 252 486.
Cogan, John J. and Donald O. Schneider, eds. PERSPECTIVES ON JAPAN: A GUIDE
FOR TEACHERS. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1983. ED
EAST MEETS WEST: MUTUAL IMAGES. Stanford, CA: California Center for Research
in International Studies, l980. ED 196 765.
Kaderabeck, Leslie. THE JAPANESE AUTOMOBILE WORKER: A MICROCOSM OF JAPAN'S
SUCCESS. 1985. ED 263 041.
Murphy, Carole. A STEP BY STEP GUIDE FOR PLANNING A JAPANESE CULTURAL
FESTIVAL. 1983. ED 238 748.
Wojtan, Linda S. FREE RESOURCES FOR TEACHING ABOUT JAPAN. Bloomington, IN:
Midwest Program for Teaching about Japan, Indiana University, 1986. ED 270 381.
Wojtan, Linda S. GUIDE TO RECOMMENDED CURRICULUM AND AUDIO-VISUAL MATERIALS
FOR TEACHING ABOUT JAPAN. Bloomington, IN: Midwest Program for Teaching about
Japan, Indiana University, l986. ED number to be assigned.