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Comparative Studies: History, Literature, Culture, and Individuals

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In an earlier but lengthy part of my career, I spent probably close to 1,200 hours in primarily Japanese schools and educational institutions, and more limited time in schools and educational institutions in South Korea, the PRC, Taiwan, and Việt Nam. I’ve published articles, essays, and a book on comparative education. The one point I always make with students that is most gratifying for me as a result of these efforts is a better understanding of US K-16 education. I hope readers can draw upon some of the entries from the column that follows for assistance in our mutual efforts to better understand both our own and other cultures.

Shirley Huston-Findley, in “Understanding Cultural Perspectives through Greek and Hindu Theater” (vol. 17, no. 1, spring 2012), first provides students with classical Greek and South Asian guidelines for the construction of drama and then has them apply these quite divergent perspectives to better understand the more practical aspects of the performing arts in both traditions.

Many history instructors and students remain fascinated with the Medieval West. In Keith Knapp, “Did the Middle Kingdom Have a Middle Period?: The Problem of ‘Medieval’ in China’s History” (vol. 12, no. 3, winter 2007), the author asserts that China from approximately 200 CE-1000 CE experienced a medieval period. Read the article (reprinted by at least one other publisher with permission) to learn of common problems and proclivities Europeans and Chinese shared in, respectively, their “medieval” periods.

A substantial number of Digest readers probably know that the famous filmmaker John Sturges used Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as his inspiration for the American film The Magnificent Seven. They are less likely to be aware that Kurosawa’s Noh-influenced Throne of Blood was based upon Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as Minae Yamamoto Savas discusses in her article “Familiar Story, Macbeth—New Context, Noh and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood” (vol. 17, no. 1, spring 2012). Fay Beauchamp in  “From Creation Myths to Marriage Alliances: Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Murasaki’s Akashi Chapter” (vol. 6, no. 1, spring 2001) creatively describes her strategies to help students understand how two of the most famous authors in the history of world literature used the occult, a storm, and the conflicts between love and politics, to challenge some of the underlying cultural assumptions of Heian Japan and Renaissance England.

Terumichi Morikawa in “Mori Arinori and Japanese Education (1847-1889)” (vol. 20, no. 2, fall 2015) recounts how the man who would become the architect of Japan’s modern public school system followed his mentor, a British diplomat, to an obscure Swedenborgian utopian community in upstate New York for part of 1867 and 1868. Arinori returned to Japan where he unsuccessfully advocated for Western reforms designed to lessen gender inequality, but developed skepticism of what he viewed as an excessive Western focus on materialism and utilitarianism.

An old picture of the street life in early-20th Century Chicago. The buildings are all three to five floors high, all with a canopy outside. Several coaches are on the street. A banner writing "Chop Suey" is hanging on one building.

Chop Suey restaurant on Clark Street, Chicago. c. 1905. Source: Website of the Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee at

Imagine residents of New York City in the 1920s and a bit later, including celebrities like Louis Armstrong, screen stars, and ordinary people participating in a veritable Chinese food craze with Chop Suey as the main dish! Charles Hayford’s “Who’s Afraid of Chop Suey?” (vol. 16, no. 3, winter 2011) is a humorous but accurate tribute to Chinese-American entrepreneurs’ construction of a case for Chop Suey’s veritable past, despite the fact that as early as 1912 isolated dissidents were unsuccessfully attempting to refute this legend, amidst the growing craze for “Chinese” food.

Rossella Ceccarini in “Pizza in Japan” (vol. 16, no. 3, winter 2011) first most likely traces pizza’s origins to Israel and contiguous areas of the Mideast, recounts its journey to seventeenth century Naples, the US, and by the 1950s, Japan. North American visitors to Japan have long discussed the differences in the pizza of their homelands and Japan’s version but usually relish Japanese pizza. In the same article, please see Merry White’s sidebar “Coffee Life in Japan,” that she excerpted from her book by the same title for a snapshot of global and Western favorite that many Japanese learned to love.

Tal Tovy’s “From the Nisshin to the Musashi: The Military Career of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku” (vol. 20, no. 2, fall 2015) is a concise and ironic biography of the naval officer who planned and implemented the December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack. As a child, Yamamoto was exposed to American and Western culture, studied at Harvard in 1919, and from 1925-1928 was Naval Attaché for the Japanese embassy in Washington, DC. Although a loyal Japanese military officer, Yamato was convinced because of US military capability and strength, an American war should be avoided at all costs.

Fritz Blackwell’s teaching resources essay “Options for Teaching Gandhi and King” (vol. 6, no. 3, winter 2001) is both a compelling case for cultural comparisons that shape not only individual lives but national and international events. The teaching resources included in the essay remain applicable to the classroom over twenty years after its publication.

Other Teaching Resource: The Stanford History Education Group’s “Reading Like a Historian”
The Stanford History Education Group “Reading Like a Historian” lessons engage students in historical inquiry. Each lesson begins with a specific historical topic (e.g., The Sepoy Rebellion) and revolves around a central historical question along with a set of primary documents for the topic. Fifty-one lessons on world history topics from before 500 BCE to the 1900s are available, as well as over 100 US history lessons, many comparative between multiple countries. All lessons include downloadable teacher’s guides, student guides, relevant documents, and PowerPoints accessible with a free account on the Stanford History Group’s website.

Two recommended comparative lessons are China’s Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and The Cold War and The Korean War.

A poster in the era of Cultural Revolution. On the left corner is the red word in Chinese. On the other side is the portrait of Chairman Mao. Two people, a man and a woman, is swimming in a wave. They wear the military uniform of People's Liberation Army. The woman is holding one Mao's Little Red Book.
1968 Poster published by People’s Fine Arts Publishing House in Shanghai.

Source: Library of Congress