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Not Just Handshakes and Hugs: Lessons on Japan

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“Not only did I learn about the growth process of the tuna, but I also learned a little bit about Japanese customs and how business is done. I now realize that when dealing with other countries in the business world, it is most important to first learn of their business customs.”

Michael White, Moorestown, N.J. High School senior, assessing a project, Doing Business in Japan, undertaken in Global Issues, a Social Studies elective course, in March 1998.

The Japanese have a saying that half of teaching is learning, and certainly Tora no Maki (1996) and Tora no Maki II, (1997) published by NCSS Publications, provide a wealth of teaching materials that will inspire learning on the part of teachers as well as their students. The volumes are the result of the Keizai Koho Fellowship program which, since 1980, has annually sponsored teachers from the United States, Canada, and Australia to visit Japan for a two week immersion into the culture of that nation.

Photo of Keizai Koho sitting among the children
The author—Keizai Koho Fellow 1989

The lessons are written on a multitude of topics ranging from classroom rules to a safer society; from housing to trade; from agriculture to the automobile; from fishing to tips for the traveler to Japan. They are intended for elementary, middle, or high schools, and in some cases adapted to be taught at two or more levels.

My brief was to evaluate the lessons at a practical level. Thus, a group of twenty-eight bemused seniors found themselves pretending to be Canadians hoping to establish trading relations with Japan. The objectives of the lesson were as follows: to compare household consumer items on the basis of where they were manufactured; to identify cultural differences between the way business is done in North America and Japan; to identify potential problems North Americans may have in negotiating business transactions in Japan; to identify the elements required to put together a coherent business proposal.

The first task was to discover exactly what role Japanese goods play in daily life in the United States, and for that pur­pose the students were directed to survey their homes and bring in lists of the following cate­gories: means of transportation; electrical goods; kitchen gad­gets. Copies of each list were then made for each member of the class. Working in groups, the students had to create over­head visuals to show the result of their inquiry, groups one and two taking transportation, groups three and four investigat­ing electrical gadgets, and groups five and six reporting on kitchen equipment. Having established that Japanese imports dominated virtually all categories, the students were then to act out how this occurs—namely, through busi­ness transactions between Japan and the United States.

With this in mind, groups one and two were given Appendix 1, explaining their proposal— the Japanada Fish Company— from which they had to produce a creative way to keep tuna alive during the summer to fat­ten them to suit Japanese tastes; groups three and four were given Appendix 2, outlining specific roles to play as a dele­gation from Queenstown tried to persuade the Japanese to manufacture car parts in their town; groups five and six served as business consultants, their task being to listen to each pro­posal, to choose the better in each category (by completing a detailed Assessment Form), and then to explain (from Appendix 3) how the proposals might be more culturally appropriate. The lessons, five in all, went very well. “I truly didn’t do any work on my own,” noted Megan Searl. “I feel we worked as a group through everything.” Irene Kratt enthused, “It was great how we all worked togeth­er—we all had one goal, and that was to make it a strong pre­sentation.” In the process, they came up with creative ideas, such as a design for a tuna fish tank of enormous dimensions, and they incorporated cultural aspects, including greetings, gifts, and flowers.

Those students assessing the presentations took their job seri­ously, and there was an audible gasp when one member of the Japanada Fish Company casual­ly handed over his meishi with one hand rather than going through the formalities. There was also some thoughtful syn­thesis. “I have come to the con­clusion that presentation and politeness may be more impor­tant than the product you are actually selling—in the case of Japanada, we chose the group with a better presentation but with a lesser product,” noted Jason Sherwood. The last word on doing business in Japan came from Angela Aydjian: “I find projects like this open your mind to other cultures and show you that there are many differ­ent mannerisms, not just hand­shakes and hugs.” Handshakes and hugs! This sounds like a topic for Tora no Maki III.

As a Keizai Koho Fellow myself (1989), I have a pro­found respect for the program. It is informative, purposeful, (under the skilled direction of Mrs. Linda Wojtan) and, as can be seen from Tora no Maki, highly productive. There is a precise formula to each lesson: NCSS Standards—Thematic Strands; Introduction—Pur­pose/Rationale; Recommended Grade Level/Course Placement; Objectives; Time Allotment; Resources Needed; Procedure; Assessment; Extension and Enrichment; Supplemental Resources. This bears mention­ing because it makes the vol­umes teacher-friendly and easy to digest. The format also brings cohesion to what, at first glance, appears to be an enormously disparate collection of lessons. Each lesson is very comprehen­sive, and the students working on Doing Business with Japan could have fulfilled their requirements by simply using the materials provided, even though many of them chose to go beyond that.

Another advantage is the size of the volumes; they are rela­tively slim and therefore very portable, an important consider­ation for overburdened teachers. Furthermore, the information in the volumes is up to date, and highly applicable to exposing the American student to things Japanese. In addition, most of the lessons lend themselves to interdisciplinary activities. For instance, Doing Business in Japan will likely find its way into the school’s Business arena, but could also trespass into Foreign Language, or into the hallowed hallways of the English department.

Without question, Tora no Maki serves as a fine example of materials coming out of the confection of fellowships offered to American teachers, if only because, as Dr. Pat Nickell, past president of NCSS and leader of the 1996 group, noted, “. . . it is a book of lessons that reflect the real work of real teachers who work with real children. It is not the work of theorists or philosophers.” Finally, why Tora no Maki? Translated as “Scroll of Tiger,” it originated from an old Chi­nese tactical manual for military use before the ninth century C.E., one volume of which was titled Tiger. It was introduced to Japan by a Buddhist monk in the eleventh century and has several meanings: a manual or reference book containing expertise on a particular subject; books designed for teachers as guides in teaching; quick refer­ence booklets. Each of these is as appropriate to twentieth-cen­tury teachers as it was to earlier military tacticians on the other side of the world.