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The Tigers Foreboding Allure

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Gary DeCoker

Without a doubt, the teachers who participate in the Keizai Koho program and NCSS publishing efforts receive many benefits from both activities. But after reviewing the Tora no Maki lesson plans, I wonder whether other educators, too, can benefit from these teachers’ efforts. Although the goal of the Tora no Maki series, to bring Japan into the K-12 classroom, is admirable, the publications as they exist may in some cases do more harm than good.

. . . if teachers follow the lessons too rigidly, they may end up fostering rather shallow thinking and promoting stereotypes.

My criticism of the publications should take nothing away from the Keizai Koho program. I cannot quarrel with the idea of giving teachers a first-hand look at Japan and encouraging them to develop lessons. Participants in previous Keizai Koho and other teacher excursions to Japan surely could use the lessons in the Tora no Maki series to good advantage. But for the teacher who never has been to Japan, thelessons lack sufficient context. More troublesome, if teachers follow the lessons too rigidly, they may end up fostering rather shallow thinking and promoting stereotypes.

The lack of historical and cultural context on Japan results in part from the decentralized U.S. system of education. Few teachers have access to a detailed course of study that includes specific guidelines for teaching about Japan. Standards documents such as the NCSS “Curriculum Standards for Social Studies,” used as an organizing framework for Tora no Maki, provide generic statements and leave the specific content to the local schools. The NCSS document authors, for instance, present detailed descriptions of ten thematic strands, but purposefully avoid any specific historical and cultural content. According to the Foreword, “state and local decisions will augment and enhance the framework these national standards provide” (xvii).1

Each of the lessons in Tora no Maki makes reference to one or more of the ten strands. Many of the elementary and middle school lessons refer to strand one, “Culture,” which includes the statement, “Explore and describe similarities and differ­ences in the ways groups, soci­eties, and cultures address simi­lar human needs and concerns.” An elementary school lesson, “Global Reflections” (I:31), suggests meeting this objective through student research. The lesson itself, however, presents a rather short bibliography of primarily tourist books on Japan and relies heavily on videos, guest speakers, and a children’s book, A to Zen: A Book of Japanese Culture by Ruth Wells.2

For a teacher and students unfamiliar with Japan the lesson lacks sufficient Japan content. Students may develop skills of “exploring and describing simi­larities and differences,” but they might not develop accurate understandings of Japan. The assessment section of the activi­ty skirts the issue of content knowledge with this statement, “In critical thinking situations there are no right or wrong answers. Most of the assessment should be subjective.” An expe­rienced teacher with a knowl­edge of Japan might pay more attention to the content. But stu­ dents and teachers without Japan background could end up contrasting various aspects of U.S. and Japanese society, but ignoring the accuracy of their comparisons.

Without sufficient knowledge of Japan, a teacher can easily fall into the trap of transmitting mere stereotypes. A high school lesson, “Working Conditions and Work Ethic” (I:103), leads students to explore the relation­ship of working conditions and the work ethic in Japan and to make inferences about the work ethic in the U.S. The crux of the lesson is Japanese workers have a good work ethic because they are provided for by their companies. Employees at Mazda, the example given in the lesson, benefit from the compa­ny hospital, dormitory, super­market, sports facility, loan pro­grams, and company training opportunities. An essay on the Japanese work ethic in the appendix concludes, “Japanese workers not only work long and hard for the company, but also tend to do so with visible enthu­siasm. . . . The Japanese, then, are among the world’s most diligent workers.”

Teachers using this lesson are encouraged to compare the Japanese work ethic with their own observations of the U.S. work ethic. The structure of the lesson, however, seems to lead the student to the conclusion that the U.S. work ethic suffers because U.S. companies do not take care of their workers. This stereotype, found repeatedly in U.S. media during Japan’s “bubble economy” of the 1980s, ignores the dramatically differ­ent approaches to company paternalism in the two coun­tries. Most American workers would not want a company dor­mitory, hospital, nor supermar­ket. They probably would prefer to receive higher wages which they could spend wherever they choose on the open market­place. Without the cultural con­text, the students can only con­clude that the Japanese approach creates a superior work ethic. This stereotype from the 1980s continues a decade later even as the Japan­ese economy struggles, while the U.S. continues to have the highest worker productivity rate in the world.

The most successful lessons focus narrowly on one aspect of Japan and compare it to the U.S. Elementary lessons com­pare festivals (I:25), student interests (II: 35), and school slo­gans (II:77); middle school lessons compare constitutions (I: 63), stock exchanges (II:21), and business practices (II:129); high school lessons compare policies for the elderly (I:127), and economic policy (II:151). The writers of these more suc­cessful lessons carefully avoid making broad generalizations that are not supported by the information they present. Teachers who have background knowledge on Japan could easi­ly implement these lessons into their curriculum.

In conclusion, I think that the Tora no Maki series might better be shared only among the partic­ipants of the Keizai Koho and similar teacher-exchange pro­grams. By distributing it to members, NCSS risks appearing to promote an unstructured, patchwork approach to meeting its thematic standards. Although the Tora no Maki activities do, in fact, illustrate the standards, they fail to provide a well-developed approach to the teaching about Japan. U.S. teachers with an interest in teaching about Japan need more than just lesson plans. Perhaps NCSS could follow the models of organizations such as Project Wild and the Great Books Program by offering copies of Tora no Maki to teach­ers who take extended work­shops on Japan. Or a less com­plicated approach would be to include an annotated bibliogra­phy of resources for the study of Japan by Japanese Studies experts and a cautionary essay on the importance of content knowledge. Unfortunately, NCSS President Pat Nickell, in the preface to Tora no Maki I, seems to disparage such experts by stating that the publication of lessons “reflects the real work of real teachers who work with real children. It is not the work of theorists or philosophers” (I:5). Decisions about curricular content are difficult, especially in a multicultural society. The tendency of social science pro­fessional organizations and some state governments to neglect content in their curricu­lum documents, however, leaves teachers in an ambiguous world of ungrounded objectives. NCSS could contribute more to social studies education by pro­ducing a publication that outlines content about Japan that is appropriate at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. These publications could use Tora no Maki-style lesson plans to illustrate this content. As a series of unrelated lesson plans, however, Tora no Maki seems to have only limited value. Teachers without Japan-content background, who pick up these volumes hoping to find a few quick lessons on Japan, could easily go awry.


1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: 1994).

2. Ruth Wells, A to Zen: A Book of Japanese Culture, illustrated by Yoshi (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). This nicely illus­trated book falls victim to a com­mon practice among children’s picture books: its contents depict, almost entirely, Japanese tradition­al culture with a limited number of images of modern Japan.

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