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Tune in Japan: Approaching Culture Through Television

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Reviewed by Henry Kiernan

Whenever visiting a new place, whether in the United States or abroad, we want to learn as much as possible about its important places, artifacts, and cultural traditions. After spending a day touring sights and enjoying local cuisine, I must admit that just before going to bed, I like to turn on the hotel room television to view popular programs. I realize it is only one window, but it does provide another way to gain a “sense of place” through the eyes of a powerful medium.

Tune in Japan: Approaching Culture Through Television provides the equivalent “sense of place” by mixing existing television footage from Japan with digital graphics. With an appealing multimedia format, the target audience is middle school students. Produced by the Asia Society, the film and its accompanying Teacher’s Guide, edited by Linda Wojtan, represent quality resources rich in teaching and learning activities.

The forty-five-minute-long pro­gram is divided into three seg­ments that can be appropriately woven into classroom instruction­al time. It is immediately apparent that the recommendations of mid­dle school educators and students were applied from field-testing as each film segment closes by ask­ing students to count down from ten to one in Japanese. The inter­active dimension of the film encourages students to discuss ideas fully before learning new ideas in the next segment.

The first segment answers the question, How does geography shape culture? The images pre­sent the unique physical charac­teristics of Japan, contrasting the images of snow in Hokkaido with the subtropical climate of Oki­nawa. Comparative projections relating Japan’s population densi­ty and land area to other countries are effective. The viewer learns of Japan’s proximity with the Asian mainland and its role in the emerging Pacific Rim region. In addition, the discussion of earth­quakes and volcanoes is expertly presented using video clips such as showing school children par­ticipating in an earthquake drill. How did Japan’s cultural identi­ty evolve? How is that identity reinforced? The second segment explores answers to these ques­tions by revealing images of festival activities and secular civic holidays, and offering his­torical and/or religious back­grounds to their development. The Japanese character of local festivals, as well as images of Girls’ Day and Children’s Day, demonstrate to the viewer how holidays are celebrated very dif­ferently. Yet, the viewer can ascertain that in the unfamiliar images of these celebrations, there exist the similar themes of celebrating family, friends, com­munities, and a nation.

The final segment explores cul­tural continuity and visually shows how the Japanese integrate change and reinvent their own traditions. The viewer learns about haiku, sumo, yuzen, and Kabuki, and sees how traditions are preserved and passed along from one generation to the next. At the same time, advances in technology and global communications, especially television, demonstrate how new ideas are adopted. I highly recommend this film for use in middle school Global Studies and Geography
classes and also for cross-disciplinary courses on cultural identity. The accompanying Teacher Guide contains exemplary lessons that will reinforce current best practices for classroom teaching.