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WHAT U.S. MIDDLE SCHOOLERS BRING TO THE CLASSROOM: Student Writing on the Pacific War

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How should teachers deal with the tendency of our students to see the Japanese as the other? A key for approaching the problem can be found by listening to student voices and learning how various uses of language shape students’ views on Japan (as well as on themselves). (note 1) From Fall 1991 to Spring 1993, the authors periodically visited the social studies classrooms of three middle schools in the U.S. Midwest— rural Greenfield School, suburban Berry School, and urban Orange City School. The authors worked with focus groups of seventh-graders (except in the Orange City School, which had mixed-grade classes). None of the students had been taught about Japan in the classroom. (note 2)

This article examines some of the students’ free (and uncorrected) writings on Japan, collected at the earliest stage of the visits, in order to identify the kinds of discourses of which the students were part. (note 3) While covering a wide range of topics, from trade competition and names of supposedly Japanese products to various cultural items such as food, clothes, and language, the writings clearly reveal a general tendency among the students to see Japanese in terms of the other. That tendency often proved to be stronger when the topic moved to the war between Japan and the United States, which tended to divide people into distinct national groups. However, some approaches to the topic, such as one referring to the victims of war, allow students to cross those imagined national boundaries, and thus suggest the potential for overcoming students’ tendency toward othering the Japanese.

NOTES

This research was funded in part by the Matsushita International Foundation. We would like to thank the schools, students, and teachers for their willingness to participate in the study. We are also grateful to Lucien Ellington, Richard Minear, Judith Perkins, and several anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments, and to Sylvan Esh for his assistance in writing and proofreading.

1. The authors follow recent developments of theories in feminist and cultural studies regarding the relationships among knowledge, language, discourse, power, social forces, and the formation of social identities. For more discussion of these terms, see, for example, John Fiske, Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 1–19; John Fiske, Power Plays, Power Works (London: Verso, 1993), 3–33; and Stuart Hall, “The Question of Cultural Identity,” in Modernity and Its Futures, edited by Stuart Hall et al. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), 273–325.

2. The school names are pseudonyms. The authors usually visited the school together, since the research involved the actual teaching about Japan and video-taping of such sessions. A variety of data was collected by employing several qualitative research methods, such as observation, taking field notes, collecting students’ free writings and conducting open-ended interviews. The grade level of the focus groups was chosen because it was appropriate to study students at a point before they studied Japan extensively in their schools to know the community influence on students’ identity formation, which was one of the authors’ research interests. See Hiromitsu Inokuchi, “U.S. Middle School Students’ Discourses on  Japan: A Study of Politics of Representation” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997); and Hiromitsu Inokuchi, “U.S. Middle School Students’ Discourses of the War with Japan” (a paper presented at the conference on “Imagining a Pacific Community: Representation and Education,” University of British Columbia, Canada, April 1995).

3. In each of the writing sessions, the authors (or the teachers) asked the following basic question: “What do you know about Japan? Write something or anything you know about Japan.” The students’ writings were usually a paragraph in length, fifty words on average

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