Teaching about Japan in the U.S.

David McMurray


Given the right research tools, students who study abroad can learn more than a foreign language: this is the theme of the following case study based on observations of classrooms conducted in September 2009 at Clarke College. Established in 1843, the university provides a wide array of majors and graduate degrees for students from Iowa, neighboring states, and increasing numbers of international students.

Teaching about Japan in the U.S.

New on the faculty, Michael Knock accepted a request from the department chair to teach Modern Asian History during the fall semester at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa. A required course for history majors, he wondered how to cover an investigation of the political, economic, and social development of Asia as a world force in a 3-hour class for 15 weeks. Knock decided to prepare a syllabus focusing solely on Japan rather than 15 different Asian countries, because of the numerous historical ties between Japan, Asia, and the U.S.

In his first class, students debated the question, “What do we really know about Japan?” They discussed American perceptions of Japanese culture and vice versa, and what they thought the Japanese think about themselves. Knock took an ethno-historical approach to the study of the development of Japanese culture using documentary materials. Never having been to Japan, nor having previously taught a primer on Japan, he selected three textbooks: A Modern History of Japan by Andrew Gordon (2009), An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989), and You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting (2009). Lectures began by highlighting the Tokugawa Era, showing the Kurosawa film The Seven Samurai, and explaining how Commodore Perry forced Japan to open up to international trade. Students read about the Meiji Constitution and the creation of a new Japanese identity, and the two world wars; and critiqued the Eastwood film Letters from Iwo Jima.Japan’s attraction to baseball was explained and America’s fascination and confusion with Japanese culture was introduced with a look atSofia Coppola’s film, Lost in Translation. In the final week, the course culminated with the assessment of student presentations on one of the topics covered in previous classes.

Normally the course could end at this point, were it not for the nagging questions raised in the first class about what the Japanese think about Japanese culture. Similar questions were raised in a class down the hall led by Joyce Meir, where students of Multicultural Education were asked to speak out on the diversity of classes on campus and the impressions that Japanese or other Asian students might have about studying in Dubuque. These students appreciate instructors who encourage classroom discussion of multiple opinions and do not provide the right versus the wrong answers. But the classrooms lacked important input from the Japanese side of the discussion.

Learning about Japan in Japan

Despite the interest in Japan, currently there are few Japanese students or resident professors at Clarke College who can answer the questions raised in class. The skill, therefore, that these students of history and education seem to need is ethnology, the ability to study a group’s social and cultural practices from an insider’s perspective. Ethnology is multidisciplinary, drawing on social, linguistic, and cultural anthropologypractice dealing with the comparison of cultures, developed from the science of dividing mankind into races, origins and distribution. If students were taught methods to investigate Japanese culture, economics, politics, and social patterns of interaction they could observe with an additional, different perspective (Roberts, Byram, Barro, Jordan, &Street, 2001).For example, Eastwood approachedthe Battle for Okinawa from two different perspectivesand gathered information from informants in America and in Japan, allowing him to direct two films. Takingthe American side,the filmFlags of Our Fathers follows the soldiers who hoisted the American flag in aniconic photographthat came to symbolize Iwo Jima in the United States. On the Japanese side, Letters from Iwo Jima recalls the final days of the Japanese soldiers stationed at Iwo Jima through the letters they left behind.Conducting an ethnographic study while resident in Japan for a semester would immerse students in the study of Japan and provide opportunities for unforgettable intercultural encounters. Taking a credit course on a subject related to one’s major but in a foreign country is a formidable, yet rewarding challenge.

Clarke College has an academic exchange agreement with the International University of Kagoshima in Japan, allowing students to study abroad for up to one year. For the students, studying abroad leads to measurable improvement in language skills, acquiring cultural understanding, and country-specific knowledge that can be applied to course work in their major (McKeown, 2009). Jeff McGuigan is an exchange student in Kagoshima. He prefers to study autonomously as an independent learner, but he revealed in an interview conducted October 9, 2009 “When studying in Japan, the need to ask questions becomes evident.” Instructors who encourage interactions between international students and Japanese students in class help him to better understand the subject matter. He suggests these “interactions between students improve the learning experience for both parties and creates common bonds.”

To assist students from Clarke College to learn about Japanese society, culture, corporate rules, and customs, 20 professors at the International University of Kagoshima designed four omnibus courses on Japanology. Japanology is a branch of cultural anthropology dealing with the study of Japanese culture. Two courses cover modern concepts such as Japan’s bubble economy and Toyota’s experience in America, gender, law, social work, community care, trend music and pop culture. Two more courses cover traditions: country and urban lifestyles, haiku, martial arts, archaeology, and Jack London’s visit with Hatoju Muku in Tokyo. These Japanology courses are offered in the English language.

Reimann (2009, p. 49) suggests “having students apply ethnographic methods expands their perspectives and allows them to think critically about social phenomena,developing a sense of openness towards differences.” Combining one semester of studying about Japan in Knock’s Modern Asian History course or Meir’s Multicultural Education course at Clarke Collegewith another semester abroad in Kagoshima studying Japanology and conducting research with ethnographic methods is an example of how to encourage students to view and to interpret information in a diverse and pluralistic world, to embrace multiple viewpoints, and to hold more responsible worldviews.


McKeown, J. (2009). The first time effect: The impact of study abroad on college student intellectual development. New York: State University of New York Press.

Reimann, A. (2009). Exploring Canadian multicultural society through student ethnography. In D. McMurray &T. Nakamura (Eds.),Canada Project Colloquium (pp. 48-58). Kagoshima: Pukeko.

Roberts, C., Byram, M., Barro, A., Jordan, S., &Street, B. (2001). Language learners as ethnographers. Toronto: Multilingual Matters.