It’s a kind of… Explaining Japanese Culture in English

Brett Davies, Meiji University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Negotiating meaning, explaining Japanese culture
  • Learner English level: High beginner and above
  • Learner maturity: High school, university
  • Preparation time: 15 minutes
  • Activity time: 30-45 minutes
  • Materials: Visuals of Japanese culture (on PowerPoint or flashcards); game cards (one set per group of 3-4 students)

The number of tourists visiting Japan is increasing dramatically every year; therefore, the need for local people who can inform guests about Japanese culture is greater than ever. This activity aims to develop students’ ability to describe local customs, foods and events in English. It provides them with the opportunity to develop basic skills to explain apparently untranslatable items, an authentic situation in which to negotiate meaning, and an opportunity to increase confidence in their own culture within a global setting.


Step 1: Make PowerPoint slides or large flashcards showing images of Japanese culture that are well known to students but do not have obvious English translations; for example, okonomiyaki, yukata, seijinshiki.

Step 2: Make a set of 16 game cards, one set per group of 3-4 students—any cultural items that the students will instantly know but do not have obvious English definitions. (See appendix for samples.)


Step 1: Show the class the picture of okonomiyaki. Students work in pairs to imagine how they would explain it in English to an overseas visitor. Elicit ideas from the class and write them on the board. Likely responses will be “Japanese pizza,” or “Japanese pancake.” Use a real or imagined example to show that these definitions are good but not wholly satisfactory. (For example, my Australian friend went for “Osaka pizza” and was surprised to be handed a jug of batter!)

Step 2: Write “It’s a kind of” above these explanations as a way of signaling to the visitor that these are not ‘perfect’ definitions. Then add or elicit further phrases underneath: “You make it yourself.” “You can add meat, fish or vegetables.” “It’s fun and delicious!” Stress that the more information we provide, the easier it is for a newcomer to understand. There is no 100% correct response, so encourage students to use their imagination. 

Step 3: Practise by showing pictures of yukata and seijinshiki. Students work alone or in pairs to think of explanations. Then, they share their ideas with the class.

Step 4: Students break into teams of three or four. Give each team a set of identical game cards—face down.

Step 5: One student in each team takes a card and has 10 seconds thinking time. Then, without showing or saying the actual word on the card, she has 20 seconds to explain it in English to her team. Encourage teammates to ask questions if necessary. When time is up, teammates give their ‘final answer.’ Repeat the process with a different team member explaining the next card. After 16 rounds, the team that has successfully explained and guessed the most cards is the winner.


Have students think of their own ideas of ‘untranslatable’ Japanese culture, then make their own cards. Swap these with other groups and play the same game. In high-level classes, students could discuss and explain more abstract concepts, for example; wa, wabi-sabi, omotenashi.


This activity has proved hugely popular with students in both high school and university. It demands imaginative language use and authentic negotiation of meaning in order to complete the task successfully. Just as importantly, the activity encourages students to think more deeply about their own culture, while developing empathy for visitors who wish to learn about Japan. 


The appendix is available below.