Teaching Exotic Japanese Culture in English Class

Arao Hiroko, Nanzan University

Quick Guide

  • Key Words: Japanese culture, Vocabulary
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: All
  • Preparation Time: Varies
  • Activity Time: 90-minute class

I believe that I'm not the only one to experience the puzzlement and embarrassment when people from other countries ask questions that are hard to answer or that show my ignorance of my own country. It is often said that Japanese people travel abroad, listen to foreign music and love foreign movies very much, and that many Japanese people admire foreigners and try to imitate their lifestyles or looks. Their eyes look outward. This is especially true of young people who don't pay much attention to Japanese culture. Maybe it is true that Japan is becoming internationalized and the borders between countries are becoming permeable. As this internationalization is advancing Japanese people have more chances to talk with people from different countries and introduce their own country. However, most of the time, Japanese have trouble answering questions about Japan from foreigners. So why don't we have English lessons about Japan?

There are several reasons why studying Japan is important in English class.

  1. If you have never thought about some topic in English, it is very difficult to explain it in English.
  2. Knowing the cultural information and the English necessary to communicate the information about a topic gives students confidence and motivation to talk about the topic.
  3. There are a lot of English textbooks dealing with English-speaking cultures, but not many about Japanese culture.
  4. Looking at their own country gives students new perspectives and chances to think from the foreigner's point of view. This is very important sociolinguistically.

The following is the procedure for this culture lesson. It is divided into two parts. In the first part, the goal is to have the students realize how much they know or don't know about Japan. In the second part, the goal is to develop ways of explaining aspects of Japanese culture.

Part 1

  1. Give a 10-question multiple choice quiz to have students think about their own culture in English and give them new perspectives. Here is an example of a possible question:

    How many strings does the traditional Japanese musical instrument koto have?

    3/5/7/11/13 strings

  2. Students work in pairs and answer the questions. (Encourage them to give reasons for their answers.)
  3. Discuss the answers.

Part 2

In part 2, use realia. Bring in some Japanese objects, food, and photographs. For example, you can bring a soroban, an ear pick, daruma doll, photos of hina ningyo, a New Year's dish, and some typical food like miso, azuki, etc.

  1. In pairs, one plays the role of a foreigner, and the other plays a Japanese. The foreigner asks questions while looking at a Japanese item. For example, "What is this made of?" or " How do you use it?" The Japanese answers the questions in English.
  2. Each pair takes turns asking and answering questions about all the items.
  3. After all pairs finish talking about most of the objects, you can give them useful English expressions or words which were not well known. (This could also be done at the beginning of the activity.)


I teach at a private English school. I have done this lesson in a class of eight students ages 22 to 33, three times. They seemed to enjoy it. In the first part, some tried seriously to find the answers to the questions, but some gave up from the beginning. The oldest man in the class was quite knowledgeable and we all admired and applauded him. The second part was fun, though it was not really smooth and took a long time to discuss all the objects. Students complained that they lacked vocabulary for this activity, so I told them not to think of the perfect answer, but to say something like, "Well, it is very hard to answer even for Japanese," " Oh, let's see, I think . . ." or "That's an interesting question. I'd like to know that, too. Maybe I should ask someone."

Most of the words for the explanations of Japanese things were not too difficult. I taught them that azuki can be called "sweet red bean jam" in English. The students understood the meaning of the words readily; they just had never thought of it in English, so the words did not come out. I emphasized that not saying anything was the worst thing to do, because it stopped the communication. I gave them key words and encouraged them to manage to answer on their own. One of the best feedback was from one student who started searching for the things he saw in everyday life and began thinking about how to say it in English.

When you try this lesson in class, you can modify it for the level of your students:

  1. You might want to give model questions and answers to the students.
  2. You could do either part of the activity separately.
  3. You can bring in the same items another time so they can review.

You should not expect the students to be perfect. There is no such a thing as a professional Japanese person.

Second language learning means not only acquiring a second culture, but also realizing one's own culture from a different perspective. It is very meaningful to give students a chance to think about their own culture in