More than Just a Few Teaching Notes About Japan

Elena Kolesova, UNITEC Institute of Technology and University of Auckland [About | Email]

Volume 4, Issue 1 (Book review 2 in 2004). First published in ejcjs on 16 February 2004.

Bowring, Richard and Noel J. Pinnington (eds) (2002) Teaching about Japan in Japan: A Handbook of Approaches to Teaching about Japan to non-Japanese Students, Kyushu University Press, ISBN 4-87378-658-4, Paperback, 226 pages.

It is well known that to be a good scholar and a good teacher are two very different issues, and we can all probably recall from our personal educational experiences some examples of this dichotomy. Teaching about Japan in Japan: A Handbook of Approaches to Teaching about Japan to Non-Japanese Students, edited by Richard Bowring and Noel J. Pinnington, is a fresh attempt to help those who teach at the tertiary level to develop and to deliver curricula on different aspects of Japanese history, literature, society and law. The authors introduce the aim of the book in the following manner:

The academic journey from West to East is a long one, and whilst academics surely know well the region to which the journey proceeds they may have more difficulty with the point of departure. The courses and curricula gathered here have been produced specifically as an aid for Japanese teachers in setting up those points of departure for their own teaching about Japan to foreign students. (page v)

This brings us to the question, who are the suggested readers for this book? The initial project was conceived as an attempt to help “Japanese teachers” who are teaching foreign students in Japan, and much of the assessment and course work is designed around field trips and the gathering of primary data which can be easily done only in Japan. However, I would like to propose that the issue of teaching “foreign students” about Japan attracts the attention of teachers working outside of Japan as much as those who are teaching within Japan. The need for this kind of literature is even higher outside of Japan due to the small number of faculty members who teach at departments of Asian/Japanese studies in overseas universities and who often feel a lack of opportunity for the necessary communication and discussion with their Japanese colleagues who may teach similar courses. From this point of view, Teaching about Japan in Japan definitely meets the challenge of providing some useful ideas, or at least stimulating some thinking and discussion, for those teachers who have to teach Japanese studies outside of Japan and, in my particular case, New Zealand.

Teaching about Japan in Japan consists of eight parts, or chapters, each consisting of a small number of individual articles. Some chapters and articles are written in essay format, such as Richard Smith’s “Some Strategies for the Classroom (and Beyond)”, and Nobuo Okawa’s “Politics: Policy Making in Contemporary Japan” or, as in the case of Toshiyuki Kono’s “Law and Society in Japan”, some are presented in the form of lecture plans that include questions, usually without any proposed answers, followed by a list of recommended literature. Seminar questions are usually presented at two different levels: the first is very introductory and does not require any primary knowledge of Japan and the Japanese language; and the second level is based on some elementary knowledge of the country and its language. These eight chapters include a very diverse list of topics as well as extremely different (and unequal) teaching methods and approaches. All this makes the book a very valuable resource for those who are eager to learn more—not only about teaching a methodology of Japanese studies, but also about critically evaluating some teaching methods proposed in this volume—and who wish to select the most appropriate method for themselves.

The first chapter of this book, Smith’s “Some Strategies for the Classroom (and Beyond)”, utilises his long teaching experience (over thirty years and including teaching in the United States, Hong Kong and Japan) to provide the reader with some useful insights into the teaching profession. Smith gives a summary of the qualities students value the most in teachers: “intelligence and insight, mastery of the subject matter, clarity of presentation, the use of effective examples, responsiveness (open and open-mindedness), consistency, enthusiasm and creativity” (pages 5–6). Among the characteristics disliked by students are: “a lack of enthusiasm, lack of preparation, lack of clarity, narrow-mindedness, impatience, rigidity, aloofness, arrogance, and above all, a lack of concern — particularly, a failure to appreciate their personal needs, desires, interests and different levels of preparation and ability” (page 6). This reminds me of the comment one of my students made about a visiting professor: “She is interested in students. She listens to us; she listens to me. It does matter for her what we think and who we are”. Needless to say, this visiting professor is always extremely popular among our students. This is a very good reminder for all of us that teaching is not just a one-way process. Although students value highly a teacher’s knowledge and expertise, they also appreciate when teachers include them in the learning process, listen to them and respect them.

If we analyse the chapters in this volume from the point of view of interactive learning, the one written by Seiichi Makino, “Language and Space” (pages 141–63), is the best example of how a high theoretical discourse based on cognitive linguistics can be taught in a very accessible and interactive manner for undergraduate students. The author explains his approach in the following terms: “there is no real distinction here between ‘lecture’ and ‘seminar’ since I believe that a lecture interspersed with seminar-type discussion is more fruitful and rewarding” (page 143).

The structure of the course proposed by Makino demonstrates a clear progression of learning: questions asked at the beginning of his lecture are reassessed and discussed at the end after the students have been exposed to new ideas, explanations and discussions. Makino analyses in his article the basic concepts of uchi and soto and provides the reader with some case studies, such as the structure of the Japanese house based on a multilevel of inclusion (and exclusion) through using hei “fence”, mon “gates”, genkan “foyer”, kyakuma (guest room), and ima “family room”. This provides the students with a very clear and relevant explanation as to the importance of the spatial environment for the development of a dichotomy between soto and uchi. And when students grasp the development of a spatial dialectic between these two concepts, Makino introduces the behaviour and psychology of uchi space through five new concepts.

These are enryo, “an act or feeling of self-restraint, of not imposing on or presuming too much of others”, versus amae (lit. sweet dependency), “psychology of dependency”; (2) tatemae (lit. architectural structure), “one’s statement based on societal principles”, versus. hon’ne (lit. real sound), “one’s true feeling or intention;” (3) ura (lit. other side, back), “something hidden from the public eye”, versus omote (lit. front, face, surface), “something exposed to the public eye;” (4) giri (lit. justice and reason), “an act of social obligation based on societal principles,” versus ninjo (lit. human feelings), “universal human feelings of empathy towards others;” (5) miren, (lit. not yet trained), “a feeling of lingering attachment to a human or an animate or inanimate object,” versus akirame, “the psychology of resignation” (page 150).

By illustrating these concepts with some everyday familiar behaviour, such as the way Japanese say goodbye when they also mean to thank another person (page 158), and by contrasting Japanese behaviour with American behaviour in some practical situations, Makino provides us with an excellent example of how teachers can successfully structure and deliver a course which combines advanced theories with practical and relevant examples.

The chapter on “Gender and Sexuality” (pages 91–141) by Hitomi Tonomura and Marnie Anderson is the longest in this volume and is divided into four articles that address four major themes: “The Family in Japanese History”; “Work, Gender and Sexuality in Ancient and Medieval Japan”; “Women, Work and Industrialisation”; and “Women and Post-war Development” (page 93). Each article includes a summary of one or two lectures and one or two seminars with topics and clearly-defined and well-structured questions. “Gender and Sexuality” begins by questioning the stereotypes often held by American students that there is “no gender discrimination in (American) society” and that “Japanese (or any Asian) women are oppressed” (page 93). Such an approach to introducing a new topic is again very useful: it immediately includes students in the learning process (by stimulating discussion) and makes them interested in the topic (by demonstrating its relevance).

The final article, “Women, Work and Industrialisation”, is based on the conflicting reality developed during the Meiji era when, on the one hand, “government ideology urged women to become good wives and wise mothers (ryosai kenbo)” and, on the other hand, “economic success required that at least some women work outside of the home” (page 125). The authors demonstrate here how important and useful a lecture (and a course) can be when it is based on the conflict of views, opinions or even stereotypes about society. It would have enriched the whole part if such an approach had been used from the very beginning of this chapter, particularly when introducing the history of the Japanese family through different eras (pages 95–8).

“Gender and Sexuality in Japan” includes not only a very extensive list of reading, which most of the chapters in this volume have, but also a very creative, practical and interesting list of possible field trips and project ideas (pages 101–2, 117, 130, 137–8), some of which can be easily applied outside of Japan, such as, for example, reflecting on Japanese language “gendered cultural divisions”.

The chapter “History (Pre-modern)” by Peter Kornicki is divided into four periods: “From earliest times to the end of the Heian”; “Medieval Japan”; “Tokugawa Japan”; and “The Meiji period” (pages 33–49). The structure of Kornicki’s lecture notes and seminar questions leave an impression of randomly selected topics without a coherent line of argument that might have brought this course together. Although the author refers in his lecture plan to some theoretical categories, he hardly makes any effort to explain their meaning to his readers. I wonder if the comment—“... the regime of the Tokugawa shoguns is one in which the outlines of modern Japan can be described and the importance of military power is much reduced; it can perhaps be seen as a transition to a civil society” (page 39)—provides the reader with any useful ideas about teaching and developing history-related topics without an attempt to introduce to the students the concept of “civil society” and the debates about the existence of a civil society in Japan (for representative examples of such debates, see Hall 1995; McVeigh 1998, 159–80). If the aim of the author is only to raise curiosity among his readers by asking some very good questions, such as, “Why was there a reaction against the “Turn to the West”, and how did new conceptions of a Japanese identity emerge?”, which are the last words of Kornicki’s chapter, he certainly achieves this. However, if the aim is to provide some practical advice about some new interactive ways of teaching of pre-modern Japanese history, a topic which is often regarded as less popular among many students according to my own experience in New Zealand, this is hardly achieved.

In the next chapter, “Literature (Pre-modern)” (pages 49–73), Richard Bowring aims to present “pre-modern Japanese literature to students who know very little Japanese and who are certainly not able to read the works in the original” (page 51). Bowring offers five possible topics: “Japanese poetry and prose in the Heian period”; “The Tale of Genji”; “No and Kyogen”; “Hokku, haikai, haiku” and “Tokugawa fiction”. Bowring provides some very interesting techniques for analysing literature and introduces the reader to some samples, such as a short description from The Tale of Genji (pages 55–7), or an example of Japanese poetry (pages 64–7), which makes this chapter very interesting reading. At the same time, the chapter made me wonder about the real purpose of this course. Is it about showing the historical background? Or is it, as the author refers to on a number of occasions, a demonstration of linguistic awareness and linguistic difficulties? Some seminar tasks proposed by Bowring have a clear goal of comparing English translations of some Japanese classics, such as translations of Basho’s poems, and are designed in the style of a translation course (pages 66–7). Another seminar focuses more on the nature of Tokugawa society which can be studied from Tokugawa fiction (page 71). Realising all the difficulties of teaching Japanese pre-modern literature in translation, I would have liked to receive some better explanation of a possible conceptual approach to teaching Japanese literature to undergraduate students.

“Religion in Japan” (pages 73–91) is another chapter written by Bowring, and is again full of very interesting ideas and concepts supplemented with practical recommendations of literature to read. These are developed around discussions of Shinto, Buddhism, religion in practice, the Shinto-Buddhism mix, New Religions, Nichiren’s beliefs and modern sects (with a particular focus on Aum Shinrikyō). What is missing from this chapter is some discussion about the meaning of religion and the concepts of religion. Such a discussion would make the whole course more complete and more relevant for the students.

The chapter on “Law and Society in Japan” is divided into five different articles written by four authors. The first two, both written by Toshiyuki Kono, are entitled “Japan in the era of globalization 1: Japan and the World” and “Japan in the era of globalization 2: the Japanese and the World”. The third, by Tom Ginsburg, is called “Property rights and economic development”, and the fourth, by Dimitri Vanoverbeke, is called “Dispute resolution in modern Japanese society”. The last, by Narufumi Kadomatsu, is “The history of the 1946 constitution”. These five articles are very unequal and, partly because of this, the chapter lacks a coherent structure.

The first two articles (Japan in the era of globalisation) include the aim of the lecture and the lecture plan followed by some possible seminar questions and a list of recommended literature. The main focus is on legal procedures, which are very important to understand. Yet, it is necessary to keep in mind the predominantly undergraduate audience: if the author had included more practical and relevant examples, it would have made the reading (and learning) more interesting, enjoyable and accessible to students.

Interaction and relevance are characteristics of the next two articles by Ginsburg (pages 179–87) and Vanoverbeke (pages 187–95). Ginsburg’s course is offered to Masters-level students, and at the same time he manages to introduce “the basic tools of the economic analysis of law”, which is a very difficult topic for any audience. This is done not in the form of unanswered questions, in contrast to Kono’s articles, but in the form of a very clear and logical narrative, connecting theories with good practical examples. These include Ginsburg’s introduction to the appearance of private property rights through the example of deer hunters who had to formalise their rights to the forest to exclude new hunters due to a decrease in the deer population (page 180). In a similar informative though brief manner, Vanoverbeke introduces the issue of dispute resolution in modern Japan. Vanoverbeke’s article is based upon a theoretical introduction of the notion of conflict as well as some theories of dispute resolution which exist in Japan (pages 187–8). Through an introduction of a number of questions in his lecture and seminars, Vanoverbeke’s contribution in this volume provides stimulating reading with a strong practical application.

The last article, written by Kadomatsu, introduces to the reader a major question: Was the 1946 Constitution imposed by the GHQ? Kodamatsu’s narrative is presented in a very interactive way through asking fundamental questions, such as “why could the Germans draft the Constitution by themselves, while the Japanese couldn’t?” (page 197) and by providing some good guidelines for finding answers.

The very last chapter, written by Nobuo Okawara and entitled “Politics: Policy Making in Contemporary Japan” (pages 205–26), introduces a complete course designed around six major topics. These are: “The legislative process”; “Policy making by political parties”; “Ministerial policy making ”; “Policy making involving central and local government”; “Interest group participation in policy making”; and “Mass media influence on policy making”. The topics, the lecture guidelines, possible questions with elements of answers and recommended literature are again very useful. However, the narrative is often disconnected from the social and historical context, which makes it difficult to follow (and to apply). In Lecture one, Okawara recommends to “note the distinction between standing and special committees, the silence of budget committees, and the recent restructuring of Upper House committees” (page 211). Another recommendation is to “present the students a realistic picture of the workings of the parliamentary system” (page 211). Though Okawara is an expert on Japanese policy making, the chapter would benefit from the inclusion of some examples of “a realistic picture of the workings of the parliamentary system.”

Another controversial point in Okawara’s chapter is on page 222. Okawara writes that the newspaper industry in Japan does not have a regulatory government body. On the same page, he writes that “there is close interaction between reporters and influential politicians. To some extent, reporters are ‘insiders’” (pages 222–3). If such an “interaction” between politicians and reporters exists, then why should it be important to have a regulatory government body when reporters must be “insiders” to have any access to information?

In conclusion, Teaching about Japan in Japan is a very valuable resource for those who wish to reflect on their own teaching about Japan or who are willing to learn some new ideas and some new approaches to teaching. I found some of the approaches presented in the book useful for my own teaching. Other approaches played the role of a “negative” model: the materials presented were valuable and interesting but the manner of delivery lacked a stimulating quality. The diversity and variety of topics, ideas and interpretations means this book should be a very valuable resource for teachers. On the other hand, I found that Teaching about Japan reflects the usual problem in some (or many) tertiary institutions. That is, it reflects the challenge of making different courses more coherent and more connected to each other, not to mention the difficulty in providing a clear progression of learning. It is particularly important for undergraduate students to see how their own learning is progressing, and to perceive the connections between different disciplines, different ideas, and different topics. Although this coherency and progression was clearly presented in the majority of individual chapters, overall the concept was missing. It left me with the idea that Teaching about Japan could be a catalyst to encourage more scholars to write on this subject, to share their own views and ideas not only on their areas of scholastic research but on their approaches to teaching.


Hall, John A. (Ed.) (1995), Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison. Cambridge: Polity Press.

McVeigh, Brian (1998), The Nature of the Japanese State: Rationality and Rituality, London: Routledge.

About the Author

Elena Kolesova is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Languages at the UNITEC Institute of Technology in Auckland, New Zealand. For the last nine years she has taught various courses, including Japanese Civilisation, Contemporary Japanese society and Research Project on Japan. She is also completing her PhD in the History Department of the University of Auckland on the Popular Education Research Movement in Hokkaido (Hokkaidō Minkan Kyōiku Kenkyū Undō). She obtained her BA and MA degrees from Novosibirsk National University in Russia and later spent two years conducting research at the Faculty of Education at Hokudai (Hokkaido University), Japan.

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