Teaching About Japan

In this first bulletin in the “Teaching about Japan” series, we feature three resources that we think you will find valuable. Two are books and the third is a web site. We would also like to include a news/feedback column in future bulletins where you are free to share information.

James L. McClain, Japan: A Modern History, WW. Norton, 2002, 633 pgs. ISBN 0-393-04156-5 (Paperback)

Effective teaching about Japan begins with a basic knowledge about Japanese history. There have been several excellent surveys of Japanese history published in the past two years, but McClain’s book is the most superb treatment in print of modern Japanese history. This is a “must” book for your personal library and a good buy for your school library as well. Few secondary teachers offer courses for students exclusively on Japanese history; so this book is for you. If you read it, you are almost certain to glean enough new content that your classes will be better as a result. Also, if you have juniors or seniors who exhibit a particular interest in Japan, you will do them a great service by directing them to McClain.

The author’s broad treatment of Japanese history and the rich supporting examples place this book above the typical survey. McClain does a wonderful job of describing and integrating cultural, economic, political, and social history. In a masterful first chapter the author manages, in fifteen pages to give readers a rudimentary summary of Japanese history before Tokugawa Ieyasu initiated the modern era by unifying the country in 1603. In the remainder of the chapter and the rest of the book, the author takes readers through the fascinating twists and turns of Japanese history right on up to the present. He writes about commoners and elites, Bohemians and reactionaries, the arts, and many other topics. Again, the book is filled with fascinating and illuminating details. For example, in describing the Tokugawa economy, the author pointed out that by the latter part of the period the tourist industry had advanced to the point that a traveler who wished to plan in advance could buy reservations with particular chains of inns in EDO and simply present a credential for accommodations.

Examples like this are invaluable when we try to disabuse students of the notion that Japan was a poor country until the U.S. Occupation. If there is a theme to this book it is that the Japanese are decidedly more heterogeneous than most Americans imagine. Although the Japanese are ethnically homogeneous, there has always been more political, religious, and social pluralism in Japan than most of us realize. For example, in politics, liberals were dominant in the 1920s and the right wing ascended in the 1930s. McClain accurately depicts this pluralism without destroying the accurate generalization that compared to the multi-ethnic United States Japan is relatively homogeneous.

Gary DeCoker, ed. National Standards and School Reform in Japan and the United States, 2002, Teachers College Press, 218 pgs. ISBN 0-8077-4200-7 (Paperback)

If you teach a class with a contemporary Japan component and you want to improve your treatment of Japanese education, this is the book for you.

Also, many of you have prior experience in Japan and are interested in Japanese schools. This book is guaranteed to deepen your knowledge of that subject and sharpen your own thinking about educational reform efforts in the United States. Much of what passes for “fact” about Japanese education in this country is actually political rhetoric by groups who want to promote their own reform efforts. DeCoker’s work is the perfect anecdote. The ten chapters and epilogue are written by first-rate Japanese and American scholars who have the gift of writing for general audiences. Most of the chapters offer stimulating comparisons of features of the two systems. There are chapters on a variety of topics including textbooks, current reform efforts in Japan and the U.S., teacher professional development, and private supplementary schools (juku). The epilogue by Thomas Rohlen, is one of the best single comparisons of American and Japanese public education that I have ever read.

Web Site, Asia for Educators, afe.easia.columbia.edu

Thanks to the leadership of Robin Martin, educational director of the East Asian Studies Institute at Columbia, you can access a web site that is, in essence, a self-contained course on China, Japan, and the Korean Peninsula for educators. Also included are many teaching materials including primary source lessons, class debates on contemporary topics such as whether Japan should increase its defense efforts, and much much more. The site is a perfect marriage of content and pedagogy. I have been using aspects of this web site with teachers for four years. It is constantly being improved. Very shortly there will be featured units, along with audio and video on the “Tale of Genji” as well as several other seminal topics in Japanese and East Asian History. If you have never been to this site and you teach world history, literature, or cultures, it is an absolute must that you take about two hours between semesters and explore it. Your students will profit immensely from much of the material you will find there.

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