Level 2: Japan Unit

Konnichiwa! And welcome to our final country unit of the year, Japan! We are so excited to introduce you and your child to a variety of Japanese landmarks, some incredibly cool animals, and to help you learn more about Japanese culture. Throughout the week, you will have the opportunity to learn more about living in Japan while also discovering the history, geography, language, and cuisine of this beautiful country. Ready to get started? Click here to download your skills tracker.

Note: Occasionally we include project modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings). We’ll mark those with the minus (-) symbol.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Optional additional reading:

Optional chapter book:

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Phonics Guide:

New to our phonics guide? Start here. The Phonics Guide this week will highlight a phonics rule that comes up a lot. English words do not end in I, U, V or J. But what about Fuji, as in Mount Fuji? We’ll explore this and some other notable exceptions in this week’s phonics lesson.

Lesson 1:

Welcome to the first day of our Japan Unit! Today, we’ll do a little map work to help your child become familiar with where Japan is.

Activity 1: Japan is a country in the continent of Asia. Find Asia on a world map or globe, or you can print this map and have your child color in Japan. (This can also be a good time to review all the continents!) Next, print this map of Japan and laminate the first page, if possible. Using playdough, have your child fill in the country of Japan like this:

Use the second page in the printable to mark some major Japanese cities and other landmarks. Cut out the flags and fold them along the dotted line. Then, use a glue stick or tape to fold the flag around and attach it to a toothpick. Stick the toothpick in the playdough map where the landmark is located, like this:

We will be learning about several of these locations and landmarks throughout the week.

Activity 2: Because of its geographic location, Japan is home to a variety of geological features, including volcanoes and geothermal springs! Geothermal features can be observed in areas of active volcanism, or areas that have inactive volcanoes. Subsurface magma heats groundwater, creating steam and hot water. The hot, less dense water rises through fissures and cracks in the ground. When it reaches the surface, features such as geysers, fumaroles, hot springs, and mud pits are created. Hot springs are heated by geothermal heat—heat from the Earth’s interior. In volcanic areas, water may come into contact with very hot rock heated by magma. If water percolates deeply enough into the crust, it comes into contact with hot rocks and can circulate to the surface to form hot springs. (source)

Let’s bring this to life with a water convection science project! Complete the first activity found in this post.

Activity 3: One of the most famous hot springs in Japan is found in Jigokudani Monkey Park, and that’s because the local Japanese macaques (or snow monkeys) love to bathe in them! You can see several photos of this adorable phenomenon in that link, or you can click here for a video of the monkeys bathing. Let’s make our own snow monkeys to play with using this simple downloadable template.

Activity 4: The most common language in Japan is…Japanese! Let’s learn a few words and phrases in Japanese with this fun video.

Lesson 2:

In addition to hot springs, the geothermal activity under Japan’s surface can also cause a variety of natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis. Let’s read a story based on true events of a major tsunami that struck Japan in 1854 in the book Tsunami! (or listen to this read aloud). Curious about the real Hamaguchi Goryō who saved most of his village? You can read more about him and see a photo here.

Activity 1: A tsunami is a long high sea wave caused by an earthquake, submarine landslide, or other disturbance. Let’s learn more about them in this video. Next, let’s bring it to life with this simple activity. (Is your child worried about a tsunami? Here are some simple tips to prepare for and stay safe during a tsunami if you’re ever in an area where they occur.)

Activity 2: Did you see the shrine in our book? Shinto (one of the most common religions in Japan) shrines are some of the most beautiful and famous landmarks throughout Japan. Let’s look at and reconstruct a few (along with several other Japanese landmarks) using LEGO, DUPLO, or recycled materials with these STEM challenge cards. Give your child blocks or other materials (like toilet paper tubes, popsicle sticks, scrap cardboard, tape, etc.) to build with. Then, present the challenge cards. Share with them the details on each card as they try to reconstruct the monument, building, or landmark on the card.

Activity 3: One of the most famous waves in the world is actually the subject of a famous Japanese piece of art, a print called “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” If you purchased A Child’s Introduction to Art, you can view it on page 41. If not, click here to see it. The artist who created this print was named Katsushika Hokusai (you can read more about him on page 40 of the book, or you can read this post). This print is one in a series entitled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which is the highest mountain in Japan. As your child looks at the print, ask them:

  • What do they see first?
  • Can they spot the mountain?
  • How many boats can they see?
  • Does Mt. Fuji look big or small compared to the wave?
  • How does the wave make them feel?
  • Katsushika Hokusai said he created this print to show the power of nature. What does this print make them think about nature’s power?

Japanese woodblock prints were made by drawing a picture onto very thin paper, and then tracing it into a block of wood. The artist would then carve away the wood around the lines so that the picture left was raised from the surface of the block. From there, he or she coated the raised areas with ink and pressed them to a piece of paper. A different block would be used for each color until the print was finished.

Now, let’s make our own print using a piece of Styrofoam. If you have the book, you can follow the instructions there, or use the tutorial in this blog post.

Lesson 3:

One common thing found in most ancient cultures are folktales. A folktale is a kind of story that gets passed on from generation to generation. True folktales do not have a single author. They develop as different people tell them over time. As such, they are creations of “the folk,” or the people. Let’s read an example of a Japanese folktale in The Beckoning Cat (or read it here on OpenLibrary).

Activity 1: Folktales tell about many different parts of life. They may tell about joys and sorrows, animals and magic beings, and heroes and villains. They can be scary, funny, or exciting. Different types of folktales may entertain, teach a lesson, or try to explain things that people do not understand. (source) Let’s write our own folktale while also reviewing some parts of speech with this Mad Lib-inspired template. Print the template, and then work with your child to fill in the blanks as they write their own “folktale.” As you work through the template, you can review the parts of speech listed below. You can also use the book Getting to Grips with Grammar to introduce these parts of speech. When all the blanks are filled in, read back the story for some silliness! (Want to write a new folktale? Print as many copies of the template as you need!)

  • noun: a word to identify a person, place or thing (examples: cat, boy, building, school)
  • verb: a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence (examples: run, fly, is, fell)
  • adjective: a word naming an attribute that modifies or describes a noun (examples: hairy, soft, quick, slimy)
  • adverb: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb; answers the questions how?, in what way?, when?, where?, and to what extent? and often ends in -ly (examples: slowly, then, suddenly)
  • preposition: words used to express spatial or temporal relationships between objects (examples: over, near, to, from)
  • interjection: a word or phrase that expresses strong emotion, such as surprise, pleasure, or anger (examples: wow!, darn!, hooray!)

Activity 2: Next, let’s do a charting activity using a popular Japanese game, the Japanese version of Rock-Paper-Scissors, Janken Pon, which means “beginning with stone” in English. (source) First, print this chart. Next, teach your child how to play. Just like in Rock-Paper-Scissors, you need two players. Each player should face each other and extend one closed fist to the center. Together, all players pump their fists up and down three times and say “jan-ken-pon.” On the third motion, they make either a rock (closed fist), paper (flat palm), or scissors (extend index finger and middle finger). Rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, and paper beats rock. The winner is whoever threw the strongest hand sign.

If it’s a tie, all players pump their fists again and say, “Aikodesho!”

As you play, have your child also chart the number of times each hand sign is thrown, coloring in a box above each sign each time. After five rounds, discuss the results of the chart. Which sign was thrown the most? Which was thrown the least?

Activity 3: Another type of recreation that originated in Japan is karate. The “father” of modern karate was a man named Funakoshi Gichin, who was born on November 10, 1868, in Yamakawa, Shuri, Okinawa Prefecture. You can learn more about him on this page. This article contains more of the history of karate, but here are some main points to share with your child:

  • Karate is a form of martial arts that combines powerful fighting technique with rituals of courtesy and respect. Students of karate learn to use it against another person only for self-defense.
  • Karate developed on the Japanese island of Okinawa. During several periods of their history, the people of Okinawa were forbidden to carry weapons, and so they developed an effective form of unarmed combat. 
  • Karate uses no weapons except the body. Its name comes from the Japanese kara (empty) and te (hand). Adding do (way) makes the word karate-do, which refers to a broader attitude or way of life.
  • Karate techniques include strikes, defensive blocks, throws, and evasions, or moving out of the opponent’s path. Strikes are made with the side of the hand, knuckles, forearm, elbow, knee, heel, or ball of the foot.
  • Those who practice karate mark degree of skill by belt colors. A beginner wears a white belt and may rise through yellow, green, blue, purple, and brown to a black belt, showing great skill. A 10th-degree black belt is the highest possible rank.

Want to try a karate lesson? Here’s a kids beginner’s class you can watch on YouTube. You can also watch this video to see one little girl’s incredible skills!

Lesson 4:

Would you believe that one of Japan’s most famous former residents was a dog? Today, let’s read the book Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog (or listen to this read aloud).

Activity 1: You can show your child the real Hachiko statue here. Hachiko was an Akita Inu dog breed, which is one of six breeds that originated in Japan. Let’s learn more about these six breeds in this article, and then pick one to use for a research project. Print this research template and use the information in the article (or other sources, like The American Kennel Club website) to fill in the information about the breed your child picks.

Activity 2: The statue of Hachiko could also be called a sculpture. It was sculpted out of bronze in April 1934 by sculptor Teru Andō, and Hachikō himself was present at its unveiling. The statue was recycled for the war effort during World War II, but in 1948, the Society for Recreating the Hachikō Statue commissioned Takeshi Andō, son of the original artist, to make a second statue. The new statue, which was erected in August 1948, still stands and is a popular meeting spot. (source)

Sculpture is a branch of the visual arts. It involves the creation of artistic objects in three dimensions—length, width, and height. The main feature of a sculpture’s design is the way its forms extend through space. Size, texture, light and shade, and color are also important design elements. A sculpture may look exactly like a person or object or may reflect shapes and forms that the artist invents. (source) Now that we’ve learned so much about our dog breed, let’s make our own sculpture of one! Use air-dry clay and these sculpting tools (or you could use toothpicks, skewers, pencils, etc.) to create your own masterpiece.

Activity 3: One thing dogs are often trained to do is “stay,” and Hachiko was a master at this skill! Is your child interested in how dogs can be trained to do tricks? Watch this adorable video to learn how children can get involved in training the family dog. If you have a dog of your own, practice some of the training with them!

Activity 4: Hachiko was a dog with a great internal sense of time. Let’s practice telling time ourselves! Print this clock (or you can use a toy clock, like this one, if you have it), laminate it (or you can put it in a gallon plastic bag), and cut out the time cards from the bottom. Tell your child to pretend they are Hachiko, and their master is arriving at the train station at the times you will show them. They can’t be late! Next, give them two colors of dry erase markers — one will be for the hour hand and one will be for the minute hand. As you give them each card, have them draw the hands on the clock to reflect that time. (This can also be a good time to review skip counting by fives.)
(+) If your child is ready for more, use the blank card to write other times to help them practice telling the time to the minute. For example, 12:22, 4:37, etc.)

Lesson 5:

For our final day of Japan, we’ll have Tea + Poetry and spend some time learning about two Japanese art forms: a form of poetry called a haiku and Japanese gardening. But first, let’s make a Japanese treat to enjoy with our tea and poetry today!

Activity 1: First, let’s make this Japanese custard dessert called purin. The dessert needs to set in the fridge for an hour, so we recommend making it in the morning (or the night before) to enjoy this afternoon.

Activity 2: Once your purin is ready, let’s have some Japanese-inspired Tea + Poetry! Green tea is a popular choice in Japan, but you can also make whatever drink your child prefers. When your treats are ready, read the book One Leaf Rides the Wind (or read it here on OpenLibrary).

Activity 3: The poems in our book are called haikus. A haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poem consisting of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. Their object is to express much and suggest more in the fewest possible words. (source) Let’s practice writing some haikus of our own inspired by some famous Japanese art.

First, look at some of the art pieces on this museum’s website. Have your child pick one that appeals to them (you may also want to share some details about this piece). Next, have your child write a haiku describing the piece or how it makes them feel, using the 5-7-5 syllable structure. If your child enjoys this project, they can pick another art piece to write about as well.

Activity 4: Finally, let’s learn more about Japanese gardens! Our book contains lots of interesting details about what goes into Japanese garden design, but one of the most important things is to include the three essential elements: stone, plants, and water. (source) Next, let’s design our own mini Japanese garden in a terrarium. There are many ways to start your terrarium, but we like to use a large jar glass container like this and a soil kit like this to get things started. From there, your child can design the layout of their mini garden, being sure to include water, stones, and plants. You can use mini plants like this or succulents like these (the kit we linked above is ideal for succulents or cacti), and stones from outside or even a mini stone Japanese lantern. Finally, add a small dish of water for your water feature. Before putting the lid on your terrarium, be sure to give it a few sprays of water.

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.

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