This week in our Japan Unit, we will take a closer look at some famous features in Japanese culture. We will learn about sumo wrestlers, samurai, ninjas, the Japanese language, haikus, bonsai trees, cherry blossoms, and some of the awesome innovations and technology popular from Japan. Students will continue to build their storytelling skills, draw pictures, and recreate STEM experiments. We can’t wait to start bringing these amazing parts of Japanese culture to life! Ready to start? Click here to print your weekly skills tracker.
What you need:
Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):
- Honest History – Issue #16 The Way of the Samurai (Use discount code LEARNANDLIVE15 for 15% off the issue.)
- Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein (or read it here on OpenLibrary, or listen to this read aloud)
- My First Book of Japanese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book by Michelle Haney Brown (or listen to this read aloud)
- The Peace Tree from Hiroshima: The Little Bonsai with a Big Story by Sandra Moore (or listen to this read aloud.)
- Under the Cherry Blossom Tree: An Old Japanese Tale by Allen Say (or read it here on OpenLibrary)
- Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars by Mark Weston (or listen to this read aloud)
Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):
Note: We break down our supply list so you can choose what you need based on which lessons you plan to do with your child.
Sumo at home:
- large T-shirts
Japanese word activities:
Cherry tree craft:
Bonsai tree craft:
- piece of styrofoam (or something similar)
- brown pipe cleaners
- tissue paper (light, medium, dark green)
- small container or pot
- small pebbles
DIY Japanese garden:
- Minecraft OR graph paper OR the below materials
- container or baking dish
- items for your zen garden such as shells, rocks and crystals, driftwood, or other items of your choosing.
- mini rake
- washi tape (optional)
Pyramid magnet experiment:
- ceramic ring magnet
- 12″ bamboo skewers
- rectangular ceramic magnets
- magnetic wand (or you can use a pencil with a ceramic disc magnet hot glued to the end)
- small rubber bands (loom bands) (or substitute with modeling clay or playdough)
- string or yarn
Red cabbage pH experiment:
- red cabbage leaves
- fine strainer or coffee filter
- small clear containers or jars
- safety goggles (optional, but recommended for stronger substances below)
- household substances to test, such as:
- lemon juice
- baking soda
- dish soap
- glass cleaner
- tomato juice
- hot sauce
- laundry detergent
- shaving foam
- orange juice
- ingredients from this recipe
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!
Today, we’ll learn more about some of the sports made popular in Japan.
Activity 1: Let’s learn about sumo wrestling!
Sumo began many centuries ago and developed into its present form in the Edo period (1603-1867). Sumo wrestlers wear their hair in a topknot, which was a normal hairstyle in the Edo period. The referee, meanwhile, wears the same kind of clothes as a samurai of 600 years ago. Many aspects of Japan’s traditional culture remain in sumo. For example, wrestlers throw salt into the ring to purify it before they begin their match, as the dohyo is considered a sacred place. Sumo has a long history, and it has been called Japan’s national sport. Although many professional sports are played in Japan, such as baseball and soccer, sumo is the nation’s oldest professional sport. (source)
Let’s play sumo wrestling! Try this idea to hold a match at home.
Activity 2: There are several forms of martial arts in Japan. Read about them here. Although many of these martial arts are a form of fighting and even Olympic sports, some have become an art form. Watch this video to learn about Jodo.
All traditional Japanese martial arts begin and end with the bow. The bow is a sign of respect and peace—respect for the traditions, respect for the people you train with—and it shows your peaceful intentions. (source)
The bow is not only seen during martial arts, it is also part of Japanese culture. Bowing in Japan, known as ojigi, is an important etiquette that is learned from a young age. Depending on the situation, a bow can be a small nod of the head or a deep bend at the waist. A deep, long bow indicates respect, and a smaller nod is usually less formal. Bowing in Japan can be used to signify emotions, including appreciation, respect, remorse, or gratitude. (source)
Learn about the different kinds of bows traditionally used in Japan in this video.
From the outside looking in, bowing may seem like a simple tradition. But there is actually a lot involved in these bows—including math! Learn how to do a Senrei bow with the help of this video. Review angles and centimeters if your child is not familiar with these measuring units.
Activity 1: Japanese is spoken by virtually everyone in Japan. It is also called Nihongo. Japanese is heavily influenced by the Chinese language because it is composed mainly of Chinese characters called, kanji. (source)
As in many countries, more than one language is spoken in Japan. Almost everybody in the country, about 98%, is of ethnic Japanese origin and almost all of these individuals, 121 million people, speak Japanese. A small minority of people speak other languages, all of which belong to two language families: the Japonic language family and the Ainu family. Within these two families lie various sub-families of languages and dialects that are spoken in different areas of the country. (source)
Japanese is written in several different ways. One form of writing is called kanji. These are characters, or simple pictures, that represent words. (source) Try writing kanji in your Honest History magazine. Do the exercise on page 7, How to Write Kanji, to write the characters for sun/day, person, and tree/wood. The other forms of written language are syllabaries that represent sounds (similar to our written language). These are called katakana and hiragana. Use this printable to learn one of the letters written in hiragana.
Read the book My First Book of Japanese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book. Learn to count to 10 in Japanese with the video in this link.
Next, let’s learn the words for colors in Japanese using these flashcards.
Print and cut out the cards so you can use them individually. To play, pick up a card and practice saying the word. Move around the room and place the card next to items that match the color and repeat the word for that color.
Want to keep learning Japanese? Learn with Duolingo for free!
Activity 2: Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry. Haiku poems consist of 3 lines: The first and last lines of a haiku have 5 syllables and the middle line has 7 syllables. The poem will have a total of 17 syllables, and the lines rarely rhyme. (Need a lesson or reminder to learn about syllables? Click here for tips and a video.)
Read the book Wabi Sabi. As you read the story, you will also be reading haikus describing his adventure. Next, watch this video to learn about writing haikus. Finally, have your child write their own haiku. They can try the idea in the video and write a Who Am I? or What Am I? haiku or some other original idea they might have. Click here for a few more ideas for topics.
Nature and gardening are very important parts of Japanese culture. Let’s learn more about it with today’s activities.
Activity 1: Cherry blossom trees are an important symbol of spring in Japan. There are approximately 400 different types of cherry trees. (source) Read the folk story Under the Cherry Blossom Tree: An Old Japanese Tale.
If you are doing this lesson in the spring, research your area to see if they grow in your environment or in a nearby botanical garden. If you are able to visit them, try your hand at nature journaling.
Try this drawing and craft idea to create a cherry tree in full blossom.
Activity 2: Read the book The Peace Tree from Hiroshima: The Little Bonsai with a Big Story. This story not only talks about the bonsai tree but also provides a bit of history about the relationship between the United States and Japan.
Next, make this bonsai tree craft.
Activity 3: There are several characteristics of a Japanese garden. These elements include the following categories:
- Stones, gravel, and sand
- Ponds, streams, and waterfalls
- Islands and bridges
- Vegetation including trees, shrubs, lawns, and flowers
- Water basins
Many types of gardens were built to be viewed from inside buildings, such as palaces, villas, or temples. Review this website to see the samples of Japanese gardens.
Have your child design their own garden using Minecraft or draw it on graph paper. Want to design one using real materials? Use sand, plants, rocks, or shells to create a mini garden like you see here.
As you may already know, Japan has made many contributions to the world of technology—often in ways we experience every day! Let’s learn about some of those exciting developments in today’s activities.
Activity 1: The bullet train of Japan is called the Shinkansen. Learn some facts about the high-speed railway here. How does the train work? Read this article to learn more about the Shinkansen.
A new innovation being worked on in Japan is called a maglev train. In these trains, the wheels of the vehicle do not even touch the ground. In fact, you are floating! The word maglev is actually a combination of the words “magnetic” and “levitation.” The magnetic levitation, or floating of the train, is achieved through the use of an electrodynamic suspension system, or EDS. (source) Watch this video explaining how maglev trains work. Next, read this article from Time for Kids to learn more about the Japanese maglev train already being tested.
There are so many cool magnet experiments you can try to bring the science behind the maglev train to life! Watch this video for some of our favorites. Try this pyramid magnet experiment to see the force of a magnet in action. (Here is a video of the experiment if you need more explanation.)
Activity 2: Let’s read and learn about a famous innovator from Japan. You may not have heard the name Soichiro Honda, but you have certainly heard of the cars named after him. Read his life story in the book Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars.
This story is a biography. A biography is the story of a person’s life written by someone else. Since the writer is telling someone else’s story, it is written in a third-person perspective (i.e. using “he” or “she” instead of “I”). When someone writes their own story, it is called an autobiography. Those stories are written in the first-person (i.e. using “I” instead of “he” or “she”).
When reading this story, are there any details you wish would have been included in the story that were not?
Let’s try a writing exercise! Pretend that you are an author writing a biography. Choose someone to write about. It could be someone you know personally (a friend or family member) or someone you don’t know personally. Write a list of questions you would ask them. Include questions about their birthplace, education, childhood, relationships, important life events, and interests.
(+) Ready for more? If the person your child picked is someone you actually know, have your child interview them! Then turn the answers into a brief biography.
Activity 3: If you visit Japan as a tourist, there are several innovations and technologies you should become familiar with, like Japanese toilets!
If you have ever watched Cars 2, you might remember Mater using the Japanese toilets. 🤣 He struggled to know what buttons to press and what to do in a Japanese bathroom. Of course, cars don’t really need bathrooms, but we sure do! If you were visiting Japan, you might want to know a bit more about Japanese toilets.
Japan had a “toilet revolution” in the late 1980s. Read this post to learn about some of the interesting features of a Japanese toilet, including spray clearing, drying, heated seats, music and noise blockers, automatic closing lids, and automatic flushing. Watch this video to see a Japanese toilet in action.
Another cool Japanese innovation? Vending machines are very popular in Japan. They are located all over the country, from the city to the countryside. Vending machines sell food, drinks (both hot and cold), and even underwear! They are very popular because of their convenience and privacy. There are many rules of etiquette in Japan when it comes to meals, and some customs take up a lot of time. Vending machines allow people to avoid lengthy meal conversations and traditions when they are busy. (source)
We’ll end the week with a little food history.
Activity 1: Ramen is a popular noodle dish in Japan that is originally from China. Watch this video for a history of the food.
Activity 3: Prepare this ramen recipe.