Japan Unit Study: Week 4

Our final week of Japan will explore science subjects, including earth science and the weather. Students will also learn about several art forms with a rich history in Japan, such as woodcuts and anime. Additionally, we’ll explore the music history of Japan—which will likely sound more familiar than you would expect!—and practice breaking down the story elements of a book they read. Finally, we’ll end our week by making a delicious street food recipe. Click here to download your skills tracker, and then let’s get started!

What you need:

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

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.

Tsunami demonstrations:

Woodcut art craft:

Anime drawing:

Wooden bead necklaces:

Tea + Poetry cookies:

Street food 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!

Lesson 1:

Because of its geographic location, Japan is home to a lot of earth science phenomena. Let’s take a closer look at some of them with today’s activities!

Activity 1: Have you ever heard of a tsunami? Watch this video to learn about them. Then, bring the lesson to life with this demonstration.

Print this PDF from ShakeOut to share tsunami facts and record your findings (using their form) from the demonstration. Finally, create this poster board using markers or colored pencils to understand the sequence of events that cause a tsunami to occur. 

Activity 2: Tsunamis are typically very destructive. Read the book Tsunami! to learn the story of a man who saves his village from a tsunami. (You can also read this folk story of a boy that saved his village from a tsunami.)

(+)But can tsunamis actually help? As legend has it, there have been two occasions in Japan’s history when tsunamis actually saved the country. Watch this video to learn about these parts of history.

Lesson 2:

For today’s activities, we’ll take a closer look at some traditional art forms from Japan.

Activity 1: Read + Discover the woodcut art form in this post by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. You may have to paraphrase the text as you read, but the images are very helpful in explaining the process. There are many Japanese woodcut prints available in museums and in private collections. Click here to see some of the more famous pieces. 

Next, let’s take a virtual visit to Daryl Howard’s art studio. She is an American artist who is famous for her Japanese woodcut art. Do the activity at the end of the video or follow the directions in this blog post.

Next, read the story Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers, which was inspired by the woodcuts the author saw when she visited a museum. The story will bring many of our past lessons to mind. Yuki writes haikus, she wears a kimono (which we have learned about in past Levels), and she describes life in Japan during the Edo period.

Activity 2: Read + Discover. What are Noh plays? Read this website to learn about them. Next, work on character development in story writing. Create a character that would be in a Noh play. Make a list of the character’s characteristics, name, appearance, and personality traits. The list can also include adjectives that describe him. Next, design and draw a picture of what this character’s mask would look like if he or she was in a play.

Alternative idea: If your child doesn’t want to use their imagination to create a character, they can do a character breakdown for one that already exists in a book, TV show, or movie they enjoy.

Activity 3: Anime is Japanese for ‘animation’ or ‘cartoon’. In Japan, anime is the word used for all animation. Outside of Japan, the term anime refers to Japanese animation. (source) A manga is a Japanese comic book. (source) Watch this video to learn more about anime. 

Want to draw some anime? Use this simple tutorial video to get started. Ready for something more challenging? Try this one.

Lesson 3:

Today, let’s dive into some Japanese traditions (and have a sweet treat or two!).

Activity 1: Kokeshi is a handmade wooden doll from Japan. The art of kokeshi originates from the hot spring mountain villages in the Tōhoku region of northeastern Japan. The first examples of kokeshi appeared during the end of the Edo period (1603-1868 CE), when craftsmen would make the simple wooden forms as toys for children. With long, limbless bodies and enlarged heads, the dolls gradually evolved to feature painted facial expressions and colorful kimonos. (source) Watch this video to see how these wooden dolls are made.

Let’s use kokeshi dolls as our inspiration to make wooden bead doll necklaces like you see here.

Activity 2: Read + Discover Honest History pages 22-23 to learn about the Japanese tea ceremony. Watch a family enjoy a kids’ tea ceremony in this video.

Next, make these matcha cookies found at the end of this blog post (or buy these cookies). Print out a few of the Japanese poems from this website and enjoy some tea + poetry together!

Lesson 4:

What do you know about Japanese music? (Spoiler alert: It might be more than you think!) Let’s learn more about it today.

Activity 1: There are many different types of music in Japan. These include:

  • Classical music: There are two types of classical music in Japan. Shomyo, or Buddhist chanting, and gagaku, or orchestral court music.
  • Biwa hoshi: The biwa is a type of lute that was played by a group of performers who used it to accompany stories. The most famous of these stories is “The Tale of the Heike.” Watch this video and listen to the poem/song associated with this story. You can hear the lute play as the story is described. 
  • Okinawan folk music: Read about and listen to this distinct music in this post from All Around the World
  • Traditional Folk: There are four main kinds of Japanese folk songs. These include work songs; religious songs; songs used for gatherings such as weddings, funerals, and festivals; and children’s songs. Listen to this folk song about cherry blossoms. This is an example of a work song. 

Does your child love musical instruments? Dig a little deeper and learn about some of the instruments. Read this paragraph and click the links to see images of each of these instruments:

Japanese folk singers are typically accompanied by the 3-stringed lute known as the shamisen, taiko drums, and a bamboo flute called shakuhachi. Other instruments that could accompany are a flute known as the shinobue, a bell known as kane, a hand drum called the tsuzumi, and/or a 13-stringed zither known as the koto. (source)

Activity 2: This will probably be your child’s favorite music coming from Japan! 

Video game music was initially more like background sounds than actual music. That’s because music was limited by the space on the hard drive. But much of that changed with the CD-ROM. As personal computers became more agile and more powerful, suddenly the music track could handle something resembling real music. In fact, it was discovered that the game music actually aided the player through play! (source)

Listen to this song. Do you recognize where is it from? Yes! Super Mario Bro. composer Koji Kondo answered an ad from Nintendo in 1980 for a music director, and the rest is history! (source) He is also the composer for The Legend of Zelda and Star Fox.

Activity 3: Read the book Sound of Silence. Ma is a Japanese word which is often used to refer to the Japanese concept of negative space in art. In this story, the author talks about negative space in song.

Once you have read this story, let’s examine its parts. Who were the characters? What is the setting? What was the beginning, middle, and end of the story? What was the rising action, conflict, climax, falling action, and resolution of the story? 

Learn more about the composer in our story, Toru Takemitsu. Read about him here on Classics for Kids. Listen to his compositions here.

Activity 4: Have you ever sung karaoke? The first karaoke machine was invented by Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue in Kobe, Japan in 1971. However, Inoue admits to not having invented the name “karaoke.”  A Japanese entertaining group created the phrase after an orchestra went on strike and a machine was used instead to play the music. “Karaoke” translates to “empty orchestra.” Today, karaoke is a popular form of entertainment in Japan and all over the world. 

There are lots of free karaoke songs to sing on YouTube! Check out this channel, pick your favorite, and try singing some karaoke for yourself!

Lesson 5:

For our last day of Japan, we’ll explore a unique style of food and eating that has risen in popularity in recent years.

Activity 1: Japanese street food, called yatai by the natives, is based on mobile food stands where people can get delicious specialties. Although street food in Japan is not as common as in other Asian countries, such as Thailand or Taiwan, it is growing in popularity due to the influx of visitors to the country each year, especially during festivals. (source) Even so, Japanese mobile food stalls have been around since the Edo Period. Read this article to get more of the history of this unique style of selling food, as well as to see photos of popular street food dishes.

Activity 2: Ready to try some “street” food at home? Okonomiyaki is a popular street food from Osaka, Japan. It is essentially a savory version of a pancake made with flour, eggs, shredded cabbage, and your choice of protein, topped with a variety of condiments. (source)

Prepare this kid-friendly recipe, or (if you’re feeling more ambitious) try this similar one

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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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