Japan Unit

Kon’nichiwa! In this county unit study, we’re taking a trip to explore the incredible culture, geography, and arts of Japan. We’ve designed these lessons to include plenty of opportunities for free play as your child experiences the sounds, tastes, and colors of Japan, so let their imaginations explore—and remember that if you don’t get to every activity in a day, you can always do it another day! Here’s our downloadable tracking document to keep a record of the books your read and skills your child works on.

Note: Occasionally we include project upgrades (for kids ready for more) and modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings). We’ll mark those with the plus (+) or minus (-) symbols.

What you need:

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

Optional additional reading:

  • Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories – This book doesn’t directly tie in to any of our activities, but it is an excellent example of a living book that can help to add more color, authenticity, and depth to a Japan unit study.

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!

Lesson 1:

Welcome to Japan! Let’s begin by finding this island nation on a map, globe, or atlas. Japan is part of the continent of Asia, and it is an island. Actually, it’s made up of four islands! An island is defined as land surrounded by water. In this case, Japan is an oceanic island made up of beautiful, lush mountains. Watch this video to introduce your child to Japan.

Activity 1: The largest mountain in Japan is actually a volcano. It’s called Mount Fugi. Besides Mount Fugi, Japan has more than 108 active volcanoes! (source) For this activity, use this post as inspiration to create a naturescape surrounding your own playdough version of Mount Fugi and set off an eruption. (Yes, another volcano—but if your kids are like ours, they can’t get enough of this fun science experiment! 🌋)

Activity 2: Let’s learn more about what causes a volcano eruption, something that happens far beneath our feet—plate tectonics! The land under our feet is always moving, but it’s moving very slowly so we usually can’t feel it. But when the land does moves quickly and rubs and crashes together, we do feel it—that is called an earthquake. Earthquakes are rare, but they can be scary. Japan has thousands of earthquakes every year. (source) You can watch this video to learn a bit more about tectonic plates. Because Japan has so many earthquakes, they use special techniques when they build their houses and buildings so that they don’t fall down when the earth shifts. Today let’s do this activity to demonstrate moving the “earth” and to test the most secure ways to build. 
(+) Does your children want to learn a bit more about tectonic plates? Watch this video

Activity 3: People in Japan speak Japanese. Let’s learn 10 Japanese words with this fun video. Want to learn how to say and write numbers from 1-10? Here’s a link that has all the numbers, and you can print this image to practice writing them.

Activity 4: The Japanese flag is very recognizable. Print this sheet that pictures the flag and color it in. If your child likes coloring pages, here are many more Japanese themed coloring pages.

Lesson 2:

Japanese gardens are a reflection of the culture of the people who live in Japan. The Japanese people believe it’s important to live in harmony with nature, and nature is considered more than beautiful surroundings—it is also part of their spiritual connection. Most Japanese people practice a religion called Shinto or Buddhism. A traditional Japanese garden will incorporate mountains, waterfalls, and even forests. Look at these photos of beautiful Japanese gardens and ask your child to make observations. Point out the use of bridges, circles and half circles, square arches, greenery, rocks, sand, and flowers. Ask your child if they would like to be in a garden like this and why.

Activity 1: Bamboo planter activity. 

Activity 2: Cherry blossom windsock craft.
(-) Want something a little simpler? Try this free-hand cherry blossom painting idea.

Activity 3: The Bonsai tree is a common site in Japanese homes. Here is some info about bonsais you can share with your child:

Another art form involving plants is the art of growing bonsai trees. Growing these miniature trees is a common hobby in Japan. Pine, maple, cherry and plum trees are the most popular trees used for this art of cutting back and trimming. The mini trees are kept small and healthy but in a similar shape as their counterpart in nature, just a lot smaller. Source

Click here to learn a few details about the bonsai while doing this craft

Activity 3: Create a Japanese garden-inspired free play bin with sand and stones. Use the sand to practice writing letters and/or words. Here are a few word ideas:

  • Japan
  • tree
  • rock
  • sand
  • garden
Lesson 3:

There is so much about Japan that makes it a unique place with a special history! Today we will focus on just a few aspects of the Japanese culture that can be discovered through books and crafts. Begin by reading the story The Paper Crane.

Activity 1: Now let’s do a bit of origami together! Here’s a blog with 15 different origami design suggestions. Try a few and see which ones work best with your child’s fine motor skill abilities. (The fish and the bear are two of the simplest to start.)

Activity 2: The traditional clothes of Japan are very beautiful. Let’s learn about a garment worn by both men and women called a kimono. 

The Japanese kimono is one of the world’s instantly recognizable traditional garments. The word kimono literally means “clothing,” and up until the mid 19th century it was the form of dress worn by everyone in Japan. There are different types of kimono for different occasions and seasons, including those worn by men. Other than those worn daily by some older people or performers of traditional arts, kimono are a much less common sight these days but are still widely worn on special occasions such as weddings and graduation ceremonies. (source)

Next, help your child design their own kimono with this paper doll craft.
(+) Do you have extra fabric from our Quilts Unit? Use it to make a fabric version of this craft! Here is our tutorial.

Activity 3: Japan has some pretty unique animals, too. The Red Crowned Crane is one of those special animals. Do this craft while you share the below details about the crane with your child (there’s also a video in the below source link your child might like to watch!).

The elegant Japanese crane, with its striking black and white feathers and ‘red crown’, symbolises happiness and long life in Japan. There is even a Japanese legend in which it lives for 1,000 years! This crane appears in the art and artifacts of Ancient Japan. Today, its image is on everything from chopsticks and food labels to the planes of the national airline. (source)

Activity 4: The Japanese warrior was called the samurai. Read the story Three Samurai Cats, and then do this samurai craft.

***Note for grownups: Tomorrow, you’ll be doing this craft inspired by one of Japan’s most famous works of art, but there are a few steps you should do today so you are ready tomorrow.

Lesson 4:

It’s Art + Music Day! Today, we’ll take a closer look at one of the most famous pieces of Japanese art while also exploring some traditional instruments.

Activity 1: “The Great Wave” is a famous Japanese art piece. Click here to see the piece and learn more about it. You can also listen to an explanation of the picture from the MET museum. As you and your child look at the art, here are some sample talking points and questions to get your discussion going:

  • Play I spy and try to find Mount Fugi and a ship. 
  • Talk about the feeling you get while looking at this picture. Is it scary? Impressive?
  • Talk about the colors. With only three main colors, Hokusai is able to show lots of details—how does he do that? If you could only use one color from your crayon box, what would it be? 
  • Talk about the shapes you see. Do the end of the waves look like fingers reaching out to grab the boat? Or do you see something else?

Next, make your own abstract version of the wave with this craft.

Activity 2: Next, let’s learn about shakuhachi flute. Click here for a description of the instrument (3rd paragraph). Then, watch this video of it being played. As you listen, trying drawing the music.

Activity 3: Ready for one more traditional Japanese art creation? Make this Japanese flying carp craft.

Lesson 5:

The food and drink of a culture are an important (and delicious!) way to learn about people and places. Watch the first three minutes of this video that teaches us the diversity and creativity of Japanese cuisine. Your child will also likely enjoy this fun video of a young Japanese girl explaining what she typically eats for breakfast!

Activity 1: In Japan, chopsticks are commonly used as utensils instead of forks and knives. They can be made of wood, ivory, coral, brass, or bamboo. Today, we will use chopsticks to practice some fine motor skills with this chopstick challenge.
(-) Can’t quite master chopsticks yet? Try this hack to make it simpler for little ones.
(+) Have a chopstick master on your hands? Upgrade with this stacking challenge.

Activity 2: DIY felt sushi set. (Note: This is an optional activity as it can be a bit more time-intensive for grown-ups to create, but if your child loves pretend cooking play, it can be a great addition to their play kitchen!)

Activity 3: Let’s enjoy some tea and poetry with Japanese flare! Begin by learning more about the Japanese tea ceremony:

Japanese tea ceremony is a special way of making green tea (or matcha). It is called the Way of Tea. It is a Japanese cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha powdered tea. People who participate in a Japanese tea ceremony also have to learn about kimono, flowers, and many other things. It takes a lot of practice to learn the tea ceremony properly. Click here to learn more and to share photos of a Japanese Tea Ceremony with your child.

Now, let’s talk about a special kind of poetry that originated in Japan, the haiku. Haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry that consists of three lines. The first and last lines of a Haiku have five syllables, and the middle line has seven syllables. Unlike much of the poetry your child might be familiar with, the lines rarely rhyme. (source)

While you are drinking your green tea (or whatever beverage your family chooses), read the story Wabi Sabi, the beautifully illustrated book about a cat from Japan. The book is written with haikus within the story. Wabi Sabi is available on OpenLibrary but it’s such a unique book (printed vertically) that we suggest borrowing it from your local library or buying it if you can.
(+) For more, you can learn about the famous Japanese female poet Kanoko Okamoto here. And you can read one of her translated tanka poems on page 161 of our recommended poetry book, Sing a Song of Seasons.

Activity 4: If possible, this week would be a great opportunity to try some real sushi! If you’re nervous about raw fish, you could try a California roll, an avocado or cucumber roll, or a shrimp tempura roll. Or you could try this fun play on sushi—a fruit sushi roll!

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