Japan Unit: Week 1

Welcome to Japan! こんにちは (Kon’nichiwa)! We will start our exploration with detailed mapping skills, a brief history overview, and a deeper dive into ancient Japan. This week will include math and science lessons that connect seamlessly to the unit theme. Do you live near one of these museums? We encourage you to plan a trip as you explore this unit, or perhaps during your next school break. Click here to download our skills tracker for the week.

Note: This month, there will be several opportunities for creative writing. If your child loves story telling, take advantage of the holistic way these are folded into your lessons. But if they don’t enjoy coming up with their own stories, skip these assignments. We don’t believe in forcing creative writing. This is an art form like any other—it can’t be forced. 

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.

Japan map activities:

Kofuns mound model:

Torii model:

  • LEGO or recycled materials

Japanese screen craft:

Samurai warrior craft:

Samurai comic:

Udon 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:

Let’s begin our month with an introduction to the country of Japan.

Activity 1: Find Asia on the map, atlas, globe or Google Earth. Next, find the island country of Japan. Do this geography mapping activity and craft to learn the names of the major cities in Japan, the neighboring countries, and the names of the bodies of water that surround the island.

Japan is made up of a lot more than the four main islands you drew in the activity above. It includes a total of 6,852 islands! (Most are not inhabitable.) We’ll learn more about one of the island clusters in Lesson 2.

Activity 2: Reading a map. Using this link, review map reading skills. Review vocabulary like:

  1. Map key and legend
  2. Longitude
  3. Latitude
  4. Compass
  5. Oceans
  6. Island
  7. Country
  8. Continent

Review what each map is telling us about this land. For example, the first map is telling us about elevation (a topographic map), measuring distance, and the names of cities, towns, and the capital. The second map shows us the 47 sections, called prefectures, of Japan. These prefectures are then divided into eight regions. The third map shows lines of latitude and where Japan is located within Asia. The fourth map is a printable that we will use for the next activity. 

(+) Activity 3: Print out this map and use it to create a population map. A population map shows the places that have the largest and smallest numbers of people. This is also called population density. Using this link, scroll down to the population of the major cities in Japan to have the data you will need to create this map. 

To create your map, first draw a color code key with this information:

  • Pink: below 2,000,000
  • Yellow: 2,000,000-2,500,00
  • Orange: 2,500,000-3,000,000
  • Green: 3,000,000-4,000,000
  • Blue: 4,000,000-5,000,000
  • Purple: 5,000,000-10,000,000
  • Red: over 10,000,000

Next, locate the areas on the map and circle them. Draw a line from each circle, labeling the city. Fill in the circle with the correct color to show the area’s general density.

Activity 4: Want to try a worksheet to test map reading skills? Try this printable

Lesson 2:

Today’s activities will give us a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the flag of Japan.

Activity 1: Here are five important things to know about the flag of Japan:

  1. The official name of the flag of Japan is 日章旗 (“nisshoki,” meaning “sun-mark flag”), but most people just call it 日の丸 (“hinomaru,” meaning “circle of the sun”). The red circle in the middle of the flag represents the sun.
  2. The flag of Japan was first used in the year 701, however, the flag wasn’t officially adopted by the Japanese government until 1999 after the signing of the Law Regarding the National Flag and National Anthem.
  3. The dimensions of the national flag are extremely specific. The length and height must be at a ratio of 3 to 2, the red circle must be exactly centered and 3/5 the width of the flag.
  4. The official flag colors aren’t white and red, they are white and crimson.
  5. The largest national flag in Japan is located at Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture. It measures 9 meters x 13.6 meters and is 47 meters in the air. It weighs an impressive 49 kilograms (108 pounds)! (source)

Activity 2: Let’s do some math! 

The third flag fact listed above states that Japan’s flag has a length and height measurement with a ratio of 3 to 2. What is a ratio? Watch this video to learn about it. 

The fifth point gives us the dimensions of the largest flag in the country: 9 meters x 13.6 meters and 47 meters in the air.

Using the formula “1 meter = 3.28 feet,” convert these measurements into feet. Round your answers to the nearest tenth.

What are the flag’s dimensions in feet? Write your findings like this: ___ feet x ____ feet and ____ feet in the air.

Next, let’s convert the weight. The flag weighs 49 kilograms. Convert it into pounds using this formula: 1 kilogram = 2.20 pounds. Round your answer to the nearest tenth. Write your answer like this: The flag weighs ____ pounds.

Check your work using this online calculator

Use a tape measurer to make these measurements come to life.

Lesson 3:

Let’s review some of the history of Japan.

Activity 1: Japan is one of the oldest nations in the world. Read the picture book An Illustrated History of Japan for an overview of their history. Refer to the Major Periods Timeline in the opening pages of the book as we continue our history lesson this week. 

Activity 2: Read page 170 from the book UEWH for an overview of Ancient Japan. During the Kofun era, Japan buried emperors and high ranking nobility in kofuns, which means “old mound” in Japanese. These were gigantic tombs that began as mounds and then eventually were styled in the shape of key holes. (You can see one being built in An Illustrated History of Japan on pages 14 and 15.) Read more about them here. For a view of the small and large tombs or kofuns in Japan, watch this video. (This might be a little long-winded for younger kids, so you might have to bounce around the video for the parts that interest them.) Finally, read Honest History, pages 14-16, for a brief history of Japan up to today.

Create a kofuns mound using crafting materials, sand, and a shoe box.

  • Research, design, and color the background of the box (use the top of the shoe box). You can use any Japanese mountain scene of your choice.
  • Using modeling clay or playdough, create the kofun key mound.
  • Decorate the surrounding area with rocks, gravel, sand, or trees.

Here’s an example of how it could look:

Activity 3: Read + Discover. Read UEWH, page 270. The first people in Japan practiced Shintoism. Read about this ancient belief that originated in Japan. This video also summarizes this ancient religion, which is now practiced by 80% of Japan’s population.

A common structure in Japan is the torii. Click here to see one. A torii stands at the entrance of a shrine. The main role of torii gates is to distinguish the sacred shrine grounds from the human world. In other words, they serve as a boundary which separates the sacred space from the mundane world where humans live. Once you walk across the torii gate, it means that you have entered the sacred, special space. (source)

Let’s turn the torii into a STEM challenge! Encourage your child to build the shape out of LEGOs or recycled materials.

Activity 4: Early Japanese cultures and tribes were influenced by Korea and China, their neighbors across the sea. Bronze, iron, rice, and barley were introduced from Korea and China around 300 B.C. Chinese religious beliefs also influenced Japan, particularly with the introduction of Buddhism. Chinese styles of dress, their language, and architecture also influenced the Japanese. Watch this video on the history of Japan to learn more about these early days in the Japanese timeline. (Watch until about 3:00.)

Japan slowly moved from being a collection of tribes to a strong state. During the Heian period, little is known about ordinary people since most of the records are about the imperial court and the temples. Look at page 18 and 19 of the book An Illustrated History of Japan. Do you see the carriages? Here’s a beautiful picture of a painted screen that hangs at the MET with the same depiction. These carriages were pulled by oxen.

Virtually visit the Japanese exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art for more examples of authentic Japanese artifacts and art, including screens. 

Let’s create our own screen art inspired by the Japanese art form. Typically in Japan, the screens were panels that hung on the walls. The images were to be enjoyed or viewed from right to left. (source) These pictures told stories or showed the same scene during a different time period. Create your own Japanese inspired screen using this method. Paint or draw a scene inspired by your Japanese picture books or something you saw in the museum exhibit.

Alternatively: if you have these paper making screens from earlier units, you can use them instead of building one with wooden dowels.

Lesson 4:

Today is all about the samurai and their important role in Japanese history.

Activity 1: Read + Discover. Either choose between the following source materials or read several of them to learn about the important role of the samurai in Japan’s history:

The samurai were part of the Japanese feudal system. Also important in this class system were the emperor, the shogun, the farmer, the merchant, and the artist. Review Honest History pages 17-21 to learn about each of these distinct groups. 

Next, do this cut-and-paste craft of a Samurai warrior. While your child works on this, discuss the questions outlined on page 60 of Honest History “Thinking it Over”. 

Activity 2: Next, write a Samurai story. Choose a plot, a setting, and characters. Here’s a video that helps explain the important parts of story telling. Pause the video to explain and discuss each element as it comes up. Print this story map sheet. Have your child chart or map out their story using the printout. As you work together (either have your child write their ideas or you can scribe for them so they can focus on their ideas and not on spelling, grammar, and sentence structure), think about the elements of their story:

The Introduction: characters, setting, problem
The Rising Action: the plot, the conflict
Climax: the turning point
Falling Action: slow down as you get ready to end the story
Resolutions: solving the conflict and concluding your story

Once your child has mapped out their story it’s time to tell it! Next, use comic sheets (or you can draw your own) to tell and draw out their story and add descriptive text and dialogue. 

Encourage your child to be creative with their story! They could write about something they’ve learned about this week, or they could make up something silly, like a samurai trying to order breakfast at a restaurant.

Alternatively, if your child does not enjoy creative writing, have them use the story map to chart out the chapter book or a story they will start reading in week 2.

Activity 3: The samurai used a bow as a weapon, as you read on page 16 and 17 of How to Live Like a Samurai Warrior or pages 24-27 of Honest History. Today it is used, not as an act of aggression, but as meditation. It is called kyudo, and it is considered a bow and arrow martial art from Japan. Watch this video to learn more about kyudo.

Activity 4: Print this PDF. It details the clothing worn by the samurai during the peaceful Edo period and the Bushido code they lived by. Do you have a museum in your area that highlights Japan’s history or art? Take this PDF along with you to discuss it with the artifacts. (You can also find the Bushido code on pages 42-43 of Honest History magazine.)

(+) Activity 5: Is your child really into swords? This documentary about the katana will keep them busy for 45 minutes. They will learn about the very detailed process of sword forging. Note: There are recreated fighting scenes and discussions of war and battle.

Lesson 5:

Let’s end the week with a little food history!

Activity 1: The best-known period regarding Japanese diet is the Heian Period (794-1185 CE), when literature flourished and references to eating can be found. Our knowledge is largely restricted to that of the nobles, as they were the ones who wrote the literature, and they concentrated on their own lavish dinner parties held in their pleasure palaces. We can imagine that the diet of the ordinary people was much less interesting, although it might have been healthier, as many noble court writers talk about sickness and malnutrition which plagued the imperial court. (source)

Aristocrats had two meals a day: one at around 10 a.m. and the second at 4 p.m., but, again, we can imagine that laborers and farmers probably ate early and late in the day so as not to interfere with their work. People would have eaten snacks, too, including fruit, nuts, or rice cakes. Rice, a staple, was boiled, steamed, or cooked and then dried. It was mixed with vegetables to make rice cakes or made into a thick porridge and spiced up with vegetables or other cereals. Popular vegetables included the versatile soybean, which could be made into a flavoring paste (miso), tofu (bean curd), or soy sauce. (source)

The traditional Japanese diet revolves around rice, fresh vegetables, pickled vegetables, fish, and miso. In its origins, Japanese cuisine was heavily influenced by Chinese cooking. But Japan is a fishing nation, consisting of 6, 582 islands, so its citizens consume far more fish and seafood than other Asian countries. This is still true today—as well as grilled fish, the Japanese eat lots of raw fish in the form of sushi and sashimi. (source)

Activity 2: What is umami? “Umami” is a Japanese word that basically means “deliciousness.” It’s a taste found in all food, from tomatoes to tuna fish, but some foods have more umami than others. What does umami taste like? Savory and wonderful! It also makes the other four tastes (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) stronger and better.

The best way to learn about this magical fifth taste is to try different kinds of foods that are heavy in umami. Some kid-friendly starters are soy sauce, parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and cured ham. If you have any of these at home, taste these items together and discuss the flavor. Once your child has sampled in-your-face umami, you can prompt them to recognize subtle hints of taste number five in other foods. (source)

Next, watch this video to learn more about umami. Then, learn more about the science of taste in this video. Who discovered this fifth taste? Watch this mini-documentary to learn about Dr. Kikunae Ikeda and how he made his famous discovery.

Activity 3: Prepare this udon recipe. This simple and quick meal will let you sample lots of Japanese flavors. It will also be a great example of umami flavors! 

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Published by learnandliveletter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-11.

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