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HGSE Class Works with Japanese Students to Curb Stereotypes

True or false: Most Japanese food is cooked on a hibachi. Japanese streets don’t have names. The Japanese words for “wrong” and “different” are the same. The answer, in all cases, is false — but you wouldn’t know it from information posted on a U.S. website intended to educate American children about Japanese culture.

“There’s a real lack of good materials that teach about Japan,” says Keio University visiting lecturer Cyrus Rolbin, Ed.M.’94. “That’s part of the reason for such grand misunderstandings about the country: Stereotypical images of Japanese culture infiltrate the educational system here.”

Rolbin hopes to begin to change that with a website ( that his students started developing a couple of years ago and, with the help of some members of Harvard’s incoming doctoral cohort, are still refining.

“The Japanese students are very techie and are obviously experts on Japanese culture,” says Assistant Professor Hunter Gehlbach. “But we’ve got a little more background in education, and we’re more familiar with what motivates K–12 students in this country.”

After connecting with Gehlbach’s students in previous semesters via the Internet, Rolbin and five of his undergraduates recently made the 6,700-mile trip from Tokyo to Boston to meet with HGSE doctoral students in the Integrating Perspectives on Education class, taught by Gehlbach, Professor Catherine Snow, and Assistant Professors John Diamond and James Kim.

The Ed School students were divided into groups, with each group talking with one of the Japanese students about ways to improve learning and motivation in five areas addressed in the website, which uses symbols from the hiragana alphabet to introduce cultural topics. The five areas — ame, or rain; take, or bamboo; hanabi, or fireworks; onsen, or hot springs; and Toho Village, a small town in Fukuoka Prefecture that has a centuries-long tradition of pottery production — included many concepts unfamiliar to U.S. students, so a common suggestion was to try to relate Japanese topics to American experiences. A picture of a frog, for example, is in Japan a symbol of rain, whereas U.S. schoolchildren might relate better to an umbrella; fireworks are best understood in the context of the Fourth of July; and the Toho Village link might benefit from a blog, periodic “check your knowledge” quizzes, and vocabulary reviews.

“The learning is supposed to hit on all levels,” Gehlbach says. “The HGSE students are learning about learning, so they can look at the website in terms of how to convey information better. And hopefully the Japanese students will learn from their discussions of that with the Harvard students. And on a third level, sixth-graders in Dubuque, Iowa, or Sydney, Australia, will learn more about Japanese culture.”

While they were in town for the week, the Japanese students learned a few things about American culture, too, thanks in part to their Harvard counterparts. According to Rolbin, the HGSE students met with the Japanese visitors to talk about the website outside of class, and later that night took them out on the town. The visitors also squeezed in field trips to the Museum of Fine Arts and Portsmouth, N.H., took part in the Vegetarian Food Festival in Roxbury, and sampled the Cambridge cultural scene.

“Without any prompting from the teaching staff," says Gehlbach. "The Harvard students put together a packet of readings, a potluck, and a tour of the campus. I could not have been more impressed with their work, effort, and response.”

Rolbin — who videotaped the classroom session and other key aspects of the trip — hopes the enthusiasm generated by the experience will carry over to the other 120 students in his class. “They’re at an age where their idealism is still very strong,” he says, “and what they’ve learned will have a big impact. They’ll be so motivated after this. The students in Japan who see these videotapes and talk to these students will see it and feel it as well.”

He and Gehlbach intend to continue their collaboration in future semesters, and Rolbin is also working on other projects to link students in the two countries.

For their part, the Japanese students were impressed by the detailed feedback they received and the amount of research undertaken in just the few weeks since the Harvard students received the assignment. “We didn’t think we would ever have such a lucky chance to collaborate with Harvard students,” says 20-year-old Haruka Matsumi. “We discovered a lot more than we expected, and everyone was so kind. It was very meaningful.”


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