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Japan Meets the West: A Case Study of Perceptions

Japan Meets the West: A Case Study of Perceptions

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Comprehensive Unit
78 pages
Grade Level: Middle School – High School
Includes curriculum unit + images on CD-ROM

All people see the world through the cultural lenses of their own society. It takes a good deal of effort to see the world (or ourselves) from the perspective of another nation or ethnic group. Just as our eyes often play tricks on us, so our cultural assumptions often blind us to the richness of other ways of life, and keep us from examining ourselves objectively.

An excellent way to reach a realization of how cultural assumptions affect our perceptions of the world is to consider how cultures have perceived/misperceived one another in the past. The case of historical contact between Japan and the West provides a wealth of materials for the study of intercultural misunderstanding and conflict. We live in an age when it is more important than ever to recognize and go beyond such misunderstanding.

As Huston Smith put it,

We live in a fantastic century...We hear on all sides that East and West are meeting, but it is an understatement. They are being flung at one another with the force of atoms, the speed of jets, the restlessness of minds impatient to learn of ways that differ from their own. From the perspective of history, this may prove to be the most important fact about the twentieth century. When historians look back upon our years they may remember them...as the time in which all peoples of the world first had to take one another seriously.

No special knowledge of Japanese history is required to teach this unit; sufficient background materials are provided. What is required is an enthusiastic willingness to explore other cultures and the issue of perceptions and misperceptions.

Unit Goals


  • to define and use the following concepts: perception/misperception, optical illusion (visual and cultural), generalization, stereotype, image, barbarian vs. civilized, ethnocentrism
  • to understand issues related to perception and stereotyping through optical illusions and a case study
  • to trace patterns of interaction between Japan and the West from the 16th–19th centuries and develop a working knowledge of Japanese history during this time
  • to describe the manner in which Westerners were portrayed by some Japanese artists (16th–19th centuries) and compare these portrayals to the images of Japanese held by Westerners during the same time period by reading and interpreting primary source materials
  • to apply lessons regarding perceptions to contemporary problems between Japan and the U.S., or between ethnic groups in the United States
  • to identify their own perceptions of Japanese people and compare these to the historical study of mutual images


  • to become familiar with a nonwestern historical and artistic tradition which may be compared to the Western equivalent
  • to examine the notion of ethnocentrism by analyzing the case study provided
  • this may then be applied to other historical and contemporary examples in order to improve our "cultural vision" by seeing the world through the eyes of another culture
  • to become aware of their own cultural biases and thereby become more tolerant of other ways of life by reassessing what it is to be "civilized"
  • to appreciate how art reflects perceptions of the artist and, in turn, of the surrounding society
  • to explore possible cultural universals regarding the expression of emotion, standards of beauty, morality, belief systems and values


  • to define and distinguish between fact, inference and opinion, and between objective fact and perception (reality and perception of reality)
  • to develop a critical awareness of visual and cultural perception (via optical illusions) in an effort to understand that things are not always what they seem
  • to make observations concerning life for Westerners in Japan in the 16th–19th centuries by interpreting slides of Japanese artists; views of Westerners and critically reading diary excerpts of Western authors
  • to learn to integrate knowledge gained from various sources in an effort to compare Japanese and European views of each other during a given historical period
  • to refine their discussion skills through serious consideration of questions pertaining to a slide presentation and primary source readings
  • to synthesize what they have learned concerning perception in general and the case study of Japan vs. the West in particular, and be able to apply this knowledge to other cases—on a personal, national, and international level