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Rebuilding Education about Different Cultures

JAMCO Online International Symposium

32nd JAMCO Online International Symposium

February 2020 - March 2020

Messages for an Increasingly Divided World

Opening up a New Age by
Rebuilding Education about Different Cultures

Gunei Sato
Professor Emeritus / Tokyo Gakugei University

1.Perspectives for Review

Historically, there are said to be two trends with education about different cultures: one focused on different cultures as a matter for academic study, and the other focused on building relations with people from different cultural backgrounds.(1) The former, originally advocated by UNESCO, maintains that understanding other cultures and ethnic groups is necessary for the sake of world peace, and beyond that aims for mutual understanding among countries. The latter, which developed chiefly in the United States, focuses on the acquisition of skills to build relations among people of different cultures and languages. It has stressed the acquisition of skills for bridging the gap in the differences in thinking and values that often exist among different cultures, and the issue of how to dispel the misunderstandings and prejudices arising from differences.

Social changes and changes in educational philosophy have led to the merging of these two trends. In other words, there has been emphasis on learning about cultures as a means of cultivating the ability to involve oneself with people from various backgrounds. It hardly needs mentioning that globalization has been the major factor behind this change. Globalization has fostered the movement of people across national borders and blurred cultural boundaries, while at the same time has made the weight of culture conspicuous. Culture has been a major factor behind conflicts with friction and clashes among specific cultures occurring in circumstances where there is repeated contact with other cultures and where the cultures are influencing one another. Accordingly, there have been stronger calls for education about different cultures to look at how cultural literacy can make adjustments for different interests and arrive at consensus, and nurture the requisite abilities for this.

It is important at this juncture to reconsider the concepts of “difference”, “culture”, and “education”, which have been the premises for this education. Let us start with “difference”. Up till now the assumption was that one can readily comprehend one’s own culture from the dichotomy that distinguishes between one’s own culture, deemed as self-evident, and that which is alien to it. However, the idea that one’s own culture equates with Japan and different cultures equate with other countries lacks an awareness that one could obviously trade places with the foreign nationals living in this country who regard Japanese culture as different. In other words, “difference” has become a question of “Different for whom?” Moreover, globalization has blurred the boundaries between difference and self, such that reality can no longer be grasped in a binary framework, requiring a questioning of the category of “difference” per se.

Second, let us consider culture. Up till now there has been the implicit assumption that culture involves groups and amounts to what is shared within them, and there has been a pronounced tendency to consider the understanding of different cultures as assuming and comprehending such realities. In other words, it assumes that culture is framed by the country along of the lines of a “the culture of Japan” or “the culture of country X”, and that culture moreover has the peculiar nature of never undergoing any change. This is termed cultural essentialism. It has been criticized amid the pronounced hybridization, fluidity and blending brought about by globalization. Moreover, the problem with such an approach is that it views individuals as purely passive when it comes to culture. Furthermore, the inroads made by multiculturalism in our societies have made it necessary to focus on diverse cultures within a single social unit, and it is no longer realistic to assume that people of the same culture will engage in the same behavior or thought.

Third, we have shifts in the views about education and learning. Educational reforms around the globe have tended to stress abilities deemed necessary in society rather than the scholastic aptitude that has currency in schools. The stress has been not on the quantity of knowledge, but on the learners redefining it and creating new knowledge on their own, which has brought learner-centered active learning to the fore. Moreover, there has been renewed awareness of the role of education to expand the abilities of the individual and at same time aspire to the creation of a better society. Specifically, it is essential to have learning with a global perspective that understands the causes and background, and seeks out solutions for the mounting issues that cannot be resolved by any one country or territory on its own. Often there are no correct answers for these problems, and importance has been placed on cultivating an attitude of continuing to challenge these issues. Such emphasis is also required in education about different cultures.

2.New Perspectives

The perspectives and subjects of education about different cultures must be expanded in light of such changes. First is the perspective that this education, in its narrow sense so to speak, is about cultural literacy. Acquisition of scientific knowledge about different cultures is indispensable in this education. A lack of knowledge can lead to misunderstandings and prejudice and also be a major factor hindering mutual understanding. An understanding of different cultures also leads to knowledge of one’s own culture. Comprehending different cultures in order to achieve an understanding of one’s own, and discovering one’s own culture in order to comprehend different ones are said to the methods for literacy in different cultures.(2) This literacy is not just a matter of coming into contact with different cultures and understanding others, it also pays attention to the aspect of taking a good hard look at one’s self through a reappraisal of one’s own culture; it takes an integrated approach to different cultures and own’s own.

The second perspective is multicultural coexistence. Globalization has led to Japan having more people with various backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. Moreover, its society is becoming more diverse with the attention also being given to categories such as gender, age, disabilities, and sexual minorities. Japan has reached the stage where everyone living in it must accept differences in nationalities and culture, age, generational diversity, disabilities (the existence or lack thereof), as well as sexual diversity, which will foster a climate of diverse people connecting with and supporting one another, where everyone can be themselves and lead a fulfilling life. It is the issue of multicultural coexistence, which education about different cultures must also address.

The third perspective is cultural creation. Education about different cultures so far has taken the perspective that culture is a given. However, this only makes the individual a perennially passive figure. Globalization has also blurred the boundaries of culture and posed the challenge of creating new culture. New endeavors are being pursued in music, film, and various other genres, particularly among the younger generation. Shinobu Kawashima, a musician who plays the Tsugaru-shamisen instrument, is an example. She refuses to be bound by the preconceived ideas and conceptions about what the traditional performing arts (Japanese culture) ought to be. Kawashima says she wants to expand the parameters of the traditional performing arts by dispelling the notion that any music featuring the shamisen must be in a Japanese style.(3) Education about different cultures should take note of such developments and must give importance to initiatives to foster the younger generation as the chief bearers of new cultural creation.

The fourth perspective is learning about global issues. The global situation has seen considerable shifts since 2020. Global-scale natural disasters stemming from global warming have become more frequent, and we have had the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as other unexpected realities thrust upon us, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One could say that globalization has entered a qualitatively different phase. Globalization has had its stages, such as phase 1.0, in which Japan and the rest of the world boosted their mutual ties, and phase 2.0, in which the world as a whole become integrated, followed by a new period of turmoil, which could be described as phase 3.0. Education about different cultures must also squarely face the issues confronting this planet in such a period. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) provide us with the keys. Poverty, education, inequality, and peace and fairness are among the topics that ought to be learned about in education about different cultures.

3.Abilities to Cultivate

The widening perspectives in education about different cultures also require consideration of the abilities that ought to be cultivated. It must aim to cultivate new abilities beyond the first step of instilling interest and concern about different cultures and one’s own. The first is cultivating various ways of looking and thinking about things. The expanding cultural notions in this education has also put focus on sub-cultures, especially in terms of communities, generations, gender, disabilities, sexual preferences, and so on, and for these, various ways of looking and thinking about things are indispensable. When one interacts with people with different backgrounds, mutual understanding cannot develop within the established conventions that existed to date. Conventional binary relationships that assume foreigners don’t speak Japanese, that people with disabilities require care, and that elderly people require assistance, also place those individuals in the weaker position, which can stoke prejudice and discrimination. Building relations with people with diverse backgrounds requires the discovery of new perspectives and ways of involvement, and if we are to do this, it is essential to cultivate various ways of looking and thinking about things.

Second is the cultivation of critical thinking. Although this is an issue for school education as a whole, it is particularly essential in education about different cultures. Critical thinking is the ability to make one’s own judgments, on the basis of appropriate criteria, and the ability to question unreasonable rules and ready-made frameworks. It does not readily accept the existing social and cultural conventions and stereotypes; it is the ability to go back and appraise them critically. It is essential for education about different cultures from herein not only to be concerned about acquiring established knowledge, but also approach one’s own culture critically, and analyze the respective cultural traits from comparisons of cultures, and confront and consider solutions for social issues. It requires education which takes a critical approach to social structures and which is focused on social transformation. Critical thinking is also indispensable for initiatives in cultural creation.

Third is cultivation of the ability to relate with people and build relations with others. Discord and antagonism come with contact and interaction with different cultures, but adjustments must be made for them. It is recognizing the differences, which leads to acceptance. In the realm of education, the idea has been that one should be able to get along with anybody, but there are problems with this discourse. Emphasis ought to be placed on recognizing that there are those who will be incompatible with oneself, no matter what one does, and how to deal with them. Coexistence requires a rigorous dedication to living with one another by recognizing that acknowledged personally insurmountable differences nevertheless do and should have a right to exist in the same society (4), and that tolerance is essential for this. Cultivation of tolerance requires a proper understanding of the differences, and beyond that, practice at honing the imagination toward others. While such cultivation of tolerance and communication skills is essential in education about different cultures, these abilities come from relations with others through direct interaction, experience, and so on, and the issue is engaging in meaningful exchanges.

Fourth is cultivation of a social outlook and the ability to connect with society. Education about different cultures requires initiatives to resolve the issues faced by the globe and communities. Common global issues are often conspicuous within our own immediate communities, and it is essential that they be resolved through collaboration. The creation of new wisdom is moreover indispensable for resolving the issues as it is clear that the prevailing wisdom is insufficient for that purpose. In recent years there has been attention on inquiry-based learning from the need to solve issues by creating new wisdom from the prevailing wisdom through collaborative learning. An issue for education about different cultures is making global and community issues a matter for personal concern and striving for action toward solutions.

4.Practical Issues

Finally, let us consider the issues involved in putting into practice education about different cultures. The essential question is how to achieve deeper learning. This education has often centered so far on the so-called 3Fs (fashion, food, and festivals), but in practice, the problem has been that it can lead to a shallow understanding of cultures and stereotyping. And there has also been criticism of exchanges between different cultures providing activity minus any thinking. How to achieve deeper learning from the prevailing experience has clearly become a vital issue.

The education has broadened its targets, focusing on people with diverse backgrounds, such as foreign nationals, foreign students, people with disabilities, the elderly, and sexual minorities. It is also taking up matters such as the global issues of poverty, education, inequality, and peace and fairness. Learning about these issues, though, is apt to descend into learning of the normative kind, and put a stop to learning. The problem is that ends learning by eliciting model answers along the lines of “Don’t discriminate!”, “I’m not one to discriminate”, or “There must be educational opportunities for all”. The author has also dealt with these subjects in university classes, but has realized from the students’ reports and discussions with them and has countless times experienced that the learning does not move on, because it becomes constricted toward the “correct answers”, what one is expected espouse in public, as it were.

The perspective of “unlearning” is essential here.(5) It is realizing that what has been deemed obvious is not always the case, and that it is up to the person to leave that behind and pursue learning anew. An example is the prejudice and discrimination against people in so-called social minorities. Often it is shaped in the family, by the mass media and so on, but it was predicated in the learning. And while we can also gain a lot of knowledge about global issues from various media, we can also frequently fall into the sort of learning that loses sight of and generalizes about the realities in a country, territory, or other place, and that will provide us with easy solutions. It is vital at that point to jettison the knowledge and ideas one has acquired or internalized till then by what is referred as “unlearning”.

The Human Library is one form of practice. It is an initiative for reducing prejudice started by a Danish-based non-government organization at a Scandinavian music festival in 2000. It is an initiative for people to talk about their own lives, for people frequently subject to social prejudice, to open up and become “books”, and engage in dialogue with the “readers” who have turned up. A body of research on it and practice has appeared in Japan in recent years. There has been a study on the Human Library, on how it provides direct involvement and dialogue with people who have troubled lives and others close by who are of different cultures, providing contact with their manner of life, and moreover enabling the persons concerned to talk and open up about themselves.(6) This practice provides direct dialogue, which gives a sense of the realities of prejudice, discrimination and what it is like to have a troubled life and gets one thinking about what is needed to eliminate those things. “Unlearning” allows one to take a personal approach to social issues and open the way to further learning. The benefits of this practice, in the reduction of the individual’s own prejudice and understanding of others, hardly needs mentioning.

The problem, though, cannot not be resolved at the individual level given the social structuring of prejudice and discrimination, and must broaden its scope to the mechanisms of social discrimination and exclusion. The same applies to learning about poverty, education, inequality, peace and fairness, and other common global issues, in that a broadening and deepening of learning will come by directing our attention on the workings and structures of society. Education about different cultures then becomes a practical attempt to question social arrangements and cultivate people committed to reform and transformation. It must aim at cultivating practitioners for social transformation rather than merely being knowledgeable about and commenting on and criticizing the current conditions. We must come up with education about different cultures for opening up a new age.


  • (1) Morimo, Takeo. “Ibunka Rikai Kyōiku” (Education about different cultures) in Ibunka kan Kyōiku Jiten (The Encyclopedia of Intercultural Education), edited by the Intercultural Education Society of Japan, 2022, p.206.

  • (2) Aoki, Tamotsu. Ibunka Rikai (Understanding different cultures), Iwanami Shinsho, 2001, p.192.

  • (3) Article (in Japanese) about Shinobu Kawashima:”

  • (4) Kobayashi, Sayuri. “Tabunka-shakai no shitsuteki-henka to kanyō no Henyō” (Qualitative changes and transformations in tolerance in multicultural societies) in Hito wo Wakerumono Tsunagumono (Dividing and bringing people together), edited by Gunei Satō and Takeshi Yoshitani, Nakanishiya, 2005, p.152.

  • (5) On “unlearning”, refer to Tayōsei no Gakkyū-zukuri (Creating diverse classes), edited by the Osaka Diversity Education Network and Minoru Mori, Buraku Liberation Publishing House, Co., Ltd., 2014, pp.108-109.

  • (6) Tsuboi, Tsuyoshi. “Jiko to tasha no Kankeisei no Saikōchiku” (Rebuilding relationships between the self and others) in Human Library: Tayōsei wo hagukumu Hito wo kashidasu Toshokan (The Human Library: the libraries where people are on loan), authored and edited by Tsuyoshi Tsuboi, Masahiro Yokota and Kazuhiro Kudō, Akashi Shoten, 2018, pp. 295-296.

Gunei Sato

Professor Emeritus / Tokyo Gakugei University

Executive Director of the Japanese Language Institute (Urawa), The Japan Foundation

Has served as Professor, Director, and Vice President of Tokyo Gakugei University, President of Mejiro University, Professor at the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University. Currently Professor Emeritus at Tokyo Gakugei University and Mejiro University, in addition to being Executive Director of the Japanese Language Institute at The Japan Foundation (since 2020).

Field of expertise: Intercultural education (PhD in Education)

Recent works include:

Kokusai-rikai Kyōiku (International understanding), 2001.

Ibunka-kan Kyōiku (Intercultural education), 2010.

Tabunka-shakai ni Ikiru Kodomo no Kyōiku (Education for children in a multicultural society), 2019.

Kaigai de Manabu Kodomo no Kyōiku (Education of children studying abroad) (co-author), 2020.

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