Sunday, October 3, 2010

Teaching Empathy and Understanding through History

I would like to share my experience as a history teacher at a Japanese School in Toronto.

Japanese School of Toronto Shokokai is run by Toronto Japanese Association of Commerce & Industry and its goal is to give sufficient education for the children who will eventually return to schools in Japan. The classes are conducted in Japanese and many of the students’ first language is Japanese. The curriculum is based on the guideline of Japanese Ministry of Education. The students go to Canadian school 5 days a week and come to Japanese school every Saturday to keep up with their studies in Japanese.

While I worked at the school, I taught history and Japanese language to junior high school students for a 4 year period. I made a point of teaching my students about Japanese aggression in the Asia Pacific War.

Every year, there was at least one student who expressed verbally or in a written essay their experience of being disowned by one or more of their Canadian school classmates because of their Japanese nationality. I cannot forget their puzzled, upset, and somewhat guilty facial expressions when they confided this. When I asked them why their friends had stopped speaking with them, they replied that it was because “of what Japan did in Asia in the past.”

I made a point of filling in the details. After our discussion, I realized that although my students had been quite upset or hurt by the comments, they had done nothing. They did not know what to do. Most of them responded to their classmates with silence. They were confused and shocked since this was probably the first time they realized themselves as ethnic Japanese in a hurtful way.

These incidents made me think about the way I teach history. How can I teach history in a way that touches their experience as Japanese living outside of Japan? Learning the facts comes first. Then we did research through other materials in addition to the textbook. I often used documentary films whose impacts were usually significant. Through this framework, I wanted them to learn how the war started, and to recognize the role of racial discrimination in causing its tremendous horror.

Although Japan had looked to China and Korea as advanced cultures for a long period of time, the ideology of Japanese superiority became widespread among Japanese before and during the war. This led to many forms of discrimination against minorities within Japan and in the territories it occupied. I wanted students to make the connection between these policies and practices, and the large-scale horrors of Nanking and elsewhere. When the students see this with clarity, some of them are able to understand their own experience of exclusion in a new light.

In my opinion, these Japanese students living in Toronto are in a unique position—they are able to experience the effects of history in their own lives, in their own relationships, in a way that they might not be able to do within Japan, which is not as multicultural a nation as Canada. As painful as these experiences were for them, they gave us as a class the opportunity to move ‘beyond the textbook.’ Although it is important for textbooks to reflect historical facts accurately, facts themselves do not necessarily lead to the empathy and understanding that are necessary for reconciliation.

It is when we are touched by history on a personal level that we can find the motivation to take action. Being outside of Japan gave my students the opportunity to be touched by history in a way that I hope will allow some of them to be catalysts for change when they return.

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