Teaching Japan in World History

cultural encounters header image showing a buddha statue from ancient japan, a scroll with samurai drawing from medieval japan, a scroll showing boats and port in tokugawa japan, a drawing of a large building from meiji era, a photograph of soliders at war, and an altar with flowers for contemporary japan

The Cultural Encounters: Teaching Japan in World History online curriculum features seven historical-inquiry lessons on Japanese encounters with peoples, ideas, technologies, and institutions of Asia, Europe, and the United States from the Asuka/Nara periods to the present. Featuring a variety of primary and secondary sources, the lessons are designed to enhance middle and high school students’ historical thinking and literacy skills and their knowledge of Japan in world history.

Each lesson explores Japanese encounters with and approaches and responses to such global developments as the Silk Roads, the Mongol empire, transoceanic global trade, modernity, total world war, and ecological and humanitarian interdependence. Reconsidering historical narratives of Japan as “isolated,” this teacher-developed, standards-based curriculum contributes new topics and themes to supplement current world history textbooks’ coverage.

ancientAncient Japan

The Kentōshi: Japanese Interactions with East Asia, 538-794 CE explores the concepts of cultural borrowing and adaptation, focusing on the influence of political, economic, social, and cultural traditions from the Asian continent on the Yamato state in Japan. Students use both primary and secondary sources as they investigate the impact of Ancient Japan’s encounters with Chinese and Koreans.

Building Tōdai-ji asks students to evaluate whether the decision to build the Great Buddha and the Tōdai-ji temple complex in 8th-century Nara was a good use of resources. Students use both primary and secondary sources, texts and visuals, to consider the connections between governance and Buddhist beliefs and Nara Japan’s encounters with these continental ideas.


medievalMedieval Japan

History and Memory: The Mongol Invasions of Japan features medieval Japan’s encounters with the Mongol empire as a case study in historiography. Students develop and apply important historical thinking skills. In particular, they distinguish and examine secondary and primary sources, including samurai-commissioned scrolls and archaeological artifacts, and recognize the benefits and challenges of each in crafting a historical narrative.


unifying and tokugawaUnifying & Tokugawa Japan

More to a Closed Door than Meets the Eye: Early Modern Japanese Foreign Relations questions the label of “closed country” that is often applied to Japan in this period. Students analyze written, visual, and quantitative sources to develop understanding of how early modern Japan was linked to other parts of East Asia and to Europe through the movement of peoples and the exchange of ideas and materials.


meijiMeiji Japan

Meiji Era — Change or Continuity? focuses on material culture to help students understand the encounter with modernity in the everyday lives of Japanese people. Students analyze visual primary and written secondary sources to assess the impact and limits of modernization.



japan at warJapan at War

Above and Below the Mushroom Cloud: Perspectives on the Atomic Bombings considers multiple perspectives on the collision of science, American military, and Japanese citizens in total war in the final months of World War II. Students examine testimonies of atomic bomb survivors, an interview with Professor of Japanese History John W. Dower, and (optional) the documentary White Light/Black Rain to develop arguments about how the history of the atomic bombings should be told and remembered.


contemporaryContemporary Japan

Effects of the Kantō Tōhoku Earthquake, 2011 considers human-environment interdependence through a look at the local and global impacts of contemporary Japan’s 3.11 triple disaster. Students use photographs, a primary source, and Internet research to identify and categorize effects and synthesize this information in a photo essay.


The curriculum aligns with the National Standards in World History and the AP® World History Concept Outline, as well as Common Core Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies Standards. The lessons incorporate recent Japan studies scholarship and make use of accredited East Asia-related and other educational online media and resources.

Each lesson contains the following components:

• Primary source material for historical analysis
• Step-by-step directions for implementation
• Printable pdfs of the lesson, handouts, and assessment tools
• Reading-level notations for assigned readings

In addition, several lessons include “lesson demos” featuring tips for implementation by the teacher-author.

Since 2010, with the support of the Freeman FoundationJapan Foundation Center for Global PartnershipUnited States Department of Education Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Program, and United States-Japan Foundation, TEA has sponsored professional development programs focused on Japan’s international and intercultural relations as a lens to teach Japan in world history. Through online courses and study tours to Japan entitled Cultural Encounters: Japan’s Diverse Past and Present, 108 secondary teachers developed content knowledge and understanding of Japanese history to enable them to complicate students’ thinking about Japan and develop teaching plans on episodes of cultural encounters throughout Japanese history. Following a process of revision and field-testing, these efforts produced this collection of lessons. We would like to acknowledge and recognize the teachers, TEA staff, and colleagues in Japan who contributed to Cultural Encounters programs. It is our sincere hope that these lessons advance instruction using the framework of “cultural encounters” and build students’ historical thinking and literacy skills and understandings of Japan in world history.

Catherine Higbee Ishida
Project Director and Chief Editor
Program for Teaching East Asia, University of Colorado Boulder


  • Catherine Ishida and Laurel Singleton, TEA


  • Trevor Brimhall, Red Mountain High School, AZ
  • David Culley, Noblesville West Middle School, IN
  • Erica Gullickson, Robbinsdale Armstrong High School, MN
  • Catherine Ishida, TEA
  • Catherine Mein, Ballard High School, IA
  • Anthony Robbins, Odyssey School, CA
  • Sharlyn Scott, Desert Valley High School, AZ
  • Laurel Singleton, TEA
  • Kazuko Stone, Denmark High School, WI 
  • Kit Wainer, Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences, NY

Reviewers and Field-testers

  • Kyla Kloever, Belleville East High School, IL
  • Larry Leonhardt, Lawrence North High School, IN
  • Michelle Murray, North Scott High School, IA
  • Participants of the 2013 NCTA-FHGPA Japan Study Tour
  • Participants of the Fall 2014 Cultural Encounters: Japan’s Diverse Past and Present Online Seminar
  • Students of the Fall 2014 University of Tokyo Faculty of Education “Global Issues in the Japanese Educational Context” Course

Webinar Host

Web Design

  • Jen Spolnik


The Program for Teaching East Asia at the University of Colorado gratefully acknowledges the support of the United States-Japan Foundation in the development of Cultural Encounters: Teaching Japan in World History.

Created 2015 Program for Teaching East Asia, University of Colorado.