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Teaching Embodied: Cultural Practices in Japanese Preschools

reviewed by Paul Doyon - March 08, 2016

coverTitle: Teaching Embodied: Cultural Practices in Japanese Preschools
Author(s): Akiko Hayashi, Joseph Tobin
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022626310X, Pages: 224, Year: 2015
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Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin’s, Teaching Embodied: Cultural Practices in Japanese Preschools, focuses on how teachers support the social-emotional development of children in Japanese preschools and kindergartens. The book discusses social mindedness, especially with respect to how these settings reflect and reproduce the embodiment of culture in the corporeality of children. Hayashi is a Japanese psychologist who turned to anthropology and Tobin is an American anthropologist with thirty years of research experience in Japan.

Hayashi and Tobin examine how Japanese teachers use their bodies as pedagogical tools, and experientially engage in longitudinal tacit professional development. They accomplish this goal by reanalyzing a prior study of video clips of micro-interactions occurring between children, and between children and their teachers; reanalyzing teacher interview transcripts; and re-interviewing teachers and their respective directors.

Teaching Embodied is composed of six thematic chapters, plus the introduction and conclusion, and each examines a culturally specific pedagogical concept or process focusing on three Japanese early childhood educators’ experiences.

Hayashi and Tobin make clear in the introduction that this study concerns how Japanese preschool teachers act and talk, and their influence on student social-emotional development. They also acknowledge that there are other antecedents to behavior that cannot be ignored like policy, environmental affordances and constraints, and demographics.

Hayashi and Tobin emphasize that much of Japanese early childhood educational practice is culturally implicit, tacit, and embodied, and can be brought to awareness via reflective conversation with respect to cultural factors. The authors stress that expertise most likely develops via experience, and not necessarily through teacher education or professional development. They quote Bourdieu on habits versus disposition, which could be related to Piagetian concepts of assimilation and accommodation. One takes in new information by the process of assimilation, and the information already constructed in one’s thought structures undergoes revision in the accommodation of new information.

Chapter One delves into the concept of mimamoru, which can be loosely translated to “keeping a watchful eye over,” and is more precisely defined by Hayashi and Tobin in this context as the uniquely Japanese pedagogical approach of “observing and caring with minimal intervention” (p. 158), or a “pedagogy of restraint” (p. 138) where children are given the space and freedom to work things out for themselves. The next chapter examines the teaching and development of Japanese emotional concepts like sabishii (“loneliness” or “sadness”), and amae (“the desire to be taken care of by others”; or its verb-form amaeru, which means ”acting in a way that invites help and concern from others”) (p. 43). This relates to the concept of omoiyari (“empathy and/or consideration for others”) as the Japanese tend to have high regards for the cultural trait “of attending to and even anticipating the needs and feelings of others” (p. 44). This highlights the cultural trait of developing a high degree of sensitivity to others. The authors believe the nurturing of omoiyari is a major objective of both Japanese parenting and early childhood education. Japanese early childhood educational settings provide opportunities for children to experience and deal with their emotions, and the opportunity to develop an emotional inter-subjectivity between and among children. In Chapter Three, “The Pedagogy of Peripheral Participation,” Hayashi and Tobin reexamine the peripheral area of video clip scenes from prior interviews. The importance of contextuality in Japanese communication tends to focus more on the actual words being communicated as noted by Hall and Hall (1987).

I was reminded of the psychologist Richard E. Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why (2004), where he describes an experiment conducted by one of his Japanese graduate students, testing the theory that Japanese people tend to see phenomena through wide-angled lenses compared to their American counterparts. He showed Japanese and American students eight color vignettes in the experiment, with each scene containing a larger, more colorful, and faster-moving focal fish, and then slower moving animals and other objects in the background. Nisbett subsequently asked students to recall what was included in these vignettes. While both groups made roughly equal references to the focal fish, Japanese students referenced the background elements 60% more than their American peers.

Hayashi and Tobin state that, “we had failed to notice the children on the periphery of these scenes, children who watched the fights without (at least from our perspective) being actively involved” (p. 57) and describe these children as gyarari (“gallery”). The authors emphasize the need “to refocus our attention, both metaphorically and literally, from those fighting and mediating in the center of the frame to those in the surrounding gallery of peripherally participating observers” (p. 58). However, the authors’ reanalysis of the periphery’s importance not only draws attention to the significance of this group learning process in Japanese educational settings, but also perhaps the researchers’ cultural and academic biases regarding the way they engage in observation. As Nisbett states:

If some people view the world through a wide-angle lens and see objects in contexts, whereas others focus primarily on the object and its properties, then it seems likely that the two sorts of people will explain events quite differently. People with a wide-angle view might be inclined to see events as being caused by complex, interrelated contextual factors whereas people having a relatively narrow focus might be prone to explain events primarily in terms of the properties of the objects. (p. 109)

Chapter Four, “Learning Embodied Culture,” focuses on the below conscious teaching or enculturation of corporeal practices in early childhood educational settings where “Japanese young children learn to move, use, and position their bodies in characteristically Japanese ways and therefore, in a crucial sense, where they become Japanese” (p. 82). One concept highlighted in the corporeal enculturation of the Japanese is that of kejime (“distinction”). Very young Japanese children learn to distinguish between contexts of varying levels of formality, form demarcations more sharply than people from other cultures, and corporeally adjust their behavior appropriately.

In the fifth chapter, “Expertise,” Hayashi and Tobin describe their return to the research site ten years later, and discover that the two subjects of the original study have grown as teachers. The teachers were, in turn, surprised to see how they appear in the videos from ten years ago. These educators state that they seemed to have been rushed and felt constrained as younger and less experienced teachers.

While Hayashi and Tobin address the problem of studying the development of expertise, they give examples of a number of research studies that compare novice and expert teachers either via observations or questionnaires. Their unique approach to studying expertise development in comparison to induction studies, which only involve the first three years of teaching, is that they look for differences that occur after the fifth year because it takes a long time to become an expert teacher. They also point out that Japanese early childhood education settings “are especially ill-structured, in the sense of having less specific learning outcomes . . . and fewer curriculum guidelines” (p. 111) when compared with their Western, Chinese, and other counterparts, hence making it more difficult to identify the “differences between beginners and experts and the processes by which expertise is acquired” (p. 111). Hayashi and Tobin distinguish many traits these teachers develop during years of practice (e.g., composure, spontaneity, and interactivity). They examine the concepts of emptiness, attention, understanding children’s amae, and professional judgment as areas educators also develop in their instructional practices. The authors suggest that these teachers may have gained expertise via experience.

I would suggest that this process can be further informed by experiential learning theory and the Lewinian model of action as described by David A. Kolb in his book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (1984). Development is seen as a process where learning, change, and growth are facilitated by an integrated process beginning with here and now experiences, and followed by collecting data and observations about those experiences. The data is subsequently analyzed, and conclusions from that analysis are fed back to the participants of the experience for their use in modifying behavior and choices in the future.

In Chapter Six, “Early Childhood Education Policy as Cultural Practice,” Hayashi and Tobin establish that the minimalist hands off policy of mimamoru is a pedagogy of restraint where both teachers and students are allowed to work things out for themselves. They contrast the Japanese system, with its emphasis on child development, with the U.S. policy of No Child Left Behind, which emphasizes specific standards and learning outcomes. The Japanese approach has a long history and stresses the value of “cultivating young children’s feelings, interests, and motivations by providing a supportive, stimulating environment” (p. 140), and was initially championed by the founding father of Japanese early childhood education, Sozo Kurahashi.

In the final chapter, Hayashi and Tobin point out that the book was divided into separate chapters with distinct topics for heuristic reasons that may cause the interconnectivity of these concepts to be lost. The concluding chapter attempts to combine topics by analyzing their relevance to Japanese early childhood education.

One thing that most gaijin (“outsiders”) who have spent any time in Japan most likely notice about many Japanese people is their acute sensitivity to their surroundings and profound consideration of others. On the other hand, many expat Japanese living in the U.S. seem to note that Americans lack sensitivity to others and their environment.

As someone who has spent twenty years living and working in Japan, both as a teacher of English and student of Japanese culture, and had the opportunity to work in kindergartens and nursery schools in both cultures, I found the descriptions in Teaching Embodied captivating and full of cultural insight. The Japanese government wisely sent out emissaries to the rest of the world in order to bring back knowledge to develop the nation after the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. America could also learn much from the Japanese regarding the implementation of an educational system that nurtures the development of sensitivity and consideration of others. This extremely important work is highly recommended for those interested in gaining a more in depth understanding of the Japanese and their culture, but also anyone involved in child development and education.


Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1987). Hidden differences: Doing business with the Japanese. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall PTR.

Nisbett, R. E. (2004). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently . . . and why. New York, NY: Free Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 08, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19561, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:29:58 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Doyon
    Napa Valley College
    E-mail Author
    PAUL DOYON is an Adjunct Instructor of English as a Second Language (ESL) at Napa Valley College, Napa, CA. He has been teaching ESL for over 27 years and holds an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies, a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), and a BA in Psychology. His teaching and research interests are related to language, education, psychology, and culture. He spent twenty years of his life in Japan and has also lived in Australia, China, India, Thailand, and Chile. He is presently working on a paper related to the development of intersubjectivity via the use of newsletters that feed student feedback back to the students. His publications include “A review of higher education reform in modern Japan” (Higher Education, 2001) and “Shyness in the Japanese EFL class: Why it is a problem, what it is, what causes it, and what to do about it” (The Language Teacher, 2000).
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