Diane C. OBARA

Using Technology for Intercultural Communication in a Japanology Elective Course

(This article has been adapted from its original version that was printed in the JALT journal of The Language Teacher (2018) in order to suit this publication.)

In 2014, in relation to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s (MEXT) Top University Project, many “Super Global Universities” revamped their curriculums. Thus, in addition to the basic academic communication and skills courses they required for freshmen, a larger variety and amount of content electives in English started popping up in language programs throughout Japan.

Among these, Japanology electives (in English) have turned out to be some of the most popular. Naturally, for students who have completed their mandatory English courses, and are around a B2 CEFR level, taking a content course focusing on a topic they presumably have a lot of general knowledge about in their first language, seems like a logical progression and something many students have a desire to be able to do. Having been assigned one of these courses for the first time in 2018 while working at Sophia University, it brought to mind a similar course that a friend, Ms. Sigler was teaching at the University of Akron in the U.S. entitled “Japanese Culture through Film.” Throughout the past 15 years, she and I have been using CALL and CMC to collaborate on various projects, and so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to again try to conduct some kind of intercultural communication between our classes. This article outlines the course that I designed and describes how our two classes collaborated the first time that I taught it. Since then, as a result of its success and the positive feedback from students, I’ve been able to continue to use this content and adapt the lesson to my current context, at Rikkyo University, with the hope and intention that I can continue to develop it in the future.

Textbook and Films:

The text selected was The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture, by Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno. This book has essays that focus on various aspects of Japanese culture, such as communication styles, behavior patterns, values, and attitudes. I was assigned to teach the course for two semesters. In the spring, the class would focus on: bushido (The Way of the Warrior), omiai (arranged marriage in Japan), ikuji (child-rearing practices), and gambari (Japanese patience and determination), to name a few. In addition, students would watch four films that demonstrate these concepts (Twilight Samurai, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Parenthood, and Departures). Finally, students would answer some of the questions at the end of each book chapter to use in small-group discussions.

During her spring semester, Ms. Sigler’s class watched films, had discussions, wrote blog entries, and gave short presentations related to several chapters from this same text as well.


My Class in Japan:

During the first semester that I taught the class, students who had completed at least one semester of the required Academic Communication course, as well students from other departments, were permitted to sign up. For the first semester, there were 28 students initially enrolled. The course was listed at an Intermediate 1 level, but because many students take it based on the time that it is offered, there are often advanced and near-native speakers participating as well. In this class, levels ranged from CEFR B2 - C2, with a couple of students even having lived in English-speaking countries for a few years. Thus, in reality, the class had mixed levels.

University of Akron:

Ms. Sigler’s students were native-English speaking upperclassmen (sophomore - seniors) from various departments (Nursing, Business, Engineering, etc.), who were interested in Japanese culture. On average, she has about 25 students.


Due to the time difference between Akron and Tokyo, synchronous communications were impractical. Therefore, the instructors chose asynchronous video blogs (VLOGs). Since the American students were almost ready to conclude their semester (early May), they had already watched all of their films and completed the majority of their discussions and work. However, here in Japan the students were only just beginning their term (mid-April), so they had yet to begin their studies. Thus, the instructors decided to ask the American students to reflect on their course through the creation of VLOGs. We asked the following questions:

  1. What was your favorite movie from the class, and why?
  2. What did you learn about Japan that was the most interesting?
  3. What do you want to know more about?
  4. If you had to choose key concepts about the US to teach Japanese students, what would they be?
  5. What movies would you recommend to Japanese students to watch that portray these concepts?
  6. Do you have any other questions?

Ms. Sigler’s students completed this assignment with their own devices, and then uploaded them to the class blog on tumblr. Seventeen students completed the VLOG responses.

In the second class, in a CALL classroom, students in Japan watched one of the American student’s VLOGs. The students then wrote written responses to the question, “What do you want to know more about (of Japan)?” For example, if the American student wanted to know more about the Japanese education system, then the Japanese student might explain about their high school life, club activities/sports, and the pressure of entrance exams. (The American students had asked Japanese students to record their own VLOG responses, but at that university, the CALL room was not equipped with video-recording software, so they were not able to do that.) Ultimately, because of the timing of the semesters during the spring, as well as the available technology, this assignment felt rather incomplete, because the American students were not able to receive responses/reactions. All of these issues became ones that I considered for how to expand the activity in the future.

Benefits of Using VLOGS:

In all the years that Ms. Sigler and I have been collaborating, her students always comment about how exciting it is to talk to “real” Japanese students! At their universities, they have exposure to studying with many international students, but to actually have the opportunity to speak with someone who’s living and studying in Tokyo is a rare opportunity.

For the Japanese students, it’s motivating. They can test their English listening skills with a native speaker. VLOGs are great, because students can start and stop and rewind them to clarify. After the assignment, when students are asked: “Has the activity (listening and reacting to the American students’ VLOGs) been beneficial/motivating for you?,” 26 out of 28 answered that it had been. One of their responses was: “American students tried to tell more details about each question with no hesitation. In general, Japanese students don’t participate so much, so we should imitate their attitude as we can.” Another student responded, “Yes it has!!! Through this video, I could imagine what kind of classes they [American students] were taking, know what Americans think the uniqueness or key concepts of their culture, and know what they were interested in! These information are something we can only gain for student’s real voice, and it is a valuable experience.” And another stated, “Yes, it has been motivating for me because I want to study abroad, so this activity is very close to study in the overseas and useful. And also, we can learn American student’s idea about Japan. It’s very interesting.” Specifically for listening, one student said, “It has been motivating for me. I’m not good at listening, so that listening and reacting to the American students’ speech promotes my listening skill and also writing skill.” Finally, “It was interesting, for in the VLOG, I could see a sort of American personality. It’s normally difficult to know about foreigners without going there.”

As the teacher, I can globally monitor all of the students’ levels by walking around the classroom/listening in on the CaLabo system, to get an overall idea of how to pace future discussions. Plus, as the student mentioned before, it’s a great activity for the beginning of the semester, because the students hear a native model of how I would like them to be having their own discussions throughout the semester. It brings the discussion questions to life, sets the tone, and gets them off to a strong start.


Other than the lack of video-recording technology for the Japanese students, the only other notable challenge was regarding the difference in the semester calendar. At other universities, when I’ve attempted this kind of activity, students have often been resistant to the idea of homework or not had a high enough English level (at least CEFR B2) to listen to native speakers. But the students in this course were highly motivated and able, so those were not problems. For teachers who have never attempted an activity like this, I would say that finding a reliable and enthusiastic teacher to collaborate with might also be a challenge initially.


In the end, a VLOG assignment of students recording their answers to questions on a topic, uploading, and sharing them, is really not that much extra work for the teacher and students, and can easily be adapted to different levels and added as extension activities to lessons. As a teacher of this Japanology course, the greatest benefit was being able to get new university students to understand the foreign students’ mindsets and also to imagine the kinds of conversations they themselves should be having in their upcoming discussions during the term when we talk about these same Japanology topics.

As a result of that push for globalizing at universities around Japan, many of my students at that time commented that the reason they chose that university was because it was international or because they wanted to study with foreign students. CALL activities like these are a great way to satisfy that expectation of their desired college experience, especially for students who are non-English majors, and for whom these opportunities might not be as readily available.