Japanese Culture: Koto

As part of the Kindergarten Japanese Culture program and our unit of inquiry into how we express ourselves, the children had the opportunity to work with Dr Amato, head of our International Center for Japanese Culture, who is a passionate and accomplished koto player.

Thank you to Yuri for creating this slideshow.

The children as makers: koinobori

The children have been making koinobori in preparation for Children’s Day, a Japanese festival to celbrate children, which takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month. Yuri read the children a book about Children’s day and then the children went to the ELC to observe the koinobori that were flying in the ELC playground. The children drew sketches of the koinobori to help them with their own designs.

When we got back, we had a discussion about what the koinobori was like (it’s form) and what kind of materials might work well for making a koinobori. The children came up with these ideas:


  • It has to float in the wind
  • It should be a little bit strong so the wind doesn’t tear it or rip it
  • It has to be a light material or the koinobori won’t fly
  • It should have some kind of handle so it doesn’t fly away


Then the children set to work on creating their koinobori. We set aside large chunks of time over several days for the children to work on their models. By now the children are experienced makers. Over the year they have had opportunities to explore many different kinds of construction and creation materials. They already have ideas about what might or might not work. Recently we have been thinking and talking a lot about where good ideas come from. As we meet back in a sharing circle at the end of each session, the children share their successes and frustrations and build on the ideas of each other to further refine their models. They have free access to the playground to test their models and most children have experimented with several different designs.

Koinobori inquiry from Yuri Air on Vimeo.

Kanji expert

Recently the children have been learning about Japanese writing so that they can make a bilingual book for their twitter buddies, KinderPals, in Canada. The children have had opportunities to conduct personal and group inquiries into the three different Japanese writing systems. This spontaneous, twitter-prompted inquiry has helped the children make connections to our new unit of inquiry into the many different languages people use to express ideas and feelings.

We found out that Hana’s grandmother is a Kanji expert. Today she came to school school and showed the children how she paints kanji.  First she painted some kanji for the children to guess and then the children had a go at painting their own kanji.

Many languages

Kieran’s dad, Fred, came to read to the class. Fred read a book in English and a book in Japanese. This led to a discussion after Fred left about the languages that the children, teachers and parents in our community speak. We talked about the different mother tongue languages spoken in our class, and about children who speak more than one language at home or at school, and about children who already speak fluently in a language other than English and are in the process of learning English. The conversation showed the depth of understanding that many of the children have of the benefits of being able to communicate in more than one language  in an increasingly global world.

  • If you speak English and Japanese then you can talk to people everywhere because everyone can understand you.
  • But not Sweden people.
  • Then you have to learn Sweden.
  • Well Australian is a language like English but it’s not English. It is English… but it’s not. It’s special English for Australian people.
  • That’s why Australians and American people can understand each other.
  • If you want to speak to everyone you have to know every language, so many languages, like twenty. Then you can speak to everybody in the world.
  • Croatia. My grandma speak Croatia and I speak Croatia.
  • I noticed how good Xxx is now at speaking English because now she can speak so many English words and she even knows her own language! I wish I could speak another language.
  • You have speak English play friend.
  • I no like English! I like Japan.
  • I love English!
  • Everybody love to speak their language.
  • I can speak at home with my brother and I speak different at school.
  • If you don’t understand someone you have to try and show what you are thinking.
  • You can do it with your face, to show your feeling and your idea.
  • Everyone feels the same inside but you have different words to tell about it but it’s still the same.

I was humbled by the empathy and respect that the children showed for each other as language learners. I see connections to our unit of inquiry into languages of expression, and make a note to follow up on this discussion in another session, and to use one our our thinking routines (a modified connect, extend, challenge routine) to help make the connections explicit.

A bilingual book for KinderPals

KinderPals tweeted us to ask what Konichiwa means in English. After much tweeting back and forth, the KC children offered to make a book for KinderPals. KinderPals liked the idea. The KC children tweeted KinderPals to ask them what words they would like to have in the book and KinderPals replied.

As the children talked about the words KinderPals wanted to know, they began to realize they didn’t actually know the words in Japanese. After some discussion Shoei and Ken were identified as Japanese experts and Yungi was “little expert”; but even our experts didn’t know how to write the words in Japanese. The children realized they would have to do some research and so our “Japanese writing inquiry” began.

The children began a collection of Japanese writing. They were surprised to find a lot of Japanese text in our classroom and around our school. There was a discussion about why this would be since our school in an English school. Jaiden pointed out that we were an international school. Aiden reminded everyone that there was some Korean writing on Cloud Bread, the Korean book that Yungi’s family had given to the class. Aiden went and got the book and we looked at it.

The children noticed that the Korean writing looked different to Japanese writing. Angus thought that we should find out more about Korean writing because, “it’s a little bit same and a little bit different and maybe it can help us to learn Japanese writing.” Several other children thought this was a good idea. Yungi offered to bring some Korean books from home.

Meanwhile, the teachers provided time and materials and the children began their own individual investigations:

Some children copied Japanese writing from bilingual books in the classroom.

Others looked through Japanese newspapers and junk mail and copied and cut out words they liked.

Some children had a go at doing some Japanese writing themselves. A few children made up their own Kanji.

Other children chose to explore Japanese writing though painting.

Yet others had a go at forming the symbols on the iPads.

We teachers have talked about how to support and extend the children’s inquiry. We wondered how to introduce the three different writing systems of Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji. We observed that some children are noticing and commenting on the features of the Japanese text they are finding. Scarlett noticed that some writing goes sideways and some writing goes up and down. Albe observed that some writing is “kind of bumpy” and Sofia found some writing with straight lines and some with curly lines. Jaiden thought some writing looked like pictures. Based on this, we teachers plan to suggest to the children that they sort their writing samples. We are not sure what criteria or categories the children will come up with, but their explanations will tell us a lot about what the children know already and will help us plan how to proceed.

Our visit to Takarajima Kindergarten

As part of a school wide focus on making connections with our local community, the two YIS Kindergarten classes went to spend time in a Japanese Kindergarten at the beginning of the month. The Kindergarten is called Takarajima -‘Treasure Island’; one of the teachers there told us that the Kindergarten was named after the treasure it holds -the children!

We divided the YIS children into small groups of three or four and they joined the classes of Takarajima students to engage in a wide range of experiences as together they explored signs of autumn. The YIS children had a wonderful time investigating the magical spaces of the yochien.

Zoe made this video that captures some snapshots of our morning.

During this time, both groups of children were connecting with each other, exploring non-verbal possibilities for communicating and enjoying the power of shared experiences. We look forward to following up this connection in the new year.


In Japan, Shichi-Go-San is a special festival for children who are three, five or seven years old. Children of these ages dress in traditional clothes and go to the shrine to pray for long life. They get a special, very long candy called Chitose Ame symbolizing healthy growing and a long life.

On the day of Shichi-Go-San we planned to walk to a local shrine where the children could bow, clap hands and wish for a long and healthy life. We bought a long Chitose Ame candy for each child. We wanted the children to make their own bags to carry the long candy back from the shrine. We decided to use a thinking routine called See, Think, Wonder to introduce this idea to the children.

We showed the children two shop-bought long Chitose Ame bags.

First, we asked the children what they could see.

  • I see turtle
  • Flower
  • Boy
  • I see a girl and a boy wearing a kimono
  • I see a bird, no, a crane.

Then we asked the children what that made them think about.

  • I am thinking about when I saw a real turtle and his head was bobbing in the water.
  • And I saw real cranes. I think they were cranes.
  • It makes me think about all the beautiful things in the world

Finally, we asked the children what that made them wonder.

  • I am wondering if Bob (the ELC turtle) is still alive.
  • I am wondering what the boy and girl are doing.
  • Lego. I wonder lego.
  • I wonder if we could make a bag out of lego?
  • I wonder what we are going to do with these?

I wondered aloud who the bags could belong to. The children thought they might be Yuri’s so they asked her, and she came and explained about Shichi-Go-San. Yuri explained to the children that we would all (even the six year olds!) walk to a near-by shrine and that everyone would receive  a long-life candy. She asked the children to make a bag to carry their candy.  When we adults planned this engagement, we  decided not to give the children any instructions for making the bags as we were interested to see what ideas and strategies they came up with.

For the next hour the children were deeply engaged in personal and collaborative inquiries into how to make a paper bag that was the right size for the candy, strong enough to hold the candy and designed in such a way that the candy would not fall out. We documented the process through photographs. Note the children’s facial expressions as they work, deeply engaged in what they are doing, and how they use each other as resources to help them with their problem solving.

In that hour the children were engaged in:

  • thinking about elements of design
  • planning which materials and techniques to use
  • testing their designs
  • problem solving and adapting the designs

Throughout the process the children collaborated, reflected, analyzed, predicted, hypothesized, encouraged, reflected and rejoiced! The finished bags are unique and each one reflects it’s designer’s personality!

A book about Japan

Recently, KC made some new Kindergarten friends on Twitter – @TexasKinderClass from Texas, USA. As the two classes tweeted back and forth, they realized that they wanted to know more about where each other lived. @TexasKinderClass offered to make a book about Texas for KC. When we received @TexasKinderClass’s book, the KC children were inspired to make a book about Japan to share with their twitter friends.

We had much discussion about what we should put in our book. Yungi suggested we should, “listen to everyone’s good ideas and then we could try out all the ideas and do the best ones.” The other children agreed. We started with a question: What would Kindergarten children in other countries like to know about Japan? We brain-stormed to up with a long and varied list. This list told me a lot about the theories the children had constructed to help them make sense of the world around them and the connections the children were making to prior knowledge and experiences.

  • Japan is Japanese world so not many England people are in Japan
  • Japan writing and England writing are different
  • Japan have so many island
  • And is mountain
  • And Japan have a big country, Tokyo
  • Japan is in Yokohama
  • There is 100 people in Japan
  • A hundred million eleventy people
  • Japan people speak Japanese. If you don’t know Japanese you can’t understand nothing
  • There is so much amazing things in Japan.
  • Mount Fuji is pretty amazing
  • We can see Mount Fuji from our school
  • Mount Everest is in Japan and it is the biggest mountain in the world, bigger than Fuji
  • But Fuji is more important because it has a volcano.
  • Japanese food is really interesting.
  • Sometimes Japanese food is yummy and sometimes it’s yucky
  • Japanese people eat so much rice every day.
  • That’s why you have to have chop sticks – Ohashi
  • And in Japan people eat a lot of seafood, especially octopus legs
  • And Senbei. I eat Senbei
  • Africa more hot like Japan, not hot
  • And there’s typhoons in Japan
  • And earthquakes
  • But I don’t think we should write about earthquakes because people might feel sad
  • And so many plants because I think Japanese people love plants

The children calculated that if we included everything on the list, our book would have 24 pages, which they thought was too much. For several days, we discussed what should be in the book. In the end, through negotiation and voting, we reached a consensus which was, as happens with consensus, no-one’s first choice but was something everyone could live with. The one unanimous decision was that the book should be non-fiction, “so that other kids can know about Japan, how it really is”, Sofia explained. We had lots of discussion about how to illustrate the book. We talked about copyright, and about not using other people’s images without their permission.

We published the book on iTunes (click here to download) and, for non-apple devices, on issu (click here) or read the book in scroll-down format below.

The children decided to dedicate their book to @TexasKinderClass for giving them the idea of making a book.

Visiting the park through the year

Throughout the school year, we shall be visiting Minato no Mieru Oka koen (Harbour View park), opposite school, to see how the park changes from month to month. As part of our Japanese Culture program, we are celebrating the coming of Autumn (Aki). We began with Otsukimi at the end of September. Throughout the month of October, we shall be visiting the park frequently to look for signs of Aki. Colorful leaves (koyo) are to the Japanese autumn what cherry blossoms are to spring. We gave the children special sketch-books and pencils and headed off the the park to see what we could find.

We have been tweeting with our buddy classes in Indonesia and Canada to find out about their seasons.


Otsukimi is a Japanese word for moon viewing. Japanese people appreciate the beauty of the moon and show thanks for a good harvest by making decorations with rice-cakes, vegetables, and seasonal plants. The September full moon is considered the most beautiful of all.

Click here for more Otsukimi pictures

In class we have been reading some stories about the moon. Yuri said that in Japan, people believe that they can see the shape of a rabbit on the moon. Tasha said that in Ireland some people can see a man in the moon. We learned a song about a man who lived on the moon and his name was Aitke Drum. Yuri found a video clip showing interviews with people about what shapes they saw on the moon. That gave us the idea to tweet to out twitter followers to ask them what shapes they see in the moon. Tomorrow we are going to skype with one of our school buddies in Indonisia to ask them what shapes they see and to find out if they have Otsukimi.

We found a  large floor puzzle which shows the Earth and moon and other planets. We noticed that some of Eric Carle’s books were about the moon. We found some of these books in Japanese and English! Some children went to the library to find other books about the moon. We looked at moon globe on the iPads and talked about the colour and texture of the moon’s surface. Some children chose to make clay models of the moon.

We discovered that in other countries people also celebrate the moon in September. In some countries this is known as a harvest moon. This Sunday (30th September) will be a full moon. The moon should rise at around 17:14 in the Tokyo/ Yokohama area. You might like to do some “moon viewing” with your children on that night, or on the nights just before or after the full moon. Click here to find out what time the moon rises.

You can find out more about moon viewing on the websites below:
English Otsukimi website