Teaching Empathy

At times, the concept of empathy — of thinking about how other people are impacted and live — seems to be more prevalent in Japanese culture than some I’ve seen, including my own. Let me tell you about three examples that come to mind:

First, every month at my school they have a day called “Inochinohi”, where the purpose of the day is to think about how people live and feel. It might as well be called “Walk a mile in their shoes day” because that’s what it is about: stepping outside oneself and thinking of others. For one of these classes, a teacher last year actually had me write an essay for students about hardships and stresses living in a foreign country.

Second, a large part of Japanese communication is centered on interpreting how other people feel and trying to avoid imposing your will on others. That’s were we get the “vagueness” in Japanese that some bemoan or revel in. It’s the essence of Japanese “Ishindenshin” or “heart to heart communication” where feelings and thoughts are communicated without words to another person. It is sometimes said that this type of communication is the ideal of Japanese language. In other words, knowing and empathizing with someone so well that Japanese isn’t required is held up as a grand emotional achievement.

Third, even on variety TV shows where they are looking at all the wild things and people happening around the world, there seems to be a focus on understanding and empathizing with other people’s suffering. I have seen so many of these types of shows that it seems that Japanese people tune in daily to programming that actually raises their hearts and minds to thinking about how other people are living, thus broadening their appreciation for other human beings.

Why is it important? Why am I writing about this? Well, two things.

One, for all those people who complain about stories like “Freddie the Leaf” or “A Mother’s Lullaby”, I think this cultural affinity for empathy is where they might come from.

Two, how might we be able to bring this tendency to empathize and engage in empathy building exercises benefit the English classroom? Speaking to another person in any language requires a lot of this type of imagination — from patiently listening to someone who’s having a hard time speaking to anticipating how our words and gestures and reactions will impact other people.

I have begun developing some materials for this subject. When I make more progress on them, I’ll try to present them to you all.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?