Charts and Graphs in
Japanese Elementary School Social Studies Textbooks


Gary DeCoker and Erica Erickson

When organizing and presenting their research, social scientists often rely on graphs and charts. The media, too, typically capsulize important information using these visual tools. For this reason, the ability to interpret charts and graphs is a crucial skill for both social scientists and the general population seeking to understand the social research that moves a society. In this article, which uses Japan as an example, we hope to encourage social studies educators in the United States to pay more attention to teaching with visual tools.

In the United States, elementary school teachers typically introduce graphs and charts in kindergarten or first grade. They might have students indicate their favorite fruit by drawing its picture and attaching it to a bar graph. Or, they might tell the students to line up by hair color to form a human bar graph. When students enter the upper elementary grades, they are ready for more complex skills. Charts and graphs become more abstract and the information they present more complex. In these grades, students need to do more than create their own charts and graphs. They must learn to interpret them. The skill of interpretation, however, receives insufficient attention in most U.S. classrooms.

Teachers in Japanese elementary schools, like their counterparts in the United States, provide activities where their students learn to collect, organize, and present data. But Japanese teachers also spend many hours helping their students learn to interpret data presented in charts and graphs. They do this by relying on the many up-to-date examples provided in Japanese social studies textbooks. Elementary school social studies textbooks in the United States, in contrast, offer few opportunities for students to practice reading data presented in charts and graphs.

The idea for this article began when we noticed the significant number of charts and graphs in Japanese upper-elementary school textbooks. Fourth- and sixth-grade textbooks on average include 35 to 45; in fifth grade, where the study of economics dominates the curriculum, the number approaches 150. Our original intention was to compare elementary textbooks in the United States and Japan. In examining U.S. social studies textbooks, however, we discovered that the charts and graphs in them are so few in number and limited in sophistication that comparison would yield little return. For this reason, we determined to focus only on the use of charts and graphs in Japanese elementary textbooks, using three of the eight series available for examples.1

Our analysis of the Japanese textbooks includes a description of four types of graphs and charts along with examples from each of the elementary school grades. Our goals are as follows: (1) to alert U.S. textbook companies and social studies educators to an important skill missing in U.S. elementary school social studies textbooks, (2) to give examples of the way this skill is taught to Japanese school children, and (3) to provide general information on Japanese textbooks and the social studies curriculum.


Japanese Elementary School
Social Studies Textbooks2

Japanese elementary social studies textbooks follow the Ministry of Education Course of Study. This document, revised approximately every ten years, provides guidelines for each subject area by grade level. Guided by the 1989 revision, and with approval from the Textbook Authorization Council (an advisory body of the Ministry of Education), the eight commercial publishing companies producing elementary school social studies textbooks published the series analyzed here in 1992.3 The level of detail in the Course of Study makes the content of the eight textbook series nearly identical. Each company produces single volumes in grades one and two, and dual volumes in two parts in the remaining four grades of elementary school. They also produce teachers’ editions and student workbooks that elaborate the textbook content.

Table 1

Table 1 provides a brief description of the social studies content of the six elementary school grades as prescribed by the 1989 Ministry of Education Course of Study.4 Grades one and two have a newly created subject called “Daily Life” (seikatsu), which combines science and social studies; grades three through six have a curriculum on “Society” (shakai) equivalent to our social studies.

The Japanese national government provides a new textbook for each student free of charge every year. The size of Japanese textbooks makes them easy for young readers to manipulate and carry, and students typically take their books home each night in their backpacks.5 Recent advances in the publishing industry have resulted in significant changes in the look of Japanese textbooks. Color photographs, cartoon characters, charts, and graphs grace almost every page.

Textbook publishers typically revise their books every four years, although these revisions consist mostly of updating information. Substantive changes are made only when the Ministry of Education produces a new Course of Study. Many prefectures (the equivalent of U.S. states), cities, and rural localities produce supplementary textbooks that contain local information that parallels the national textbooks. Charts illustrating local industries, natural resources, or per capita consumption of various food products, for instance, serve to enhance similar charts in the national textbooks.


The Four Types of Charts and Graphs

Each of the four types of charts and graphs are presented separately below using examples from the three textbooks series we chose to examine in depth. Seven samples taken from these series and translated into English are also provided. Almost all of the charts and graphs in the textbooks appear in color. None uses English.


1. Bar Graphs

Bar graphs in the Japanese textbooks studied differ in complexity on two criteria: (1) symbolic representation and (2) number correspondence.6 Regarding symbolic representation, bar graphs in earlier grades include pictorial symbols of the data, e.g., cartoon-like images of fish or people. Students merely count the symbols to arrive at a number. In later grades, abstract symbols such as blocks are used. More advanced bar graphs include only the bars, requiring students to use the axis to determine the number represented by the bar. Regarding number correspondence, simple bar graphs use pictorial symbols with one-to-one correspondence, i.e., one symbol represents one unit of the data. More complex graphs use one symbol to represent more than one unit. “Stacked graphs” sometimes illustrate percentages. The complete bar may represent 100 percent and portions of the bar represent fractions thereof.

Bar graphs do not appear in the first two grades. In the third grade, most bar graphs use pictorial symbols. A third grade unit in the CS series “People whose Work Makes Use of the Land” includes sections on work in the city, on farms, and at factories. The textbook uses four bar graphs to illustrate land area devoted to fruit production, types of factories, the fish catch, and occupations. Each graph contains five or six categories. Pictorial symbols represent the data; for instance, a block equals one million square meters of land, a factory symbol equals ten factories, and a fish equals one hundred tons of fish. In the example below a person, depending on the size, represents 100 or 1,000 people (seeFigure 1).7

By fourth grade, most bar graphs are abstract, using bars rather than pictorial symbols. Pictures might appear, but they tend to illustrate a category on the graph rather than the number of items. Many of the graphs show one category over time. In a unit titled “Life in Various Regions,” OS includes an eleven-page section on the island-prefecture of Okinawa. Ten bar graphs appear, one illustrating the average number of typhoons per month, another the number of tourists each year since 1975. The most complex bar graph illustrates the number of tons of various produce shipped each month from Okinawa in 1988. The bar for each month is divided into four sections of different colors that represent the four types of produce.

The fifth-grade textbooks include the largest number of graphs, and some of the most complex. In a seven-page section titled “Tied to the World through Trade,” CS uses seven bar graphs of varying complexity. One simple example shows Japan’s imports and exports in trillions of yen for every ten years from 1960. Two pages later, a graph presents Japanese imports and exports to and from five countries in 1990. A subsequent stacked graph, one of the most complex in any of the textbooks, illustrates the percentage of total imports and exports by region of the world (see Figure 2).

Figure 2


2. Line Graphs

Line graphs, abstract by their very nature, represent related data through a series of points connected to form a line. Use of a line graph requires data to be represented on a continuous number scale, often a time interval. Line graphs can also be used to illustrate such things as distance. The introduction of line graphs in these Japanese textbook series does not seem to be based on a developmental sequence. Overall, the graphs do not seem any more or less complex in any of the three upper-elementary grades. The content of the graphs, of course, becomes more sophisticated in the older grades.

The fourth-grade textbooks contain many bar/line graphs. A logical transition to line graphs would have drawn on these graphs by connecting the tops of bar graphs with a line to form a line graph. The bar/line graphs in the textbooks, however, tend to superimpose a line graph on top of a bar graph to show additional information. KS’s fourth grade textbook does this in a section on “Fire Protection.” The bars show the number of fires in each year from 1980 to 1990; the lines show the number of deaths from the same years.

Most of the line graphs show time intervals, either years or months. CS’s fourth-grade textbook presents line graphs of average temperatures by month for six cities around the world—one from a tropical climate, one from the southern hemisphere, and four from the northern hemisphere. The graphs fit well into the section “Investigating Climate.” The other textbooks include similar graphs sometimes adding the number of sunny days.

The economic focus of the fifth-grade curriculum presents many opportunities for line graphs. OS’s eight-page section “Japan’s Agriculture and Our Lives” illustrates the monthly fluctuation in the price of rice, mikan, and cucumbers over a two-year period. Later in the section, it displays on a line graph Japan’s self-sufficiency ratio for seven foods from 1960 to 1988. The graph clearly illustrates the rapid decline in Japanese production of many important staples of the Japanese diet, a major concern of some Japanese government officials (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

OS’s fifth-grade section “Japan’s Trade: People’s Lives and Industry” (nine pages) includes four bar graphs and one line graph. The line graph contains two lines—imports and exports—covering the years 1960 to 1989 (see Figure 4). Japan’s trade deficit, beginning in the 1980s, is clearly shown as the gap between the two lines increases. Next to the graph is a photograph illustrating trade tensions between Japan and the U.S. Two men are destroying a Japanese car with sledge hammers behind a sign stating, “UAW says, ‘If you sell in America, build in America.’”

Figure 4

The sixth-grade textbooks use line graphs to display historical information, e.g., Meiji Period (1868-1912) school enrollment for boys and girls, or falling farm prices in the Depression era. In the final unit, “Japan and the World,” CS includes a line graph illustrating the rise in the number of sister-city affiliations between Japanese and foreign cities from the first one established in 1955 to the total of 619 in 1988.


3. Pie Charts

Pie charts, or circle charts, make clear the ratio of the part to the whole. The complexity of the concept of ratio makes pie charts more common in the fifth and sixth grades. Only OS includes pie charts in fourth grade, and this series seems to employ a different strategy from the other two. Until the middle of the fifth grade, most of the pie charts in this series do not include percentages. The other two series begin pie charts in the fifth grade and almost all of their charts include percentages. Except for this distinction, the level of complexity of the pie charts does not vary.

One form of pie chart found in each series records a total value in the center of the pie and expresses the ratios of that total in percentages for each “piece” of the pie. Students can calculate the total value of each piece by multiplying the percentage by the total. Providing the student with a concrete total value, rather than merely supplying percentages of an unstated whole, makes the pie chart less abstract.

A good example of this technique exists in CS’s fifth-grade section titled “Automobile Producing Regions” (twelve pages). This section explains the complexity and increasing costs of research and production in the automobile and other industries. In the center of the pie chart “Research Expenditures by Industry,” the total expenditure for 1988 of 9.7752 trillion yen appears. The percentages of this figure—investments by various industries, universities, research facilities, etc.— make up the pieces of the pie (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

OS also uses this technique in its fifth-grade text in a section titled “The Nation’s Land and People.” Pie charts illustrate land use. Once again, the totals—in this case, hectares of land—fill the center of the charts. The pieces of the pie represent the percentage of land in each category, e.g., residential, forest, or agricultural. Decimals are rounded carefully to ensure that the total of the ratios equals 100 percent.

In a fifth-grade section titled “A Look at Industry” (nine pages), OS again uses this style of pie chart. Each of the five pie charts in this section represents one industry: machine, metal working, chemical, textile, and food. The percentages of the total cost of manufacturing in each industry illustrate the amount of yen spent in various geographical regions of Japan.

The sixth-grade OS text contains a slightly different type of pie chart. An insert titled “The Dark Side of Industrial Development” explains the long hours worked by women in textile factories. The pie chart titled “A Female Factory Worker’s Day” represents the twenty-four hours in a day. The pieces of the pie show the amount of hours spent in daily activities (see Figure 6).

Figure 6

Some of the simplest pie charts show up at the end of the sixth grade texts. In KS’s last section, titled “Seeking Peace in the World,” one pie chart shows the percentage of the United Nations expenditures supported by various countries. Japan is second only to the United States. The other pie chart in this section provides the sources of the world’s foreign aid to developing countries in percentages spent by various countries. Japan’s 19.2 percent contribution to the total led the world in the late 1980s.


4. Direction Charts, Flow Charts, and Organization Charts

Direction charts present simple directions, or a step-by-step process, in the form of pictures—for example, the steps in planting a seed. Flow charts show a more complicated process where options or possibilities exist at certain points, e.g., the process of creating a television news program. Organization charts illustrate the relationship of one or more entities to other entities, e.g., the branches of the federal government.

The charts appearing in the Japanese textbooks are either cartoons or photographs. In the photographs, children of the same age level as the reader often are demonstrating a project. These photographs, common in the first and second grade curriculum combining science and social science, most often come from science. Almost every page in the textbooks shows cartoon or actual children engaged in a variety of activities with brief, written-word explanations.

All first- and second-grade textbooks show the step-by-step process of planting a seed and caring for the plant. Other projects include science experiments in which children make various items, such as kites and whistles. Teachers can use these images of busy children for discussion or to start activities of their own. In a twelve-page section titled “Letters Connect People to Each Other,” KS’s second-grade textbook includes a flow-chart that shows how a letter gets from the mailbox to the addressee’s home (see Figure 7).

Figure 7

Third- through sixth-grade textbooks include increasing amounts of written information, but still rely heavily on visual images. All pages have at least one visual image, and on most pages, these images seem to cover about half the page. KS’s third-grade textbook includes a two-page layout with eight photographs of the growing of cabbage, beginning with the tilling of the land and ending with the cabbage being shipped out in boxes from the warehouse. In a ten-page section, “Working in a Factory,” CS shows the process of making wood veneer, from the cutting of logs to the gluing of the thin layer of veneer on boxes.

Each fourth-grade textbook includes visual representations of the incineration of garbage and the distribution of electricity. Following a long section titled “Our City’s Water Supply,” CS adds a supplemental four pages labeled “Resources.” One of the charts illustrates a newly constructed building that recycles its water. Fresh water flows into sinks and used water is purified and recycled for use in toilets.

Each fifth-grade textbook shows some part of an automobile assembly line, e.g., the assembling of a seat or the installation of a motor. Each also illustrates the production of television programs. A cartoon-image flow chart appears in KS’s six-page section on broadcasting companies (see Figure 8). In the first stage, people sit around a conference table making such comments as, “Let’s make a segment on politicians,” “Is there anything in sports besides sumô?,” and “We should send a camera to the site where all the people are gathering.” The next stage shows an interview and a helicopter filming a crowd. In the third stage, people are editing the footage. The fourth stage is the studio newscast. The last stage shows the live broadcast going out over the airwaves.

Figure 8

The sixth-grade textbooks use fewer of these charts. The most common is an organization chart of the Japanese federal government at various points in Japan’s history. In its unit titled “Our Lives and the Government,” CS includes a chart of the decision-making process involved in the building of a community center. Small cartoon images illustrate the eight-step process described in sentence form.


The 1994 NCSS Curriculum Standards explicitly mention data analysis only once (although sample lesson plans sometimes call for it). In Strand 3, People, Places, & Environments, Part C, programs for the early grades are encouraged to “use appropriate resources, data sources, and geographic tools such as atlases, data bases, grid systems, charts, graphs, and maps to generate, manipulate, and interpret information.”8 Social studies methods textbooks used in teacher education programs give charts and graphs about the same amount of attention, typically three or four pages in a 300 plus-page book.

In terms of coverage, charts and graphs receive more attention in the U.S. mathematics curriculum; college methods textbooks and elementary school textbooks include more detailed information than is typically included in the social studies curriculum. Some social studies educators, already overwhelmed by the breadth of the social studies curriculum, might decide to leave charts and graphs to the mathematics curriculum. The problem with this decision, however, is that math textbooks often do not include a meaningful context for charts and graphs. These books use invented data to teach the skills of reading and sometimes producing charts and graphs, but they do not adequately show their practical use.

Almost all of the charts and graphs in the Japanese social studies textbooks, both national and local supplementary books, come from actual data. Students learn to use the graphs to further their understanding of important social studies content. Charts and graphs seldom appear in Japanese mathematics textbooks. When included, they add to a lesson on averages or percentages, teaching mathematical rather than social studies concepts. In the Japanese social studies textbooks, all of the charts and graphs are integrated into the teaching units and thereby enhance the written and pictorial information. Separate skill lessons do not exist. The few examples of charts and graphs in U.S. social studies textbooks, however, often include invented data presented in a skill lesson that is unrelated to the content of the chapter.

Teachers in the United States probably cannot look forward to a sudden increase in the quantity or quality of charts and graphs in social studies textbooks. For that reason, they will have to take initiative themselves to supplement their curriculum. In the early elementary grades, teachers might consider asking students to produce data by conducting various surveys of their classmates and families. Teachers and students could then use computer databases to produce charts and graphs from the students’ data. In the upper elementary grades, teachers should continue these activities. In addition, they should begin including charts and graphs from various sources, especially newspapers and magazines, in order to teach the skills of analysis.

Charts and graphs are everywhere. We take in information from them almost every day. They organize data and help us grasp complex information. As teachers, we must make sure our students have the understanding and confidence needed to use charts and graphs as learning tools. If students integrate these tools into their repertoire of skills, they will be able to continue to use them as tools for daily living throughout their lifetimes.



1. We analyzed three of the eight Japanese elementary school social studies textbooks. Because all textbook companies follow a national curriculum, all eight series are remarkably similar. The series we analyzed are Chûkyô Shuppan (CS), Kyôiku Shuppan (KS), and Ôsaka Shoseki (OS). Because visual images appear on every page of the social studies textbooks for each grade level, it is sometimes difficult to make distinctions between categories of charts and graphs. For this reason, the numbers given are rough averages.

2. The information for this section is taken from Gary DeCoker, “‘Internationalization’ in Japan’s Elementary School Social Studies Textbooks: First Lessons in Government Ideology,” in Thomas P. Rohlen and Christopher Bjork, eds., Education and Training in Japan (3 vols.), Vol. 2, 191-214. For more information on the Japanese elementary school social studies curriculum, see Eiji Yamane, “Social and Economic Education in the Japanese Elementary School National Curriculum,” Children’s Social and Economics Education 1, no. 1 (January 1996): 31-44. The authors also recommend Elaine Gerbert’s article on Japanese and U.S. reading/language arts textbooks, “Lessons from the Kokugo (National Language) Readers,” Comparative Education Review 37, no. 2 (May 1993): 152-180.

3. The Course of Study was revised in 1998 for implementation at the elementary school level in 2002. This will result in the publication of new series of textbooks in each subject area. For a description of the textbook publishing process, see Masaru Tani, et al., “Textbook Development and Selection in Japan and the United States,” Social Education 57, no. 2 (February 1993): 70-75. For a description of the content of secondary school textbooks, see Thomas P. Rohlen, Japan’s High Schools (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 247-265. Revisions of the 1992 elementary school textbooks were produced for the 1996-97 school year. These revisions, which still followed the 1989 Course of Study, typically consisted of updating information, e.g., adding current data or incorporating the changes of the names of the countries in the former Soviet Union. The changes were not significant enough to affect the conclusions of this study. The next substantial change in the social studies curriculum will come after the revision of the Course of Study sometime around the turn of the century.

4. The Course of Study includes grades one through twelve. The elementary grades are one through six. Kindergarten is considered part of the preschool curriculum.

5. The books are usually under 100 pages per volume, soft-cover, and approximately 7 x 10 inches.

6. Formal definitions and descriptions of various types of charts and graphs can be found in methods textbooks and teachers’ editions in social studies and mathematics. See also Steve Mline, I See What You Mean: Children at Work with Visual Information (York, ME: Stenhouse, 1995).

7. The code provided for each figure in this article stands for the textbook series and the grade level. For instance, in “CS3B: 9,” CS refers to Chûkyô Shuppan; 3B refers to the third grade textbook, part two; and 9 is the page number of the textbook. All translations are our own. See Note 1 for the names and initials of the three textbook series analyzed in this article.

8. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington DC: NCSS, 1994), 35.


Gary DeCoker is a professor of education and director of the East Asian Studies Program at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of a forthcoming book on Japanese educational standards and reform to be published by Teachers College Press.

Erica Erickson is a 1996 graduate of the university.

Table 1: Social Studies Content in Japanese Elementary Textbooks

Grade One

School, family, neighborhood, plants, animals, daily-life responsibilities


Grade Two

Neighborhood businesses and daily communication, public transportation and safety, the four seasons and regional activities, local natural resources, nature’s plants and animals, dependence on and thankfulness to other people


Grade Three

Community services and organizations, our city and its natural environment, our city’s businesses, our city’s industry, daily life in our city—past and present


Grade Four

Our region’s public utilities, our region’s emergency services, our city and our prefecture, our region’s famous ancestors, our nation’s geography


Grade Five

Our nation’s agriculture and fishing industries, our nation’s manufacturing industry, our nation’s communication and transportation systems, our nation’s national resources


Grade Six

Our nation’s history, our nation’s government, the connections of our nation’s economy and culture to the world


Ministry of Education, Shôgakkô Gakushû Shidô Yôryô (Tokyo: Ministry of Education, 1989), 28-37, 69-71.