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Japan - History & Background

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The Japanese people consider the love of learning to be one of life's main virtues. That fact has led to education playing a crucial role in their culture, especially since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Virtually all Japanese people complete education through the high school (also called upper secondary) level, and most go on to further technical or university training. This emphasis on the value of education has contributed to the success of Japan in the modern world.

Despite its overall exemplary record in education, Japan does face some serious challenges in the new century. For example, minorities such as the native Ainu and the Korean-Japanese still do not participate adequately in the educational system. Also, the system has been criticized for focusing too much on test-taking and not enough on critical-thinking skills. Because many parents believe public school fails to prepare students adequately, they send their students to juku (private academies), after school and on weekends, to prepare for the next level within or beyond the public school system. But the Japanese educational system does satisfy the needs of the vast majority of the population and has helped the nation compete on the international scene for over 100 years.


The Ancient Period: Formal education in Japan started when the Chinese language system was introduced into Japan in about 500 A.D. At that time only the aristocracy had access to education through schools that primarily taught Confucianism and Buddhist thought and practice. The first real school, the Daigakuryo (the university), was started by Emperor Tenji during this period. Located in the capital of Kyoto, the Daigakuryo focused mainly on providing prospective government officials with a background in Confucian practice that would relate to their future jobs. Later the school became an official institution under the Taiho Code of 701. Young men usually entered the university in their early to mid-teens. When they graduated, they were placed in government positions at levels that corresponded to their success at the university. The Taiho Code also called for establishing colleges called kokugaku, located in each of the country's provincial areas. Besides teaching the Chinese classics, these early provincial schools provided training in medicine and in divination.

During the Heian Period (794-1185 A.D.), the height of Japan's aristocratic age, educational institutions continued to be focused on the nobility and were located in the capital of Kyoto. However, the curriculum of the Daigakuryo made a transition from Confucianism to the arts, reflecting the great emphasis on aesthetics during the Heian Period. Perhaps more than any other time in Japanese history, this period placed the highest value on the ideal of courtly love through the medium of poetry, music, visual art, calligraphy, and dance. Such refinements were of course reserved for those privileged to be educated in the court. Education also continued to take place in the Buddhist temples, both in the capital and in the provinces. After completing their training, priests became the primary means for providing education to those who were not among the aristocracy.

Thus education and religion were intertwined during the ancient period. Two of the most prominent figures in religious education were Saicho (767-822) and Kukai (774-835). Saicho established the Enryakuji Temple at Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. Besides being the center during the Heian Period for educating monks in the Tendai sect of Buddhism, it became a focal point for Japanese religious education for hundreds of years. Saicho's friend and rival, Kukai, established a monastery on Mt. Koya, which became the educational center for Shingon Buddhism. Kukai's central role in the history of Japanese education is evidenced by his having invented Kana, the Japanese alphabet, and by his effort to establish a school that addressed the needs of commoners, a group not enrolled in the Daigakuryo or the kokugaku. His private academy, the Shugei Shuchiin, did not exclude the lower classes and promoted the personal, moral, spiritual, and intellectual development of its students.


Medieval Period: During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) and the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), Japanese education paralleled the militarism of the times. With the rise to power of the bushi (warrior class, made up of samurai) and the shogun (chief lord and military dictator), education in the cities and countryside added skills for warfare to the religious training. A departure from the aesthetics of the Heian Period, the medieval education for warriors included training in weaponry and horseback riding—while still teaching young samurai the importance of good manners and knowledge of their culture. Schooling revolved around the warrior's home, the estate of his lord, and the local temples. As for the shogunate and the ruling families, there continued to be educational opportunities unavailable to commoners.

Rather than start new schools, however, the shogunate established several major learning centers that contained libraries open to scholars and members of the priesthood. A famous one called the Kanazawa Library opened in 1275 and remains open today as a museum. Another medieval Japanese educational center, the Ashikaga School, opened in 1439 and offered curricula in Confucianism and military science. Thus even schools and libraries for the ruling class focused on traditional Confucian values and on military education, matching the cultural themes of the age.

Toward the end of the medieval period, Japan's educational system was subjected to a new influence—Jesuit Catholic missionaries, beginning with the arrival of Francis Xavier in 1549. These missionaries established schools and churches that emphasized general education, vocational training, Western technology, and—of course—Christianity. Although Christianity was banned less than a century after Xavier came to Japan, and wasn't permitted back into the country for more than two centuries, it did help shape education in late medieval Japan.


Early Modern Period: The early modern period in Japan comprises the years of the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), during most of which Japan remained isolated from the rest of the world. One positive byproduct of this isolation was that the country could focus on the development of its own culture, including the educational system. Although the very best education remained open only to the upper classes, the period did witness the spread of education among the commoners in a way that had not occurred previously in Japan. By the end of the period, about 40 percent of the boys and 10 percent of the girls were provided education outside the home. These figures probably meant Japan's education opportunities and literacy rate were ahead of most countries in the world, with the exception of two or three nations in the West.

The Tokugawa educational system included several main types of schools such as the hanko, terakoya, Shoheiko, and shijuku. Established in each of the domains of the daimyo (lords), the hanko mainly educated the children of the lord's samurai on topics related to Confucianism. Only later in the Tokugawa Period did the schools enroll a wider range of social classes and expand their curriculum to include non-Confucian topics such as medicine, Japanese studies, and Western science.

Unlike the hanko, the terakoya were independent schools intended mainly for the children of the merchants and townspeople—not the samurai. Usually set up in Buddhist temples, they offered instruction in a wide range of basic subjects such as penmanship, reading, and arithmetic. Children entered at the age of seven or eight and stayed for about three or four years. In addition to the terakoya were the shijuku, private academies that often were housed in the homes of the teachers and that focused on subjects usually considered to be the favorite fields of the teacher. Finally, the Tokugawa Period also had an official school of the shogunate called the Shoheiko, located in Edo (Tokyo). Here the children of the nation's leaders were educated by Confucian scholars.

Thus far our discussion of educational opportunity in Japan has mostly included only male children. Girls generally were not sent to schools and instead were trained at home in matters of homemaking and etiquette. Although a few girls may have been exposed to education in literature and the arts, most were not. However, opportunities for girls to receive an education did increase in the closing years of the period, with an increase in female students in terakoya and even the start of a few schools exclusively for girls. But the curriculum in these schools was slanted toward nonintellectual subjects such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, and etiquette.


Modern Period: The modern period in Japan began with the restoration of the emperor in 1868, about 15 years after the country had been "opened" to the outside world by the expeditionary tour of U.S. Admiral Matthew Perry. This period saw a tremendous amount of educational reform as the country sought to catch up to the West after more than 200 years of virtual isolation. Although World War II, including its prelude and aftermath, certainly devastated Japan's educational system, the country has witnessed unparalleled educational advancement from the Meiji Period to the present.

Educational goals in the modern period were reflected in the Gokajono Goseimon, the Imperial Oath of Five Articles (or Charter Oath) issued by the emperor in 1868. Article 5 best articulated Japan's international objectives for education that would become the theme of the modern era: "knowledge shall be sought all over the world, and the foundations of imperial rule shall be strengthened." The document also made it clear that "the common people... shall all achieve their aspirations," thus setting out a second basic theme of education in Japan's modern era: availability of the appropriate level of education to all the people.

Four years into the Meiji Period, the government issued the Educational Order of 1872 (Gakusei,) which formed the basis for the modern public system of education in Japan. The Gakusei called for strong control of education by the central government and integrated many of the Tokugawa-era schools into the new system. For example, the terakoya—previously the schools in the provinces for commoners—were transformed into the new primary schools. These primary schools formed the core of the new public school system and numbered 25,000 by the mid-1870s. Students throughout the nation were required to attend primary school. Although schooling was compulsory, the cost still had to be paid by the students' families. Resentment toward the new system led to several later revisions, including Kyoikurei, the Education Order of 1879. It permitted more local control of the curriculum and school policies, and it also relaxed the compulsory requirements.

Despite these revisions, the trend toward national standards for public education continued throughout the rest of the modern era, as did the effort to bring basic education to all the people. The end of the shogunate in 1868 meant an end to the class system that had created significant differences between education for the lords and samurai families and the common people. Now the four former classes—samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants—were viewed as equal participants in the new schooling.

Besides the new primary (also called elementary) schools, Japan's modern educational system included two other main elements: secondary schools and universities. Secondary school was not yet compulsory and was intended for children deserving of additional training. Then, an even smaller group of highly qualified candidates would proceed on to the university system. The most distinguished university of the period was Tokyo University, which had its roots in the elite shogunate institutions of the past. It became the forerunner of other imperial universities such as those established in Kyoto, Tohohu, Kyusha, Hokkaido, Osaka, and Nagoya. Private universities that began during the period include Keio, Waseda, Doshisha, Meiji Gakuin, and Tsudajuku.

During the early years of the Meiji Period, there was a strong and intentional reliance on Western assistance in the development of all levels of education. The government sent emissaries abroad to learn as much as possible about all elements of Western culture, including education, so that Japan could achieve Western-style success in technological advancement. The most famous group to go abroad was the Iwakura Mission, a large group of high-ranking government officials and students that traveled to the United States and Europe from 1871 to 1873. Such missions had a strong influence over the curricula adopted at all levels of schooling in Japan.

Just as important as the Japanese missions to the West were the Western experts who traveled to Japan in the 1870s and 1880s. David Murray, hired to serve as an advisor to the Ministry of Education, came to Japan in 1873 and worked on a wide range of new educational initiatives, including the Education Order of 1872. He also was instrumental in having the government establish the Tokyo Women's Normal School, as well as being heavily involved in planning Tokyo University. Like other Western experts, Murray faced the challenge of deciding what combination of Western and native Japanese features would produce the best educational system for modern Japan. That's the challenge Japan faced throughout the period during which Western influence was strong.

Another Western contributor to the development of Japanese education was James Curtis Hepburn, a missionary doctor who came to Japan in 1859, just six years after Admiral Perry's arrival. Hepburn founded Meiji Gakuin University, became the university's first president, invented a system of Romanizing the Japanese language, and took part in translating the Bible into Japanese. Many other Western Christians were instrumental in promoting education in Meiji Japan, including those who established the so-called "Schools of Western Learning." The three most famous such schools, or "bands" as they were called, were located in Kumamoto, Sapporo, and Yokohama. The Kumamoto Band was led by an American teacher, L. L. Janes, who taught a Western curriculum of mathematics, history, and English, but who also exposed his young sons-of-samurai students to the tenets of Christianity. These young men in the Western bands learned about Western science, technology, and religion. Some of the early leaders of modern Japan were Christian, even though Christianity remained a minority religion in Japan, never gaining more than 1 percent to 2 percent of the population.

Perhaps Japan's best-known private university, Doshisha University, was founded in 1875 by Niijima Jo, a former member of the Kumamoto Band, and by Jerome Davis, a Congregational minister. Niijima was one of the first Japanese to be educated in the United States (at Amherst College). Like some other private universities in Japan, Doshisha adopted curricula similar to that of Western educational institutions. It has six main academic groupings—theology, law, economics, letters, commerce, and engineering—with over 25,000 students enrolled.

Doshisha also was the first university in Japan to admit women. Private universities served an important role in coeducation in that the government, in 1879, restricted coeducation to the primary (or elementary) schools. It was only through the support of private groups that high schools and university-level education became available to women. Christian missionaries were particularly active in supporting coeducational and women's high schools and colleges. Also serving an important role in the development of women's education during the Meiji Period was Tsuda Umeko, who had been a student member of the Iwakura Mission in 1871 and became one of the first Japanese women to study in the United States. After completing studies at Bryn Mawr College and also working as a tutor and teacher of young women in Japan for many years, Tsuda founded the Women's English School (now called Tsuda College) in Tokyo in 1900. The government did strongly support coeducation in primary schools in the Meiji Period, but it took support from many dedicated individuals and private groups to maintain educational opportunities for women at the high school and postsecondary levels.

Notwithstanding the efforts Japan was making to pattern much of its modern education after Western content and procedures, by 1890 there was strong sense among many leaders that the nation also needed to emphasize "moral education" that was unique to Japan. The document that resulted from this concern for morality in education was the Imperial Rescript on Education, issued on October 30, 1890, in the name of the Emperor Meiji. Written with the advice and counsel of the Confucian scholar, Nagazane Motoda, the Rescript made clear the essential connection between the education of the people and the tenets of Confucian thought and loyalty to the emperor. A few excerpts from the 315-word document follow:


Know ye, Our subjects: Our Imperial Ancestors have founded Our Empire on a broad basis and everlasting... Our subjects, ever united in loyalty and filial piety, have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and herein lies the source of Our education. Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws... and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.

The promulgation of this document served as a corrective measure to the more liberal Western influences on education since the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. Distributed throughout the country by the Ministry of Education, the Rescript reminded the populace that education was inextricably connected to the nation's needs, to traditional Confucian values, and to an Imperial House descended from Heaven. It was read during ceremonial events in schools throughout the nation, with the appropriate bowing required. Though generally accepted by the people, one famous incident of an inappropriate response remains well known in Japan even today. Uchimura Kanzo, a high school teacher who had been educated in Japan and in the United States, apparently failed to bow deferentially enough to the Emperor's signature on the Rescript when it was read at his school. This incident led to his leaving the school, after which he became a famous journalist and religious figure until his death in 1930. In about 1900 Uchimura founded what became the largest branch of indigenous Christianity in Japan, Mukyokai, or nonchurch Christianity.

By the end of the 1900s, Japan had seen considerable development of all parts of its education system—both under the influence of Western experts and under the watchful eye of nationalists who made certain the country retained its Confucian and imperial focus. With direction from the Ministry of Education—and its influential first minister, Mori Arinori—the country had a compulsory primary school system throughout the country; about 500 secondary schools throughout the country, with some providing technical training and others providing traditional academic subjects; and an elite system of public and private universities that prepared students for teaching, medicine, law, government service, and other professions.

In the early years of the twentieth century, attendance in primary schools continued to rise to over 90 percent, and in 1907 the years of compulsory education were increased from three to six. From the 1890s to the start of World War I, Japan's rush to industrialize and to create a strong military led to a greater focus on industrial education and training than in the past. Victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) had stimulated this change in direction. Japanese education came somewhat under the influence of the democratic, socialistic, and related worldwide movements that were "in the air" after World War I and after the Russian Revolution. One example was the Shin Kyoiku Undo (New Education Movement), which emphasized the individuality of children and encouraged each child's effort to demonstrate initiative in ways that were largely not reflected in conventional Confucian education. Although this movement lost favor when a more conservative climate returned during the militarism of the 1930s, it did significantly influence the direction of Japanese education during the Taisho Period (1912-1926). Another noteworthy trend of the period after World War I was the expansion in the number of colleges and universities. The University Order of 1918 stimulated this growth by extending government recognition to postsecondary institutions that were not associated with the government. Students surged into the private schools as a result of this change.

The militarism of the 1930s and the beginning of World War II ended Japan's brief period during which progressive ideas had been promoted in education. Now the schools could best be characterized as tools of the state. Even the name of primary schools was changed to kokumin gakko, or national people's schools, reflecting their mission of training loyal subjects for the Japanese empire. Graduates of the kokumin gakko were obligated to attend seinen gakko, schools that emphasized the kinds of vocational skills that would serve the country in its effort to marshal a major militaristic expansion. Even textbooks were used during the wartime period to reinforce the ultranationalistic objectives of the state. One set of texts, called the Kokutai No Hongi (Cardinal Principles of the National Entity), served the government's purpose to control the people's thinking and their access to a full range of historical information.

After its defeat in World War II, Japan was occupied by the Allied Forces under the command of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), General Douglas MacArthur. From 1945 until 1952, the Occupation forces aimed to transform Japan into a democracy and to demilitarize the country. A significant part of the plan involved altering the educational system that had been part of the prewar and wartime culture. The socalled "moral education," central to the ultranationalism of the wartime period, was ended. The major catalyst for all changes was the United States Educational Missions to Japan, which took place from 1946 to 1950. The recommendations of these missions formed the plans by which education was reformed after the War.

The centerpiece of the postwar educational transformation in Japan was a series of reforms that took place in 1947. They were overseen by SCAP and by the Education Reform Council, consisting of Japanese civilians. At the core of the reforms was the Fundamental Law of Education, which replaced the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education that had been issued by the Emperor Meiji. Consisting of a preamble and 11 articles, the law replaced the former emphasis on training to be a loyal subject of the emperor with a new focus on the following principles: equal opportunity to education for all citizens, coeducation, the full development of one's personality, an appreciation and respect for truth and justice, and a new emphasis on academic freedom for faculty. Following are some specific features of the reformed system:

  1. The 6-3-3-4 structure with six years of primary school (also called elementary school), three years of lower secondary school (also called middle school or junior high school), three years of upper secondary school (also called high school), and four years of university
  2. Compulsory education for nine years—that is, both for primary and lower secondary school
  3. Education of handicapped persons
  4. Replacement of government-produced textbooks with texts that were published privately, with less involvement by the government than in the past
  5. New emphasis on the training of public school teachers at the university level
  6. Shift from total central control of education to much greater autonomy in villages, cities, and prefectures
  7. Permission to have teacher unions and other support organizations such as parent-teacher groups

Most reforms were retained after the Occupation ended, but there was some backtracking when a conservative government came to power in 1956. For example, the government increased its efforts to review textbooks, influence appointments to local school boards, place restrictions on leftist teachers' unions, and reestablish some level of moral education in the school system.

The decades since the 1950s have brought few structural changes to Japanese education. However, a number of social and political events have related to education, such as the following: criticism of government influence on textbooks in the 1960s; student demonstrations in 1968 against rising costs of a university education; the introduction in 1979 of a common general admission exam for public universities; and concern that private academies are needed to supplement a child's public education if he or she is to have a good chance of being accepted to a university.


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