Education in the Empire of Japan

Education in the Empire of Japan was a high priority for the government, as the leadership of the early Meiji government realized the critical need for universal public education in its drive to modernize and westernize Japan. Overseas missions such as the Iwakura Mission were sent abroad to study the education systems of leading Western countries.

Educational Changes From the Edo Period to the Meiji Era

During the Edo period the common citizens of Japan were given limited means of education. What these low-class citizens did learn was generally geared towards the basic and practical subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.[1] The change came forth during the Meiji period. After sending several learned Japanese representatives to travel abroad, the government was able to learn many aspects of the West, and then from that developed a new process of education for the country. [2] By the late 1860s, the Meiji leaders had established a system that declared equality in education for all as a means by which to help in the process of Japan entering into a more modernized nation. It was required by law that everyone had an obligation to a public education. This was done for the purpose of not only instilling the values of what it meant to be a Japanese citizen, but to also bring about the knowledge necessary for the people to understand how the new nation would work under Western methods. With the change in education there was brought about more opportunities to prosper in the newly evolving and modernizing Japanese nation. Individuals and families moved up in society in ways beyond the freedoms or abilities of their ancestors. As education changed, so too did the range of talents and efforts applied by the Japanese people to enhance their society. [3]

Education policy during Meiji era

In 1871, the Ministry of Education was established, with a school system based closely on the American model, which promoted a utilitarian curriculum, but with the centrally-controlled school administration system copied from France. With the aid of foreign advisors, such as David Murray and Marion McCarrell Scott, Normal Schools for teacher education were also created in each prefecture. Other advisors, such as George Adams Leland, were recruited to create specific types of curriculum.

Private schools run by Buddhist temples (terakoya) and neighborhood associations were nationalized as elementary schools; feudal domain schools run by daimyōs became middle schools, and the Tokugawa shogunal Academy became the foundation of Tokyo Imperial University (present day the University of Tokyo).

However, they added a new curriculum which emphasized conservative, traditional ideals more reflective of Japanese values. Confucian precepts were stressed, especially those concerning the hierarchical nature of human relations, service to the new Meiji state, the pursuit of learning, and morality. These ideals, embodied in the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, along with highly centralized government control over education, largely guided Japanese education until the end of World War II.

In December, 1885, the cabinet system of government was established, and Mori Arinori became the first Minister of Education of Japan. Mori, together with Inoue Kowashi created the foundation of the Empire of Japan's educational system by issuing a series of orders from 1886. These laws established an elementary school system, middle school system, normal school system and an imperial university system.

Elementary school was made compulsory from 1872,[4] and was intended to create loyal subjects of the Emperor. Middle Schools were preparatory schools for students destined to enter one of the Imperial Universities, and the Imperial Universities were intended to create westernized leaders who would be able to direct the modernization of Japan.

With the increasing industrialization of Japan, demand increased for higher education and vocational training. Inoue Kowashi, who followed Mori as Minister of Education established a state vocational school system, and also promoted women's education through a separate girls' school system.

Compulsory education was extended to six years in 1907. According to the new laws, textbooks could only be issued upon the approval of the Ministry of Education. The curriculum was centered on moral education (mostly aimed at instilling patriotism), mathematics, design, reading and writing, composition, Japanese calligraphy, Japanese history, geography, science, drawing, singing, and physical education. All children of the same age learned each subject from the same series of textbook.


During the Taishō and early Shōwa periods, from 1912-1937, the education system in Japan became increasingly centralized. From 1917-1919, the government created the Extraordinary Council on Education (臨時教育会議, Rinji Kyōiku Kaigi), which issued numerous reports and recommendations on educational reform. One of the main emphases of the Council was in higher education. Prior to 1918, "university" was synonymous with "imperial university", but as a result of the Council, many private universities obtained officially recognized status. The Council also introduced subsidies for families too poor to afford the tuitions for compulsory education, and also pushed for more emphasis on moral education.

During this period, new social currents, including socialism, communism, anarchism, and liberalism exerted influences on teachers and teaching methods. The New Educational Movement (新教育運動, Shin Kyōiku Undō) led to teachers unions and student protest movements against the nationalist educational curriculum. The government responded with increased repression, and adding some influences from the German system in an attempt to increase the patriotic spirit and step up the militarization of Japan. The Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors became compulsory reading for students during this period.

Specialized schools for the blind and for the deaf were established as early as 1878, and were regulated and standardized by the government in the Blind, Deaf and Dumb Schools Order of 1926. Blind people were encouraged toward vocations such as massage, acupuncture, physical therapy and piano tuning.


After the Manchurian Incident of 1931, the curriculum of the national educational system became increasingly nationalistic and after the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the curriculum became increasingly militaristic and was influenced by ultranationalist Education Minister Sadao Araki.

In 1941, elementary schools were renamed National People's Schools (國民學校, Kokumin Gakkō)(Translation of German word Volksschule) and students were required to attend Youth Schools (青年学校, Seinen Gakkō) vocational training schools on graduation, which mixed vocational and basic military training (for boys) and home economics (for girls). The Seinen Gakkō also conducted classes at night for working boys and girls.

Normal schools were renamed Specialized Schools (専門学校, Senmon Gakkō), and were often affiliated with a university. The Senmon Gakkō taught medicine, law, economics, commerce, agricultural science, engineering or business management. The aim of the Senmon Gakkō was to produce a professional class, rather than intellectual elite. In the pre-war period, all higher school for women were Senmon Gakkō.

After the start of the Pacific War in 1941, nationalistic and militaristic indoctrination were further strengthened. Textbooks such as the Kokutai no Hongi became required reading. The principal educational objective was teaching the traditional national political values, religion and morality. This had prevailed from the Meiji period. The Japanese state modernized organizationally, but preserved its national idiosyncrasies. Emphasis was laid on the Emperor worship cult, and loyalty to the most important values of the nation, and the importance of ancient military virtues.

After the surrender of Japan in 1945, the United States Education Missions to Japan in 1946 and again in 1950 under the direction of the American occupation authorities abolished the old educational framework and established the foundation of Japan's post-war educational system.

See also


  1. Hopper, Helen (2005). Fukuzaw Yukichi: From Samurai to Capitalist. New York: Person/Longman.
  2. Hopper, Helen (2005). Fukuzawa Yukichi: From Samurai to Capitalist. New York: Pearson/Longman.
  3. Gordon, Andrew (2003). A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kennleyside, Hugh LI (1937). History of Japanese Education and Present Educational System. ASIN: B000RL6V3C.
  • Khan, Yoshimitsu (1998). Japanese Moral Education Past and Present. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 0-8386-3693-4.
  • Miyoshi, Nobuhiro (2004). Henry Dyer, Pioneer Of Education In Japan. Global Oriental. ISBN 1-901903-66-4.
  • Shibata, Masako (2005). Japan and Germany under the U.S. Occupation: A Comparative Analysis of Post-War Education Reform. Lexington Books. ISBN 0-7391-1149-3.
  • Toyoda, Toshio (1988). Vocational Education in the Industrialization of Japan. United Nations University. ISBN 92-808-0584-3.
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