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The History of Modern Japanese Education: Constructing the National School System, 1872-1890

reviewed by Paul Doyon - April 22, 2009

coverTitle: The History of Modern Japanese Education: Constructing the National School System, 1872-1890
Author(s): Benjamin Duke
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
ISBN: 0813544033, Pages: 448, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the year 1853, with the appearance of the Black Ships (kurofune) under the command of American Commodore Perry, Japan was forced to chart a new course for itself as a nation, reversing its previous two-and-a-half century isolationist policy under the Tokugawa Shogunate regime. In 1854, Perry’s Black Ships returned to Japan, where at the Convention of Kanagawa, Japan signed the Treaty of Peace and Amity with the United States establishing formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Approximately 13 years later, in late 1867, the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu relinquished his position and pledged his allegiance to Emperor Meiji. This was thus the beginning again of imperial rule known as the Meiji Restoration. On January 3rd, 1868, Emperor Meiji officially regained full power over the country.

The above events set the stage for Duke’s book, which initially focuses on the issuance in 1872 of a document called the Gakusei, or literally “Educational Plan,” and culminates with the issuance approximately twenty years later of the Imperial Rescript for Education. The book also explores the period of modernization started during the last two decades of the Tokugawa regime, known as the Bakumatsu period, which was marked by the entering into Japanese waters in 1853 of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships.

With the end of its isolationist policies and its continued opening to the West, Japan realized that it was not only inferior technologically to its Western neighbors, but also that it would most likely follow the fate of colonization of many of its Eastern neighbors if it did not catch up quickly. As a result, Japan sent out scholars to study abroad along with missions of emissaries to make a study of the Western systems of economics, government, technology, and education.

Duke’s book focuses on the last of these – Education. However, it not only furthermore goes into detail regarding the major players – both Japanese and Western – involved in this historical process of change, but it also gives us an in-depth view of the relationships these players held with one another. Duke states:

To gain a basic understanding of how the modern school system of Japan was constructed, the relevant domestic and international connections that were intertwined to form the modern Japanese tradition in education form the focus of this study. In particular, special concern has been given to those individuals, both Japanese and foreigners, who played leading roles in the transformation of Japanese education from the feudal to the modern. No country has ever constructed a national system of education in such a remarkably short period, nor relied on such a variety of uncommon individuals from throughout the world, than did Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century. (p. 3)

Of the Japanese citizens who initially took the reins of the educational system and of those who became teachers during this abrupt historical change, interestingly, the majority of these were male and of the samurai class. The samurai, theretofore themselves reared in a feudalistic society basing itself on Confucian social concepts (and thinking patterns), and educated according to the Chinese classics, were nonetheless destined to pass on to a large degree these internalized cultural patterns to the following generations.

During this abrupt period of change, Japanese education became centered around three schools of thought – (1) Kangaku, based on Chinese culture and learning, (2) Wagaku, based on indigenous Japanese cultural elements in existence before the introduction of Chinese cultural influences, and (3) Yougaku, or the Western school of thought with its emphasis on science and technology. All of these educational modes of thinking hence laid the groundwork for a number of events that started with the issuance of the Gakusei and culminated in the issuance of the Imperial Rescript on Education in 1890. As Duke asserts:

The first two, Wagaku and Kangaku, from Japan and China respectively, had coexisted for centuries in a symbiotic relationship. It was the introduction of secular western science with its basis in mathematical and rationalistic thought that deviated significantly from the two cultural patterns from the East. The confrontation between East and West, reduced to its most simplistic terms by leading combatants as morals education versus science education, marks the early modernization period of Japanese education and society. Virtually every document, every position, every policy, can best be understood from its relationship to the great struggle between these powerful ideologies and their constituencies in determining the initial aims of education in modern Japan. (p. 2)

While Duke goes into great detail in describing the most important players of this period, their philosophical leanings, and the relationships they had with each other, one soon discovers that it was the ones who had been sent (or took it upon themselves to go) abroad that became (for the most part) enamored with the West and its systems – most becoming partial to a particular country and way of doing things. For example, in late 1871, the Iwakura Mission – led by Iwakura Tomomi (titular head of government) – left on a two-year study tour of the West. It was composed of fifty members of which over half were senior-ranking members of the ruling oligarchy. One of its – at the time – obscure members, Tanaka Fujimaro, who was acting as a delegate of the newly formed Ministry of Education (and later became one of its first ministers), took a profound interest in the decentralized American education system. He later attempted (in 1879) to implement – in his role as Minister of Education – a similar system in Japan, known as the Second National Plan for Education, by revising the First National Plan for Education (the Gakusei) since it had rather attempted to emulate the highly centralized French system.

Tanaka’s plan did not last long for a number of reasons, but mainly due to the fact that a number of people were unhappy with the freedom it gave the locality and for fear of political unrest. Tanaka was transferred to the Ministry of Justice, and the Third National Plan for Education was penned and implemented by Kouno Togama, the new Minister of Education. It in effect recentralized education in Japan while at the same time placing a course in Confucian morality at the top of the new curriculum. It had been previously placed at the bottom. However, after the implementation of this plan, in the mid-1880s, a number of influential government officials started to take an interest in not only the German model of government, but also its educational system. Under a new minister of education, Mori Arinori, education in Japan started to follow a highly militarized German system and followed a course outlined as “education for the State,” one that imbued a sense of nationalism in the individual.

There were a total of four revisions to the National Plan for Education, the last of which resulted in the Imperial Rescript for Education and was in the end a compromise among a  number of factions. What had originally started out as liberal document promoting the values of individualism, education for all, and human freedoms, in the end became focused on education to serve both the emperor and the state and one that preserved a vertical Confucian value system with the Emperor at its apex.

Overall, this is an extremely detailed and important work for both the insight and feel it provides the reader concerning the people who were major players in effecting drastic change in education policy in Japan – a change that has had ramifications up to the present time.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 22, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15623, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 1:21:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Doyon
    Mae Fah Luang University
    E-mail Author
    PAUL DOYON holds a Master of Arts (MA) in Advanced Japanese Studies, a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology. He is the author of the paper “A review of higher education in modern Japan” (in Higher Education), is presently interested in how certain linguistic structures of the Japanese language relate to thought processes under the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis of linguistic relativity, and is working on completing an EFL textbook for beginners. He has lived and taught in Asia for the past 20 years – with 18 years in Japan and two years in China. He has lived in Thailand for the past six months and presently teaches English and Japanese at Mae Fah Luang University in the city of Chiang Rai.
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