Tamagawa-Gakuen: A Vision of the "New Education" in Japan
by Robert Osborn - 1970
The author discusses Tamagawa-Gakuen, a Japanese school, and he is very certain that it is one of the most exciting and interesting to observe and, as such, merits the closest attention of American educators.
"Tamagawa-Gakuen is certainly one of the best schools in the world, and perhaps is the best." So Professor Theodore Brameld of Boston University remarked to me a while back as I discussed with him the probability that I would visit Tamagawa-Gakuen on a forthcoming trip to Japan.1 Indeed, my chief purpose in going to Japan was to observe this unique school and to meet Dr. Kuniyoshi Obara, its founder and still president at the age of eighty-two. During the past three years, as I pursued a growing interest in unique schools, increasingly the names Obara and Tamagawa caught my attention. While few in number, these references were invariably and impressively favorable. So I became convinced that Tamagawa-Gakuen represented a school that I should see first-hand. Now having returned from Japan, while I'm uncertain about Brameld's proposition that Tamagawa-Gakuen may be the best school in the world, I am very certain that it is one of the most exciting and interesting to observe and, as such, merits the closest attention of American educators.2
By express from Tokyo's Shinjuku station, which requires a transfer to a local train, it is about a forty-minute ride to Tamagawa station. In this time, the train moves from the welter of buildings and streets that make up one of the world's largest cities across the Tama River into the low green hills that lie to the southwest. Here in the countryside, yet now within commuting distance of millions of youth, Dr. Obara built his school. The station, well marked and not easily missed by a foreign visitor, stands only a short walk from the center of the campus. Walking is not required, however, when one is expected. Dr. Obara's hospitality is generous, and a car awaits the arrival of a guest.
A steep, curving tree-covered drive leads to the Tamagawa administration building. On my first visit, as the car entered the campus grounds, I was alert to every sign that would say something to me about the school, particularly so because I surmised the language barrier would limit if not distort what I saw. I expected the trees, ponds, shrubs, paths, and flowers that abound on the campus, for Tamagawa has been praised for these. But I was surprised by the large number of students I saw and the number and size of the buildings. I had seen many photographs of the campus before I arrived, but for some reason or other had imagined a much smaller school. Later, when Dr. Obara explained that his school enrolled 6500 students in classes from kindergarten through college, 1 came to realize fully the basis for my surprise. Clearly Tamagawa-Gakuen is a sizable educational enterprise.
A personal representative of Dr. Obara's met me at the administration building and directed me into a large comfortable reception room. Shortly after I had wiped my face and hands with the ever-present and appreciated Japanese hand towel and sipped some tea, Dr. Obara, looking good-humored and energetic, entered the room. I was put immediately at ease by the gentleness and warmth of his greeting. Seating himself, he wiped his hands and face, and we began the first of many hours of talk.
Dr. Obara, short and somewhat stocky, wore easily his many years. His face is rather round and framed by long white hair which falls behind his ears to the nape of the neck. As he spoke, I sensed in him something akin to the "harmony of opposites" concept which forms a part of his educational thought. He is in turn gentle yet strong, submissive but commanding, relaxed yet vigorous. Indeed, I was soon to discover how vigorous, for he personally conducted me on a several hours' tour of the Tamagawa campus. Then, at 4:30 in the afternoon, looking only slightly tired, he excused himself to depart for an important meeting in Tokyo which he expected to last the evening.
A Satsuma Man
Faculty members at Tamagawa admiringly refer to Dr. Obara as a Satsuma man; for, like the young Samurai who in the middle of the nineteenth century overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate and thrust feudal Japan into the modern world, he was born in Satsuma prefecture. Like them, too, "Satsuma man" seems to imply he had the power to dream great dreams and the energy and wit to make his dreams reality. And so I remember with particular pleasure sitting in the tea house at Tamagawa with Dr. Obara and listening to him speak of old dreams accomplished and new dreams yet to be fulfilled. By no means, I thought as I listened, is the Satsuma spirit ready to retire nor Tamagawa finished with its growth.
Satsuma peninsula juts out from the southern coast of Kyushu at a point where the Pacific and China Sea meet; and there in the village of Kushi in 1887, Dr. Obara was born. By that time, misadventures had reduced the once prosperous Samurai family to destitution. The father had in vain sought to mine gold in Japan. Heavy investments in this fruitless enterprise put the family deeply into debt. The mother held the family together through these early years of poverty as best she could, but soon death took both the father and mother and left the children orphaned. Dr. Obara was then adopted into a Shinto family. As he and his brothers grew to maturity, they assumed the bur-den of paying off their father's debts. *
In spite of these difficulties, Dr. Obara pursued his schooling. Upon gradua-j tion from secondary school, he enrolled at Hiroshima Normal College to pre-^ pare to teach, graduating in 1913. He had caught early in his life a vision of himself teaching, perhaps in part from his grandfather who was also a teacher. After Hiroshima, he went up to Kyoto Imperial University where he completed his doctorate in 1918. There he came under the influence of Dr. Masa-taro Sawayanagi, a scholar who was well acquainted with developments in Western education and who was calling for school reforms in Japan somewhat along the line of progressive educators in the United States. In 1916 Dr. Sawayanagi, with other sympathetic educators, led in the founding of Seijo Gakuen. This school, according to Dr. Obara, became the mecca for thousands of Japanese educational reformers during the 1920's. In 1919, Dr. Obara joined Seijo as vice president, and later became its president. :
Seijo Gakuen was created around educational principles which I refer to in this article as "new education."3 There Dr. Obara became immersed in the process of creating and implementing the design for a new approach to schooling in Japan. But through the course of several years, disagreements developed among the faculty over the policy and practice of the "new education." These were sufficiently serious and disruptive to make Dr. Obara resign his position at Seijo. For him, Seijo seems to have been a first step into the "new education," but in certain respects an unsatisfactory one. So he left, and in 1929
What were the ideals of the "new education" as developed by Dr. Obara? Perhaps twelve in number, they read, in some respects, rather like the language of progressive educators in the United States during the 1920's and 1930's. Although he acknowledges his debt to American and European educational thought, Dr. Obara contends that a substantial part of the "new education" grew out of his own life experiences and his study of Japanese and Chinese thought.
As Dr. Obara explained it, the purpose of the "new education" should be to produce a "whole man" who is capable of self-direction and who is intellectually, spiritually, morally, aesthetically, and physically fully and harmoniously developed. This goal can be reached through a range of activities centering in study, worship, art, work, and exercise, and taking place both in the classroom and outdoors close to nature. The process should be a group-oriented one in which the self is disciplined by an ideal of humanitarian service which ultimately includes within its compass the brotherhood of all mankind. It depends on a teacher-pupil relationship which is characterized by a harmony between the unique interests and powers of each, thereby permitting pupils to assume the greatest responsibility for directing their own activities, but allowing for teacher guidance at crucial points.
As conceived by Dr. Obara, the "new education" at Tamagawa requires a broad religious foundation; indeed education generally, and ethical education specifically, divested of religion becomes spiritually empty and morally sterile. Each day the boarding students attend an early morning service, often outdoors, conducted by Dr. Obara. Joined together in a great circle, the youth sing religious songs and listen to Dr. Obara read from the holy books of many religions and comment on what he has read. The worship seems non-denominational and humanitarian. That is, Dr. Obara honors the strong points of all religions, and he encourages students and faculty from many religions to come to Tamagawa.
Personally, Dr. Obara is a Christian, but it is a Christianity without the sectarianism and exclusiveness that characterize much of Christianity in the West. Japanese typically seem to come from a variety of religious backgrounds, honoring each as the occasion demands, and this sometimes even when they have apparently adopted a non-religious posture. Indeed, what religion you belong to is a perplexing if not meaningless question to most Japanese. A better phrasing for the Japanese might be, what religions do you belong to?
Dr. Obara's religious situation would be typical in most respects of the Japanese pattern, but also atypical. Unlike most Japanese, he answers the first question by stating that he is a Christian. Somewhat comparable to the multi-religious backgrounds of most Japanese, however, he was born a Buddhist, adopted into a Shinto family, studied Confucianism, and later embraced Christianity.
Attempts, if any, at Tamagawa to use education to promote Christianity seem minimal. My contacts with the faculty revealed a wide range of philosophic and religious points of view. All assured me that there was no pressure on them to make their teaching Christian. Moreover, few out of a student body largely non-Christian accept Christianity. This might be explained, for example, by the power of the culture to resist Christian beliefs. But it may also be that what affects policy and practice at Tamagawa Gakuen is not so much commitment to Christianity as a commitment to a concept of the place of religions or the religious in education and life; consequently, non-Christian religious views receive adequate support.
In Dr. Obara's view, just as religion should permeate every aspect of life, so should it infuse all of education. In the literature class, teacher and student come to grips with profound moral questions. On the stage, music and drama become ways of expressing religious feeling and awe. Hard work in the rice paddies strengthens the student's character and disciplines his will. But, in addition, to be fully religious requires a student to engage in charitable and socially useful acts. Service to others as a religious responsibility receives great emphasis at Tamagawa. Students, therefore, organize to raise money to contribute to worthy causes, and volunteer to work in hospitals or labor to build or repair nearby village playgrounds.
The Shape of Tamagawa
The shape Tamagawa began as a kindergarten and elementary school. On borrowed money and faith in the power of the "new education" to attract pupils, Dr. Obara acquired 300 acres and began building his dream. At that time, the surrounding land was mostly in farms. No railroad passed near Tamagawa, and Tokyo was a difficult journey away. Notwithstanding, buildings were erected, faculty were acquired, and pupils enrolled. But the course once set out on was by no means an easy one to follow. For years the school struggled to grow. Money was constantly a problem. While the payroll seems always to have been met, on occasions only extreme measures made this possible. For nearly thirty years, land sales and borrowing represented major sources of funds required for the expansion of Tamagawa. Not until the late 1950's did income rise to the point that steps could be taken to liquidate the school's debts. Today, Tamagawa seems financially healthy; but, though somewhat abated, the struggle between income and costs continues. Indeed, the issue might be resolved in favor of income were it not for the pressing demands placed on the school's finances by educational vision and ever larger numbers of students seeking admission.
Today the capital value of Tamagawa is over thirty million dollars. Only 175 acres of the original campus remain, but 225 acres were acquired near Hakone National Park for forestry experimentation and investment. In addition, two subunits of the school exist in other parts of Japan, and a third in Brazil which includes sizable land holdings. Dr. Obara uses land acquisition as a way of obtaining funds for future expansion, and certainly land has so functioned in the past.
Sixty-five hundred students attended Tamagawa last year, and their number increases about five percent each year. Of these, 800 board at the school; the remainder commute. The college now enrolls 4000 students in departments of literature, agriculture, technology, and a women's junior college. The secondary and junior high schools contain another 1800 pupils, and the elementary school and kindergarten, 700.
In addition, Tamagawa includes a correspondence education department which brings several thousand teachers to the campus each summer to round out special correspondence programs, and which, according to Dr. Obara, has led to certification to teach for almost 150,000 of Japan's 600,000 teachers. An educational research institute functions to provide a research basis for the "new education." Tamagawa University Press not only publishes books and journals carrying the message of the "new education," but publishes six encyclopedias including the Tamagawa Children's and Students' Encyclopedias which are among the largest selling in Japan. Tamagawa University Press seems a very profitable enterprise and, as such, another source of funds with which to meet the financial needs of the school.4
Influence and Response
With growth and financial security has come a degree of acceptance of Tamagawa and the "new education." Although my sample may well have been biased, the Japanese students, teachers, and administrators from other schools that I questioned seemed to react favorably to Tamagawa, and certainly did not act unfavorably. They thought it was a good school, that its graduates made effective teachers. They believed that faculty there were freer to teach as their professional judgment directed. They thought students at Tamagawa were freer and under less pressure than was typically the case in Japan. Implicitly, they seemed to say that it would be desirable if their situation were in certain respects more like that at Tamagawa.
Dr. Obara reports that the "new education" is growing in acceptance in Japan, although he cautions that Japan is a long way from a "new education" revival. Nonetheless, he assured me that the Ministry of Education takes a more sympathetic stance toward his beliefs about education than it once did. Far more students now apply to Tamagawa than the school can absorb. Graduates of the University and Correspondence School divisions find teaching positions readily available. In fact, Dr. Obara states that several key prefectures, Tokyo among them, waive teacher exam requirements for Tamagawa graduates to assure hiring them. Furthermore, he adds that the job market in general has improved for Tamagawa graduates, that increasingly companies such as Toshiba Electric and Honda look to other schools than Tokyo and Waseda Universities for employees who are in Dr. Obara's words "vital and creative."
Whatever the level of acceptance Tamagawa and the "new education" now enjoy in Japan, it was not gained without a struggle. Resistance was widespread and seems to have centered in the Ministry of Education and the Army. Clearly, principles and practices adopted at Tamagawa violated then existing Japanese educational values and practices, and seemed to run counter to other traditions held valuable by the nation. Classes at Tamagawa were coeducational at a time when parents were fearful of the personal and social results of such intimate association between boys and girls. Students were not required to wear uniforms, an uncommon practice in Japan even today. Art, music, dance, and drama from Japan and around the world played an important part in the "new education." Dr. Obara, in the early 1920's, had called for the incorporation of student plays and drama into the activities of Japanese schools, an idea that many traditional Japanese parents and educators found upsetting until the late 1930's. The school took a relaxed and informal approach to discipline, this in contrast to the severer semi-military discipline which prevailed in many schools. It updated the curriculum and related teaching to the interests and needs of the pupils; moreover, Tamagawa broadened the curriculum to include individual and group work and study activities. Such curricular revision ran contrary to the Japanese university entrance exam system and the practice of employment based on company exams and, more importantly, the university attended. These factors even today exercise such decisive control over what the lower schools teach that public school teachers complained to me that they had to teach outdated material because university exams contained out-of-date items. In fact, Dr. Obara founded the University Division to free the lower schools at Tamagawa from the control of the university exam system.
Additional complications grew out of the growth, during the early years of Tamagawa's development, of nationalism and militarism in Japan. The school's commitment to internationalism and the brotherhood of all men ran counter to the nation's course. In 1931, Dr. Obara brought Niels Bukh and the national gymnastics team of Denmark to Tamagawa and Japan, thus introducing Danish gymnastics to the country.5 While segments of Japanese society readily accepted this new and graceful gymnastics, the Ministry of Education and the Army viewed it as unmanly and unmilitary. Such critical reaction to Tamagawa and the "new education" by the Ministry of Education and the Japanese Army culminated in Dr. Obara's imprisonment during the last months of World War II. He explains that his arrest was not the product of any specific act on his part, but rather was the result of enmities acquired over a lifetime and exaggerated by the pressures of war and impending defeat.
After the war Tamagawa entered a period of rapid growth in size and expansion of its activities. In part, this stemmed from Tamagawa's good fortune in pulling through World War II undamaged. But, in addition, the defeat of Japan seemed to vindicate the "new education" in the eyes of many Japanese. In an interesting but nonetheless significant way, the defeat of Japan conferred upon Tamagawa a stamp of approval which has worked very much to the school's advantage.
Clearly, Tamagawa-Gakuen today represents a viable educational enterprise. The school is financially secure, its faculty is able and dedicated, the student body continues to grow in size, and increasingly Japanese society accepts Tamagawa graduates and the idea of the "new education." But what is schooling at Tamagawa like, what does the "new education" in practice look like to a foreign observer?
Observing the School
In answering this question, the temptation is strong to compare Tamagawa with other Japanese schools or with American, a temptation I shall for the most part resist. Such contacts as I had with other Japanese schools were limited by time and the language barrier; consequently, my impressions are highly subjective and based on limited data. The Japanese are characteristically cautious about generalizing from particulars, a trait I came to respect, and shall follow here. On the other hand, certain features of schooling at Tamagawa stand out, and do so in sharp contrast to the few Japanese schools I visited, and to most contemporary American schools. Such being the case, an implicit kind of comparison is probably unavoidable.6
Tamagawa stresses independent activity, whether as individuals or groups. This may be study in the library or digging a ditch; notwithstanding, pupils are engaged in all kinds of activities, seemingly with a minimum of direction from teachers. They seem to organize an activity and carry it to completion, and any teacher influence on the process seems to be remote or, at least, subtle. Never have I observed a school where so many children of all ages carried on so many activities inside and outside the classroom with so little disruption and with so little direction from their teachers.
Almost everywhere about the campus abounds evidence of the great emphasis Tamagawa places on aesthetics and work. For Dr. Obara believes that it is through the sweat and toil of working, performing, experimenting, and creating that students acquire a personal sense of service, as well as an appreciation for work and beauty. Murals, mosaics, and paintings created by students decorate the walls of Tamagawa buildings. Gardens designed, built, and tended by students with appropriate statuary, pools, and plants dot the campus. In many of these projects the aesthetic and practical work combine, as do large numbers of pupils to produce them. It is a common sight to see a group of elementary pupils designing a large mural, or junior high school students constructing a small building.
Whether completing a mosaic or designing and building a tea house, the pupils at Tamagawa engage in work, and much of it is hard and perhaps unpleasant. Indeed, a significant amount of the work required to build and maintain the campus seems to be done by students. The pupils keep the gardens tidy, the floors swept and clean. They help build roads, fences, and barns. In the shops, pupils make furniture, even violins and pianos, and out in the fields they plant, cultivate, and harvest. After a tour of the school, one wonders what there is in the world of art or work that Tamagawa pupils don't attempt.
I was not at Tamagawa at a time when I could attend student dramatic, dance, and musical performances, although both faculty and students say that great value is placed on these. The students at all levels produce and perform the plays, dances, and music of the world. From Brecht to Beethoven to ballet seems the regular arts fare of Tamagawa students. I did observe an elementary music class, perhaps third graders, perform impressive musical feats. Two thirds of a class of thirty or forty eagerly volunteered to identify chords played on a piano by the teacher or repeat with perfect pitch a long run of single notes, and many demonstrated that they could do just this when called upon by their teacher. At Tamagawa, this is called auditory training.7 In addition, the children sang and played tonettes with gusto. When older, they may perform in the school's many orchestras, bands, and choruses.
Touring Tamagawa is somewhat like attending an American spectacular in which the next event is always more impressive than the preceding. No place is this more the case than in athletics. What, I thought, is more exciting them a gym filled with teenage Japanese boys and girls executing the intricate and graceful motions of Danish gymnastics, unless it is the same gym filled with the shouts and clatter of a Kendo squad working out, or perhaps viewing for the first time the solemn rituals of classic Japanese archery? In a way, classic archery may demonstrate the function of athletics at Tamagawa. The student should not play to win or lose a game or a trophy, rather he should be indifferent to these. His purpose should be to develop strength, grace, and inner calm through participation in a sport. His motivation, therefore, should derive from an appreciation of bodily strength and grace, of growing physical and spiritual powers. Incidentally, team games such as baseball, basketball, and Rugby are played at Tamagawa, but the purpose remains excellence of body and mind, not—I was told—medals, prizes, or victory over another school's team.
I went to Tamagawa wondering what I'd see; I left wondering what to make out of what I saw. Clearly, Tamagawa is an unusual and impressive experiment in education. Although I understand that Russia and Israel may contain somewhat similar schools, I have visited no other school like it. Certainly, in concept and practice, it departs substantially from typical schooling in the United States, and probably in Japan.
But whatever value an American gives Tamagawa-Gakuen, he should remember that the school's roots are planted deep in Japanese society and culture. Whatever it is, Tamagawa is both a function of one man's philosophy of education and the social and cultural context in which the school thrives. Japanese kept saying to me, "Americans do not see us as we really are." Jogged by this refrain and many other reminders of the cultural barrier which stood between me and Tamagawa,' I kept asking myself what this barrier might distort or screen out. While Dr. Obara and his faculty encouraged me to see everything and ask anything, how much of what I saw was biased by my own cultural lens or by data limited by time and hurry, and therefore, how much did I see incorrectly or not see at all? But, regardless of the answers to these questions, Tamagawa forces one to take a fresh look at American education.
Art, Work, and Questioning
For example, take work. It struck me anew at Tamagawa that work might still have a place in American education beyond preparation for work, i.e., vocational training. Although not a new idea, why not use work in the school as a means of teaching the young something important about themselves and their relationships to each other and to society? Work with hand and mind, back and brow does not exist in American schools, not even in vocational and technical schools, in the Tamagawa sense. Moreover, increasingly urban and suburban life deprive children of significant work experiences. In so doing, our society may deprive youth of an appreciation of the value of work, both in terms of the effort and skill that work requires, as well as an understanding of the way we all depend on each other's work. But much more importantly, this neglect of work may deprive youth of the experience of participating in the organizing of the energies and talents of a group and directing these through work toward some group or community purpose. Thus, the question occurs, should we in American society look again at the role of work in the schooling of our youth; moreover, and perhaps more importantly, what in our schools, if not work, directs youth toward these goals?
This stimulus to raise questions suggests a most valuable outcome of visiting a school like Tamagawa, for it is so impressively different that a visit becomes a means to taking a new look at American education. Going there and watching and looking raise a flood of questions, most of them old and some largely dormant, about the theory and practice of education in the United States and these are raised with a renewed and heightened sense of importance. Do American schools seriously neglect the arts? Do our schools overemphasize competitive athletics and ignore the physical education needs of the great majority of pupils? Is American education in its preoccupation with individual development sacrificing the values and behaviors on which cooperation and community depend? Do we, in our schools, sufficiently attend to those concerns and engage in those activities that produce the qualities of mind, body, and character that summed up equal a fully moral and vital man ready to serve mankind?
In 1968 Tamagawa celebrated its thirty-ninth year. These were years of struggle and accomplishment for Dr. Obara. To his friends, and perhaps his critics, they were a lesson in vision and determination. At the age of forty-two, he founded Tamagawa and directed its growth from a few small buildings and a handful of kindergarten and elementary students into a multi-million dollar education complex. In less than forty years, against formidable odds, he built a vision of education into a dynamic symbol and center of the "new education" in Japan.
Whatever the time and circumstances of my visit to Tamagawa may have done to limit or color my image of the school, that image nonetheless is that of a remarkable and vital school. Additionally, a tour of the campus in the company of Dr. Obara creates an excited confusion of educational questions and impressions which demand attention. In his 1967 Christmas greeting, Dr. Obara noted with pride that each year more and more foreign students attend Tamagawa, and that the number of foreign educators who tour the campus continues to increase. To educators from about the world who might visit Japan in the years ahead, he extended an invitation to be his guests for a day at Tamagawa. Take my word for it, it will be a most unforgettable day.