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Education in Japan


The classical autocratic state required an educated bureaucracy. During the Taika Reforms (645 C.E.), Chinese political systems (from the Sui [581–618] and Tang [618–907] dynasties) were imported to establish a legal-political system called the ritsuryo system that would last some five centuries. The ritsuryo government established the daigakuryo, a school that trained administrative bureaucrats in the capital. It also established schools in the outlying regions. The Taiho Code of 701 C.E. consolidated the curriculum. Confucian teaching was primary, with four courses established in mathematics, law, Chinese literature, and Chinese history. The schools nurtured mid-to lower-level aristocratic bureaucrats. Despite its small scale, difficulties in finding appropriate teachers and materials led to institutional stagnation. By the ninth century, as the handen (ancient land allotment) system shifted to the shoen (manorial) system, the lords of estates established their own schools. Buddhist studies also existed during this time. In 771, the first public library that held the kanseki (Chinese classics) was established. In 828, Buddhist priest Kukai opened a private academy for commoners, but their educational needs were not high and this endeavor did not last beyond his lifetime.

The shoen system declined due to the failure of the court nobility in the capitol to retain strong ties with outlying estates, and led to bushi (warrior) rule. Primarily, the warrior and the monk supported medieval education (1192–1603). In 1177, the daigakuryo burned and was not rebuilt. Because the Kamakura regime (1192–1333) was established upon a warrior code, despite the relative lack of education among bushi, upper-class bushi could not completely forsake education and cultural refinement. They invited into their own families scholar-families that had kept ancient knowledge alive over generations in order to study the Confucian classics and poetry. Despite political weakness, the culture of the nobility (kuge) remained prestigious, and in the Muromachi period (c. 1392–1573), the bushi assimilated kuge culture. During the medieval period, many aristocrats studied the arts, and many books were gathered and published, but most upper-class bushi created private libraries. The most representative of this was the Kanezawa library, established in the mid-thirteenth century in the Hojo family Buddhist temple. It not only trained Buddhist priests, it also educated commoners. The only school founded in the mid-Muromachi Period, a time of revived political instability, was the Ashikaga School (established c. 1432–1439). This school did not teach the Buddhist scriptures, and focused solely on Chinese studies. Later, medicine, military science, and astronomy (divination) were also taught, which sought to meet the needs of military elite during the sengoku (warring states) period.

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the early sixth century via Paekche (one of the three kingdoms that comprised modern-day Korea prior to 660 C.E.), and gained the patronage of the state in the seventh century. Systematic education of priests took place in the larger temples. Since classical times, it had become common to study the Confucian classics as a foundation for understanding Buddhist scriptures. During the medieval period, as the aristocracy weakened, temple relationships with bushi and commoners deepened: children studied in temples for reasons other than training for the priesthood; heirs also attended to increase their literacy and cultivate knowledge; bushi studied martial arts to win battles. This education also emphasized the family. Family precepts were established in order to teach the norms of self-sacrifice and family honor. These precepts focused upon the ruler-subject relationship of Confucianism, piety from Buddhism, the disciplines of daily life, and the importance of education. The bushi also found solace in the midst of volatile times in a new Buddhism that differed from ancient Buddhism, resulting in many educational relationships with both famous and less famous priests.

The Tokugawa ended the warring states period and established a relatively peaceful rule by a shogun (military leader) that lasted over two and a half centuries (1603–1868), increasingly secluded from the outside world due to the policy of sakoku (closed country). In this context, the bushi class increasingly acted as an early modern version of a centralized bureaucracy. The official state ideology was Confucian, though the shogunate also received legitimacy through the emperor whose significance was established by Shinto teachings. Confucian thought was taught at the shoheiko (central government school), and Confucian scholars such as Hayashi Razan (1583–1657), who deeply influenced the first Tokugawa leaders, helped to keep it dominant through much of the period. Each domain eventually created their own schools for the education of samurai children. The curriculum generally included the Confucian Four Books and Five Classics, with a focus on nurturing the moral values that supported the order. However, in the late Tokugawa Period, challenges to orthodox Confucianism arose: Buddhism, while not in favor, continued to be taught and practiced; Dutch studies (rangaku) and Western studies (yogaku), despite the insulating effects of the seclusion policy, became increasingly popular; and the growing power of merchants contradicted Confucian teachings, which placed them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Even within the Confucian tradition, a branch emphasizing empirical investigation challenged prior emphases on Confucian texts. In this context, kokugaku (native learning) asserted the importance of indigenous Japanese texts and traditions and led to the revival of Shinto teachings and the restoration of the imperial line to political prominence.

The resignation of the Tokugawa shogun and the 1868 Meiji Restoration of imperial rule significantly impacted education. The Meiji Emperor's Charter Oath of Five Articles stated that "knowledge shall be sought throughout the world," and this led to the importation of ideas from abroad, especially Western. After a period of relative liberal influence in the 1870s, in which American and British thought had great influence, the following decade brought a conservative response that made orthodox a more conservative, statist philosophy strongly influenced by German conservative and French statist thought. The 1889 Meiji Constitution reflected these conservative European, as well as Shinto and Confucian ideas. Shinto thought established the authority of the emperor, and its teachings were taught in classrooms nationwide. While state-sanctioned orthodoxy could not control all heterodox ideas, conservative, statist influences clearly remained dominant: shushin (ethics courses) emphasized the ontological priority of the emperor; the state, and society over the individual; and the virtues of duty, loyalty, filial piety, and self-sacrifice for the good of the nation.

Under the U.S. occupation, along with the implementation of a liberal constitution, educational reforms taught liberal democratic values and prohibited conservative and militaristic content. The 1947 Fundamental Law of Education and School Education Law emphasized how education should nurture individual development. After the occupation, the government sought to correct what some considered to be its excesses. Moral education was reinstituted, though not with the militaristic overtones critics feared. Education was also shaped to meet the needs of postwar economic recovery. In 1960, the Economic Planning Agency advocated more emphasis on science and technical education so that individuals would contribute to the nation's economic and technological needs. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, various groups, both domestic and foreign, voiced criticisms of postwar education. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, criticized the system as overly emphasizing conformism, standardization, while insufficiently emphasizing individuality and creativity. However, in the context of Japan's economic successes in the 1980s, Western scholarship considered Japanese schools as possible models for others to follow, though this was more subdued by the end of the twentieth century.

Hideki Takemura

Genzo Yamamoto

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