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

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

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

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


The History of Modern Japanese Education is the first account in English of the construction of a national school system in Japan, as outlined in the 1872 document, the Gakusei. Divided into three parts tracing decades of change, the book begins by exploring the feudal background for the Gakusei during the Tokugawa era which produced the initial leaders of modern Japan. Next, Benjamin Duke traces the Ministry of Education's investigations of the 1870s to determine the best western model for Japan, including the decision to adopt American teaching methods. He then goes on to cover the eventual "reverse course" sparked by the Imperial Household protest that the western model overshadowed cherished Japanese traditions. Ultimately, the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education integrated Confucian teachings of loyalty and filial piety with Imperial ideology, laying the moral basis for a western-style academic curriculum in the nation's schools.


Japanese historians invariably designate the beginning of modernism in their country with the restoration of imperial rule in 1868, which ended the 250-year era of the feudal Tokugawa regime. Japanese educational historians, by contrast, date the beginning of the modern era in education with the issuance in 1872 of the Gakusei, literally the “education plan.” Since the Gakusei was specifically designed by the newly formed Ministry of Education as a national system of public education, a more appropriate reading renders it the First National Plan for Education. Regardless of the name, the Gakusei of 1872 represents the single most important document in modern Japanese educational history.

The proclamation of the Gakusei provoked a discussion of profound importance to the future of Japan: what are the aims of education in a modern nation? Never before in the long history of the Japanese people had this issue been addressed. Within two decades, a solution emerged in the form of the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, which was deemed suitable for Japan to enter the twentieth century as a modern state. In the process, a bitter debate between the modernists and the traditionalists transpired that extended far beyond the schools. It marks the 1870s and 1880s as one of the most decisive as well as controversial periods in the history of Japanese education, when leaders of the Imperial Restoration struggled valiantly to determine the aims of education for a modern country.

This historical analysis is devoted to the first two decades of modern Japanese public education, tracing the fate of the 1872 Gakusei to the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education. Because the development of education in every country reflects the social and cultural traits of its people, the First National Plan for Education can best be understood in its social and cultural milieu. A brief description of the historical environment in which the Gakusei originated may serve as a sufficient introduction to the primary document that governed the opening of the modern period of education in Japan.

When the Gakusei was formulated in 1872, government leaders were haunted by a crisis of international proportions. Powerful western nations were expanding trading posts throughout the world. European colonial empires had spread into the Far East, threatening the very existence of Japan as a sovereign state. During the years of self-imposed isolation by the Tokugawa regime from the early 1600s, the country had fallen dangerously behind the West as the industrial revolution got under way. The rise of western capitalism and international . . .

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