Barely a century ago, Japan instituted a public school system. The action followed a thousand years of desultory provision of education for the country's elite. By 1920, the Japanese school system was the most extensive in the world. Nevertheless, inequality characterized the schools at numerous points in their history.
As early as A.D. 701, sons of government officials and local elites could attend the Grand School. Examinations for purposes of qualifying for government employment were given, but children of officials were exempt from taking them. They occupied official positions as a matter of right. During the following 5 centuries, aristocratic families organized their own schools that were thought to be a more effective avenue to officialdom. By the 13th century, five such schools existed. Not accidentally, the dominant great families of the country also numbered five.
Meanwhile, the aristocracy had been largely shunted aside by the warrior class, the samurai. Largely illiterate, the warriors exercised extensive power in society. As Kobayashi wrote, after the 17th century, "the military class transferred themselves to the military-bureaucratic class and literary abilities were required to carry out this new function."1 Special schools, some directly financed by the central government, were established for samurai. Distinctions among the samurai were respected and upper and lower samurai attended separate schools. The sons of wealthy commoners might also attend the same schools but were not permitted to share classrooms. The nearest thing to universal schooling between the 13th and 17th centuries were schools conducted in Bud-