* Japanese education Historical trends --Meiji Restiration (late-19th century)

Japanese School System: Meiji Foundation (Late-19th Century)

Figure 1.--Here we see two boys in Kyoto on their way to school in 1896. Notice their school bags. They wear Prussian cadet caps and traditional clothing. Look behind the boys at the houses, all built of wood. All Japanese cities and towns were like this with buildings constructed mostly of wood.

Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration had the most advanced school sysrem in Asia, but it was not yet a true public school system. The modern educational system began to take shape after the last Shogan, Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu, resigned in 1867 and the Emperor, Mutsuhito, assumed the powers of the actual head of state. Mutsuhito took the name Meiji ('Enlightened Government') to designate himself and his reign. Feudal fiefs were surrendered to the Emperor who ininitated a series of political and social reforms aimed at transforming Japan into a modern state--using the nation states of Europe as a model. The preminent model used Imperial Germany which had just been forged out of a host of independent states by Prussia. A major goal of the Meiji reformers was to create a modern education system. One of the early steps taken by the Imperial Government was the creation of a public school system. An education law enacted in 1872 made 4 years of compulsory education manditory. The government set up elementary and secondary schools throughout Japan. Primary education was coeducational and free. Secondary education involved fees and girls could attend separate schools. The Government in 1886 inagurated a system providing 3-4 years of education. But an important part of the reforms was to educate the girls as well. The children mostly wore traditional garments in the 19th century, but the secondary schools began introducing uniforms. We have not yet found any school images at all until the Meiji Restoration. Western dress was not yet common in Japan. We do see boys wearing Prussian cadet caps, but not the rest of the uniform that would become common in the 20th century. The photographic record shows boys wearing traditional clothes to school throughout the 20th century. Most of the 19th century images we have found show boys at school. The idea of educating girls as well was an idea that took some time to be accepted by Japanese society.

Boshin War: Collapse of the Shogunate (1868-69)

The Boshin War (戊辰戦争), the Boshin Sensō, is literally translateda as the War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon. It is also reffered to in Japan as the Japanese Revolution, IKt would prive to be a revolution, but as in many revolkutions was also a civil war fought (1868-69). It was fought between the traditiinal forces of the givernung Tokugawa shogunate and disidents around the Imperial Coiurt, seeking to restore the Emperor to real power. Many modern oriented nobels and young samurai believed that the Shogun was was not dealing with suffient action with thecWestern ioening of Hoapan bbegun in 1853 by Coimmodire Perry. They were cpncerned that the Western powers may carve up Jpan as they were doing in China since the Opium Wars (1840 and 1856-60). Western influence in the economy was seen to be both unsettling and adversely naffecting the econnomy. A group of mostly western samurai (meaning western Japan nor European) samaurai ((hōshū, Satsuma and Tosa) and sympatheic court officials came to dominate the Imperial Court and influenced the Crown Prince Mutsuhito (1852-1912) who rose to the throne (1867). he was only 14 years old. Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu understranding the political situation, abdicated political power to the emperor. He had hoped that this would preserve the House of Tokugawa and maje it possible to participate in the future government. An agreement was reached by which Yoshinobu would maintain his title and some of his power, but the governing power would be vested in a bicameral parliament based on the British model. A peaceful tranbsition fell aoart and a series of military camoaigns followed. The yoiung empoeror appears to have played no real role in the whole pricess and continued his ckassical educatiin during the wjole procdess, America abd Britain supopoirted the Imperiak firces, France the Shoigunate. The war resulted in the tiotal defeat of the Shogunsate.

Existing Education System

Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration had the most advanced school sysrem in Asia, but it was not yet a true public school system. Japan's introduction of modern education did not encounter serious resistance. It utilized the existing system and the Japanese people saw education as such an important element of their industrialization effort. Iniitially mostly boys attended the mew schools as was the case of the Tokugawa acadamies and temple schools

Meiji Restoration (1868)

The modern educational system began to take shape after the last Shogan, Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu, resigned in 1867 and the Emperor, Mutsuhito, assumed the powers of the actual head of state. With the collapse of the isolationist Shogunate. Japan accelerated important steps into the modern world. Crown Prince Mutsuhito took the name Meiji ("Enlightened Government") to identify himself and his reign. Feudal fiefs were surrendered to the Emperor. The land owning system, hiwever, was left unchanged. Emperor Meiji transferred the imperial capital from Kyoto to Edo, renamed Tokyo. This is where the Shogunate had been located. The Meiji ininitated a series of political and social reforms designed at transforming Japan from an isolated feudal state to a modern power. They used the important European nation states as a model. Theey were esorcially imoressed with Imperial Germany which shortly after the Meiji Restoratiion and seemed the perfect model as Prussia was forging a new imperial state out of numerous independent principalities. A series of reformn was initiated. Early on the Meiji administrators began working on education.

Educational Reforms: Education Law (1872)

A modern educational system was introduced immediately after the Meiji Restoration. One of the early steps taken by the Imperial Government was the creation of a public education system. The Education Law (also referred to as the School Ordinance) was promulgated creating the Gakusei, or School System (1872). It was based on the French school system, and launched Japan's firrt real public scjool system. It was a national sustem, including commoners and goals. The system made 4 years of compulsory primary education mannitory. Japanese authors, like Americans, often use the term 'elemnebtary'. The government set up elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools throughout Japan. Primary education was the focus for the common people. It was made both coeducational and free. A factor here is that to have a modern industrial ecoinomy, you needed an educated population. But apparently the Meiji Administrators wanted to limit higher educatioin. Of course cost was another factor, limiting what thge country could afford. We are unsure to waht extent these issues were openly discussed. Secondary education in contrast to primary educatiin was limited, although gradually expanded over time. And it was not free. Families had to pay fees. The Meiji primarily ficusesd on boys, but there were separate schools for the smaller number of girls continuing thir education. All of this took time to creatre. Japan's introduction of modern education did not encounter serious resistance despite sone najor innovatioins such as coeducatiin and mass a nd free vpubkic primary schools for all children. It utilized the existing Tokagawa temple school system and the Japanese people saw education as such an important element of their modernization and industrialization effort. Notably at the same time, a military conscription law was enacted (1873). The Educstional reforms were seen as partt iof a orocess linked to both industrializatiin and military power. A universal conscriotion law was also passed. (At the time most major powers had conscription laws, ecept for America and Britain.) This was all seen as an historic transition in Japanese history. Some Jaoanese historians see it as the 'germination' of Japanese militarism.

Law of Educationn (1879)

Japanese views toward education were in a state of flux during the vearly Meiji period. Some educators favored a liberal model, maening an open, more humanistic approach--not vthe midern socuakist connotation. And a new The Law of Education took a liberal direction (1879). The American model seemes tonhave influenced it. The new lad after it was passed did not go down well with powres that be It was quicklky amended. The Revised Law of Education placed the liberal approach with a more Confucianian model (1880). Traditional Confusian morals became the fundamental basis of education. This we have an outwardly modern school system deeply embued with traditiuoinal beliefs. This revision reflects the deep-seated antagonism with Western liberalism. It was not oinly Western colonization the NMeji administrators sought to prevent, but Western nsicial thought. The Meiji bwanted to 'catch up with the modernized nations in the world;. but this mneant in industry, technology, and military power, not in social thought. This goal of producing military hardwear not only outranked creating a liberal soiciety, but was designed to prevenbt it. And this was all before the military seized control of the country (1930s).

Prussian Model

German education was used as a model for Japan's new public educational system. Only a few years after the Menji Resoration, Prussia led the German states in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). As a result of the War, the new German Empire was created around the Prissian monarchy. The German states forming the new German Empire had public education systems far in advance of that available in England where there was still considerable concern over the social impact of educating the great unwashed masses. Along with the German education system was an overlay of regimetation and Prussian militarism that suited important elements in the Meiji Imperial Government. It was not only the military success of the Prussians that affected. Japanese educators also saw an education system more in keeoing with their values. The Prussians like the Japanese rejected the liberal values embodied in Anerican, British, and French education.

Minister of Education: Mori Arinori (1880s)

The first Minister of Education was Mori Arinori. He set out to purge Wesrern ideas from the curriuculum. When Meiji reformers set out to build a nation public education system, they turned to Western models. And in doing so they inadvertedly imported all kinds of liberal Western ideas. Thst was not what Japanese leaders wanted. Mori had been the first Japanese ambassador to the United States, , apointed after the Meiji Restoration (1871-73). While in America he looked into various institutions. and social behaviior. He became especially interested in education. While Japan's new educatiion system was modeled on the French system, Mori had familarized himself with the Amerucan system. When he webt hoime after his American experience, he help found the Meirokusha, a kind of intellectual society. Mori was an eclectic thinker. He was an important voice in the Meiji Enlightenment movement, and advocated freedom of religion, secular education, equal rights for women (except the sufferage), international law, and even the abandonment of the Japanese language in favor of English. He helped found the Shoho Koshujo (thge country's first commercial college) whiuch evolved into Hitotsubashi University. He then was posed to Beijing as ambassador to China. Other posts included Senior Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, ambassador to Great Britain, member of Sanjiin (legislative advisory council), and finally minister of education. He was recruited by Prime-Minister Itō Hirobumi to join the first cabinet as Minister of Education (1885). He continued as Educatioin Minister in the Kuroda administration (1886-89). Japan as part of the Meiji Restoration had begun to build a moder educatiin system, but without a strong central cointrol. Many Wester ideas had seeped into Japan durung thius period. Asthe first Minister of Education, Mori oversaw what became known as the Mori Reforms. This meant string central ciontrol, 6ix years of compulsory, co-educational primary schooling, and the creation of high schools for training of a select elite. The Ministry took much greater control over school curriculum and emphasized Neo-Confucian morality and patriotism, especially in the orimary schools. The sceondary and tertiary system was still relativelt=y small, but a greater degree of intellectual freedom was tolerated in higher education. This seems to be a departure from his earlier orientation. We are not sure just what affected his thinking. Perhapos it was his time in China and observing the Western encroachments there. Or perhaps he was invreasingly aware of political realities in Japan. He became an unpopular historical figure among post-World War II liberals who saw him as a reactiinary who created a an elitist and statist educational system that led to mikatariusm. Strangely he was criticised in his own day as a radical who imposed alien westernization on Japanese society, abandoning Japanese culture and tradition. Mori became a victim of what becamne an all too common feature of Japanese politics--poloiticakl assassination. He was stabbed by an ultranationalist during the celebratiins associated with the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution (1889). Apparently 2 years earlier he had ignored establlished religious convention when he visited the Ise Grand Shrine. [Smith] This was the home of the Sacred Mirror and one Shinto's holiest and most important sites.

Imperial Recript (1890)

With the Moire Reforms, Japan's new education sustem adopted patriotism and Confucianism as core principles along with the centrality of the emperor. Relatively liberal western-style education was replaced with hyper nationalistic and Confucian education. The 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education became the the core of Japanese education and even intensified in the early-20th century. There was an emphasis on Confucian principles, including filial piety, and strong bonds among family and friends. But at its core was the core moral principle--loyalty to the Emperor and the Japanese nation and placed it over the imprtance of the individual. The Emperor with the Imperial Receipt took control of the eduaction system. One scholar concludes rhat the Imperial Receipt was the most important step leading up to Pacific War. [Lewis] Japanese school children had to menorize the Imperial Receipt. There were three compulsory hours of 'ethics' training weekly. [Gluck, p.150.] This might be more correctly called indoctrination. The Imperial Reccript along with a portrait of the emperor and empress were widely destributed in Jaoanese schools. Each school enshrined as part of an Altar of the Imperial Family. It became a tradition on national holidays for the principal read the Rescript aloud in front of the Imperial Photograph as part of a ceremony. The whole studebt body would tgen salute the Photograph and sing the kimigayo --Japan's natioinal anthem and other holiday songs as kf the emperor was there with them. The children as a result to be in awe of the emperor through such school ceremonies and regular visits to the school's Altar. Historians note that the teachers who taught the militaristic and hyper-nationalistic curriculum leading to and dyring World War II had been students when this imperialistic world view began to be striongkybimposed in the 1890s. [Ienaga]

Meiji Education System

The Meiji Government (1868-1912) established a bilateral system of education. The Meiji Era spanned the late-19th century and early 20th century (1868-1912). The system was was well established by the end of the century and only minimally modufied in the first decade of the 20th century. Outwardkly it was the standard Western sysyem of oprimary, secondary, and tertiary system. In fact, it was a bilateral system of compulsory primary education for the masses and secondary and higher education for the middle and upper classes. This akaso was not unusual for the time, although therecwas a higher degree of social mobiility in the West. The 1872 Educatioin Law mandated a compulsory 4-year porimary school system . It would be later expanded to the modern 6-year program (1907). It was for children age 6-14 years. The goal was clarly stated by Japanese officials was to create a 'rich county with a strong army' that would be the equal of the Western powers. Notice the imprtance attached to the military. Attendance in the nre primary schools increased exponetially. The new Ministry of Education reported that 25,000 primary schools were opened (by 1875). These schools were educating 35 percent ofthe school age population (children children between 6-14 years of age. This was some 40 percent of boys and nearly 20 percent of girls. The particioation of girls may seem low, but the idea ofeducating girks was still a rathger revolutionary concept. This was anationwide data. Attendance rates in the cutiues were nuch hiugher. The national attendance rate approached 50 oercent (1885), over 60 mpercent (1895), and vby the end of the Meiji period (98 percent). This is cmparable to Western countries, in fact higher. We are not sure if this data includes girls and to what extent it reflects comopletiin rather than entry in the 6 year program, but thgere is no doubt that the Meiji administrators created a substantial school system. Some authors report that poverty and gender affected attenance rates. A range of efforts were made to offer additional educatioinal opportunities to primary school graduates. Some primary schools befan offering 6 months to 1 year of supplementary night classes (About 1885). Another innovation was vocational schools for the graduates of primary schools who did not continung their education with higher elementary schools or secondary schools (1893). They oprovided instruction in reading, writing, accounting, and practical courses in agriculture, industry, and commerce. These schools had 203 years programs. Abd the studebts, mostly boys could sign oin for apprenticeships lasting 6 six months to 4 years. This program was steadily expanded, Secondary education was mnuch more restricted. A very small proportion of primary school graduates even from the middlle class continued on to the five-year secondry system and most were boys. There were seperate gender schools with different curricula. The 5-year ptogram for boys was highly academic. The girls program less so. Most children ended theur educatiin sfter fining primary school. There was a 2-year higher-primsry orogram. Most children entered the labor force. Secondary school attendabce graduyally increased, but not like primary school attenance. At the end if the Meuji era (1912), secoindary school attendabce was still less than 10 percent if the boys and 5 percent iof the gurls. Meiji tertitary education was even more restricted, at first available only to the elite. Of course the fact that universities had to be created from scratch. There were no univrersities of any kind in Tokagawa Japan. Tokyo University was Japan's first university, founded (1877). Universitues and reserach institutes staffed with university reaserserchers were vital if Japan was giing to match the Westrern powers. The Meigi Givernment began its military moderizatiin by purchasing European arns and ships. To become a major power, Japan would have to be able to produce its own weaponry. And foir this Japan would need a university system capable of advanced technology. As farvas we can tell, anout 2 percent of male college age students were attending university at the end of the Meiji era. While this sees a very small number today, it does not seem greatly out if line with Western countries at the time and a stunning achievemnent for a country that did not have any universities at all only a few decades eralier. Of course that many undergraduates. We are not sure how many graduate degrees were being granted, the kind of qualificationes need for advanced technology.


In the years right after the fall of the Shoganate and the end of Japan's isolation in 1868, Japanese boys continued to wear traditional attire. Thisusually consisted of a brightly colored shoirt-like toop and a skirt-like bottom. Most children wore woden sandals. We see boys going to primary school in traditional clothing, often with a Prussian cadet cap. This was especuially true in rural areas, but was commn even it cities. But with the ascendancy of military values, the building of a public educational system continued on German lines. Boys in secondary schools were overwhelmingly outfitted in some version of the Prussian cadet uniform. Boys from the earliest grades right through university wore this uniform: cap, tunic with gold buttons (or in a few cases, darker stripe down the middle rather than external buttons). Older boys wore long trousers; younger boys wore knee pants, often over long, above-the-knee stockings (insert quote from Mishima's autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Mask). Girls were less commonly sent to school, but those that did attend school were also outfitted in military uniforms, in this case English middy blouses and skirts. As the Japanese chose cadet uniforms from Europe's premier miliary power, the sailor suits were based on English styles as the developing Imperial Navy was largely based on the British Royal Navy.

Need for Uniforms

Immediately after the Meiji Restoration, there wasn't any school uniform policy. A need for some sort of uniform became clear from an early point/ Japan was a very class-bound society. Boys generally followed theur father';s education. And a persons status in society was reflected in how they and their children dressed. Creating a Western educatioin system educating everyone was a huhe departure from the past. But bringing children from all classes together on an equal footing was a social revolution of enormous proportions. But clothing presented a problem. Students came to school wearing garments based on their family background and this caused a range of problems because the children and their parents were not used to be treated eually. Boys from a samurai family would wear swords to class as expected a egree of deference. Boys from a trading family would wear clothes that identified them. Peasant children would feel inferior surounded by their social betters. As a result, a uniform was needed. This is similar to why schools smocks were introduced by the French Third Republic. Only the social divisions in Japan were much deeper and more estanlished by aystem little chnged for centuries. There had been no French Revolution in Japan.

Military Styles

Japanese schools from the end of the Meiji period and throughout the Taisho period began introducing western style school uniforms. Not only did they help mask social divisions, but they were more practical than the traditional garments children wore. Trends varied from school to chool. It was mostly the male students who were in uniform at the beginning. Less attention was given to girls' education. The girls that did attend school mostly came in kimonos. No other country in the 19th or 20th Century has largely outfitted its school children in uniforms, let alone military-styled uniforms. Even Imperial Germany did not outfit public school children in military uniforms. American children did not wear uniform. Only private school children wore uniforms in England and they were distinctly civilian styles. French and Italian boys wore smocks. Military schools existed in these countries, but this was a small number of mostly private schools, not the country's public schools. The uniforms were a reflection of the desire to thoroughly regiment and discipline the country's children. The foundation for the militarization of Japan began in the first years of the foundation of the modern Japanese state.

Tradition in Japan

The power of tradition is apparent when you consider that Prussia no longer exists. Modern /Germany has been demilitarized, German youth would not think of wearing such uniforms to school, Japanese militarists have been descredited and Japan demilitarized, yet many Japanese school children including most secondary studebrs still march off to school in military uniforms. The boys wear cadet unifirms and the girls sailor outfits.


Gluck, Carol. Japan's Modern Myths (Princeton: Princeton University Pres, 1985).

Ienaga, Saburo. 1978. The Pacific War, 1931-1945: A Critical Perspective on Japan’s Role in World War II (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

Lewis, John David. "The U.S. and Japan in World War II," Lectures in History American History TV, C-Span3 (April 18, 2011).

Smith, Patrick. Japan: A Reinterpretation (New York: Pantheon, 1997).


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Created: 10:29 PM 4/16/2008
Last updated: 5:13 PM 10/24/2020