THE ideals of a people's culture are not the result of chance. They are the product of a continuous educational process consciously directed toward definite ends. At least it has been so in Japan, and that too from the very beginning. Even before education as such can be said to have begun there, the entire national life must have been focused on one common endeavor: to instill into the rising generation the consciousness of their own individual and national importance. Given, long before the dawn of history, a lore that asserted that importance, there remained for future generations only to pass on the tradition, expand it, and build on it such a superstructure as the times seemed to demand. The original mythological matrix was crude enough. But since in essence it was exactly what was wanted, it has been retained through all the centuries unchanged except as it has been interpreted and glorified. It is the basis of Japan's educational system.

Education as a conscious formal process must have begun in Japan long before any record was made of it. We know of the existence as early as the latter half of the seventh century A.D. of a full-fledged college established and functioning in the capital, and of Prince Shotoku's school in his monastery at Horyuji, which was built in 607. Also it seems fairly certain that schools chiefly for the training of officials were soon afterwards in operation in nearly every province.

The first approach to a general public school system is seen in what was called the tera koya, or "temple children's-house" schools, established by Buddhist priests in their temples at their own initiative. At the beginning of the Meiji era 15,862 of them were in existence. Gradually these schools passed out of the hands of the priests, as others caught the idea and established similar schools of their own in other buildings. From earliest years it seems to have been the approved thing for public-spirited men of means and ability to establish such schools voluntarily for the benefit of their communities, with no thought of personal advantage other than to secure popular esteem. They usually were attended by two or three hundred children, all under the care of the one man to whom the school belonged.

Of the subjects taught in these schools, ethics, or the inculcation of moral principles, was always put first. This meant preeminently the expounding and passing on of such cultural ideals as those set forth in the Kojiki. The objective in education, therefore, was character formation, and this was called "the drilling of the abdomen," the hara or abdomen being regarded as the seat of the soul. Education in the sense of the acquisition of knowledge for utilitarian ends was left for development until the modern age. Other subjects taught in these early schools were Japanese and Chinese literature, penmanship, the composition of poems, flower arrangement, the tea ceremony and the use of the abacus,[i] all of which helped to reinforce the developing ideology.

Modern education cannot be said to have begun in Japan until 1872, when the first emissaries were sent around the world to study whatever might be of advantage. They brought back the French educational system as likely, in the main, to be the best model to follow. On it as a basis was organized the present compulsory system, which requires of every child that he be in school from the age of six until he is at least twelve years old. The Imperial Message promulgating the system said: "We expect that hereafter throughout our land there shall be no illiterate family in a village, and no illiterate person in a household." To accomplish this, and at the same time to provide facilities for higher education, the country was divided into seven university districts, each to contain 32 middle school districts, in each of which, in turn, there were 210 primary school districts. This provided one primary school for every 600 of the population.

"As regards higher learning," the Imperial Message went on to say, "it shall be left to individual choice according to one's talent, but it shall be unlawful not to send one's children, without distinction of sex, to the elementary school." The objective in view seems to have been accomplished, at any rate as regards the education of children, for a recent five-year average gives a total of somewhat more than eleven million children in primary schools, which is 99.57 percent of the total number of children of school age. Only those are excluded who are physically or mentally unfit or are the victims of extreme poverty. That is why foreign students visiting Japan were quite apt to find the humblest coolies reading, with evident intelligence, newspapers which were far beyond their own powers of comprehension.

Since 1939, furthermore, a plan has gone into operation requiring all children to spend two years more, beyond the first six years, in higher schools recently established to give instruction of a somewhat more practical nature than is permitted in the primary grades. This in turn may be supplemented by optional courses of five years for boys and three years for girls. Evidently the Government feels that it has not yet done its full duty in training all its children for effective citizenship.

Beyond the system of compulsory primary education there has been established a thoroughly efficient system of secondary and higher schools. For boys there is the middle school, with a five year course, and for girls the corresponding Higher Girls' School, as well as various technical and special schools for each sex. After those schools there is, for boys only, the Koto Gakko, or High School, which gives a three or a four years' course, followed, in turn, by the Daigaku, or University, with a course of three or four years and offering its graduates the Bachelor's degree and, after two years more of study, the Doctor's degree. Side by side with the other secondary schools are the normal schools for both sexes. These carefully train those who are to enter upon what is, in the Government's eyes, the most important of all professions: teaching, or the inculcation of Japan's cherished ideals in the minds of its children and youth.

The system thus carefully organized is certainly efficient and every effort is made to keep it so by thorough supervision and administration. The Government makes itself responsible for everything, even in the case of the private schools, and sees to it that uniformity is maintained and that only its ideals are inculcated. Each local community, however, is at least permitted to share in the burden of supporting its schools. The fact that this often involves the expenditure of a half or more of all revenues received, gives some indication of the importance the Japanese attach to education.

Some variety is permitted in the private schools, provided all the Government's essential requirements are met. For instance, whereas government schools have no option but to exclude religion in every form, a private school may crowd some religious instruction into its curriculum, though if it does so it forfeits two privileges -- that of having its graduates admitted into higher government schools without the ordinary rigid examination, and that of deferring their military training until after they have completed their courses of study. But whether this military training is deferred or not, every boys' school all through the course requires a daily regimen of vigorous physical drill which becomes more and more definitely military until, at the age of 20, the student begins his technical military training.

As between elementary schools and higher schools, the Government puts its strength into the former. It may permit private agencies to organize the institutions of higher learning, but it practically monopolizes the education of young children. And why not? Is it not in the early years that ideals are formed and habits of thought and action become set? On that theory, the fact that only 18 out of the 45 institutions of university grade are conducted under government auspices is of no consequence. The impressions which the Government desired to be made have long since been made, even before the student is obliged to consider whether or where he will pursue a higher education. Furthermore, the Government knows that its schools are preferred by all students, partly because of the privileges offered and the high character of the work done, but chiefly because of the prestige which the graduates of government schools enjoy. They get the cream of the students, while private schools are obliged to put up with what is left after rigid competitive examinations have sorted out those whom the Government wants to educate itself. The authorities, indeed, seem deliberately to have planned it in this way, so that the upper intellectual crust of Japanese society, consisting of about 17 percent of the whole, shall be trained to uphold meticulously the officially recognized ideals and standards, while the rest, whether or not educated beyond the elementary requirements, shall be regarded as available for the humbler tasks of life.

Judged by the standard of the United States, where one out of every 90 of the population has been to college, there should be room for more college facilities in a country which can boast of but one college graduate in every 300. But when it is realized that even as things are a large number out of many graduating classes have to be dumped on the labor market and will receive only the lowest kind of employment, or none at all, one wonders whether the Government is not wise in trying to limit the output.

As for women's education, it is an interesting fact that though in the pre-Meiji era higher education (or indeed any kind of education) was practically non-existent, at the present time there is a larger number of students in the secondary schools for girls than in those for boys. Christian missionaries are chiefly to be thanked for this improvement in the condition of girls. Until Ferris Seminary for girls was founded in Yokohama in 1870 there was not a girls' school in the empire; but 20 years later there were 43 others in operation, among them government schools of high character. The Government still has not seen fit, however, to establish a single women's university or college on a par with those provided for men, though there are a number of excellent private institutions.

Among universities in general, the Imperial University of Tokyo is generally recognized as facile princeps, though it is neither the oldest nor the largest. The work done in all the great universities, whether governmental or private, is certainly of a high order, even if the methods employed are somewhat different from our own. For instance, the lecture system almost universally obtains. Often the student is subjected to 35 hours of lectures a week; adding the hours needed for directed study, this leaves practically no time for private reading. The examination is ever in view. If the student is not prepared to express himself in that and in every other way just as officialdom requires, so much the worse for him. There is a set of approved principles and ideals, and on these he is spoon fed. Accept them, give utterance to them, think in accordance with them, and all goes well. But break away from them, repudiate the mass-production requirement, think independently, and all will go badly. Students are herded through their courses in batches. Originality of thought is not only not desired, it is not tolerated. "The aim of the educational system," says G. C. Allen, "is not to develop exceptional ability or character, but to create a general high-level of attainment and to provide a supply of well-trained instruments of national policy."[ii]


Japanese education may thus be said to proceed on the assumption that every man, woman and child is first of all a member of the State, and that the State has rightful and absolute power over him, body and soul. Each child, therefore, must at the earliest possible moment be fitted into the system. He is not to find his own place but to occupy the one assigned him.

The moment school begins discipline begins. First the child is taught that he must get and keep his body under strict control. This is done by the rigors of the daily calisthenic exercise. Then he is put through the daily and long-continued wrestling bout with the writing brush, so that he may teach his fingers to coordinate with his brain. His thinking power, the while, is being subjected to, and is exhausting itself in, the mechanical memorization of innumerable ideograms; while his soul is stultified by being compelled to bow to the inexorable standard set by his daily lesson in what is called "morals."

Is the mere mastering of 4,000 complicated Chinese characters that originated as many years ago, and coming to understand their multifarious usages, education? Certainly it is discipline, rigorous and unending. Every day is filled full and vacations are few and far between. The best Japanese educators themselves admit that the nation's secondary schools do not fit their students well for practical life. Even blind men who cannot see at all may be better educated than those who can, if for no other reason than that they do not have to spend the best part of their days learning an interminable number of complicated ideographs. As Dr. Nitobe said: "It is really to be questioned whether the many hours devoted in elementary and secondary education to the mastery of words and letters are not partly responsible for the passive literary and humanistic taste of the pupils, and for the enfeeblement of their reasoning power and practical ability."[iii]

It used to be that as the student went on to the higher grades his increasing concentration on foreign languages would tend to make him think a bit for himself. In recent years, however, the emphasis has begun to be away from English and every other foreign language; and even at its best the rote system in vogue seldom led to proficiency, no matter how many years of grilling effort were expended. When Japan finally decided on isolation and self-sufficiency, even this slight fertilizing process was lost. The result was not only to accentuate the Japanese student's tendency to Japaneseness, but to increase his superficiality as well. Generally speaking he is quick to become interested in a subject and seize upon its external aspects; but his intellectual habits render him largely incapable of concentrating on it so as to bring forth original results of value. A number of outstanding Japanese achievements in the field of applied science, however, give evidence of a vast amount of natural talent. If only the Government had been interested in developing genius rather than in forcing all into the common mold of uniformity, what might not Japan have been able to add to the sum of human knowledge and achievement?

Doubtless it is in order to concentrate on the one thing which the Government wishes to have inculcated, that teachers, as representatives of the system, make the student's life one constant grind of hard work. He is allowed only the minimum of recreation required for health, no social life, no dandyism, no theatricals, no opportunity for any display of emotion. His hours of study must be long, so that he will have no time for the harboring of disturbing or dangerous thought. His hair must be shaved or cropped close so as to make him conspicuously unattractive to those of the opposite sex. If, however, an eccentric individual wishes to let his hair fall unkempt to his shoulders, above a tattered and filthy coat and trousers, nobody will object, for at least it effectually keeps him away from girls.

As for sports, if they are developed to the point of enjoyment they become taboo. Baseball, fortunately or unfortunately, has become popular and may be played, but not to the extent of one college team being permitted to meet another. Again, the intimacy of students with anyone outside their own circle is frowned upon. No interest in politics is permitted. There must be no frequenting of amusement halls, no connections with women. Yet after students are 20, if they smoke and drink and swagger nobody would care or dare to say a word. Between teachers and students there is almost nothing of camaraderie. Rather, a military relationship obtains. "Those of our teachers who adopt a friendly attitude towards us," said one student, "are too familiar; those who attempt to preserve their dignity are too distant." It is a hard life. Yet anyone who does not accept the education which is imposed has no chance. Desirable positions are plums that fall into the mouths only of the system's most thoroughly regimented favorites.

If a student begins to wonder what his education is leading to he need only remind himself that on reaching his twentieth year he is eligible for conscription, and that this means grilling military drill in camp for one year, surely, and probably for two. After this he will be counted as a first reservist, and then, until he is 40, as a second reservist. Thus the goal which he must always keep in view throughout the educational process is efficient and unprotesting soldiership. To that end all his instruction and all his discipline lead and all his activities and ambitions must bend. Only so can the State be served supremely. A Japanese boy is never permitted to forget in his study of morals, the classics, geography, history, his own and foreign languages, that his chief glory is to have been born Japanese and his sole destiny is to live and if need be die for his Emperor.

Girls are effectually geared into the system by being taught that they can fulfill their chief function in life only by becoming the mothers of soldiers. Only as they hold rigidly to this ideal can they be regarded as worthy of having any part at all in the process of education.

To impress upon him the fact that he is nothing if he is not, every step of the way, an embryonic soldier, the student is required not only to take hard knocks as they come; he must make life hard for himself. Even in the dead of winter he must not think of going to school clad in anything but the flimsiest kind of fiber garments, with no underwear and no overcoat. He must not think of spending his day anywhere but in an unwarmed room, even when the thermometer outside falls below freezing. He must look forward to the coldest part of the winter, when he is expected to sally forth from his dormitory long before dawn every morning, and, clad only in his night clothes, make his way barefoot through the snow to some distant point where he is to practise judo or jujitsu, and perhaps end the morning with a plunge in the river before he returns to his quarters.

That they may not become effeminate, students must also accept barrenness in their rooms -- no pennants, no pictures, no approved lighting fixtures, no comfortable chairs. A student's room must be "a bare and frosty cell," with nothing in it but a roll of bedding, a hanging scroll, a single flower in a vase, and a little table a foot high. Before that table the student sits hour after hour, looking like a stoop-shouldered vagabond, cramming for an eternal examination. His wardrobe is but one worn kimono. He must eat little and that as fast as possible, even though he knows that the mortality among students is 400 percent greater than among non-students. He must crush down any natural romanticism or melancholy, his tendency to fanaticism, and his despair.

He is the victim of his circumstances, and he knows it. He has no alternative than to accept his rôle and coöperate. Not only must he curb his own passion for free speech and free thought; he must see to it that it is curbed in others also. He must laugh at others as he is laughed at by them when he breaks over, and so see to it that all individualism is checked, in himself and in others, and that all alike are kept down to the level of drab uniformity. He thus has no need for the teacher's authority, either to keep down his comrades or himself. The student group are a law unto themselves, and theirs is the final authority. Let no teacher by uncautious words dare to assume that function. If he does he will be quickly made to realize his mistake. He can say or do nothing for his pleasure; he must please them. He must do what is expected of him -- assign tasks, carry out his instruction methodically, maintain his attitude of frozen nonchalance. If he does not, the inevitable happens; he is laughed at, a student strike ensues, and he is ousted.

Yet all this makes for a sort of democracy, or rather equality. There is no snobbery of class. A student is a student whether from a rich man's home or a poor man's, the premier's or the school janitor's. Brains alone tell. If he has them, he passes; if he does not, he is nothing, but is weeded out and sent to join the great majority -- the ineffectual 83 percent that society needs as its drudges.

Every student, while he is a student, consoles himself with the happy thought that some day his time will come. And so, though he is a young tiger, and knows it, he submits to his lamb's training. Little does he dream that when he gets out he will find himself not a man-eater but a full-grown sheep, with a sheep's destiny. He must fit into his niche, be the slave of the system, repressing his opinions, abandon honest thought. He will move forward only with bent neck.

Yet in spite of everything, he chooses. He will be a Japanese still. If he is sent abroad to complete his education -- and if he possesses the consummate Japanese quality he probably will -- he will go to observe only, not to imbibe or absorb. He will strive to learn, merely, how Occidentals think and act; not how he should. Presumably he has decided beforehand that he will learn nothing from Western religion and Western philosophy, just as most Westerners do decide, in fact, on coming to his land. Why should he learn from them? They do not appeal. It is his business to go, observe, return and report -- nothing more.

Spiritually, students conform. They have to. Not only must they accept the teaching regarding their divine ancestors; they must worship them also -- the ancestors and the fact of their divinity -- whenever it may please the school authorities to round them up and march them to the shrines. What is done at the shrines? A bell is pulled, the hands are clasped, the head is bowed. Then the suppliant stands for a moment, thinking -- thinking patriotic and reverential thoughts -- only that and nothing more. "Worship at the shrines has no other purpose," the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tokyo was told by the governmental authorities, "than to manifest visibly sentiments of fidelity to, and love of, country." All that is desired, in other words, is unquestioning obedience to the laws of the living present and to the spirit of the dead past, that is, to be a true Japanese.

But if the simple glory of being a Japanese, and so a member of the blessed Emperor's family, is not sufficient reward, there is forever held up before him a vision of the greater glory of helping to bring the rest of the world into the family, the Japanese family, which, he is led to believe, is to include the entire world. If that ideal were only accepted by the rest of the world, he is instructed, it would mean the salvation of the entire human race. Armaments then could be abolished, tariffs would not be needed, disputes would cease, courts and treaties would disappear, and "even the wind would blow quietly and the rain fall gently."

This gives the Japanese nation a mission, sacred and all-compelling: to make the world over into a family, "integrated in all its activities, social, political, economic, and cultural, in one august center." What matter if the method for accomplishing the objective be force in cases where compliance is lacking? Let force be accepted as a sacred means, and war glorified, and death courted. Afterwards there should be no bitterness left behind, not even in China, for all that has been done there and is being done is for the good of Asia, and as a step toward the establishment of the great all-inclusive human family. So continue the fight -- for justice, for country, for Emperor, for ancestors, for humanity. To learn that that is the mission, and to find out how it is to be accomplished, is to be educated. On, then, on into Asia and beyond, for the accomplishment of the mission, the glorious mission that Japan owes to Asia and the world, of bringing all into the great and blessed family.

Such is the animus of education in Japan. Is it powerful? Yes, unbelievably so, and the world has it to reckon with, not only now but in the coming years.

[i] A mechanical device for facilitating arithmetical calculations, used universally in the Orient.

[ii] "Modern Japan and its Problems." New York: Dutton, 1928, p. 77.

[iii] Inazo Nitobe, "Lectures on Japan." Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938, p. 298.

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  • C. BURNELL OLDS, a missionary in Japan from 1903 to 1939; for many years Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Kobe College, and also a member of the Board of Directors of Doshisha University
  • More By C. Burnell Olds