** Japanese schools: Historical trends

Japanese Schools: Historical Trends

Figure 1.--This boy in a photograph wears traditional clothes to school. The image is undated, but HBC believes that it was probably taken in the 1920s. Note the two modern touches, the cap (which may be a school cap, and the book bag.

One of the early modernizing steps taken by Japan's new Imperial Government in the early 1870s was to establish a new national public education system. Soon the country's secondary school children were oufitted in foreign miliary uniforms, showing the importance of the military and the approach toward education in the new Japanese state. No other country outfitted virtually all of its secondary school children in military uniforms. The power of tradition in Japan is shown by the fact that Japanese school children still mostly wear these same uniforms, unchanged for more than a 100 years. Some primary schools also adopted uniforms. The distinguishing characteristic of primary uniforms were the short pants that the boys wore, a reflection of the Japanese penchent for clearly marking out one's status and even ocupation by the way he or she dressed, a custom that only in the 1980s has begun to disappear in Japan.

Ancient Era

Japan was peopled from the east by people crossing now lost land bridges from mainland Asia. This was how the Americas were populated by a land bridge furher north (30,000 bp). These land brighes led to the northern and southern Japanese islands. The people then spread to the four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. There were more recent migrants through the Lorean Peninsua. Much of this was driven by Chinese wars, basically attempts to dominate Korea. As far as we can tell there were only limited trade and cultural contacts with China. This is very different from the West where from a very early period rhere were extensive trade contacts between ancient civilizations. We have no information on education in ancient times. Schools must have appeared with the adoption of a written language. Reading and writing had to be taught. This began with Chinses characters. For an extended period, there was not written form of Japanese. Historians point to the King of Na gold seal as the first Japanese exposure to written lanaguage (1st century AD). The Guangwu of Han in sais to have given it to a Japanese emissary (57 AD). There is no evidence of Japanese liteacy for some time. Historians report evidence of literacy (4th century AD). [Miyake] Chinese characters were not used for writing Japanese, as literacy originally meant fluency in Classical Chinese, not the vernacular Japanese language. First the kanbun (漢文) system developed, This and kanji were similar to Chinese grammar. Diacritics were used to hint at the Japanese translation. The earliest written Japanese system was Kojiki (古事記) which was is reported (about 712). All of this must have required schools although we have no information on them.

Medieval Era (6th-15th Centuries)

Japan also had a medieval era, but in the case of Japan it was not associated with the collapse of an eralier classical period. China was the most powerful and ecomomically important state in Asia. Eventually it had to influence Japan. China is located close to Japan, although separated by the yelloe Sea and the Korean Peninsula. We are not sure just when Chinese influences deepened. Historians report the increasing flow of Chinese teachings and ideas flowed into Japan (6-9th cebturies AD). Historians differ as to justvwhen thevJapanese natiion began to coalese. Most agree that this this process had begun (6th century). This appears to have been assoiciated with the spread of Buddhism from China. Buddhism of course originated in India and spread east over the Silk Road. The process of developoing a natiinalmidentity was promoted by Jaoan's first organized educatit system. This develooed with schools organized by Buddhist priests from their temples. Buddhism in arrived in Japan sometime in the mid-6th century (538-552 AD). The first Buddhist priests apparentkly arrived from Kudara on the Korean Peninsula. Japanese adherents went abroad to study in China and Chinese-inbfluenced Korea. Wriing bu=y this time was develooped in China, but not yet in Japan. Te first writing in Japan was Chinese Buddhist scripts and early political administration. Temple schools run by the priests taught the the children of the first national administrators. Thus as Buddhism spread iun Joan so did paradioxaly national midentity and the Chinese writing system. Chinese Confucianism also became established. The next actual Japanese schools were the Daigakuryo (College Dormitories). They wer first established in the country's capital. The Kokugaku (National Schools) were founded in the important developing urban centers as a result Taihorituryo (Great Treasure Laws) enacted at te beginning of the 8th century (701). Over time, a variety of schools appeared. all to educate the elite ruling class, the aristocracy, samurai warriors and priests. Common people did not go to schools, boys picked up the work skills of their fathers. Girls stayed at hime and kaerned domestic skills from their mothers. Sicial mobility was very limited. There are reports of higher level schools. Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto), the imperial capital, had five institutions of higher learning (9th century). During the remainder of the Heian period, other schools were established by the nobility and the imperial court. Zen Buddhist monasteries were especially important centers of learning (1185–1600). The Ashikaga School, Ashikaga Gakkō, became an imprtant center of higher learning (15th century). There were political shifts over time, but the schooling system tended to persist. The schools were established by the ruling land-pwing Daimyos (feudal lords)and samurai families. Schools for common peoole beagan to appear informally at the end of the medieval era (13-14th century). It was not yet institutiinalized and exclusively in the towns. Buddhist temples continued to play nan important role.

The Europeans (16th Century)

Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Goof Hope (1498). He was followed by other Western navigators and traders, first to India and than the Indies, China, and finally Japan. Western traders reached Japan (1543). The first three Europeans were Portuguese armed traders: António Mota, Francisco Zeimoto and António Peixoto (and probbly Fernão Mendes Pinto). They landed at the southern tip of Tanegashima. It was these Portuguese that introduced firearms to Japann. The arrival of the Westerners was totally unexpected. Tge Chinese had had some cintact with theWest over the Silk Road. The Japanese had noit. Until this, Japanese foreign contacts were with other peoples in East Asia -- primarily with China and Korea with which they shared cultural traditions. Expanding contact with the major European powers followed. Jesuit missionaries, who accompanied the Portuguese traders, preached Christianity. They opened a number of religious schools and made many converts. Japanese students began to study Latin and Western classical music, as well as their own language. This was all agreat shock to the largely closed and static Japanese society and the feuding nobility (daimyo) who continued to dominate Japan.

Edo Tokugawa Era (1600-1867)

Japan was very unified by the Tokugawa regime or Shoumate which persisted for nearly three centuries (1600–1867). Education at the beginning of the Tokugawa Era was highly restricted to the wealthy, as is often the case in agricultural societies. Most Japanese were illiterate. Major educational developments unfolded as the Tolygawa Era infolded. . The Neo-Confucian academy, the Yushima Seidō in Edo was the chief educational institution of the Tokugawa state. It was overseen by Daigaku-no-kami. He was the head of the Tokugawa training school for Shogunate bureaucrats. At the begimming of the Edp Tokugawa period, very few common people were literate. Slowly literacy spread. Tokugawa Shogunate created an increasingly literate populace, rare in Asia at the time and also only becoming important in parts of Europe and North America. And flowing from that was a meritocratic ideology, and an emphasis on discipline and competency. This development under Meiji leadership was the foundation for Japan's rapid transition from a rural feudal society to Asia's first modern nation. [Dore] An important development was the changing roles of the bushi (samurai) class. The evolved from fierce warrior to government bureaucrat. This was a factor in Japan's evolving education system. Formal education and literacy became increasingly important. A form of public education was provided by provincial lords (daimyo) who established special schools for the hildren of the warrior class. The curricula stressed morality and included both military and literary studies. Confucian classics were central and were commited to memory. Reading and reciting the classics were at the core of the system. Math and calligraphy were also studied. The samurai tended to stufy at schools sponsored by their han (domains). Some 200 of the 276 han would establish such schools. Private acadamies were founded. Samurai and even commoners attended these academies. They tended to focus on specific Japanese subjects or on modern often describd as Western (Rangaku neaning Dutch) subjects. This included medicine, science, gunnery, and other subjects. Mmerchants and land owning farmers taught basic reading and math to their own children. Some parents irbgroups of parents hired young teacherbasically tutors. Basic primary education was availanle for a fee at private 'temple' schools (terakoya) which essentially function as primary schools. They were mostly located in towns. The name came from the earlier Buddhist schools taught by monks. The term was a misnomer by the late Tokugawa era. They were no longer religious schools and they were no longer mostly located in temples. We are not sure to what extent the monks were still involved. Unemployed warriors or others might also teach. The education at these schools was practically oriented, providing basic instruction in reading, writing, and math. There was an emphasis on calligraphy and use of the abacus. This is the school system inherited by the Emperor Meiji (1868). There were more than 11,000 temple schools educating some 750,000 childrem. Instructional methods included styidying textbooks, memorizing, abacus, and extendiveky copying Chinese characters and Japanese script. One estimate suggests that some 40–50 percent of Japanese boys, and 15 percent of the girls had at leadt ome schooling outside their home. This may not sound impressive, but actuallu it was comparable to much of Europe at the time. Only German states and America had important public school systems for all children--including the girls. We do not know much about the early- and mid-19th century because of the the limited number of photographic images. Europeans introduced photography to Japan, but the number of images are very limited until the Meiji Restoration

The 19th Century: Meiji Era (1868- )

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. 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 industrializatioj effort. Iniitially mostly boys attended the mew schools as was the case of the Tokugawa acadamies and temple schools. But an imporyant part of the reforms was to educate the girls as well. The children mostly wore traditional garments in the 19th century, bit the evibdary schools began intriducing uniforms in the secindary schools. We have not yet found any school images at all until the Meiji Restoration. Western dress was not yety 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.

Figure 2.--Japanese school children in the early-20th centyry wore traditional garments to school. The Governmnent promoted Prussian cadet uniforms for the boys and sailor dresses for the girls which we gradually see being worn in the cities, especially the secondary schools. As the military began playing a greater role in government and society, we see the children wearing army-styled uniforms in the 1930s, especially after the invasion of China (1937). This persisted until after the Pacific War. In the dreadful conditions after the War, few families had money to buy new school clothes. By the 1950s we see many cildren wearing their own clothes to school, reglecting current styles. We also see more of the older style cadet/sailor uniforms. In the 1960s more schools began requiring uniforms. Many primary schools adopted European fashions. The scondary schools almost all chose the cadet/sailor styles. This First Grade portrait probably taken in the 1950s as the Japanese ecionomy was beginning its resurgence shows many children wearing the cadet and sailor outfits.

The 20th Century

Free compulsory education was introduced in 1900, and in 1908 it was extended to a period of 6 years. Our information on school clothing and uniforms during the early-20th century is still very limited. Japan in the 1920s began to be increasingly dominated by the military. We are not yet sure to what extent this was reflected in school uniforms. After the turn of the century we see boys at some primary schools repacing knee pants with longish shorts and long stockings with knee socks. There appear to be substantial differences between rural and urban schools. We are unsure to what extent schools had dress codes and uniforms. These clothing changes may simply reflect overall fashion shifts. Japan after World War II intoduced compulsory education in 1947. School is compulsory for a 9-year period, beginning at the age of six. Fashions changed after the war for primary school children. Many primary schools dropped uniform rquirements and those that did, with only a few exceptions, introduced civilian styles. Almost all primary schools adopting uniforms adopted short pants uniforms, usually with quite short shorts. Although Japan had been defeated and occupied by the Americans, Japanese mothers and school administrators appra to have turned to Europe, seemingly France or Italy for inspiration in boys' fashions. Junior high schools were created as part of the educational reforms. Many but not all adopted military styled Major changes occureed during this relatively brief period. Some primary schools dropped the uniform requirement. Many primary schools which retained uniforms adopted the longer style of short pants, although some schools still retained the short shorts. A few schools have retained the more traditional shorter short pants. This is especially common at private schools. Boys at schools without uniforms commonly wore shorts in the warmer months--mostly long baggy shorts. Most boys at these schools wore long pants in the winter. While most primary schools do not have uniforms, almost all junior and senior high schools do require uniforms. HBC has less information on junior high schools, but a few senior high schools dispensed with the military uniform styles and adopted a new English-style blazer and slacks.

21st Century

We have only limited information available on Japanese school uniform trens in the 21st century. Most primary schools do not require uniforms. About a third of the schools do require uinforms and in most cases these involve short pants for the boys. Many have adopted the new style of long baggy shorts, but a few scghools maintain the older shorter style of shorts. Almost all secondary schools do have school uniforms. We have noted a variety of more casual uniform styles emerging at Japanese secondary schools. The newer styles of uniforms appearing in many websites are stylish casual clothing rather than the formal miltary styles that were worn at most schools during the 20th century. Many do not have the appearance of a uniform, other than the fact that the students all wear the same style. We are unsure how widely these new styles are being adopted. Clothing stores usually show the most modern uniform offerings. Most schools still appear to have have the more traditional uniforms. We do note that blazer and tie outfits seem to replacing the boy's military collar jacket, although this is still the most common style.


Dore, R.P. "The Legacy of Tokugawa Education," in Marius B. Jansen, ed. Changing Japanese Attitudes toward Modernization (1965), pp 99–131.

Miyake, Marc Hideo (2003). Old Japanese: A Phonetic Reconstruction (Routledge: Curzon, 2003).

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    Created: June 20, 1999
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