Education in Tokugawa Japan
Tokugawa Japan is often memorialized as one of the most conservative military governments in modern history. Their leaders ruled harshly, restricting subjects from leaving Japan, and outlawing trade with the West. This dynasty’s intense devotion to and utilization of education is often overlooked. The founder and first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, stated that the ideal subject has “literary learning on the left hand, military arts on the right hand.” This proposal was to inspire an intelligent, obedient and meritable populus, balancing Japan's violent military components with cultural leisure and knowledge, a true ying-yang. But what was the education like, who was it offered to, and who did it benefit?
To truly understand the unique educational institutions that formed during this time, one must first understand the feudal class system in which the institutions had their foundation. The Tokugawa military government, or bakufu, had been ruling over Japan since the dawn of the 17th century, and were overseen by a single man known as the Shogun. Even the Emperor took a backseat to the feared Shogun, who ruled over a collection of roughly 250 federal states. These states were known as the han, and by pledging loyalty and paying taxes to the Shogunate, the han leaders or daimyo were able maintain relative control over their land, military and people. This class system was based on moral purity and placed the shogunate, emperor, nobles and samurais on the top while, artisans, farmers, peasants and merchants merited less respect. In the Tokugawa society, classes were hereditary, thus making social mobility impossible.
At the top of this educational hierarchy was the Shōheikō, the official school of the Shogunate. This school was restrictively attended by subjects born into the samurai class. Samurai were once famously known as feared, noble, soldiers. However, as a result of years of peaceful isolation, these military artists began to lose their function. The Shogunate instead reappropriated Samurais as scholars. Now instead of serving their feudal lords in terms of protection, they were able to serve the shogunate academically.
The ruling class took many steps to educate their society in forms that would benefit them, molding their subjects into useful tools. The Shōheikō taught literature, ethics, history and political science, each containing hints of nationalism. These subjects were taught using Confucian textbooks and resources and strictly forbade most western teaching, fearing bot its novelty and its associations with Christianity. Though secular in their nature, these Confucian teachings instilled morality based on respect for the ancestors, hard labor and most importantly obedience to authority, all values that increase the Shonugates ability to rule. The bakufu ran several other schools besides the Shōheikō with more specific teachings, preparing students for subjects as diverse as Japanese literature, military science, a Navy school, and medicine, instituting both nationalism and internal safety. Samurai from other areas could also find schooling at hanko. Hanko refers to federally controlled han, or feudal schools, also restricted to the samurai class. These were influenced greatly by the bakufu as a third of their teachers were graduates of the Shōheikō, inheriting their Confucian teachings a biased towards the ruling class. This government organized education not only repurposed the idle samurais, shifting their field of expertise to subjects deemed more useful by the sovereign, but also instilled a loyalty to last over 250 years.
As the samurai increased in their intelligence, the lower castes continued to be ignored by the Shogunate. Despite neglect from the government, a new wave of independent education was bound to happen. Education continued to become more popular and widespread. People sought to model themselves after the emperor who, though not having much political power, served as a symbol of the state, dedicating himself to study and prayer. Education, which had previously only been offered by the state, began popping up in the form of private schools or terakoya. These schools offered education to the commoners who didn’t merit education by birth. These schools were completely volunteer based, being taught by literate commoners, samurai, doctors. The schools were organized in Shinto and Buddhist temples as teachers were also often priests. Though the commoners received a relatively simple education in comparison to the samurai, the terakoya education was more modern as it employed academic freedom and was open to both boys and girls. Students would learn learn to read and write, while at the same time preparing them for apprenticeships to come.
Education continued to develop among commoners increasing the possibility of social mobility. Through these education systems, commoners saw it possible to move through the ranks and become a scholar, priest or doctor, maybe even one day becoming a samurai. These private schools were a great success a dramatic increase in literacy. Commoner literacy rates reached around 50% in males and 15% in females. A driving force of this increase in literacy can be credited to the evolution of pop culture as various forms of entertainment required literacy.
It was only a matter of time before the Shogunate noticed the threat of these independent schools. With political unrest high among commoners, the bakufu introduced governmental schools for commoners known as gogaku. These schools, like the bakufu and han schools, attempted to instill Confucian ideals of obedience to authority in these subjects, but with a growing popular conscious commoners began to question the feudal foundations of their society.
In 1868 the Tokugawa Shogunate lost its legitimacy. Following behind the shogunate, the feudal system that divided the population into classes was abolished 3 years later. That same year a Ministry of Education was inaugurated vowing that “there shall be no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person”. These dramatic educational changes were much in due thanks to the popular desire for education.
Contemporarily, students look at education as a duty rather than a privilege. That being said, it is important to differentiate education from schooling. Through schooling we learn important information in math, science, history, literature, that plea to the identity and needs of our nation. A true education is all the information one gathers in life, whether through school or not, compiled to create the opinions of the individual. In this era we face similar problems of nationalistic governments who fund and control public schools. With a well-rounded education one can become aware of underlying propaganda that are abundant in state sponsored education. Class systems, whether feudal, hereditary, gendered, or economical, begin to disappear, as a more educated population commands merit. Commoners during the Tokugawa era in Japan had this educational desire and now it is our time to take a step past schooling and become educated.