Teaching Module

Educational Reform in Japan (19th c.)

Lesson Plan: Educational Reform in Japan (19th Century)

by Susan Douglass

Time Estimated: two to three 45-50-minute classes


  1. Explain the relationship between modernizing the Japanese education system and Japanese nation-building.
  2. Explain the identification between education and schooling in the modernizing state.
  3. Assess the impact of modern schooling on Japanese culture and changes in children's lives.
  4. Analyse the impact of European imperialism on the decision-making process regarding educational reform.


Day One

Compare the two images of Terakoya vs. Meiji School. Jot down a list of characteristics that describe the first school and th e second one. How does the nature of education seem to have changed? Which one would you rather attend, and why? What may have been lost and gained in the process of change?

Making Sense of the Sources
The most difficult task in using this teaching module is differentiating among similar ideas expressed in the written documents, and matching them with the various quarters of society in which they originated. It is necessary to identify the voice (traditional elements, progressive modernizers, state officials) and record their keywords and viewpoints, the outlines of debates and issues, tensions between the need to reform and the need to preserve, the social tensions and practical issues involved. Use the graphic organizer to collect and summarize ideas expressed in the documents about the nature and purpose of education in Meiji Japan, filling in the chart as an individual or small-group activity. Debrief after filling out the chart, discussing the change in the subjects, objects, and purposes of education these writers contemplated or realized. Finally, what evidence do the documents present concerning the sources of pressure to change the education system?

Use the Kaichi and Mitsuke Schools image to describe the physical setting of the modernized schools, including the second and third of the series of classroom images in Terakoya vs. Meiji School. Discuss the change from traditional education to modern education in light of what the documents reflect of Japanese intellectuals' and officials' vision of a modernized Japanese society. How do the school buildings reflect both traditional Japanese and Western influences?

Day Two

How do you think this new form of education affected children in rural and urban areas? How did it change the position of the child among adults, and the family's and the child's relationship to the state?

Using the image of rural children together with the attendance table, identify the obstacles and challenges to instituting universal schooling in Japan. Identify documents in the group that discuss difficulties to attaining education among the various classes. Compare these problems with contemporary challenges to school attendance and parental involvement in your own school and in contemporary discussions of education reform in the media.

Ask students individually or in groups to come up with an additional type of document or information set that would help clarify the issues raised in the document based question. [For example, the documents reveal nothing about the proposed curriculum for these schools, to answer the question of balance between traditional learning and modern learning, academic subjects vs. practical /vocational learning and the arts. This is especially interesting in the case of Japan, whose educators were more attentive than some modernizing states to traditional arts and crafts, for example.]

Day Three

The culminating activity is writing the DBQ essay, which can be done as an outside assignment or a timed activity, at the instructor's discretion. In the latter case, this would add one class period to the length of the activity.


Advanced Students
Students may research additional information on Japanese schooling during the Meiji period, such as curriculum and images of textbooks, narratives about school days from literature and film, for example.

Less Advanced Students
Remedial students can focus on a more limited range of documents and themes and could be given a modified question that of more limited scope. Alternatively, they can be given more time and scaffolding to help identify the issues. A small-group activity, for example, would have each student become very familiar with just one of the documents, and represent that voice and point of view in a panel discussion role-playing a debate among Japanese policy-makers on how to reform the schools. Their preparation could be supported by reading textbook summaries on the social history of Japan during that period, in order to identify the various interest groups and associate them with the positions taken in the documents.

How to Cite This Source

Brian Platt, "Educational Reform in Japan (19th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #125, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/125 (accessed August 10, 2021).