Teaching Module

Educational Reform in Japan (19th c.)

Preamble to the Fundamental Code of Education, 1872 [Government Document]


The following paragraphs came at the beginning of a 109-article plan, promulgated in 1872, to establish a national school system under the direction of the new Meiji government. This ambitious plan divided the country into eight university districts, each of which was divided into 32 middle-school districts. This plan drew upon a close examination of educational systems in the West—the U.S. and France, in particular—and reflected the desire on the part of the Meiji government to make schooling compulsory and centralized. Several decades would pass before this goal was fully realized. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the new government prioritized at its very inception—at a time when it was still unstable and financially strapped—the goal of standardized, compulsory, centralized schooling.


Preamble to the Fundamental Code of Education, 1872. Yoshida, Kumaji. "European and American Influences in Japanese Education." In Western Influences in Modern Japan, edited by Inazo Nitobe, et. al., 34–5. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931.

Primary Source Text

It is only by building up his character, developing his mind, and cultivating his talents that man may make his way in the world, employ his wealth wisely, make his business prosper, and thus attain the goal of life. But man cannot build up his character, develop his mind, or cultivate his talents without education – that is the reason for the establishment of schools. Language, writing, and arithmetic, to begin with, are daily necessities in military affairs, government, agriculture, trade arts, law, politics, astronomy, and medicine; there is not, in short, a single phase of human activity which is not based on learning. Only by striving in the line of his natural aptitude can man proper in his undertakings, accumulate wealth, and succeed in life.

Learning is the key to success in life, and no man can afford to neglect it. It is ignorance that leads man astray, makes him destitute, disrupts his family, and in the end destroys his life. Centuries have elapsed since schools were first established, but man has gone astray through misguidance. Learning being viewed as the exclusive privilege of the samurai and his superiors, farmers, artisans, merchants, and women have neglected it altogether and know not even its meaning. Even those few among the samurai and his superiors who did pursue learning were apt to claim it to be for the state not knowing that it was the very foundation of success in life. They indulged in poetry, empty reasoning, and idle discussions, and their dissertations, while not lacking in elegance, were seldom applicable to life. This was due to our evil traditions and, in turn, was the very cause which checked the spread of culture, hampered the development of talent and accomplishments, and sowed the seeds of poverty, bankruptcy, and disrupted homes. Every man should therefore pursue learning; and in doing so he should not misconstrue its purpose. Accordingly, the Department of Education will soon establish an educational system and will revise the regulations relating thereto from time to time; wherefore there shall, in the future, be no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person. Every guardian, acting in accordance with this, shall bring up his children with tender care, never failing to have them attend school. (While advanced education is left to the ability and means of the individual, a guardian who fails to send a young child, whether a boy or a girl, to primary school shall be deemed negligent of his duty.)

Heretofore, however, the evil tradition which looked upon learning as the privilege of the samurai and his superiors and as being for the state caused many to depend upon the government for the expenses of education, even to such items as food and clothing; and, failing to receive such support, many wasted their lives by not going to school. Hereafter such errors must be corrected, and every man shall, of his own accord, subordinate all other matter to the education of his children.

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).