Teaching Module

Educational Reform in Japan (19th c.)

An Encouragement of Learning, 1872 [Literary Source]


Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) is one of the most famous figures of modern Japan. He was an intellectual, journalist, and educator who was the most visible advocate of modernization and Western Learning in the 1870s and 1880s. In this excerpt from his 1872 An Encouragement of Learning, Fukuzawa rejects traditional social hierarchies and the classical mode of education practiced by those at the top of those hierarchies. In their place, Fukuzawa calls for a merit-based social hierarchy and, accordingly, a more practical approach to education that will equip individuals to succeed in the new meritocracy. The influence of enlightenment philosophy in Fukuzawa's thought is strong. In particular, he expresses a strong faith in the universality of human reason; cultivating those powers of reason, in turn, is the key to developing a spirit of liberty and freedom. Childhood is mentioned only rarely in Fukuzawa's writings on education. His own efforts as an educator were aimed at young adults. The school he founded, Keiō Gijuku, eventually became one of Japan's great universities.


Kiyooka, Eiichi, trans. An Encouragement of Learning. Sophia University Press, 1957.

Primary Source Text

"Heaven did not create men above men nor put men under men," it is said. Therefore, Heaven's aim is that all men are equal at birth without distinction of high and low or noble and mean, and that they should all work with body and soul in a manner worthy of lords of creation, which they are, in order to use nature for fulfilling their needs of clothing, food, and dwelling, freely but without obstructing others, so that each may live happily through life.

However, when we look at our wide world, we find wise men and ignorant men, rich men and poor men, men of importance and men of little consequence, their differences like the cloud and the slime. Why should all this be? The reason is obvious. The Jitsugokyō says: "If a man does not study, he will have no knowledge. A man without knowledge is a fool. The distinction between the wise man and the fool is." The distinction between the wise man and the fool is based on whether he has studied or not.

In society there are difficult tasks and easy tasks. Those who undertake difficult tasks are called men of high standing and those who undertake easy tasks are called men of low standing. Tasks that require the use of the mind and involve much worry are difficult; those that require the labor of hands and feet are easy. Therefore, physicians, scholars, government officials, and large-scale merchants and farmers having many employees are called men of high standing and importance. . . .

But the root of it all. . . is. . . whether a man has learning or not; there are no Heaven-made distinctions. The proverb says, "Heaven does not give riches to men but to the labor of men." Therefore. . . only those who achieve learning will attain rank and riches; those without learning become poor and lowly.

Learning does not mean useless accomplishments, such as knowing strange words, or reading old and difficult texts, or enjoying and writing poetry. These accomplishments give much pleasure to the human mind and they have their own values. But they should not be slavishly worshipped as the usual run of scholars try to persuade us. There have been precious few scholars in Chinese classics at any time who were good providers, or merchants accomplished in poetry and yet clever in business. For this reason, merchants and farmers worry when their songs take to learning seriously, thinking that their fortunes are bound to be ruined.

Therefore this kind of unpractical learning should be left to other days, and one's best efforts should be given to practical learning that is close to everyday needs – the forty-seven letters of the alphabet, the composition of letters, bookkeeping, the abacus, and the use of scales. Beyond that, there are many subjects to study: Geography provides a guide to Japan and all the countries of the world; Natural Philosophy is knowledge of the nature and function of all things under the heavens; History is a chronology and study of the conditions of all countries in the world, past and present; Economics explains the management of the household, the country, and the world; Ethics teaches men the natural principles of self-conduct, relations with his fellow men, and behavior in society.

For the study of these subjects, one should read the translations of Western books. For writing, the Japanese alphabet is usually sufficient. A youth of promise should be encouraged to learn the "letters written sideways" and to grasp the fundamentals of at least one subject relevant to everyday life. This is the Jitsugaku (Practical Learning) that all men, without distinction of rank, should acquire. Only after this should men pursue their separate ways as samurai, farmer, artisan, or merchant and look after their separate private affairs. . . .

In the pursuit of learning, the important thing is to know one's proper limitations. Man is not born bound or restricted by nature; therefore as an adult he should also be free and unrestrained. However, by stressing freedom alone and forgetting one's proper limitations, one is liable to fall into waywardness and licentiousness. What is meant by limitations is conformity to reason of Heaven and Humanity and attain one's own freedom without infringing upon that of other men. . . .

The important thing is that everyone regulate his conduct according to the principles of Humanity, study earnestly to acquire wide knowledge, and develop abilities appropriate to his nation. Thus the government will be able to rule more easily and the people to accept its rule agreeably, each finding his place and all helping to preserve the peace of the nation. This should be the only aim. The encouragement of learning that I advocate, too, takes this for its aim.

*Gakumon No Susume. Extensively adapted from the translation by Eiichi Kiyooka, 1957, pp. 15–16.

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).