Teaching Module

Educational Reform in Japan (19th c.)

Imperial Rescript: The Great Principles of Education, 1879 [Official Document]


During the 1870s, the Meiji government established many institutions based on the examples from Europe and the U.S., and many intellectuals advocated a thoroughgoing transformation of Japanese society and culture patterned after the model of civilization they observed in the West. Others, however, were uncomfortable with the pace of change and the sudden influx of Western influences. They called instead for more moderate, limited changes, and urged the government to design reforms that were consistent with Japanese culture and tradition. What constituted "tradition" was always a matter of debate, of course. In this document, a Confucian ideologue and advisor to the Meiji emperor, Motoday Nagazane, attempts to define Japanese tradition as essentially Confucian. After accompanying the emperor on a tour of schools in the provinces and being alarmed by what he had observed, Motoda composed the following rescript. Notice that he affirms, like Mitsukuri Shuei in "On Education" and the author of the preamble to the Fundamental Code, the importance of childhood and the need for schooling; however, his vision of the content and goals of schooling is quite different.


Nagazane, Motoday. "Imperial Rescript: The Great Principle of Education." In Society and Education in Japan. Translated by Herbert Passin, 227-28. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1965.

Primary Source Text

The essence of education, our traditional national aim, and a watchword for all men, is to make clear the ways of benevolence, justice, loyalty, and filial piety, and to master knowledge and skill and through these to pursue the Way of Man. In recent days, people have been going to extremes. They take unto themselves a foreign civilization whose only values are fact-gathering and technique, thus violating the rules of good manners and bringing harm to our customary ways. Although we set out to take in the best features of the West and bring in new things in order to achieve the high aims of the Meiji Restoration—abandonment of the undesirable practices of the past and learning from the outside world—this procedure had a serious defect: It reduced benevolence, justice, loyalty, and filial piety to a secondary position. The danger of indiscriminate emulation of Western ways is that in the end our people will forget the great principles governing the relations between ruler and subject, and father and son. Our aim, based on our ancestral teachings, is solely the clarification of benevolence, justice, loyalty, and filial piety.

For morality, the study of Confucius the best guide. People should cultivate sincerity and moral conduct, and after that they should turn to the cultivation of the various subjects of learning in accordance with their ability. In this way, morality and technical knowledge will fall into their proper places. When our education comes to be grounded on Justice and the Doctrine of the Mean, we shall be able to show ourselves proudly throughout the world as a nation of independent spirit.


1. All men are by nature benevolent, just, loyal, and filial. But unless these virtues are cultivated early, other matters will take precedence, making later attempts to teach them futile. Since the practice has developed recently of displaying pictures in classrooms, we must see to it that portraits of loyal subjects, righteous warriors, filial children, and virtuous women are utilized, so that when the pupils enter the school, they will immediately feel in their hearts the significance of loyalty and filial piety. Only if this is done first and then other subjects taught later will they develop in the spirit of loyalty and filial piety and not mistake the means for the end of other studies.

2. While making a tour of schools and closely observing the pupils studying last autumn, it was noted that farmers' and merchants' sons were advocating high-sounding ideas and empty theories, and that many of the commonly used foreign words could not be translated into our own language. Such people would not be able to carry on their own occupations even if they some day returned home, and with their high-sounding ideas, they would make useless civil servants. Moreover, many of them brag about their knowledge, slight their elders, and disturb Prefectural officers. All these evil effects come from an education that is off its proper course. It is hoped, therefore, that the educational system will be less high-flown and more practical. Agricultural and commercial subjects should be studied by the children of farmers and merchants so that they return to their own occupations when they have finished school and prosper even more in their proper work.

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).