Teaching Module

Educational Reform in Japan (19th c.)


While this module is part of a larger project on the history of youth and childhood, the sources deal mainly with the history of schooling and education. More narrowly, they deal with the issues faced by a single country—Japan—as it attempted for the first time to establish a national education system. For this reason, instructors should be prepared to help students make connections between the specific sources in this unit and the larger issues relating to the history of youth and childhood.

First, instructors may need to make explicit the connection between the history of childhood to the history of schooling and education. The connection may seem self-evident: after all, childhood is the stage of life when people go to school and receive an education. However, this has not always been the case. For the overwhelming majority of people, and for most of human history, formal schooling has not been a part of the experience of childhood.

The sources in this unit focus precisely on the moment when the Meiji government, in its efforts to modernize the Japanese nation, sought to make schooling an essential part of being a child. Furthermore, it is in large part through modern schooling—through the exercise of moving children out of the home and into a distinct institution charged with their care—that childhood as we know it has been defined. Instructors using these sources should try to point out this larger context, to help students to understand that their automatic association of childhood with schooling was something that has not always existed, and that these sources come from a time when it began to exist.

Second, students may require some assistance in placing the case of Meiji Japan in a global historical context. As I discuss in the introductory essay, there are two larger contexts in which Meiji-era education can be understood. First, it is an example of the initial efforts by modernizing governments to intervene in society's efforts to educate children by creating compulsory, state-run school systems. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the case of Meiji Japan should be seen as part of this larger historical movement.

Third, many of the sources in this unit can be best understood within the context of the history of Western imperialism. While several of the sources in this unit reveal an enthusiasm for Western models of schooling, it is important to remember that the specter of imperialism loomed behind all discussions of childhood and education. Japanese leaders understood that the adoption of Western models for schooling were part of the effort to overturn unequal treaties and prevent future incursions upon Japan's sovereignty. The context of imperialism, in turn, helps us to understand how the issues of childhood and education get wrapped up in discussions about tradition and national identity. Efforts to model Japan's education on the example of the West—the very nations that Japan perceived as threats—naturally spurred anxiety about the loss of tradition. Discussions of schooling and childhood—like discussions of gender, for example—were often proxies for discussions about tradition, modernity, imperialism, and national identity.

Discussion Questions

To help draw out these contexts, instructors might want to ask questions that encourage students to connect these sources to larger issues in the global history of childhood. For example:

  • What kinds of ideas about the purpose of education would not lead to the creation of school systems?
  • How do you think the onset of compulsory schooling changed the experience of childhood? (A more informal, personal version: How would your life be different if schooling were not a part of it?)
  • What motivations might governments have for investing so much effort into creating systems of education? What kinds of obstacles might governments face in attempting to do so?
  • Why do you think that children might have become so important to governments beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries? How does the issue of childhood reflect larger questions about national identity?
  • How do you think the debates about education and schooling we see in Meiji Japan might have played out differently in 19th-century Europe and the U.S.?

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).