Education and Nation Building in Japan

Japan’s efforts to build a modern nation considered both its history and adaptation of Western practices. This exposure to other nations paved the way for a new openness with the rest of the world and allowed for the emergence of a group of intellectuals who believed that adopting aspects of Western culture would only strengthen Japan. Kido Takayoshi (1833–1877), one delegate on the Iwakura Mission, wrote to his friend Sugiyama Takatoshi in 1873 and discussed the critical role of education in the United States:

When it comes to things like schools and factories, it is impossible to tell you everything, for it defies description. From now on, unless we pay a great deal of attention to the children, the preservation of order in our country in the future will be impossible. . . Maintaining a stable state will be difficult unless we consider social conditions and pay attention to social evils. Nothing is more important than schools for improving social conditions and uprooting social evils. The civilization we have in our country today is not a true civilization, and our enlightenment is not true enlightenment. To prevent trouble ten years from now, there is only one thing to do, and that is to establish schools worthy of the name. A long-range program for the stability of our country will never be carried out if we have only a small number of able people; we have to have universal adherence to the moral principles of loyalty, justice, humanity, and decorum. . . . Our people are not different from Americans or Europeans of today: it is all a matter of education or the lack of education.1

Another intellectual, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1902), was a prominent Japanese thinker who pushed for the adoption of Western culture. In 1871 he penned the following discussion on the role education can play in human equality:

Heaven does not set one man above the other, nor does heaven set one man below another, so it is said. If this is so, then when Heaven gives birth to men, all men are equal. At birth there is no distinction between noble and ignoble, high and low. . . . Nevertheless, when one looks broadly at this human society of ours today, there are wise people and there are stupid ones; there are poor and there are rich; there are men of high birth and there are men of low birth. Their respective conditions are as far apart as the clouds and the mud. Why is this? This answer is very clear. [It] is a matter of whether or not they have received an education.2

Such ideas were integrated into the first comprehensive education legislation in Japan, called the Gakusei (or school system). The changes to its education system included four years of compulsory elementary education for boys and girls and a gender-segregated secondary education and university system. Schools would also teach practical subjects to their children; for boys this included science, math, history, ethics, and Japanese language courses. Girls also learned these subjects, but less time was devoted to them so that they could also learn sewing and other domestic trades. The day before the legislation took effect, the preamble was issued:

It is only by building up their characters, developing their minds, and cultivating their talents that people may make their way in the world, employ their wealth wisely, make their business prosper, and thus attain the goals of life. But people cannot build up their characters, develop their minds, or cultivate their talents without education. That is the reason for the establishment of the schools. Beginning with speech, writing, and arithmetic in everyday life and extending to military affairs, government, agriculture, trade, law, politics, astronomy, and medicine, there is not a single phase of human activity that is not based on learning. . . .

Because learning was viewed as the exclusive prerogative of the samurai and courtiers, others—farmers, artisans, merchants, and women—have neglected it completely and have no idea what it is. Even those few samurai and courtiers who did pursue learning were apt to claim that it was for the state, not knowing that it was the very foundation of success in life. . . . Accordingly, the Office of Education will soon establish an educational system and will revise the regulations related to it from time to time so that in the future, there shall be no village with an uneducated family or a family with an uneducated person. Every guardian, acting in accordance with this, shall bring up his or her children with care and see to it that they attend school.3

The idea that “there shall be no village with an uneducated family or a family with an uneducated person” had a unifying effect for the country. As more Japanese received an education, a more literate and more productive workforce for the nation emerged. More newspapers and magazines were circulated, allowing educated men and women to gain greater knowledge of their own nation and their world. As Article V of the Charter Oath declared, “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.”

By the 1880s officials began to put the ideals in the Gakusei preamble into practice. While education was seen as the foundation of imperial rule, submission to the emperor was reinforced as well. A decade later officials issued “The Imperial Rescript on Education.” This document was circulated widely and read aloud at all important school events. Students were required to memorize the text, prostrate themselves in front of a picture of the emperor and empress of Japan, and recite it in full.4

Know ye, Our Subjects:

Our Imperial Ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting, and have deeply and firmly implanted virtue; Our subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and herein also lies the source of Our education. Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual facul- ties and perfect moral powers; furthermore, advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial state; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall ye not only be Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers. . . .

The way here set forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by Their Descendants and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places. It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may all attain to the same virtue.

October 30, 18905


  • 1 : Kido Takayoshi monjo 4, 320, trans. adapted from Irokawa, The Culture of the Meiji Period, 54–55, quoted in de Bary, Gluck, and Tiedemann, Sources of Japanese Tradition, 678.
  • 2 : Richard Minear, trans., “Fukuzawa Yukichi, akumon no susume,” Fukuzawa Yukichi zenshü, III, (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1969), 29–31.
  • 3 : Herbert Passin, Society and Education in Japan,  quoted in de Bary, Gluck, and Tiedemann, Sources of Japanese Tradition.
  • 4 : The ritual of prostration before the emperor is a holdover from earlier eras when commoners had to avert their gaze when high-ranking persons such as court nobles, daimyo, or shoguns passed by. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (Professor, York University) personal communication with the author, January 1, 2014.
  • 5 : “The Imperial Rescript on Education [Official Document],” annotated by Brian Platt, Children and Youth in History, Item 136, accessed November 15, 2012.

Connection Questions

  1. What hope did Japanese reformers place in education? Why did they believe education was so important to their country’s future?
  2. What changes did reformers make in the Japanese education system? How would it be different than before? How would those differences support the creation of a modern nation state in Japan?
  3. What was the message of the Imperial Rescript on Education? What words, images and phrases stand out? How does it reflect the changes in Japan at the time?
  4. Rituals and traditions practiced at school often communicate the values of a society. Which rituals were built into the new Japanese education system? What rituals are practiced at your school? What values do they help communicate?

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