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Francis Ottiwell Adams:

The Schools of Japan

[Tappan Introduction]

Francis Ottiwell Adams was Secretary of the American Legation at Yedo, in the first years after the opening of Japan.

THE Japanese lad began his education at the age of six or seven years. There were three grades of schools, Sho, Chiu, and Dai Gakho [Small, Middle, and Great School]. In many of the daimios' capitals the latter was wanting; the one in Yedo might with some show of propriety be called a university.

The Japanese pupil took his first steps in learning by mastering the hiragana and katakana [alphabet or syllabary]. He must know how to read and write both styles before he began the study of Chinese characters. The average boy spent five years in the Sho, or Primary School. During the first year he began the study of the Chinese classics. The method of learning these books was to go through each one, studying the sound only of each character. A Japanese lad must therefore know the sound of every character in the book before he had an idea of what a single one of them meant. This is as if an English boy attacking Homer or the Hebrew Bible were to learn to read the book through, pronouncing every word carefully, but knowing nothing of its meaning or the construction of the language. But in the case of the Japanese lad, he must learn nearly two thousand characters and several hundred sounds, before receiving an explanation of their meaning. The books mastered as to sense and meaning during the years spent in the Primary School were the "Small Learning," the "Moral Duties of Man," Confucius's "Four Books of Morals," the "Three Character Book of Morals," the "Book of Filial Duties," the "Book of Great Lineage," "Ancestry of the Mikado," and the "Entrance to Knowledge," "Duties of Cleanliness, Obedience," etc.

The scholar's work during the first year was with kana and the sound of the Chinese characters. In the second year the writing of Chinese characters was begun, and continued thenceforward as a never-ending part of his education. He learned to write the names of all the emperors, of all the large cities, provinces, and the geographical divisions of Japan, his own name and that of his family, the names of streets, familiar objects, the characters for points of the compass; the seasons, names of countries, of years, chronological era, etc., and to read and copy proclamations and edicts on the notice-boards.

During the third year, the Japanese lad learned the four rudimental rules of arithmetic and the use of the abacus, a point at which the mathematical education of the vast majority of Japanese ended. He also read the "Book of Heroes"---a book containing biographies of model men and women, moral anecdotes, accounts of virtuous and noble actions, etc. The study of the Chinese classics was continued. Much time was spent in writing Chinese characters, and several hours a week were given to the practical study of etiquette, how to walk, to bow, to visit, to talk, etc. Examinations were held twice a year, at which the daimio or high officials were present and delivered prizes to the most diligent and successful, who were then graduated into the Chiu, or Middle School.

Hitherto the education was moral and intellectual. In the Middle School the physical education began. The course comprised three years, during which daily lessons in either fencing, wrestling, or spear exercise, and a monthly practice on horseback under expert instructors, were parts of the curriculum. It would be tedious to detail all the studies of the Middle School, but in substance they were simply an advance on the line of studies of the Small School. The lads read the "History of China," the "Book of Rhetoric," a brief "History of Japan," and a large book of Japanese strategy, containing remarkable feats in war, narratives of heroes, etc. They learned the various styles of Chinese learning, how to write official and private letters, both original and after models. In arithmetic they learned to count large numerical quantities, and to solve problems by the four fundamental rules. They studied the topography of Japan with considerable thoroughness, and read an epitome of universal geography.

In the Dai, or High School, the students spent more time in the gymnasium and on the riding-course, becoming proficient in riding, wrestling, archery, fencing, long and short spear exercise, and in the various arts by which an unarmed man may defend his life and injure his enemy. Their reading now took a higher range, embracing well-known historical classics. In arithmetic, vulgar and decimal fractions, the rule of three, involution, evolution, and progression were taught. A little algebra was introduced into some of the schools, but only a small minority of students reached the maximum of mathematical studies presented above.

In the Sei Do, or old Chinese college in Yedo, the course of literary study ranged somewhat higher, and original composition in Chinese was made a specialty. The usual time allotted for study in all the schools was six hours a day: from 6 to 12 A.M. in summer, from 8 A.M. to 2 P.M. in the spring and autumn, and from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. in winter. No long vacation was given in summer, but the regular holidays throughout the year were numerous, and at the beginning of the year the schools were closed for several weeks.

In general the disciplinary rules of the schools were strictly observed. Each scholar must wear the hakama, or trousers formerly distinguishing the samurai. If late, he could not enter the school for that day. When once in, he was not allowed to leave >till school was out. The rewards at the end of the year were pieces of silk, inkstones, brush-pens, paper, silver coin; and the highest, at the Chinese college in Yedo, was a robe on which the crest of the shogun was embroidered, with the privilege of always wearing the garment in public. The most common punishments were confinement to the room or house, whipping on the front of the leg or on the back, walking up and down for several hours with one of the small writing-tables on the head, having the moxa burned on the forefinger, etc. Of the teachers, some taught only the sound of the characters, others the meaning of the separate characters, others were expounders or exegetes. Writing, arithmetic, and each athletic exercise were taught by special instructors. Few of the teachers made teaching their permanent work, and of the scholars, probably not more than a third completed the full course of studies. It was absolutely necessary, however, that a samurai should have been at least through the Small School. Without this rudimentary education he could not become a householder.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, pp. 443-446.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, August 1998

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