Education in Japan, 1900-1945: An Overview

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the new Meiji government set out Japan’s first mass national education system in the Gakusei (Fundamental Code of Education) of 1872. However, actually implementing plans was more difficult than drawing them up. It took many years and a number of major revisions before an established system of school education was in place nationwide.

It was in the years around 1900 that the structures and organisation of the school education system reached the state that would endure, in broad outline, until 1945. There was a landmark year for selective secondary education in 1899. A revised Middle School Ordinance (chūgakkō rei) was issued, as was a new Girls’ High School Ordinance (kōtō jogakkō rei) and a new Vocational School Ordinance (jitsugyō gakkō rei). Meanwhile, enrolment at elementary school had been increasing steadily, and improved further as the Ministry of Education made the first four years of elementary education compulsory, and enforced attendance more rigorously. By 1907, attendance was recorded at almost 90 percent. In that year, a revised Elementary School Ordinance extended compulsory education at ordinary elementary school (jinjō shōgakkō) to six years.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, many children left school at 12. However, the proportion continuing their education steadily increased as economic development continued, helped by the boom during the First World War. By 1920, about 65 percent of ordinary elementary graduates seem to have been continuing their education, and this rose to about 80 percent by 1930. It was most common to continue to two (occasionally three) years at higher elementary school (kōtō shōgakkō). Academically able children whose families could afford the school fees could apply to a variety of selective secondary schools, which are discussed on separate pages of this website. Other alternatives for talented children were to apply to teacher training school (shihan gakkō – also known as ‘normal school’) or army cadet school (rikugun yōnen gakkō).  There were separate teacher training schools for boys and girls, which could be entered at 15, or later, 14; elementary school teaching was a popular career choice for academically able girls, and almost a third of elementary school teachers were women as early as 1912. Moreover, there were no tuition fees at teacher training schools. Entry to the three-year programme at the army cadet schools (at 13 to 16 years old) was extremely competitive; school fees were reduced for the sons of army officers.

Outside the minority who entered a selective secondary school, a teacher training school, or a cadet school, the majority of Japanese adolescents were likely to enter the workforce not later than 14, as discussed on a separate page of this website. A minority attended part-time supplementary vocational schools (jitsugyō hoshū gakkō) while working, and some whose educational aspirations outran their financial resources studied using the ‘lecture notes’ (kōgiroku) of middle school and other programmes that were commercially published. It also seems to have been common for girls to be sent to learn sewing (usually Japanese sewing) with private sewing teachers in the local area. Sewing was considered an essential household skill for women, and could also be a valuable source of income, either through piecework or teaching. Though it was taught to girls in elementary school lessons, it seems that further teaching was often thought to be required.

Kindergartens for pre-school age children were available in cities, but seem mainly to have been attended by better-off children. However, some interviewees talked of going to ‘Sunday school’ (Nichiyō gakkō) prior to elementary school; this was not a religious class, but activities like drawing and singing, supervised by elementary school teachers at the school itself. ‘Sunday school’ appears to have been a local initiative.

At the other end of the educational system were higher educational institutions. The most prestigious were the higher schools (kōtō gakkō) and the Imperial Universities to which they led. By the end of the 1930s, there were nine Imperial universities in all, seven in Japan proper (Tokyo, Kyoto, Tohoku, Kyushu, Hokkaido, Nagoya, and Osaka) and two in the colonies (Keijō [Seoul] and Taihoku [Taipei]). There were also private universities, which had mainly been granted university status after the First World War; the most prestigious were Keio and Waseda. Other public institutions of higher education included the Higher Commercial Schools in Tokyo and Kobe (now Hitotsubashi and Kobe Universities) and Higher Normal Schools (teacher training colleges) for men and women, including the institutions that are today Tsukuba University and Ochanomizu University. Also highly prestigious were the Army Academy (rikugun shikan gakkō) and Naval Academy (kaigun heigakkō), particularly the latter, due to its smaller intake. In addition, there was a proliferation of specialist training colleges (senmon gakkō), most of which would attain university status after the Second World War.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

Peter Cave, ‘Education in Japan, 1900-1945: An Overview’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].