Elementary Education, 1900-1945

A modern system of elementary education was inaugurated by the Gakusei (Fundamental Code of Education) of 1872, just four years after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, but actually establishing schools, recruiting teachers, providing materials, and persuading the vast majority of families to send their children was a much slower process. It was not until the early years of the twentieth century that almost 90 percent of children were attending elementary school, although this was an impressive achievement in the context of the time. By the 1930s, it seems to have been rare for children not to attend elementary school. However, a few of the interviewees for our project, who came from burakumin households that were subject to discrimination, did talk about missing significant amounts of schooling because they needed to work.

Elementary education was divided into ‘ordinary elementary school’ (jinjō shōgakkō), which was compulsory, and ‘higher elementary school’ (kōtō shōgakkō), which was not. From 1907, ordinary elementary school was 6 years, from age 6 to age 12, while higher elementary school was usually 2 years, from age 12 to age 14 (there were a very small number of 3 year higher elementary schools). In 1920, about half of all ordinary elementary school graduates went on to higher elementary school, and this proportion continued to rise gradually, reaching almost 70 percent by 1940.

In order to become an elementary school teacher, it was necessary to gain a teaching licence, either by graduating from teacher training school (or ‘normal school’ – shihan gakkō), or by passing the licensing exam. Teacher training schools had two courses of study. The first was a four year programme for graduates of higher elementary school; the second was a two year programme for graduates of selective secondary schools. Training to be an elementary school teacher tended to be most attractive to the children of farming families. Tuition at teacher training school was free. However, elementary school teachers were not very well paid. This was particularly true for the ‘associate teachers’ (junkyōin) and ‘substitute teachers’ (daiyō kyōin) who were not qualified as full teachers, yet made up a substantial minority of the teaching workforce. Some substitute teachers could be as young as 16 years old. However, teaching was an attractive career for women, especially as Japan did not require women to leave teaching on marriage, unlike some other countries during this period. By 1925, 37 percent of elementary teachers were women. It was common for woman teachers to teach younger classes, while older children tended to be taught by men. The proportion of female teachers and substitute teachers rose further from the late 1930s, as more male teachers volunteered or were drafted as soldiers.

Teacher training schools before 1945 have been criticised for their strictly disciplined regimen. Students were required to be boarders, living in dormitories supervised by military officers. Hierarchy and obedience were prioritised. It has been argued that such an education tended to produce teachers who were too attached to formality and authority. This may well be true. Even so, whether despite or because of the teacher training system, there were also significant numbers of elementary teachers who were enthusiastic pedagogical innovators.

Interviewees on our project generally spoke well of their teachers, though some teachers were criticised for having favourite students, or for giving better treatment to students from higher-status households. It seems to have been normal for teachers to give extra lessons at school to sixth year children who were studying for the entrance exams for selective secondary schools. Some interviewees also talked of teachers whom they visited at weekends, for example because of a shared interest in sketching. In an age before widespread motorised transport, elementary school teachers generally lived in the local area and walked or cycled to school.

Elementary school classes could be single-sex or mixed-sex. Mixed-sex classes were more common in the first two or three years of school, with single-sex classes from the third or fourth year. Even then, however, an odd number of classes was likely to result in one mixed-sex class. A class size of around 50 seems to have been most common, but there were wide variations. Some of our interviewees reported experiencing classes of 60 or 70 children. On the other hand, in small rural schools, first and second year students might be taught in the same classroom, as might third and fourth, and fifth and sixth years.

Some children took their pre-school age brothers and sisters to school with them, because household members were too busy to care for them at home. Looking after smaller siblings (komori) was one of the most common tasks children were given. This was particularly so for girls, but for some boys too.

Some interviewees recalled that they wore a uniform at higher elementary school. In contrast, ordinary elementary schools rarely if ever seem to have had uniforms, though some seem to have had school caps for boys. In earlier decades, children would go to school in kimono, but during the 1920s and 1930s, increasing numbers wore western clothes, a trend that started earlier in urban areas. For boys, this often meant what was known as gakuseifuku (‘student dress’), very similar to the school uniforms with Nehru-style jackets commonly worn by male junior high and high school students in postwar Japan. Judging from the accounts of interviewees, randoseru (a kind of satchel, carried on the back like a rucksack) were less common as school bags in the 1930s and 1940s than they later became for elementary school children. Many interviewees said they had shoulder bags made of cloth or canvas instead.

The most common punishment reported by interviewees was to be sent to stand in the corridor. In more severe cases, children were made to hold buckets of water as they stood. Some interviewees also recalled teachers striking children as a punishment, either with their hand or with a stick.

Some interviewees also recalled bullying at school. According to these accounts, children could be bullied for a variety of reasons – because they had moved to the area from elsewhere in Japan and spoke differently, because they had curly hair, because they were envied as the child of a rich landlord, or conversely, because they were from a poor family or their father had died.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

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