Ceremonies and Events in Elementary Schools, 1900-1945

Education at elementary schools was not just made up of lessons. Ceremonies and events also played an important role.

The most important regular school ceremonies were those at which the Imperial Rescript on Education (kyōiku chokugo) was read. Three were especially important: New Year’s Day (1 January), National Foundation Day (kigensetsu, on 11 February), and the Emperor’s Birthday (tenchōsetsu). From 1927, a fourth was added, Meiji Day (Meijisetsu), held on 3 November, the birthday of the Meiji Emperor. On these days, children came to school only for the ceremony in the morning, wearing their best clothes. The Rescript was reverently carried into the assembly hall, then read with solemnity by the principal, while all the children kept their heads bowed. There was a special song for each ceremonial day. The ceremonies were organised to induce awe – even if, as several interviewees for our project mentioned, the effect could be somewhat marred in practice by the sniffing of children whose noses ran as they bowed their heads. After the ceremony, each child received a small cake in the auspicious colours of red and white, a mark of Imperial beneficence.

At first, the Imperial Rescript was kept in a special box in the school, but as time went on, increasing numbers of schools constructed special buildings, called hōanden, to house the sacred object, along with the photographs of the Emperor and Empress that were increasingly granted to schools. As many interviewees recalled, it was drilled into children that they had to bow as they passed the hōanden.

Sports Days (undōkai) and Artistic Performance Days (gakugeikai) were also important events. Both developed gradually through the first decades of the twentieth century to become indispensible elements in the school year. Sports Days began as demonstrations of calisthenics and military drill, but soon began to include races and other athletic contests. Coordinated performances by all the boys or girls in a school year continued to be important, however; sometimes these seem to have been celebrations of Japan’s military, carried out to martial music. On Artistic Performance Days, children performed skits, dances, recitations, and songs, often related to stories from the Japanese readers, including folktales such as Momotaro, the Peach Boy. These not infrequently contained overt or implied moral lessons in patriotism, courage, and other virtues that schools promoted. Artistic Performance Days were encouraged by the artistic educational movements of the Taisho period (1912-1926), but this progressive pedagogy was not simply liberal – it was also used to make nationalistic messages more attractive through drama, dance, and song. Families and local people enjoyed coming to watch both Sports Days and Artistic Performance Days.

Classes and year groups usually went on one or two outings a year to some local place of significance for its beauty, natural features, or history. Most of the time, they walked; the characters in the Japanese word for such outings, ensoku, mean ‘far’ and ‘foot’. In the upper years of elementary school, trips began to go further afield, involving public transport and overnight stays. The Grand Shrine at Ise was a very popular destination. Schools for whom Ise was too far might take children to the sea, or to a major city. Such trips became an established feature of elementary schools, and continue into the present. Outings and school trips show how Japanese schools developed a relatively early commitment to holistic, experiential education beyond the classroom.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

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