Learning and Study in Elementary Education, 1900-1945

In terms of lesson hours, the most important subjects in the ordinary elementary school curriculum were Japanese language (kokugo) and mathematics (sanjutsu). Japanese took up roughly a third to a half of all lesson hours, while there were 6 hours of mathematics a week for younger children, and 4 hours for older children. This included learning to use the abacus, not as a plaything, but as an important calculating tool. Shopkeepers and office workers continued to use abacuses routinely for decades after 1945.

Japanese was divided into reading (yomikata), writing (kakikata), and composition (tsuzurikata). The Japanese readers were perhaps the most important of all school textbooks, containing a wide variety of fictional and non-fictional texts that were designed to broaden children’s knowledge, as well as inculcate morality and patriotism. ‘Writing’ meant calligraphy, with a brush. To save on paper costs, children would practise writing a character many times on pieces of newspaper. Composition was a subject in which progressive Japanese elementary school teachers developed some innovative pedagogical approaches; moving away from the regimented topics of the Meiji period, some teachers encouraged children to write about whatever topics interested them, in a ‘childlike’ style, and by the 1930s, some were using composition to try to raise children’s consciousness about the hardships of their lives, an approach known as ‘life composition’ (seikatsu tsuzurikata).

In the upper years of ordinary elementary school, children learned history, geography, and science (girls also learned needlework). The history textbook started with the myth of the sun-goddess, Amaterasu, which was presented as fact, as were other myths of Japanese origins. There was a strong focus on figures who displayed loyalty to the imperial throne; a central topic was the vain struggle of the fourteenth-century Emperor Godaigo to assert imperial authority over the shogun, Ashikaga Takeuji. Godaigo’s loyal general, Kusunoki Masashige, was celebrated not only in history textbooks, but also Japanese readers and singing textbooks. In science, on the other hand, children studied the natural world around them, and did simple chemistry experiments.

Subjects such as art, music, and physical education were not neglected. By the 1920s, indoor and outdoor sketching of still life objects and scenery seems to have been widespread, under the influence of artistic education movements during the Taisho period. More than one interviewee mentioned that good pictures by children would be put up on classroom or corridor walls. Music meant singing, usually accompanied by the teacher playing a small organ (pianos were very expensive). Some songs were from the Ministry of Education textbook, while others were approved by the Ministry. They dealt with a variety of subjects, from the beauties of nature to the celebration of military heroes such as General Nogi or Commander Hirose of the Russo-Japanese War.

Moral education (shūshin) headed the curriculum. It was widely blamed after 1945 for inculcating nationalistic patriotism, which was one of the topics that featured prominently in the moral education textbooks. However, the books also featured many other moral virtues that the Japanese state wished to develop in its subjects, from diligence and probity to filial piety and cooperativeness. Interviewees in our project often mentioned learning about Ninomiya Kinjirō, the studious peasant boy who grew up to be an agricultural leader, economist, and government official. Some also recalled learning the Imperial Rescript on Education off by heart.

From the late 1920s onwards, some schools developed what became known as ‘native-place studies’ (kyōdo kyōiku). In this, children focused on learning about their local area. Sometimes, locally produced textbooks about the area seem to have been used as supplementary teaching materials in subjects such as geography and science. In some cases, children even carried out investigative surveys of their villages. These initiatives took place especially in rural areas, where the government encouraged them as a way of promoting improved rural productivity and national spirit. At some schools, teachers and children grew vegetables and raised animals for hands-on learning about agriculture. There have been continuing arguments about the different ways in which the ‘native-place studies’ movement mixed progressivism and nationalism. In Shiga Prefecture, school principal Mr Yajima Masanobu was an important local figure in this movement, first at Shima elementary school in Ohmihachiman, and then at Seta elementary school. Several of our interviewees attended the Seta school, and remembered having to record their observations of plants in the school garden for science lessons.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

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