Selective Secondary Education for Girls, 1900-1945

The main form of selective secondary education for girls was the girls’ high school (kōtō jogakkō, or kōjo for short). The regular course at girls’ high school was four years (whereas boys’ middle schools were five years). As the decades progressed, increasing numbers of girls’ high schools lengthened their programmes to five years, indicating the growing demand for higher levels of education for girls; even so, such schools were always in the minority.

Boys’ selective secondary schools could lead to a wide variety of opportunities for higher education. However, higher educational opportunities for girls were much more limited, focused on programmes in teacher training medicine (mainly nursing). The role of women was considered to be primarily in the home – although in practice, married women in farm families normally did a lot of agricultural work too. The official ideology of the Ministry of Education was to educate girls to be ‘good wives and wise mothers’ (ryōsai kenbo).

The curriculum of girls’ high schools reflected this ideology. Several hours a week were devoted to needlework (saihō) (Japanese, and later Western too), which was considered an essential skill for housewives. Domestic science and household management (kaji) was also important. Elegant arts and manners were taught in etiquette lessons (sahō); this included traditional arts such as tea ceremony, as well as Western etiquette. Music and moral education were given more time than in boys’ schools. At the same time, the core of the curriculum was made up of academic subjects, as at boys’ secondary schools. The clearest difference was that whereas English was perhaps the most important subject at boys’ middle schools, at girls’ high schools English was taught for fewer hours, and was sometimes optional. Subjects such as mathematics and science were not taught to such a high level as in boys’ schools either, though even so, some girls’ high schools had dedicated science labs by the early 1920, as emphasis on science increased after World War One. One of the interviewees for our project used her pre-1945 girls’ high school education to go on to teacher training college and become a junior high school mathematics teacher after the war.

The increasing emphasis on science reflected Japanese observations of the role played by European women during World War One. It became considered that Japan could not compete with Western powers unless women were well educated and physically strong. This also led to increasing emphasis on sport and physical education, and expedited the introduction of Western dress as school uniform, as it was easier to move about in.

During the 1920s and 1930s, increasing numbers of Japanese young women were taking up occupations, from teacher and nurse to department store assistant, telephone operator, and bus conductor. The (largely male) principals of the girls’ high schools often advocated improved and expanded education for women, although this was still seen as subordinate and ancillary to their role as ‘good wives and wise mothers’.

The students of girls’ high schools were associated with a particular type of ‘girls’ school culture’ (jogakusei bunka), centred on sensibility, art, literature, and feeling. The study of literature (especially classical Japanese literature) was important at the schools, and many girls were also very keen readers of contemporary novels. A particular favourite were the novels of Yoshiya Nobuko. Like many authors who wrote for a mainly female readership, Yoshiya’s stories were serialised in the monthly magazine Shōjo no tomo (Girl’s Friend), which was particularly popular with girls’ school students, as was with its more conservative rival, Shōjo kurabu (Girl’s Club). The cult of sensibility and feeling expressed in works like those of Yoshiya helped to nurture a culture of intense romantic friendships known as ‘S’ (for ‘sister’) relationships, usually between an older and a younger student. While such relationships were generally considered acceptable, relationships with boys were completely prohibited. Interviewees told us that boys and girls were expected to travel in different train carriages, and even frequent different bookshops; even speaking to one’s own brother on the way to school might be thought to invite suspicion.

There were different types and levels of girls’ high school, as with selective secondary schools for boys. Girls’ practical high schools (jikka kōtō jogakkō) had a curriculum with many more lessons for needlework than ordinary girls’ schools. They were less popular, and easier to enter. There were also significant numbers of private girls’ high schools, of varying levels. Interviewees pointed to a clear hierarchy among girls’ schools in their local area. Like boys’ selective schools, entrance to girls’ high schools was via an entrance examination and interview, and elementary school teachers would coach those attempting the exam with special after-school lessons. Whether talented girls could actually apply depended on their family’s wealth and attitude to female education. However, as with selective secondary education for boys, the proportion of female elementary school graduates entering girls’ high school rose considerably over the decades, from about 10 percent in 1915, to 25 percent in 1940.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

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