Skip to main content

Educational Reform

By Camille Romano (’22) & Shrusti Goswami (’22)

Modernization of the education system was one of the main goals of the new Meiji government. After the Meiji Restoration, class restrictions vanished and allowed education to be open to all people. Gakusei, the First National Plan for Education, formalized the future of education in Japan and focused on modeling Japanese education after Western education systems. Tanaka Fujimaro of the Ministry of Education in Japan was particularly passionate about Western education and toured American schools during his time in the U.S. as a member of the Iwakura mission. He later worked with Dr. David Murray, professor of Rutgers College to bring aspects of Western education, such as curriculum and mandatory attendance.

Murray and Tanaka were instrumental in developing the Second National Plan for Education, as each had a huge role in merging Kaisei Gakko and Igakko into the first 4-year university in Japan, now known as the University of Tokyo. The Second National Plan for Education included many other important decisions that Tanaka and Murray made together. Others include creating teacher training programs for women, modernizing the curriculum, and constantly monitoring the development of public schools in towns across Japan. These implications made by the Second National Plan for Education ensured that Japan eventually would be self-sufficient in educating these students with these new educational developments, as well as not needing the help of Oyatoi, which were the teachers who came from the West, educating the students in these newly formed schools. Luckily, Japanese students picked up Western education rather quickly, and some became the system’s future educators. 

William E. Griffis was one of the first foreign teachers who taught outside of Tokyo. He began teaching in Fukui and eventually taught at Kaisei Gakko. While he focused on teaching chemistry and physics, Griffis also aimed to teach students about Christianity. In his time in Japan, Griffis notes that he became close with many students who later became diplomats or prominent leaders in the new Japanese government. 

Japan: A Paradox in Education

The article Paradox in Education written by William Elliot Griffis, discusses the growing results of “Occidentals,” or Westerners’ successful influence on Japan during the Meiji Period. He reflects quite early on in the era that the education that the West has provided was developing Japan and its people into a more superior race in comparison to the nations proximal to the country. The advancements in the military branches were one of the earliest recognized changes, with education recognized not very long after. Griffis discusses that the original superstitions and traditions that the Japanese created in earlier eras do not cloud their newly found Western education, which consisted of the sciences and medicine, as well as law and literature. However, this newly learned information would not have been utilized in such an advanced way if it was not for the Japanese people’s habit to meditate. Allowing them to separate intellect and emotions was something that had already been domestic to the people, and one of the main reasons Griffis believed that the Japanese were able to become so advanced so quickly.


“The Japan Primer”

The following is an English textbook created by Griffis for the sole purpose of teaching Japanese how to understand or speak English. The textbook features types of sounds found in English words—both vowels and consonants—the alphabet, numbers, vocabulary words, and sentences written in Japanese structure accompanied with the English version. These sentences at the end of each lesson provided sufficient help for Japanese students utilizing the textbook to understand the difference in how a sentence in Japanese is structured versus English. By doing this, as Griffis states in the “Preface” of the book, the pupil will gain a lot of assistance in thinking in English, rather than their own native language. 

Correspondence, Japan: Ichikawa T. 1920 – Koyano Keizo 1926-1928. 1871-1928. Government Papers. The National Archives, Kew. Research Source. Web. May 07, 2020.

Kaisei Gakkou letters

Although Griffis was not directly a part of education reform like David Murray, he was one of the first foreigners to teach in Japan. In September of 1870, Griffis was offered a three-year teaching position in Fukui, Japan, from the president of Rutgers. Griffis decides to take the chance and heads to Japan to teach, make money for his family, and spread Christianity. 

These letters from his students shed light on how Griffis was perceived while he was a teacher. Griffis was somewhat known for being very proud of his connection with his students, as many of them grew to be leaders in reforming Japan. Yet, these letters show how much his students respected him, with one letter even saying “Not many things in the world can give us greater benefit than the kindness of your teaching.” The letters outline Griffis’ contract and how he was requested to teach more than just chemistry and physics but declined this offer, amongst other details about his time as a teacher.

David Murray and His Associates

Dr. David Murray was very influential in the modernization of education. But how did a professor from Rutgers University end up in Japan in the late 19th century? A long history precedes Murray’s arrival in Japan and can be tied to Mori Arinori, the Minister of Education at the time.

Mori was fascinated by higher education in the West and wanted to model educational reforms after American universities. In 1872, he sent letters to the presidents of prominent colleges, including Harvard and Yale, as well as other colleges that had historical ties to Japan such as Rutgers College. Mori was requesting deep insight into how universities function and advice for implementing such in Japan. While he was met with little or no responses from most colleges, the letter he sent to Rutgers was passed into the hands of David Murray, who was a well-known professor of mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy and housed many Japanese students who attended the university for years. Murray responded in great detail, answering each of the five parts Mori requested. By displaying such knowledge and commitment to bettering the education system in Japan, Murray unintentionally set himself up for a position as a senior official in the Japanese government a year later.

Dr. David Murray himself.
Tanaka Fujimaro
Mrs. Tanaka

Once Murray arrived in Japan, he was paired with Tanaka Fujimaro to help reform Japan. The two became very close, both professionally and personally, and shared many ideas on how Japan should modernize. Their wives also became close, with Tanaka’s wife even staying with the Murrays to learn more about American customs.

Tanaka and Murray worked to reform public education in Japan, with Murray focusing on public elementary schools. Yet, with such a large task, there were many bumps in the road. In Benjamin Duke’s The History of Modern Japanese Education: Constructing the National School System, 1872-1890, Duke outlines challenges the Ministry of Education faced and conflicts between Murray and Tanaka.

Gakusei: The First National Plan for Education

On August 3rd, 1872, Gakusei, the First National Plan for Education was announced to be in place by April 1873 and the Ministry of Education began its mission for reforming schools all over the country to model after Western education systems. In the Edo period, pre-Meiji Restoration, education was primarily for samurai as they were the highest class and held the most power in society. Samurai education focused on learning calligraphy, abacus, and Confucian classics. Specifically, samurai were expected to come to class having memorized classics rather than understanding them.

After the Meiji Restoration, public education for all people became a priority. The Ministry of Education made large changes, such as hiring more foreign teachers, expanding school subjects to include reading, writing, recitation, history, geography, science, arithmetic, health, and morals. Although Gakusei focused on elementary education, higher education was also changing. Schools established into the Tokugawa period were combined and simplified to form Nankō and Higashikō. Guido Verbeck, a missionary and teacher, helped advance Nankō into an advanced school of foreign language and science and it was eventually renamed Kaisei GakkōKaisei Gakkō put the Japanese education system on the map.

One major problem in implementing Gakusei,  was the lack of textbooks for elementary children that fit the new curriculum. The Ministry of Education didn’t plan for immediately having new textbooks ready to teach the new subjects. They resorted to combining old texts from the Edo period with imported books from Western countries. However, there was also a big mismatch between the age of the students and the difficulty of the subject matter. Many of the books were translated at a reading difficulty fit for adults and subjects, such as physics and chemistry, were too complex for elementary school children. The Ministry decided to keep difficult science subjects in the curriculum anyway because they strongly believed that science was the foundation for a successful civilization and that children should at least absorb basics at a young age.

Letters by David Murray

David Murray, a mathematics professor at Rutgers, was known to be one of the main persons-in-charge of the formation of higher education during the Meiji Restoration. He is responsible for supervising Tanaka Fujimaro’s decision in merging Kaisei Gakkou (polytechnic school) and Tokyo Igakkou (medical school), creating what is known today as Tokyo University, one of the most prestigious higher-level institutions in Japan. The following are his letters to William Elliot Griffis, few discussing the difficulties of the position due to Japanese being closed-minded about religion, along with no one knowing the difficulties in the way of success. Being one of the few Western professors brought over to Japan with high expectations of advancing education, he expresses the pressure of the job to Griffis, luckily producing positive results in the end.

Women and Coeducation

With the implementation of Gakusei, there was a shortage of teachers in Japan. While the nation began outsourcing teachers, it also emphasized making former-samurai and women teachers. Murray says in a letter to Tanaka Fujimaro that “As it has always been found in all Western nations that females are the best teachers of children…They have more tact and patience than men in dealing with children and know better how to render them the assistance they need in their education. But, in order that women may be fitted to undertake the work of teaching, they must first be trained for it” (Duke 149). Murray had great power and persuasion as senior advisor to the Director of the Ministry of Education and so a plan was put in place to train female teachers.

Co-education came up as an interesting topic on the Iwakura Mission when the Japanese observed American male students in classes with female students. Although many had stereotypical views of females, such that they believed that the politeness of the women would balance the temperamental men and that the shyness of the women was balanced out by the determined nature of the men, they supported coeducation.

Margaret Clark Griffis with her students.

Foreign women, such as William E. Griffis’ sister Margaret Clark Griffis, taught in Japan at the Tokyo Government Girl’s School and was invited to stay to train more female teachers.

Margaret Clark Griffis Diaries

Margaret Clark Griffis, sister to William Elliot Griffis, was a schoolteacher and later appointed principal of Takehashi girls’ high school, Jo-Gakko. In these diaries, Margaret Griffis talks about her travels and more personal experiences in Japan, such as travels to Hakone Lake, meeting the Emperor, occasionally going to Yokohama to retrieve goods from a Chinese ship that came from San Francisco, and going to church services. She also discusses her time after she teaches at school. The diary entry above was written in July-August 1872 onboard the US Pacific Steam Ship in China, when Margaret Griffis was on her way to her brother in Japan, keeping in touch with people through letters. This particular moment marks the beginning of her journey becoming a female educational influence for young girls during the Meiji Restoration.