Meiji schoolhouse offers lessons in history


“You want us to go to school on our day off?” my 9-year-old cried in disbelief. “Zettai iyada! (Absolutely no way!)” He’s been in Japan since he was 5 and tends to speak in Japanese when he’s riled. “Yeah, leave it to our mother to come up with a cockamamie scheme like going to school while we’re on a trip,” seconded his older brother, who is equally mouthy whether speaking in English or Japanese.

Jeez! It wasn’t like I was asking them to enroll in a rigorous course of study; I simply wanted to make a stop at an old schoolhouse. The boys’ 80-year-old grandfather was visiting from the United States and we had him on a Japanese-style “vacation.” You know the type: a week’s worth of activity packed into a frantic overnight trip. At that moment, we were in Nagano Prefecture and had just finished touring Matsumoto Castle. It was only a 10-minute walk to the old Kaichi School Museum, and I wanted to take a look. I got my way, but only after promising ice cream afterward.

We paid our money and entered the grounds of the school, which has been a museum since 1976. I opened the brochure we were given at the gate. “OK, everybody, listen up. This school opened in 1873, just a few years after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. That’s when Japan ended hundred years of isolation and began to adopt many things from the West.”

Everyone stopped in front of the schoolhouse, a long wooden building with a central octagonal tower and a weathercock on top. “I suppose this must be an early example of Western-style building in Japan,” my father-in-law offered. “I don’t think you can call that Western,” countered my older son, pointing to the ferocious dragon over the entrance. “That looks just like the carvings on a Buddhist temple.” He was right.

We all took a closer look and noticed other elements from traditional Japanese architecture, including the curved karahafu (gable) over the main door and the onigawara (gargoyle roof tiles). I consulted the brochure again and learned that the Kaichi School is a stellar example of the “quasi-Western” style of architecture that developed when Meiji Era carpenters copied the look of Western buildings using native construction techniques.

We moved inside for the exhibits about the school and the development of the modern Japanese education system. In 1872, a year before the Kaichi School opened, the Meiji government laid out a plan for centralized, national education. It called for the country to be divided into eight university districts, each of which was divided into 32 middle-school districts. A single middle-school district would be served by 210 primary schools. This would create a national system of more than 53,000 schools where children of all social classes — girls as well as boys — would be educated together. The goal was to unify the country through education, and prepare young people to serve the state as it modernized.

Not surprisingly, resources fell short of ambition. Local communities were expected to bear much of the cost of the new schools, and some areas progressed faster than others. Nagano was particularly keen on education, and soon had a higher rate of school attendance than any other prefecture in Japan. The citizens of Matsumoto donated 70 percent of the enormous construction costs of the Kaichi School, and it was considered one of the finest schools in the country. In 1880, Emperor Meiji came to see it, and the room in which he was received is preserved exactly as it was at the time of the Imperial visit.

The modern education system launched during the Meiji Era was very different from what preceded it. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), education was far from universal and segregated by class. Sons of high-ranking samurai were taught military arts and how to read Chinese texts, but few commoners had access to education.

Then, in the 18th century, the growth of cities and commercial farming brought new opportunities and challenges for commoners as well as increased demand for reading and writing skills. Schools for samurai proliferated, as did the terakoya (temple schools) that served merchants and other commoners who could afford to educate their children. Although temple schools were sometimes housed in temples, they were not Buddhist-sponsored and varied greatly in quality and curriculum; the focus of the teaching, however, was on practical skills and simple morality. Children of all ages sat together on the floor for their studies.

At Meij Era schools like the Kaichi School, children were separated by age and sat at desks. As we looked around the exhibits, I asked my kids, both of whom have attended Japanese school, to share their impressions.

“In some ways it’s different and in some ways it’s the same,” my younger son said.

How so?

“Well, this school had a school song and a school motto, just like they do at my school,” he observed. And how were things different? “No computers.”

My father-in-law, who taught university for some 50 years, also noted the lack of electronic gear. “It’s nice to be reminded that application and diligence with simple tools produced sophisticated results — learning to read, reason and overcome difficulties,” he said.

The museum is a repository for historical teaching materials and it is remarkable to see how little teachers had to work with. In the early years of the Kaichi School, for example, there were no textbooks. Teachers taught from posters hung at the front of the classroom. One beautiful example on display is a chart of plants and vegetables, published in 1873 by the Education Ministry for the teaching of natural history.

I thought the museum was well worth the visit. And I was pleased that the kids, despite their initial resistance, seemed to take at least a cursory interest. Later, on the train to the next destination on our packed itinerary, I asked the kids what impressed them most about the visit to the old schoolhouse.

“The ice cream afterward,” said my 9-year-old. “Most definitely,” seconded his brother. “The ice cream was highly educational.”