Visiting the origins of the learning and civility of the Japanese people

Surprisingly clean townscapes and high literacy rates

It is said that foreign nationals such as diplomats and pastors who visited Japan between the mid- and late nineteenth century were all surprised at how clean the streets of Edo (present-day Tokyo) were. Edo at the time was a thriving city with a population of over one million. Records describe amazement at how literate and polite the common people were.

terakoya temple school

What lies behind this is the history of the Japanese people and the importance they place on education and civility. Various types of educational institutions were established all throughout Japan particularly during the Edo period (1603 – 1868).

Privately-owned “terakoya” educational institutions that taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and etiquette to children of all social classes spread throughout Japan, including provincial cities. It is believed that there were at least three thousand such institutions in Edo. Many kawarabans (tile block prints) and other reading materials that are the equivalent of today’s newspapers were in publication with the heightening of the literacy rate.

terakoya temple school(image)
A terakoya temple school where children went to study (image)

The Japanese spirit of Omotenashi (hospitality) and politeness, which is valued highly abroad, still exists today throughout educational institutes and in the home. Here are four educational institutions in four cities that are open to the public and were designated in 2015 as educational assets of early modern Japan, which conveys Japanese culture and tradition through the historic appeal and characteristics of their regions. Some of these educational institutions are national treasures and even offer tours. You can further enhance your sightseeing experience by also visiting tourist spots nearby.

notice board
A notice board that conveyed information such as laws and regulations to the common people in writing

Kodokan – Japan’s largest comprehensive university in Japan where children of samurai families studied


Many domains established their own schools for educating the children of their samurai families during the Edo period. Kodokan, which was established in 1841 in Ibaraki Prefecture’s Mito City, famous for its plum trees at Kairakuen, was a representative domain school. It operated like a comprehensive university where students studied a wide variety of subjects such as Confucian studies, history, mathematics and music, while devoting themselves to military arts. The last shogun of the Edo period, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, also studied here from age five to eleven.

The main gate
The main gate, which is an important cultural asset. It was opened only during formal occasions such as when the domain lord visited.
The seicho (government office)
The seicho (government office) that was used when exams on the literary and martial arts were held in front of a domain lord.
The “Shizendo” resting area for domain lords to relax in as well as letting his children study in

The recreation area for students, with the aroma of plums


Kairakuen, which is famous for its plum blossoms, was a recreation area for Kodokan students. The best time of the year to view the plum blossoms here is from February to March. Kairakuen is a good place to make a side trip as it is only about ten minutes away by taxi from Kodokan.

Ashikaga Gakko is Japan’s oldest school, which missionaries introduced to the world.

Ashikaga Gakko(left), Bannaji Temple(right)
Ashikaga School

Ashikaga City in Tochigi Prefecture, which is known for its magnificent 150 year-old wisterias. Ashikaga Gakko, which is located ten minutes on foot from JR Ashikaga Station, is the oldest remaining school in Japan. Some say that it was built in the eight century while others say the tenth century. The school was still open even during times of war and prospered with an attendance of three thousand students. Francisco Xavier, the missionary who taught Christianity in Japan during the sixteenth century, introduced Ashikaga Gakko to the world as the largest and oldest university in Japan. It is famous for its large collection of important books on Chinese classics.

Even after the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, learners and observers gathered from around the country to study their favorite subjects centering on Confucian studies in a free manner. Today, it continues to serve as a place to receive lifelong education for the citizens of Ashikaga City.

The school gate, the abbot's quarters
The school gate (left) and the abbot’s quarters (right) where students studied. The abbot’s quarters were built in the same style as that of Zen temples.

The yellow leaves of the huge ginkgo tree also viewed by students

Located three minutes walk from Ashikaga Gakko, Bannaji Temple is the former residence of the Ashikaga clan, which founded the Muromachi Shogunate in the fourteenth century. The grounds are spotted with historic structures such as the main temple, which is a national treasure, and a bell tower and sutra library, which are important cultural assets. There is also a huge ginkgo tree that is about six hundred years old, and it turns yellow in autumn.

Bannaji Temple

Having been built for the common people, Shizutani Gakko is the oldest public school in the world

Shizutani School (Japanese)

Bizen City in Okayama Prefecture is the home of Bizen ware, which has a history of over eight hundred years. In this city was a school that had a policy of operating farming and forestry activities so that it could survive even if the domain goes down. The school was Shizutani Gakko, which is the oldest public school in Japan, and was established in 1670 under orders from Mitsumasa Ikeda of the Bizen Domain for educating the common people.

The Lecture Hall, with its contrasting reddish-brown roof tiles and white walls, is the only national treasure in Japan that is a school structure. All structures, including the Seibyo mausoleum (a Confucian temple and mausoleum dedicated to Confucius; the founder of Confucianism) and Inshitsu resting area for students, are important cultural assets (hours: 9 am to 5 pm, admission: 400 yen).

The Lecture Hall

The Lecture Hall, with its finely polished floors, is cool inside even in the summer as the wind blows right through the structure. To this day, it is still used as a place of study for the local youths.

Traditional craft arts enjoyed by both teachers and students

The roof tiles of Shizutani Gakko are local Bizen ware items. Bizen ware is reddish brown with a unique unglazed texture, and Bizen ware items such as the “guinomi” sake cups in the photo make perfect gifts. A Bizen ware festival is held every third Sunday and previous Saturday of October every year.

Bizen ware

Kangien – the private school that did not require qualifications for admission and taught five thousand students over a period of eighty years

Mameda Town

There is a private school in Japan that was founded by an individual who was passionate about education. Kangien, which is located in Oita Prefecture’s Hita City surrounded by the Aso mountains around central Kyushu, is a private school that was founded in the early nineteenth century by the Confucian scholar Tanso Hirose.

Kangien accepted students regardless of age, social status, or educational background. The running of the academy and dormitories was left up to the students and the merits and individuality of the students were respected. It is said that around five thousand students from across the country studied here over a period of eighty years.

Chofukuji Temple
The main hall of Chofukuji Temple, where Tanso Hirose first established a school

Tanso’s home “Shufuan”, his study room “Enshiro”, and library can be seen here.

Hita was under direct control of the Edo Shogunate during the Edo period and was the center of Shogunate rule in Kyushu. It had a highway and water transportation along the rivers prospered. Mameda Town, which is close to Kangien, still looks the same way it did during the Edo period.

Mameda Town conveys festivals and traditional ceremonies to modern times.

spring Hina festival

A townscape where merchant homes and storehouses from the Edo period still remain can be strolled through in Mameda Town, which is about five to six minutes on foot from Kangien. The liveliness of the town can still be felt through festivities such as the spring Hina festival, where Hina dolls are presented in merchant homes, the summer Gion festival, which the students enjoyed participating in, and the autumn Thousand Year Lights festival, where the streets are lit up with bamboo lanterns.

These four educational institutions were selected as educational assets of Japan and are all reminders of how they were ages ago. Enjoy a slightly different kind of sightseeing trip while imagining the students as they study.

Project for promoting the transmission of the attraction of Japanese heritage.