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Official Education

 THE extent to which national character has been fixed by the discipline of centuries, and the extent of its extraordinary capacity to resist change, is perhaps most strikingly indicated by certain results of State education. The whole nation is being educated, with Government help, upon a European plan; and the full programme includes the chief subjects of Western study, excepting Greek and Latin classics. From Kindergarten to University the entire system is modern in outward seeming; yet the effect of the new education is much less marked in thought and sentiment than might be supposed. This fact is not to be explained merely by the large place which old Chinese study still occupies in the obligatory programme, nor by differences of belief: it is much more due to the fundamental difference in the Japanese and the European conceptions of education as means to an end. In spite of new system and programme the whole of Japanese education is still conducted upon a traditional plan almost the exact opposite of the Western plan. With us, the repressive part of moral training begins in early childhood: the European or American teacher is strict with the little ones; we think that it is important to inculcate the duties of behaviour, — the "must" and the "must not" of individual obligation, — as soon as possible. Later on, more liberty is allowed. The well-grown boy is made to understand that his future will depend upon his personal effort and capacity; and he is thereafter left, in a great measure, to take care of himself, being occasionally admonished or warned, as seems needful. Finally, the adult student of promise and character may become the intimate, or, under happy circumstances, even the friend of his tutor, to whom he can look for counsel in all difficult situations. And throughout the whole course of mental and moral training competition is not only expected, but required. But it is more and more required as discipline is more and more relaxed, with the passing of boyhood into manhood. The aim of Western education is the cultivation of individual ability and personal character, — the creation of an independent and forceful being.

Now Japanese education has always been conducted, and, in spite of superficial appearances, is still being conducted, mostly upon the reverse plan. Its object never has been to train the individual for independent action, but to train him for cooperative action, — to fit him to occupy an exact place in the mechanism of a rigid society. Constraint among ourselves begins with childhood, and gradually relaxes; constraint in Far-Eastern training begins later, and thereafter gradually tightens; and it is not a constraint imposed directly by parents or teachers — which fact, as we shall presently see, makes an enormous difference in results. Not merely up to the age of school-life, — supposed to begin at six years, — but considerably beyond it, a Japanese child enjoys a degree of liberty far greater than is allowed to Occidental children. Exceptional cases are common, of course; but the general rule is that the child be permitted to do as he pleases, providing that his conduct can cause no injury to himself or to others. He is guarded, but not constrained; admonished, but rarely compelled. In short, he is allowed to be so mischievous that, as a Japanese proverb says, “even the holes by the roadside hate a boy of seven or eight years old"1 (Nanatsu, yatsu — michibata no ana desaimon nikumu). Punishment is administered only when absolutely necessary; and on such occasions, by ancient custom, the entire household — servants and all — intercede for the offender; the little brothers and sisters, if any there be, begging in turn to bear the penalty instead. Whipping is not a common punishment, except among the roughest classes; the moxa is preferred as a deterrent; and it is a severe one. To frighten a child by loud harsh words, or angry looks, is condemned by general opinion: all punishment ought to be inflicted as quietly as possible, the punisher calmly admonishing the while. To slap a child about the head, for any reason, is a proof of vulgarity and ignorance. It is not customary to punish by restraining from play, or by a change of diet, or by any denial of accustomed pleasures. To be perfectly patient with children is the ethical law. At school the discipline begins; but it is at first so very light that it can hardly be called discipline: the teacher does not act as a master, but rather as an elder brother; and there is no punishment beyond a public admonition. Whatever restraint exists is chiefly exerted on the child by the common opinion of his class; and a skilful teacher is able to direct that opinion. Also each class is nominally governed by one or two little captains, selected for character and intelligence; and when a disagreeable order has to be given, it is the child-captain, the kyūchō, who is commissioned with the duty of giving it. (These little details are worthy of note: I cite them only to show how early in school-life begins the discipline of opinion, the pressure of the common will, and how perfectly this policy accords with the ethical traditions of the race.) In higher classes the pressure slightly increases; and in higher schools it is very much stronger; the ruling power always being class-sentiment, not the individual will of the teacher. In middle schools the pupils become serious: class-opinion there attains a force to which the teacher himself must bend, as it is quite capable of expelling him for any attempt to override it. Each middle-school class has its elected officers, who represent and enforce the moral code of the majority, — the traditional standard of conduct. (This moral standard is deteriorating; but it survives everywhere to some degree.) Fighting or bullying are yet unknown in Japanese schools of this grade for obvious reasons: there can be little indulgence of personal anger, and no attempt at personal domination, under a discipline enforcing a uniform manner of behaviour. It is never the domination of the one over the many that regulates class-life: it is always the rule of the many over the one, — and the power is formidable. The student who consciously or unconsciously offends class-sentiment will suddenly find himself isolated, — condemned to absolute solitude. No one will speak to him or notice him even outside of the school, until such time as he decides to make a public apology, when his pardon will depend upon a majority-vote.

Such temporary ostracism is not unreasonably feared, because it is regarded even outside of student-circles as a disgrace; and the memory of it will cling to the offender during the rest of his career. However high he may rise in official or professional life in after years, the fact that he was once condemned by the general opinion of his schoolmates will not be forgotten, — though circumstances may occur which will turn the fact to his credit.... In the great Government schools to one of which the student may proceed after graduating from a middle-school — class-discipline is still more severe. The instructors are mostly officials looking for promotion: the students are grown men, preparing for the University, and destined, with few exceptions, for public office. In this quietly and coldly ordered world there is little place for the joy of youth, and small opportunity for sympathetic expansion. There are gatherings and societies; but these are arranged or established for practical purposes — chiefly in relation to particular branches of study; there is little time for merry-making, and less inclination. Under all circumstances, a certain formal demeanour is exacted by tradition, — a tradition older by far than any public school. Everybody watches everybody: eccentricities or singularities are quickly marked and quietly suppressed. The results of this class-discipline, as maintained in some institutions, must seem to the foreign observer discomforting. What most impressed me about these higher official schools was the sinister silence of them. In one where I taught for several years — the most conservative school in the country — there were more than a thousand young men, full of life and energy; yet during the intervals between classes, or during recreation-hours in the playground, the garden, and the gymnastic hall, the general hush gave one a strange sense of oppression. One might watch a game of foot-ball being played, and hear nothing but the thud of the kicking; or one might watch wrestling-contests in the jiujutsu-room, and hear no word spoken for half an hour at a time. (The rules of jiujutsu, it is true, require not only silence, but the total suppression of all visible emotional interest on the part of the spectators.) All this repression at first seemed to me very strange — though I knew that thirty years previously, the training at samurai-schools compelled the same impassiveness and reticence.


At last the University is reached, the great gate of ceremony to public office. Here the student finds himself released from the restraints previously imposed upon his private life,1 though the class-will continues to rule him in certain directions. As a rule, the student passes into official life after having graduated, marries, and becomes the head, or the prospective head, of a household. How sudden the transformation of the man at this epoch of his career, only those who have observed the transformation can imagine. It is then that the full significant of Japanese education reveals itself.

Few incidents of Japanese life are more surprising than the metamorphosis of the gawky student into the dignified, impassive, easy-mannered official. But a little time ago he was respectfully asking, cap in hand, the explanation of some text, the meaning of some foreign idiom; to-day, perhaps, he is judging cases in some court, or managing diplomatic correspondence under ministerial supervision, or directing the management of some public school. Whatever you may have thought of his particular capacity as a student, you will scarcely doubt his particular fitness for the position to which he has been called. Success in study was at best a secondary consideration in the matter of his appointment, — though he had to succeed. He was put through some special course, under high protection, after having been selected for certain qualities of character, — or at least for the promise of such qualities. There may have been favouritism in his case; but, generally speaking, capable men are appointed to positions of trust: the Government seldom makes serious mistakes. This man has value beyond what mere study could make for him, — some capacity in the direction of management or of organization, — some natural force or talent which his training has served to cultivate. According to the quality of his worth, his position was chosen for him in advance. His long, hard schooling has taught him more than books can teach, and more than a stupid person can ever learn: how to read minds and motives, — how to remain impassive under all circumstances, — how to reach a truth quickly by simple questioning, — how to live upon his guard (even against the most intimate of old acquaintances), — how to remain, even when most amiable, secretive and inscrutable. He has graduated in the art of worldly wisdom. He is really a wonderful person, a highly developed type of his race; and no inexperienced Occidental is capable of judging him, because his visible acquirements count for very little in the measure of his relative value. His University study — his English or French or German knowledge — serves him only as so much oil to make easy the working of certain official machinery: he esteems this learning only as means to some administrative end; his real learning, considerably deeper, represents the development of the Japanese soul of him. Between that mind and any Western mind the distance has become immeasurable. And now, less than ever before, does he belong to himself. He belongs to a family, to a party, to a government: privately he is bound by custom; publicly he must act according to order only, and never dream of yielding to any impulses at variance with order, however generous or sensible such impulses may be. A word might ruin him: he has learned to use no words unnecessarily. By silent submission and tireless observance of duty he may rise, and rise quickly: he may become Governor, Chief Justice, Minister of State, Minister Plenipotentiary; but the higher he rises, the heavier will his bonds become.

Long training in caution and self-control is indeed an indispensable preparation for official existence; the ability either to keep a position won, or to resign it with honour, depending much upon such training. The most sinister circumstance of official life is the absence of moral freedom, — the absence of the right to act according to one's own convictions of justice. The subordinate, who desires above all things to keep his place, is not supposed to have personal convictions or sympathies — save by permission. He is not the slave of a man, but of a system — a system as old as China. Were human nature perfect, that system would be perfect; but so long as human nature remains what it is now, the system leaves much to be desired. Everything may depend upon the personal character of those temporarily intrusted with higher power; and the only choice left for the most capable servant under a bad master may be to resign or to do wrong. The strong man faces the problem bravely and resigns; but for one strong man there are fifty timid ones. Probably the prospect of a broken career is much less terrifying than the ancient idea of crime attaching to any form of insubordination. As the forms of a religion survive after the faith in doctrine has passed away, so the power of Government to coerce even conscience still remains, though religion is no longer identified with Government. The system of secrecy, implacably enforced, helps to maintain the vague awe that has always attached to the idea of administrative authority; and such authority is practically omnipotent within those limits which I have already indicated. To be favoured by authority means to experience all the illusive pleasure of a suddenly created popularity: an entire community, a whole city, is made by a word to turn all the amiable side of its human nature toward the favourite, — to charm him into the belief that he is worthy of the best that the world can give him. But suppose that the moving powers happen, latter on, to find the favoured man in the way of some policy — lo! at another whispered word he finds himself, without knowing why, the public enemy. None speak to him or salute him or smile upon him — save ironically: long-esteemed friends pass him by without recognition, or, if pursued, reply to his most earnest questions with all possible brevity and caution. Most likely they do not know the "why" of the matter: they only know that orders have been given, and that into the reason of orders it is not good to enquire. Even the street-children know this much, and mock the despondent victim of fortune; even the dogs seem instinctively to divine the change and bark at him as he passes by.... Such is the power of official displeasure; and the penalty of a blunder or a breach of discipline may extend considerably further — but in feudal times the offender would have been simply told to perform harakiri. Sometimes, when the wrong men get into power, the force of authority may be used for malevolent ends; and in such event it requires not a little courage to disobey an order to act against conscience. What saved Japanese society in former ages from the worst results of this form of tyranny, was the moral sentiment of the mass, — the common feeling that underlay all submission to authority, and remained always capable, if pressed upon too brutally, of compelling a reaction. Conditions to-day are more favourable to justice; but it requires much tact, steadiness, and resolution on the part of a rising official to steer himself safely among the reefs and the whirlpools of the new political life.

*      *      *      *      *

The reader will now be able to understand the general character, aim, and results of official education as a system. It will be also worth while to consider in detail certain phases of student-life which equally prove the survival of old conditions and old traditions. I can speak about these matters from personal experience as a teacher, — an experience extending over nearly thirteen years.


Readers of Goethe will remember the trustful docility of the student received by Doctor Mephistopheles in the First Part of Faust, and the very different demeanour of the same student when he reappears, in the Second Part, as Baccalaureus. More than one foreign professor in Japan must have been reminded of that contrast by personal experience, and must have wondered whether some one of the early educational advisers to the Japanese Government did not play, without malice prepense, the very role of Mephistopheles.... The gentle boy who, with innocent reverence, makes his visit of courtesy to the foreign teacher, bringing for gift a cluster of iris-flowers or odorous spray of plum-blossoms, — the boy who does whatever he is told, and charms by an earnestness, a trustfulness, a grace of manner rarely met with among Western lads of the same age, — is destined to undergo the strangest of transformations long before becoming a baccalaureus. You may meet with him a few years later, in the uniform of some Higher School, and find it difficult to recognize your former pupil, — now graceless, taciturn, secretive, and inclined to demand as a right what could scarcely, with propriety, be requested as a favour. You may find him patronizing, — possibly something worse. Later on, at the University, he becomes more formally correct, but also more far away, — so very far away from his boyhood that the remoteness is a pain to one who remembers that boyhood. The Pacific is less wide and deep than the invisible gulf now extending between the mind of the stranger and the mind of the student. The foreign professor is now regarded merely as a teaching-machine; and he is more than likely to regret any effort made to maintain an intimate relation with his pupils. Indeed the whole formal system of official education is opposed to the development of any such relation. I am speaking of general facts in this connexion, not of merely personal experiences. No matter what the foreigner may do in the hope of finding his way into touch with the emotional life of his students, or in the hope of evoking that interest in certain studies which renders possible an intellectual tie, he must toil in vain. Perhaps in two or three cases out of a thousand he may obtain something precious, — a lasting and kindly esteem, based upon moral comprehension; but should he wish for more he must remain in the state of the Antarctic explorer, seeking, month after month, to no purpose, some inlet through endless cliffs of everlasting ice. Now the case of the Japanese professor proves the barrier natural, to a large extent. The Japanese professor can ask for extraordinary efforts and obtain them; he can afford to be easily familiar with his students outside of class; and he can get what no stranger can obtain, — their devotion. The difference has been attributed to race-feeling; but it cannot be so easily and vaguely explained.

Something of race-sentiment there certainly is; it were impossible that there should not be. No inexperienced foreigner can converse for one half hour with any Japanese — at least with any Japanese who has not sojourned abroad — and avoid saying something that jars upon Japanese good taste or sentiment; and few — perhaps none — among untravelled Japanese can maintain a brief conversation in any European tongue without making some startling impression upon the foreign listener. Sympathetic understanding, between minds so differently constructed, is next to impossible. But the foreign professor who looks for the impossible — who expects from his Japanese students the same quality of intelligent comprehension that he might reasonably expect from Western students — is naturally disturbed. "Why must there always remain the width of a world between us?" is a question often asked and rarely answered.


Some of the reasons should by this time be obvious to my reader; but one among them — and the most curious — will not. Before stating it, I must observe that while the relation between the foreign instructor and the Japanese student is artificial, that between the Japanese teacher and the student is traditionally one of sacrifice and obligation. The inertia encountered by the stranger, the indifference which chills him at all times, are due in great part to the misapprehension arising from totally opposite conceptions of duty. Old sentiment lingers long after old forms have passed away; and how much of feudal Japan survives in modern Japan, no stranger can readily divine. Probably the bulk of existing sentiment is hereditary sentiment: the ancient ideals have not yet been replaced by fresh ones.... In feudal times the teacher taught without salary: he was expected to devote all his time, thought, and strength to his profession. High honour was attached to that profession; and the matter of remuneration was not discussed, — the instructor trusting wholly to the gratitude of parents and pupils. Public sentiment bound them to him with a bond that could not be broken. Therefore a general, upon the eve of an assault, would take care that his former teacher should have an opportunity to escape from the place beleaguered. The tie between teacher and pupil was in force second only to the tie between parent and child. The teacher sacrificed everything for his pupil: the pupil was ready at all times to die for his teacher. Now, indeed, the hard and selfish aspects of Japanese character are coming to the surface. But a single fact will sufficiently indicate how much of the old ethical sentiment persists under the new and rougher surface: Nearly all the higher educational work accomplished in Japan represents, though aided by Government, the results of personal sacrifice.

From the summit of society to the base, this sacrificial spirit rules. That a large part of the private income of their Imperial Majesties has, for many years, been devoted to public education is well known; but that every person of rank or wealth or high position educates students at his private expense, is not generally known. In the majority of cases this help is entirely gratuitous; in a minority of cases, the expenses of the student are advanced only, to be repaid by instalments at some future time. The reader is doubtless aware that the daimyō in former times used to dispose of the bulk of their incomes in supporting and helping their retainers; supplying hundreds, in some cases thousands, and in some few cases, even tens of thousands, of persons with the necessaries of life; and exacting in return military service, loyalty, and obedience. Those former daimyō or their successors — particularly those who are still large landholders — now vie with each other in assisting education. All who can afford it are educating sons or grandsons or descendants of former retainers; the subjects of this patronage being annually selected from among the students of schools established in the former daimiates. It is only the rich noble who can now support a number of students gratuitously, year after year; the poorer men of rank cannot care for many. But all, or very nearly all, maintain some, — and this even in cases where the patron's income is so small that the expense could not be borne unless the student were pledged to repay it after graduation. In some instances, half of the cost is borne by the patron; the student being required to repay the rest.

Now these aristocratic examples are extensively followed through other grades of society. Merchants, bankers, and manufacturers — all rich men of the commercial and industrial classes — are educating students. Military officers, civil service officials, physicians, lawyers, men of every profession, in short, are doing the same thing. Persons whose incomes are too small to permit of much generosity are able to help students by employing them as door-keepers, messengers, tutors, — giving them board and lodging, and a little pocket-money at times, in return for light services. In Tōkyō, and in most of the large cities, almost every large house is guarded by students who are being thus assisted. As for what the teachers do — that requires special mention.

The majority of teachers in the public schools do not receive salaries enabling them to help students with money; but all teachers earning more than the bare necessary give aid of some sort. Among the instructors and professors of the higher educational establishments, the helping of students seems to be thought of as a matter of course, — so much a matter of course that we might suspect a new "tyranny of custom,” especially in view of the smallness of official salaries. But no tyranny of custom would explain the pleasure of sacrifice and the strange persistence of feudal idealism which are revealed by some extraordinary facts. For example: A certain University professor is known to have supported and educated a large number of students by dividing among them, during many years, nearly the whole of his salary. He lodged, clothed, boarded, and educated them, bought their books, and paid their fees, — reserving for himself only the cost of his living, and reducing even that cost by living upon hot sweet potatoes. (Fancy a foreign professor in Japan putting himself upon a diet of bread and water for the purpose of educating gratuitously a number of poor young men!) I know of two other cases nearly as remarkable; the helper, in one instance, being an old man of more than seventy, who still devotes all his means, time, and knowledge to his ancient ideal of duty. How much obscure sacrifice of this kind has been performed by those least able to afford it never will be known: indeed, the publication of the facts would only give pain. I am guilty of some indiscretion in mentioning even the cases brought to my attention — though human nature is honoured by the mention.... Now it should be evident that while Japanese students are accustomed to witness self-denial of this sort on the part of native professors, they cannot be much impressed by any manifestation of interest or sympathy on the part of the foreign professor, who, though receiving a higher salary than his Japanese colleagues, has no reason and small inclination to imitate their example.

Surely this heroic fact of education sustained by personal sacrifices, in the face of unimaginable difficulties, is enough to redeem much humbug and wrong. In spite of the corruption which has been of late years rife in educational circles, — in spite of official scandals, intrigues, and shams, — all needed reforms can be hoped for while the spirit of generous self-denial continues to rule the world of teachers and students. I can venture also the opinion that most of the official scandals and failures have resulted from the interference of politics with modern education, or from attempting to imitate foreign conventional methods totally at variance with national moral experience. Where Japan has remained true to her old moral ideals she has done nobly and well: where she has needlessly departed from them, sorrow and trouble have been the natural consequences.


There are yet other facts in modern education suggesting even more forcibly how much of the old life remains hidden under the new conditions, and how rigidly race-character has become fixed in the higher types of mind. I refer chiefly to the results of Japanese education abroad, — a higher special training in German, English, French, or American Universities. In some directions these results, to foreign observation at least, appear to be almost negative. Considering the immense psychological differentiation, — the total oppositeness of mental structure and habit, — it is astonishing that Japanese students have been able to do what they actually have done at foreign Universities. To graduate at any European or American University of mark, — with a mind shaped by Japanese culture, filled with Chinese learning, crammed with ideographs, — is a prodigious feat: scarcely less of a feat than it would be for an American student to graduate at a Chinese University. Certainly the men sent abroad to study are carefully selected for ability; and one indispensable requisite for the mission is a power of memory incomparably superior to the average Occidental memory, and different altogether as to quality, — a memory for details; nevertheless, the feat is amazing. But with the return to Japan of these young scholars, there is commonly an end of effort in the direction of the speciality studied, — unless it happens to have been a purely practical subject. Does this signify incapacity for independent work upon Occidental lines? incapacity for creative thought? lack of constructive imagination? disinclination or indifference? The history of that terrible mental and moral discipline to which the race was so long subjected would certainly suggest such limitations in the modern Japanese mind. Perhaps these questions cannot yet be answered, — except, I imagine, as regards the indifference, which is self-evident and undisguised. But, independently of any question of capacity or inclination, there is this fact to be considered, — that proper encouragement has not yet been given to home-scholarship. The plain truth is that young men are sent to foreign seats of learning for other ends than to learn how to devote the rest of their lives to the study of psychology, philology, literature, or modern philosophy. They are sent abroad to fit them for higher posts in Government-service; and their foreign study is but one obligatory episode in their official career. Each has to qualify himself for special duty by learning how Western people study and think and feel in certain directions, and by ascertaining the range of educational progress in those directions; but he is not ordered to think or to feel like Western people — which would, in any event, be impossible for him. He has not, and probably could not have, any deep personal interest in Western learning outside of the domain of applied science. His business is to learn how to understand such matters from the Japanese, not from the Occidental, point of view. But he performs his part well, does exactly what he has been told to do, and rarely anything more. His value to his Government is doubled or quadrupled by his allotted experience; but at home — except during a few years of expected duty as professor or lecturer — he will probably use that experience only as a psychological costume of ceremony, — a mental uniform to be donned when official occasion may require.

It is otherwise in the case of men sent abroad for scientific studies requiring, not only intelligence and memory, but natural quickness of hand and eye, — surgery, medicine, military specialities. I doubt whether the average efficiency of Japanese surgeons can be surpassed. The study of war, I need hardly say, is one for which the national mind and character have inherited aptitude. But men sent abroad merely to win a foreign University-degree, and destined, after a term of educational duty, to higher official life, appear to set small value upon their foreign acquirements. However, even if they could win distinction in Europe by further effort at home, that effort would have to be made at a serious pecuniary sacrifice, and its results could not as yet be fairly appreciated by their own countrymen.


Some of us have wondered at times what the old Egyptians or the old Greeks would have done if suddenly brought into dangerous contact with a civilization like our own, — a civilization of applied mathematics, with sciences and branch-sciences of which the mere names would fill a dictionary, I think that the history of modern Japan suggests very clearly what any wise people, with a civilization based upon ancestor-worship, would have done. They would have speedily reconstructed their patriarchal society to meet the sudden peril; they would have adopted, with astonishing success, all the scientific machinery that they could use; they would have created a formidable army and a highly efficient navy; they would have sent their young aristocrats abroad to study alien convention, and to qualify for diplomatic duty; they would have established a new system of education, and obliged all their children to study many new things; — but toward the higher emotional and intellectual life of that alien civilization, they would naturally exhibit indifference: its best literature, its philosophy, its broader forms of tolerant religion could make no profound appeal to their moral and social experience.


1 By former custom a newly-born child was said to be one year old; and in this case the words “seven or eight years old" mean "six or seven years old.”

2 This release is of recent date; and the results, by the acknowledgment of the students themselves, have not been good. Twenty-five years ago, University study was so seriously thought about that a scholar who failed, through his own fault, would have been considered a criminal. There was then a Chinese poem in vogue, which used to be sung at the departure of youths for the University of that time (Daigaku Nankō) by their friends and relations: —

Danji kokorozashi wo tatιtι, kyōkwan wo idzu;
Gaku moshi narazunba, shisudomo kaeradzu.

[The young man, having made a firm resolve, leaves his native home. If he fail to acquire learning, then, even though he die, he must never return.]

 In those years also it was obligatory upon students to live and dress simply, and to abstain from all self-indulgence.

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