The Grounds and the Kaiji School

The Grounds and the Kaichi School

Yesterday I visited Matsumoto with my friend from London, Dr. M. We were unburdened by annoying Germans, and able to enjoy the full glories of this small town nestled in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Matsumoto’s castle is a national treasure, as well as a deathtrap for elderly people, and like most castles in Japan more fun to view from the outside than from within. It gave some interesting insights into feudal life, including a wide selection of firearms and examples of the tribulations of daily life in Sengoku Japan. That was all fun, but Matsumoto’s real hidden gem is the Kaichi School, a museum about education in Japan that is located in the building of the old Kaichi Elementary school, next to the new Kaichi school. It seems strange to say that a museum about education and education policy can be fun (can you imagine anything more boring?) but it actually really was. I think for those of us who set our gaming worlds in the not-so-distant past, this kind of information is invaluable for creating a rich and believable fantasy setting, so I thought I’d describe a little of what I saw here. Plus, of course, we all went to school, so we can compare our own experiences with those of the children of two very different countries: the past, in Japan.

The Dragons and the Nameplate

The Dragons and the Nameplate

The Kaichi school is important in Japanese education policy because it was a leader in education policy at the time it was built, and it was one of the first schools built after the Meiji restoration. The Kaichi school was active in the Freedom and People’s Rights movement, and so important to that movement that the Emperor Meiji himself visited Matsumoto to try and calm the demands of that movement. He stayed in the school, which has a room dedicated to his memory. As a result of its role in education reform, the modern school museum is a repository of historical material on education reform in Japan. The school building is itself a very beautiful whitewashed building in a European style, with many Japanese touches – such as the dragons over the entrance and carved into doors in the interior. The old classrooms have been turned into exhibits, depicting education in Japan from the era of the samurai to the modern day.

A samurai child's schoolbook

A samurai child’s schoolbook

I was surprised to discover that education before the Meiji era was actually already quite universal, though not particularly good quality or equitable. Most education was carried out by temples, until the law in 1880 which made education mandatory for all children. Before then different children received different levels of education, with samurai receiving the most impressive while farmers simply learnt to count and write basic information. By 1880 about 90% of the population was in some kind of education and literacy rates were 45% for men and 15% for women. The museum had examples of the schoolbooks of the pre-Meiji era, and some woodcuts depicting children being educated; it also had photos from the late Meiji era, showing for example girls from poor families who were paid to work as baby-sitters, studying with their charges slung on their backs because their master was required to pay for their education. They learnt to write things like “Thank you master, it is due to your kindness that I am able to learn to read.” The museum had lots of photos of the school over time, and also woodcuts depicting education before that era. It also had a selection of documents from the opening of the school, showing what gifts were given. When the school was opened, they held a Shinto ceremony to sanctify it, and the local farmers and citizens donated rice, sake and fish (Bream) as gifts to the shrine and the school. The school opened in 1876 and universal education was mandated in 1880, so until then parents paid the teachers gifts of rice, fish and other farm products. Looking at these exhibits, one is reminded of how incredibly poor Japanese society was before 1873, and how incredibly rapidly it developed after the restoration.



Of course, Japan’s development in the modern era is bracketed by two extreme events, the Meiji restoration in 1873 and the Pacific War from 1931-1945. The museum spends a lot of time on the Meiji reforms but doesn’t shy away from the role of education in promoting and supporting war in the Pacific War. It has a room devoted to the Pacific war, in which it shows the activities of the school and its students during the war. The picture above is an example of what students learnt during that time. On the right of the lower picture are two caricatures of American and English soldiers (the American is smoking, and the Englishman looks suave); on the left of the (female?) soldier with the naginata the two kanji say gekimetsu, destruction. In the picture above this, a sad-looking man salutes under the caption “Young men going to the sky” (Japanese depictions of the war in the air often use this romantic language of the sky, rather than more technical language about “air war” or “aerial”, I don’t know why – maybe there’s a clue in the new Ghibli movie).

The second to last room of the exhibition is a room full of different textbooks over time. This includes textboooks from the war and the immediate post-war period; the picture above shows a textbook from the war era, while the picture below shows a textbook from immediately after the war that has been censored to within an inch of its life. The textbook is open to a page that says the following:

Mr Soldier, please look at the words and pictures I draw

Please also show them to the children of Korea

When you capture new lands, please wave the flag of Japan and yell “banzai.”

Mr Soldier, please work hard and happily.

We visit the shrine to pray for you on the first day of every month

I guess the Japanese were too poor and there was too much policy chaos after the war to write new textbooks, but they couldn’t exactly deploy the war-era textbooks untouched, since they would have been full of the worst imperialist and racist tripe, and the kind of disturbing language used in the textbook above. But I can’t help thinking that this kind of heavy-handed censorship would merely encourage children of that era to investigate the “truth” about the war. (Which they would have to do – the Japanese explanation below indicates that in some cases 30% of the text book was censored!)

How is this helping Yamato kun learn?

How is this helping Yamato kun learn?

Of course life after the war changed a lot, and the next set of textbooks shows this: they are luminous, beautifully-written affairs. As far as I can tell the same age of children would be expected to read the textbook shown in the picture above and in the picture below. The text on the picture above is all about asking soldiers of Japan to struggle in war – it is supplicative and futile. The text in the rightmost book below simply states that “the sky glowed, the sea glowed, the roofs glowed” – it describes a pastoral idyll. Which is it better for children to learn?

A sudden change for the better ...

A sudden change for the better …

These installations really show how text books can vary rapidly across time, and how closely education policy supports and reflects national policy at any time. I guess if the education system had been allowed to continue in its chaotic private form after 1880, it would have been a lot harder for the government to exert a common propaganda line – though the counterfactual would likely have been little better, since by 1940 all arms of society had been sucked into the war economy and it is unlikely that the private educators would have been able to escape this trend to the glorification of war (not to mention that the state was basically seized by the army, who probably would not have tolerated freedom in educational curricula after 1931). I guess one of the downsides of a standardized curriculum that enables a country to go from post-feudal rural basket case to world power in 50 years is that it is vulnerable to misuse as a propaganda tool…

After its “textbooks through the ages” exhibition, the single biggest room in the school was devoted to a “desks through the ages” installation, shown in the picture below. The desk furthest at the right is from before the Meiji era and is called a 天神机, heavenly desk. It doesn’t look heavenly. Some of these desks were quite ornately made, though they looked rather uncomfortable. I think most nerdy types have spent a lot of our childhood crouched over a desk learning what makes the world tick – it’s interesting to see how people in a completely different time and place were doing it. Mostly worse, by the looks of things.

A desk! A desk! My empire for a desk!

A desk! A desk! My empire for a desk!

This picture also gives a sense of how beautiful the inside of this school is. I really recommend this little museum for a visit if you are in Matsumoto. The castle is also interesting, and the town as a whole is a pretty little place full of old buildings – it is apparently one of the few cities in Japan that has maintained its old buildings, and so riding around in it is a really pleasant experience. For foreigners visiting Japan it is an excellent side trip. It is 2.5 hours from Shinjuku, it is close to skiing, monkey onsens and highland walks, the town itself is pretty and it has an excellent website. There are many old warehouses in the town that have been converted into shops or restaurants, and it is very easy to get around. If you are looking for somewhere to stay I recommend the Dormy Inn – the staff are excellent, the breakfast delicious, and the onsen relaxing. If you go, try to spend at least two nights here so you can explore the surrounding countryside, the castle and at least one of the museums or galleries. And head to the 女鳥川 (a river whose English translation I don’t know) because there is a cute set of streets lining it that have really old buildings and interesting restaurants, overlooking the river. It’s a really nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city, nestled equidistant between Tokyo and Osaka, with a lot of cultural information to keep you interested. And if you go there, visit the school!

[Updated late at night on 26th September to correct the spelling of Kaichi school (how dumb am I?) and to include the translation of a textbook page, which I checked with a friend].