One Hundred Bags of Rice: Investing in Japan’s Future


Japan is currently undergoing a period of transformation that ranks alongside the Meiji Restoration and the changes that followed defeat in World War II as a defining moment in its modern history. Despite this, our university system still concentrates almost exclusively on the kind of practical skills that will be of immediate use to students once they enter the working world. As a result, many students leave university without a good understanding of Japanese history. How can we ensure that we are giving our young people the education they need to meet the challenges of the future?

Lessons from the Tale of 100 Bags of Rice

In the nineteenth century, East Asia was exposed to the threat of European and American colonialism. Japan poured its energies into education and development in an attempt to catch up with the West. This emphasis on learning was one of the dominant characteristics of Japanese history in the decades before and after the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

The Nagaoka feudal domain (in present-day Niigata Prefecture) backed the losing side in the wars of the Meiji Restoration and suffered devastation when the shogun’s forces were defeated. The neighboring Mineyama domain came to Nagaoka’s assistance by sending 100 bags of rice as welcome relief.

Enter Kobayashi Torasaburō (1828–77), a senior counselor (roughly equivalent to a deputy governor today) and follower of Sakuma Shōzan (1811–64). Torasaburō ran a school in a temple in Nagaoka to provide an education to gifted young people. Torasaburō’s proposal was that the rice should not be consumed right away. Instead, he said, it should be sold and the proceeds invested in school education. He saw it as an investment in “learning and technology capable of responding to the changing needs of our age.” To those who demanded that the rice be used to meet the immediate needs of the hungry people, Torasaburō explained the importance of education, saying that properly invested, 100 bags of rice would produce many times that amount in the future.

This story became widely known after Yamamoto Yūzō (1887–1974) wrote about it in a play that was performed at the Kabukiza theater in 1943, during World War II. Interest in the episode was renewed when Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō referred to the anecdote in a speech in 2001. The story spread abroad in 2003, when people in Honduras put on a play under the initiative of the Japanese ambassador, Takemoto Masami. There was a positive response, and the play was shown in several other countries in Central America.

Why has this story been passed on from one generation to the next, and why has it resonated with people in other countries? I think the appeal of the story lies in the Eastern spirit of reverence for scholarship and in the way the incident seems to embody the ideals of the years of upheaval around the Meiji Restoration, when the foundations of a new state were built on education.

The Ingredients for a Better Future

What can we do to impart a similar sense of idealism and spirit to young people in modern, prosperous Japan? What kind of future can a nation have if its people are not able to study their own history dispassionately and take pride in their past? Torasaburō compiled a textbook of Japanese history that even children from an ordinary background could understand. Our young people today need to establish their identity as Japanese by studying the structure of our society and the historical context that produced it, including the mistakes of the past. Of course we should incorporate elements from other countries where necessary, perhaps reflecting on Sakuma Shōzan’s call for “Eastern ethics, Western technology.” At last, people in the business world are coming to understand that people need to have a sound understanding of Japanese and world history before they embark on their careers. If education is truly to meet the demands of the age, it is not enough to make decisions based on immediate results. A higher sense of vision is required: What are we really trying to achieve in the long term?

Independence and Self-Respect

The nineteenth-century educator Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901) was famous for his theory of “independence and self-respect.” He believed that if the individual people who make up the nation are independent, the country too will be independent and strong. Rather than depending on the government and carping about perceived policy mistakes, perhaps each of us should take a closer look at who we are and where we come from as Japanese.

(Originally written in Japanese on February 13, 2013.)

culture education history Hosoda Haruko