“Terakoya”: Edo-Period Education for All

Society Education History

Terakoya, which provided education to the Edo-period peasant class, taught basic literacy and abacus skills. With an additional focus on good behavior, they sought to train people to be productive members of society. A look at what they provided to learners and the lessons they have to offer to us today.

Education, broadly defined as the training of human infants to be full members of their society, has always been one of the biggest ongoing challenges facing humanity since prehistoric times. Not even the rapid advances in science and civilization in the early modern and modern eras has managed to make this challenge any easier for us. Even the crystallization of modern educational history, school systems offering universal tutelage to all, have seen the rise of yet more problems, like refusal to attend classes and bullying. The communities supporting these school systems, meanwhile, have for some time been burdened with their own issues, including the rise of the isolated nuclear family, hikikomori seclusion from society by individuals, child poverty, and abuse. Considering this turmoil impacting education today, it seems clear that the time is ripe to look back and reconsider the educational system that was tasked with producing members of society in the Edo period (1603–1868), which more modern educators largely rejected even as they built on its legacies to create the schools of their time.

Written Standardization Across the Land

The Edo period was a conflict-free time of the sort that had never been seen in Japanese history to date. What might be called the “Pax Tokugawana” extended from 1615, when Tokugawa Ieyasu ended the Toyotomi clan in the Siege of Osaka, until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867. Nowadays there is a boom in popular interest in the thrilling Warring States period (1467–1568), but for the people who actually lived through those terrifying days of slaughter, pillage, and human trafficking, the lasting Tokugawa peace was a fortunate gift indeed.

The era of Tokugawa rule does have a dark image as a time when the warrior class wielded oppressive power over the other three officially recognized classes in society, farmers, artisans, and merchants. Was this actually the case, though? I would argue that the reason the Pax Tokugawana continued for two and a half centuries is because Japan’s administrators departed from the military rule of the past and shifted to a benevolent rule of law, with a civilian government implementing its decrees via written documents rather than brute force.

As development of new rice paddies doubled the amount of arable land, large farming families were broken into smaller units; these small-lot farmers and branches of the old clans gained self-reliance, and more and more of them came into possession of their own fields and homes. The arbitrary collection of land tax was banned, replaced by a system of detailed land-ownership charts and the issuance of documents certifying that taxes had been paid in full. In ways like this, government rule over the agrarian class came to be implemented through detailed written procedures. It was all made possible by the government’s standardization of the writing in these documents: From the territory of Ezo (Hokkaidō) in the far north to Ryūkyū (Okinawa) in the south, they were all rendered in a calligraphic style called oie-ryū.

A Popular Passion for Learning

Economic, leisure, and other activities that were part of people’s lives grew more and more vigorous thanks to the lasting peace. It was not just merchants engaged in commerce; farming families, too, began to trade, to buy and sell land, to borrow and lend money, and to leave assets to their descendants. All of this increased the need for document-based contractual procedures to prevent trouble later on. A society was taking shape that required broad literacy underpinned by reading and writing of oie-ryū characters and proficiency with the abacus. People had to be able to read the official notice boards posted in their communities, as well as other formal notices, and to understand the written agreements exchanged with others so as to avoid being taken advantage of or falling behind in society.

The Tokugawa government, meanwhile, was advancing policies aimed at enabling farmers and townspeople to own homes and support their families. For a home to continue over generations, children must be raised into full adult members of society so they can take up the mantle of family leadership when the time comes. This sparked a desire among the common people to get their children educated so they could handle reading, writing, and arithmetic, and terakoya schools sprang up all across Japan to meet this demand. The government’s basic stance at the time was one of noninvolvement in civil affairs, and the people had a free hand in opening new terakoya without needing to secure official approval.

Curricula for All Learning Levels

Terakoya required little more than a single instructor and a room in which to operate, and eventually they were said to be in operation in more than 60,000 villages all around the country. This was not like the present day, when national authorities established educational standards covering everything from school structures and other facilities to teacher licensing, textbook approval, and curriculum development. Nor was education compulsory in this era. This has produced a view of terakoya as somewhat inferior to later forms of schooling, in terms of the breadth of education they provided and the quality of their teaching.

It is a mistaken view, though. Yes, children were indeed free to attend or to leave the programs at will, and the content was determined individually by the instructor at each terakoya. But the parents of the pupils—who were willing to part with hard-earned money to ensure that their children would become literate, productive members of society—had a passion that made the schools vital parts of the local community, functioning fully as parts of a nationwide education system.

Terakoya were coed schools. The instructors generally did not offer the same lesson to all students at once, but rather prepared individualized study materials for each pupil to match their ability. Some 7,000 types of these materials, called ōrai, have survived to this day, including around 1,000 that were geared for female students in particular. The vast variety of these materials has caused some people to see them as randomly assembled, or insufficiently organized as a program for gaining literacy. But this, too, is mistaken. Terakoya throughout Japan skillfully produced practical curricula matching the needs and learning levels of their students.

To illustrate the state of terakoya in the second half of the nineteenth century, let us look at just one example: a school called Tsukumoan operating in the village of Haranogō in Kōzuke province (today part of Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture). Some of the first materials students studied were nagashiraji-zukushi, lists of names beginning with the so-called Genpei Tōkitsu entries, meaning the Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara, and Tachibana clans that had figured largely in Japanese history. Next came the murana, a list of all the hamlets in the Seta district where Haranogō was located. This was followed by the gun-zukushi, a list of all the districts in Kōzuke province, and the kuni-zukushi, giving the names of all the provinces in the nation. Students went through these in order, learning to read and write the most common personal names before moving outward to master the names of nearby villages, then districts, and finally place names for the entire country. In addition to literacy skills, they were gaining a geographical understanding of where they lived. We might consider these beginning texts, containing vital information for living as a member of society and positioned as the minimum level of basic learning all students were expected to get through.

After pupils made their way through this, they moved on to a variety of other material prepared on the basis of their ability, their home situation, and other factors. At the intermediate level, there were texts explaining the annual events that people experienced in the course of the year, as well as the goningumi jōmoku, the lists of rules to be followed by the goningumi, groups of five households established to create collective responsibility for tax payment, security maintenance, and so forth. At the advanced level, these were followed by ōrai texts on how to engage in trade and the Sewa senjimon, a calligraphy exemplar to impart mastery of more of the written language. Texts were also available to enhance reading and writing skills the students would need later in life, such as sample money-lending agreements, examples of contracts for buying and selling farmland, and the passes required to cross through barrier stations between provinces.

A Focus on Proper Behavior

Terakoya focused on more than just the basic subjects. Teachers also took great pains to instruct their pupils, who were often spoiled by their parents, in appropriate manners and behavior. Yuyama Bun’emon, who ran a terakoya in the Suruga province village of Yoshikubo (now part of Oyama, Shizuoka Prefecture), declared the Yoryoku gakumon as the goals for his students to achieve. The title of these teachings comes from a passage in the Analects of Confucius instructing: “After fulfilling all your moral duties, if you have energy to spare, you should use it in pursuit of learning.” Proper moral behavior, in other words, comes before one’s studies. Only those who do their filial duty for their parents and get along well with their siblings at home, and who behave with sincerity and virtue in society, are qualified to pursue the path of learning at school.

In 1844, Yuyama published a list of 18 rules of proper behavior for children to follow, sharing them with his pupils and their parents. These rules included:

  • When arriving at school, sit in seiza style with your hands on the floor to your sides, bow your head, and greet the teacher quietly before taking your seats.
  • When a guest arrives, fetch an ashtray and some tea for the visitor, and bow as one in greeting.
  • While the guest is present, do not do your reading in a loud voice.
  • When using the toilet, do not go all at once in a crowd, but take turns.
  • Your friends at school are to be treated as your brothers and sisters. Get along well with them, be polite to one another, and remain close for the rest of your lives.
  • Any arguments you get into with one another are your own fault alone. Your parents are not to be brought into these matters.
  • If you cannot bid farewell to your teacher when leaving school, say goodbye to your classmates. At home, when eating breakfast and supper, face your mother and father and thank them before eating.
  • Do not sleep in late in the morning. Arise and wash your face with water, do reverence to the sun, and offer prayers to your ancestors.
  • Read these rules aloud daily and do not fail to make proper behavior a part of your lives.

Whether it was etiquette in the school or the appropriate way to entertain a guest, proper behavior was spelled out in detail for the students. The rules forbade their parents from getting excessively involved and placed the teacher-pupil relationship, described as sanze no chigiri, a bond strong enough to last for three generations, at the core of a network of friendships among the students themselves that were to be honored for life. They also instructed the children in household morality, telling them to rise early in the morning, pay their respects to the sun and their ancestors, and give thanks to their parents. Gaining literacy through studies at a terakoya was something to be done only with “energy to spare”; otherwise there was a danger of losing oneself in more elegant pleasures, losing sight of the more important tasks of daily life and sullying the family’s name. Learning how to read and write was just one part of a larger framework of proper behavior.

Group Programs to Train New Adults

Young men who had come up through the terakoya frequently entered wakamonogumi, or “youth activity groups,” which continued their education through tough training. There were also musumegumi for young women, but few materials remain on them and little is known about their specific activities.

The wakamonogumi represented an education system responsible for drilling young men in traditions, passing down their cultural lessons by word of mouth and training in appropriate behavior. They were formed in villages, towns, and other communities and organized according to the age of their members. Rich or poor, males from all families left childhood behind at age 15 and entered the ranks of young men via these local groups. They left their parents behind and lived together in group lodgings, entering a strictly regimented society with new rules to follow, where the word of an older member was law.

In this phase of education, older members trained their juniors with oral instruction and by demonstrations, and the written word did not come into play. Parents, of course, were not permitted to get involved; not even local government officials could interfere in the activities of the wakamonogumi. Successive generations of young men took it upon themselves to train the new members until they could function as full members of the community. Nowadays this approach to education is seen as an outworn custom of the past, and its echoes are only felt in things like the way festivals are carried out. It has vanished entirely from the modern schooling system, which aims to foster learners’ individuality and maximize their abilities.

During the Edo period, though, this was the norm for vast numbers of learners across the country. Boys and girls learned to read, write, and do math at terakoya, and mastered the traditional skills of their communities in wakamonogumi and musumegumi. These two systems of learning, in both rivalry and concert with one another, formed a powerful base for popular education of the era. One can sense the strong desire of the Japanese people to raise fully capable members of society through these systems, which to this day have much to offer as we consider the appropriate form of education.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Terakoya no zu [Image of a Terakoya], an anonymous work. © Aflo.)

education school Edo period history