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Popular Literacy in Early Modern Japan

Richard Rubinger

Publication Year: 2007

The focus of Richard Rubinger’s study of Japanese literacy is the least-studied (yet overwhelming majority) of the premodern population: the rural farming class. In this book-length historical exploration of the topic, the first in any language, Rubinger dispels the misconception that there are few materials available for the study of popular literacy in Japan. He analyzes a rich variety of untapped sources from the sixteenth century onward, drawing for the first time on material that allows him to measure literacy: signatures on apostasy oaths, diaries, agricultural manuals, home encyclopedias, rural poetry-contest entries, village election ballots, literacy surveys, and family account books. The book begins by tracing the origins of popular literacy up to the Tokugawa period and goes on to discuss the pivotal roles of village headmen during the early sixteenth century, a group extraordinarily skilled in administrative literacy using the Sino-Japanese hybrid language favored by their warrior overlords. In time literacy began to spread beyond the leadership class to household heads, particularly those in towns and farming communities involved in commerce, and eventually to women, employees, and servants. Rubinger identifies substantial and enduring differences in the ability to read and write between commoners in the cities and those in the country until the eighteenth century, when the vigorous popular culture of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (Tokyo) attracted village leaders and caused them to extend their capabilities. Later chapters focus on the nineteenth-century expansion of literacy to wider constituencies of farmers and townspeople. Using direct measures of literacy attainment such as village surveys, election ballots, diaries, and letters, Rubinger demonstrates the spread of basic reading and writing skills into virually every corner of Japanese society. The book ends by examining data on illiteracy generated from conscription examinations given by the Japanese army during the Meiji period, bringing the discussion into the twentieth century. Rubinger’s analysis of this information suggests that geographical factors and local traditions of learning and culture may have been more important than school attendance in explaining why illiteracy continued to persist in some areas.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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List of Figures, Maps, and Tables

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pp. ix-

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pp. xi- xii

This project has been a long time in preparation and there are many people and institutions that have assisted along the way. Most of the research was done during two years in Kyoto, Japan, while on sabbatical leave from the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. During academic year...

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pp. 1-8

In a political cartoon some years ago, a Bill Gates look-alike stands alongside an elevated highway and motions to a group of serious-minded businessmen in dark suits to follow him along the “information superhighway” into the future. At the...

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1 Literacy in Early Tokugawa Villages

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pp. 9-43

The origins of popular literacy in Japan are obscure. The beginnings of reading and writing among members of the provincial elite may be traced as far back as the ritsuryo state of the eighth century, when aristocratic families in the metropolis of Nara were building a bureaucratic centralized government on the Chinese...

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2 Signatures, Ciphers, and Seals

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pp. 44-79

The history of Japanese education does not suffer so much from lack of attention as from too much attention to particular areas. For instance, a great deal of work has been done on writing schools (terakoya or tenaraisho) , so much so that up to now the only...

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3 Rural Culture and the Rise of Provincial Literati in the Eighteenth Century

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pp. 80-112

The data on signatures and personal marks, however limited in scope, show that important distinctions with respect to literacy and learning among rural and small-town commoners were already evident in late medieval and early Tokugawa Japan. A highly skilled leadership class, supported by prominent local families, administered...

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4 The Expansion of Popular Literacy in the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 113-136

In the first half of the nineteenth century, popular literacy began to expand beyond the limited confines of the provincial leadership group, whose advanced skills have been outlined in previous chapters. Because of their high literacy, village leaders and provincial literati...

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5 Direct Measures of Popular Literacy in the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 137-161

The intent of this chapter is to go beyond school attendance records and analyze data on actual skills of lower-level farmers, middle- to lower-class urbanites, and rural women. Systematic national data for assessing literacy and illiteracy rates only become available in the 1890s and that material is described in the epilogue...

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Epilogue: Illiteracy in Meiji Japan

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pp. 162-196

At the end of his long and fact-filled book on the Kennedy assassination, Norman Mailer finally asked, “Did Oswald do it?” In response he stated that if one’s answer is to come out anything larger than an opinion, “it is necessary to contend with the question of evidence.” Realizing that the evidence in the case amounted to “a jungle of conflicting estimates,” Mailer arrived at a disheartening truth: the evidence itself would...


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pp. 197-198


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pp. 199-218


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pp. 219-228


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pp. 229-238

E-ISBN-13: 9780824863975
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824830267

Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Popular education -- Japan -- History.
  • Literacy -- Japan -- History.
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