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Reviewed by:
  • Burning and Building: Schooling and State Formation in Japan, 1750-1890
  • Neil L. Waters (bio)
Burning and Building: Schooling and State Formation in Japan, 1750-1890. By Brian Platt. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2004. xi, 325 pages. $45.00.

The wounded remnants of historiographies past haunt these pages. R. P. Dore's ideas of Tokugawa education as preparation for modernization take a thorough drubbing. The tendency of Japanese education historians to view Meiji educational reforms as absolutist and their opponents as heroes is rendered untenable. Marius Jansen's evaluation of Meiji education reforms as a successful effort to render education universal receives a powerful statistical body blow. The very idea that the people and the officials constitute mutually exclusive sides is sharply contested. Once again, this book reminds us that there is nothing like a locality to sabotage a generality.

Platt's locality in its Tokugawa incarnation is a big one: the province of Shinano. It included several major domains, some smaller territories apparently under hatamoto control, and substantial patches of land held directly by the bakufu (tenryō). After the 1872 reversion of han to the Meiji government and the concomitant establishment of prefectures (haihan chiken), these domains and tenryō fragments were incorporated into two [End Page 208] prefectures: Nagano and Chikuma. In 1876 these two were combined into Nagano Prefecture.

What makes this locality a good selection to investigate the process of educational change, especially in the early Meiji period, is, ironically, its atypical nature. Nagano Prefecture was known in the early Meiji years as the education prefecture, with a comparatively high rate of compliance with, and even enthusiasm for, the educational reforms of the era. If a detailed look at education in this area reveals that implementing new educational concepts required adaptations to local concerns, it is reasonable to conclude that even greater accommodations marked the institution of new curricula and new forms of "school" in other parts of Japan.

Shinano may have been less unusual in the Tokugawa era, but it did boast an especially large number of "schools" and academies open to commoners during the last hundred years of the Edo period, and that number jumped almost exponentially from about 1830 to 1868. It is Platt's contention that the expansion of schools open to commoners served two major purposes. It gave the children of village elites, who typically continued their education for much longer than the children of lesser peasants, the cultural and literary skills they needed to participate in the transvillage circles ofvillage headmen and other commoner-elites and even samurai. Culture, says Platt, was a prerequisite for membership, and membership provided a source of identity that acted as a buffer against the social and economic changes of late Tokugawa that threatened the status of village elites.

The other purpose related to the much more abbreviated educational experience of "ordinary" commoners, who typically attended school for less than a year, learned perhaps 200 characters, and picked up a fair amount of moral exhortation. Platt argues that this abbreviated education was in highest demand during times of great uncertainty, especially the Tempō famine of the mid-1830s. The minimal literacy it imparted, he says, served at least a psychological function for its recipients by reducing the sense of absolute helplessness that the late Tempō period fostered. At the same time he notes, perhaps a bit more convincingly, the education of "ordinary" peasants served the interests of elite commoners in at least two ways: it imparted just enough learning to make peasants aware of the superior cultural accomplishments of their social betters, and it reinforced the Confucian ideals of social harmony and proper place. The primary purposes of education of commoners in pre-Meiji Shinano seem to have had much less to do with the challenges of impending modernity than the conservative impulse to minimize change. Platt's fascinating chapter based on the journal of Ozawa Watoku (1796–1869), a prominent teacher and village leader from Ono, reinforces that conclusion on a personal level; Ozawa's response to the bakumatsu crisis was to redouble his efforts at moral suasion in an effort to hold his small corner of the world together. [End...


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