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Reviewed by:
  • Burning and Building: Schooling and State Formation in Japan, 1750-1890
  • Abigail Schweber
Burning and Building: Schooling and State Formation in Japan, 1750-1890. By Brian Platt (Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 2001. viii plus 325 pp. $45.00).

The Shinano region, in present day Nagano prefecture, has provided a rich trove of materials for the study of nineteenth century Japan. Kären Wigen's The Making of a Japanese Periphery, 1750-1920 and Anne Walthall's The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration have introduced their readers to the complexities of the local economy and the rich cultural life of this region. Brian Platt further contributes to this literature with a depiction of the changing roles of village elites in local education.

The book traces changes in the practice of education in Shinano across the nineteenth century. Platt begins by describing the expansion of educational opportunities and networks in the late Tokugawa, built on a model of small-scale [End Page 224] schools serving local populations and driven by the personal relationships between teachers and their communities. The introduction of a national education system is defined as a hegemonic intervention which sought to delegitimize existing conceptions of "school." He then explores the local response to that intervention, separating it into two strands: active support by local elites and popular resistance by ordinary commoners. Platt concludes that, despite its best efforts, the Meiji government was forced by this resistance to adapt their educational model to the needs of the people, thus failing to achieve their goal of hegemonic authority.

Platt's book addresses a crucial issue, the relationship between local communities and national policy, and he provides the reader with a wealth of fascinating material. The book, however, has two major problems. The first is Shinano's exceptionalism. Platt tries to make an argument that the region can be taken as representative, but examples of its extraordinary commitment to educational development appear throughout, leading the reader to question the applicability of his conclusions to the rest of Japan. The second is his persistent efforts to force the material to conform to a model of a hegemonic State facing entrenched opposition at the local level.

The first three chapters are the strongest. Here, Platt describes the development of a local culture of education in Shinano. He explores the development of regional networks, fed by the commercialization of rural areas, which became avenues for the spread of literary culture. Local elites studied with itinerant samurai and then opened schools to pass along their newfound knowledge. This was, however, a strictly class-based process; elites shared literary knowledge among themselves but limited their teaching of ordinary commoners to minimal literacy skills and moral instruction. The story of one particular family's involvement in these networks provides fine-grained, intimate details of education practices in late Tokugawa Shinano, from the critical role played by personal relationships to the pattern of the school day and year. In the first few years of the Meiji period, these local elites became eager participants in a nationwide project to establish gōkō, privately funded schools under prefectural supervision. Platt attempts to characterize these efforts as a prefectural initiative, but is forced to acknowledge both central government leadership and a shift in the character of public activism to reflect a new, national consciousness. Despite this minor flaw, these chapters constitute a rich, nuanced description of the functioning of local elites and the emergence of education as a critical site for community development in the years preceding the introduction of a national education system.

In the fourth chapter, Platt begins to get into trouble. The chapter describes in detail the cooperative relationship between local elites and the government in establishing schools under the Fundamental Code, the national education law introduced in 1872. He begins by restating his assertion that this law represented the hegemonic intent of the state, but then describes how prefectural governments were both encouraged by the state to adapt policies to local conditions and instrumental in reshaping central policy to conform to local situations.

The fifth chapter purports to address local resistance to the Fundamental Code, the "burning" of...


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