Education at Edo's First University

The Kanda River is a man-made waterway that splits the high land around Kanda in half. The steep-walled valley that carries this river (actually a canal) through Edo was dug in 1638, as part of the Kanda Josui (Kanda water supply) project that Tokugawa Iemitsu organised to supply water to the city. Before that, the whole area was one large plateau. Today, however, the river cuts through a deep valley in the neighborhood known as Ochanomizu, separating two hilly districts. To the south is Surugadai, a residential area filled with the homes of lower-ranking samurai. To the north is Yushima, which is the site of Edo's largest schools, and its only "university" -- the Shoheizaka gakumonsho.

The Yushima area has been a center of culture and learning since Edo was built. In addition to all the schools in the area, which were constructed more recently, this district is also home to several influential shrines that were built even before Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to Edo in 1592. One of them -- Yushima Jinja -- has long been associated with knowledge and learning. Yushima Jinja sits on the top of Yushima hill, which is one of the highest points in the city. This shrine has been one of the prominent buildings in the area since the late Muromachi era.

From the top of the hill, there is a fine view out over the housetops of Kanda and Nihonbashi, and the blue waters of Edo Bay sparkle in the distance. As the city of Edo grew, many popular teahouses and restaurants grew up around the shrine. Customers liked to gather for long conversations at the teahouses, to enjoy the fine view of the city. In time, these teahouses became popular meeting places for teachers, students, academics and artists. They would hold meetings where they would eat, study, discuss important issues, play shogi (Japanese chess) and enjoy the wonderful view.

However, our destination today is not Yushima, which is several minutes walk from the Kanda River, but a smaller hill much closer to the river, known as Shoheizaka This hill is named after the area where Confucius was born, and it gets its name because it is the main center of Confucian learning and education in Edo. The hill is covered by a cluster of large buildings that house Edo's main gakumonsho (school district). At the center of the district is the official government daigaku (university) established by the first shogun and run by the Hayashi family, who are the hereditary leaders of this university.

Shortly after Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, in 1603, he convinced a well-known Confucian scholar from Kyoto, named Hayashi Rinzan, to move to Edo and become one of his main advisors. He needed a very intelligent individual who knew a great deal about government and social structure, and Rinzan was just the man. He helped Ieyasu design the structure for his bakufu government, and develop a set of laws to govern the country. Rinzan built his home in the area near Yushima shrine, and when he was not advising the shogun he gave lectures and tutored the children of leading daimyo and other top government officials.

Many years passed and Rinzan was no longer as busy helping the shogun plan government policy. However, demand for his tutoring continued to increase, so at last he decided to ask the shogun if he could set up his own private school, so he could offer more formal classes. When Ieyasu heard of this plan, he immediately commissioned Rinzan to set up an official government university, to serve all of the samurai families in Edo. He made Hayashi Rinzan the daigaku-no-kashira (head of the university) and decreed that Rinzan's descendants would always inherit this position.

Education is considered very important in Japan. Even farmers in rural areas send their children to the local Buddhist temples to study, or have tutors visit. In the urban areas, well over 90% of the population can read and write. The Buddhist temples across the country play an important role in education. Most Buddhist scriptures are written in Chinese, so in order to understand them, Buddhist monks and priests must study both Japanese and Chinese for many years. Buddhist scholars often travel to China to study, and they bring back many Chinese documents -- not only religious texts, but also books on literature, history, philosophy and so on. For this reason, most Buddhist temples have become centers of knowledge and education. In fact, Hayashi Rinzan was a Buddhist monk before he came to Edo to become Tokugawa Ieyasu's advisor

Ieyasu ordered Hayashi Rinzan to establish a large school that would be open to all children of the samurai class. The working-class people continued to get their education from monks and lay-teachers at the local temples, but Rinzan's new school was to be the main center of learning for the upper classes. Rinzan built the first gakumonsho near his home. It consisted of separate classes for different studies, such as writing, literature, poetry, history, government, and so on. The school was a big success, and it continued to grow steadily.

After Rinzan died, the school was taken over by his son, Hayashi Gaho, who developed a set of courses in different subjects, and who continued to build the reputation of the school. He was succeeded by his son, Hayashi Hoko, who many consider the most influential of all the daigaku-no-kashira. The fifth shogun , Tsunayoshi, was a private student of Hoko, and his early years as a student had a great impression on him. Tsunayoshi was not very athletic, but he loved reading and education. After he became shogun , he tried to repay his old teacher by paying to expand the school that Hayashi Rinzan had founded. In 1691, the shogun set aside a large area of land in Yushima to build larger and more suitable buildings where students could come to study. The area was named Shoheizaka (Shohei hill ) after the place where Confucius was born.

Tsunayoshi believed that education should be available to all people of Edo, so he decreed that the school should be open not only to samurai, but also to lower-class people such as merchants, artisans and farmers, as long as they could afford to pay the school fees. In practice, though, only a few rich merchants were able to send their children to this school. Still, the public lectures held each morning are often attended by commoners, and Yoshitsuna and later shoguns contributed funds to help expand the temple schools (tera-koya ), where the majority of lower-class people get their education.

Today, the gakumonsho is run by the great-grandson of Hayashi Rinzan. Although it has lost some of its influence, and it is no longer quite as open to students from the lower classes, it remains the most important school in Edo -- and probably in all of Japan. There are no grades in the gakumonsho; young and old students attend classes together, though in most of the classes they are separated according to ability. New students start out in courses that teach reading and writing. Younger instructors work with the students one-on-one, teaching them to read and write. At first, the students simply recite the pronunciation of characters and practice writing them. Depending on how quickly the student learns, this phase of study can take anywhere from a few months to two years. There are thousands of characters to learn, and the student must study very hard to learn them all.

After they have developed acceptable reading and writing skills, the students enter classes in reading, literature and mathematics. These classes usually have a few dozen students, and they take turns reading out loud from translations of some of the Chinese Classics, or from famous works of Japanese literature. This not only gives students a basic knowledge of the most important books, but it also helps them improve their reading and comprehension.

The higher-level classes are broken down by subject; for example, students may study history, government, poetry, literature or some other topic. In these classes, the teacher's role is mainly just a moderator. Students debate and discuss with one another the meaning and interpretation of various classic books. A passage will be selected and one student will give a speech explaining their intrepretation. Their classmates will listen, then debate the various interpretations with one another. The teacher may offer suggestions to get the discussion going, but will usually just listen as the students debate. Later, the teacher will give a lecture (often at one of the morning public lectures) and provide their own interpretation of the passage. This method helps the students improve their understanding as well as their debate and discussion skills.

The instruction at tera-koya (temple schools) is similar to that at the gakumonsho, but very few students pass beyond the first two stages, which teach reading, writing, literature and mathematics. Math skills are particularly important for merchant families, and nearly everyone learns how to use a soroban (abacus) in their first year at school. Although boys and girls are kept in separate classes at the tera-koya schools, girls receive nearly the same type of instruction as the boys. At some schools, girls make up nearly half of the total number of students. This is much more than in rural areas, where girls tend to go to school for only a few years.

Click "Next" to go to the next location, or

Go to main map of Edo