Confucian Learning and Literacy in Japan’s Schools of the Edo Period
With the political stability, economic growth and cultural revitalisation of Japan after its unification by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the educational infrastructure also grew to meet new literacy demands. Governmental schools endowed by the shogunate (Shōheikō) and by the domains (hankō), which catered to the upper military class of the samurai, focused on classical Chinese studies, particularly the Neo-Confucian canon taught in kanbun, a style of classical Chinese. Given the prestige of Neo-Confucian Chinese learning and of the kanbun writing style, these were taught also in temple schools (terakoya) and private academies (juku) that were open to the lower classes, thus contributing to the spread of this particular type of literacy. However, Chinese learning in these schools often involved memorising rather than reading, both because of educational traditions and socio-ideological factors, and also because of the sheer difficulty of reading kanbun, a de facto foreign language. The present article investigates the contrasting implications of Neo-Confucian learning and of the kanbun writing style for the development of education and literacy in Japanese society: while the prestige of Chinese learning contributed to the demand for and development of educational facilities, its complexity also acted as an obstacle to the development of widespread functional literacy.
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