Australia seems to have spiralled over the past 20 or so years into some kind of nightmarish US-like exam-driven educational hell. Directed by those well-known educational experts – politicians. Overseen by test-creator so-called Think Tanks of Expertise aka “Institutes” – unrelated to any respectable university. Think of the acronyms and other terms bandied about – NAPLAN (Smoke-and-Mirrors might be a far better term). STEM. Phonics. Discipline. Uniforms. State versus Private. IQ (still a a most imprecise term in common use). Gonski. How can Australia get back its once proudly-assumed reputation for excellent education – for all. What can be gained by examining the philosophy and practice of a 19th century revolutionary and teacher in a relatively back-water feudal domain in the dying years of the Edo (aka Tokugawa) Era (1603-1868)? Well, a great deal, actually. Read on.
Some background first of all: YOSHIDA Shoin was born in 1830 in Hagi (on the Sea of Japan coast, present-day Yamaguchi-ken) and was executed in Edo (Tokyo) in late 1859. The second son of a lower-ranked bushi or samurai family in the Choshu domain of the Mohri Lords – he was shortly afterwards adopted by an uncle – to later inherit his position as the teacher of military tactics at the local clan but nationally famous Meirinkan academy. His uncle/father passed away when he was only about five – and he remained growing up within his birth parents household. A remarkable mother and family gave him great respect for the important role in early education of children by their mothers – and for the education opportunities for girls in general. Guided by various other uncles into his inherited teaching position – by age 11 he was impressively expounding upon the Yamaga Military Tactics to the clan Lord. In his late teens he began to travel. Japan in those days was a barrier-controlled land – movement was restricted – impossible without the proper passport-like authority. Shoin had his Lord’s approval. He visited Hirado. He spent seven weeks there copying the books of HAYAMA Sanai – a noted teacher of the same kind of military tactics he was himself teaching.
Later he travelled to Edo – to study under the noted teacher SAKUMA Shozan – and he travelled to Japan’s far north – as far as Tappi-Misaki (Flying Dragon Point) from which point it is possible to see the southern most point of Hokkaido about 19 kms distant – and from which point – out in the Tsugaru Strait – he saw Russian vessels (I sometimes think though that they may have been Australian whaling vessels). In the same northern region he stayed with an Ainu family and wrote admiringly of that visit to his father – confounding the generally discriminatory and stereotypically demeaning attitudes then prevalent about the Indigenous Ainu.
He was an early supporter of two successive streams of thought. Firstly, during his early travels (on foot for the most part) up and down the length of Japan he had met – and written about – some 700 people – his PhD of sorts we might imagine – and was opposed to the entry into Japan of foreigners. It was known via encyclopaedias brought to Japan via the Dutch Trading Mission and Factory on Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour – and translated there by a permanent translation secretariat – what had happened to China with regard to the so-called Opium Wars instituted by the British. He was – initially – part of a movement to Support the Emperor and Keep out the Foreigners. The Emperor was the rubber stamp ceremonial leader kept in seclusion in Kyoto – while the Military Ruler was the Shogun of the hereditary Tokugawa Clan ensconced in Edo. Under the influence of SAKUMA Shozan and with the arrival of the US Commodore Matthew Calbraith PERRY – to “open up” secluded Japan – to trade – and inevitably – it was believed – other unfair practices (such as extra-territoriality – still an inequitable US position in international contexts – check out the rotating base in Darwin) his former stance was relinquished/ameliorated in favour of a determination to leave Japan – to study the West – and return home to make Japan strong. At Shimoda south-west of Edo in late March of 1854 – he managed to get aboard Perry’s flagship Powhatan – with a companion – though the Commodore may have believed it was an act engineered by the Edo Shogunate to test his trustworthiness having just signed an agreement not to remove any Japanese nationals.
Shoin was returned to shore, imprisoned in Edo – before being returned to his clan in Hagi – where after a period of time in the clan’s warrior class gaol – and where he began serious teaching – of his fellow prisoners – including a woman – and of the guards – about Mencius especially – he was released into house arrest – his father being the clan policeman. He taught his family, his neighbours – and then a tiny school house formerly run by an uncle was moved into the garden – and a further room added to it. Between 1856 and 1857 he taught some 40 young people in the school – ages ranging from 12 to about 22. From all classes. Mostly local – though others came from the surrounding region. He hosted an Untouchable woman as a guest presenter on one occasion – “Reppu” Towa and wrote about her extraordinary life.
He taught by example – working in the garden, reading constantly when not teaching, not smoking, laughing off embarrassment, being passionate – teaching one on one – giving no tests (writing encouraging private letters – highlighting strengths) learning was not competitive – it was co-operative – encouraging peer teaching – those with abilities working with those not so able. He encouraged them to report back to him (under house-arrest) whenn they travelled away – “Flying Ears – Long Eyes” the name he applied to the reports he received. He advised that his students associate with good friends – he advocated the principles of equality – that his students one day travel abroad to study and return with knowledge – his own attempts earlier having been stymied. That the study of other languages was most important – that they know the world – a world map in fact hanging on the classroom wall – Australia at its central southern position. That learning begin from the fundamentals – that they endeavour to solve contemporary society problems. Learning wasn’t all simply rote learning from the classical past – it had to be applied to the present times. Among other things. Sincerity, a studiedly single-minded focus, continually reading/studying but above all believing that strength came from the initial love of one’s hometown – knowing its location and resources, its products, its history, its beauty. He valued earnestness and operated from a foundational belief that human beings were born good and stressing the importance of justice in action.
And as for his students (following his death in the Ansei Purges of 1859 and 1860 – pursued by II Naosuke) five slipped illegally out of Japan with the connivance of financial support from their Lord – and the Scottish entrepeneur Thomas GLOVER – of Nagasaki – and in 1863 they undertook studies at UCL (aka London University) including the first modern PM of Japan, the first Foreign Minister, the founder of the Japanese Mint, the father of Japan Rail – and the father of Japan’s Technical (Engineering) Education. Another, too, became an early Prime Minister – and others important bureaucrats and diplomats – among those who survived the mid-1860s Civil War. Robert Louis STEVENSON interviewed one of Shoin’s last students – by then, in 1878, a minor diplomat for the Meiji government – in Britain – and wrote a character sketch: Yoshida Torajiro. It’s clear YOSHIDA Shoin was inspirational. Even following his execution. Until now. And in some ways a very 21st century man. A model.
Jim KABLE was a teacher in NSW for more than two decades and in western Japan for over 16 years. He has had a pen-friend in Japan since he was 13 – and in his Modern History Honours High School Leaving Certificate course in 1965 studied Japan from the Meiji Restoration Era until the end of the post-WWII Macarthur-led Occupation Era. From 2004 until 2008 he undertook two two-year study programs with the Shoin Study Group in Yamaguchi-ken – made up mostly of retired regional school principals – and taught by Shoin disciples aged from their late 70s to mid-90s. It was a privilege.