OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN, a photo blog of Japan in the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods

Old Photos of Japan
shows photos of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s. In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the outside world for the first time in more than 200 years. It set in motion a truly astounding transformation. As fate would have it, photography had just been invented. As the old country vanished and a new one was born, daring photographers took photos. Discover what life was like with their rare and precious photographs of old Japan.
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Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912 • Donald Keene

When Emperor Meiji began his rule, in 1867, Japan was a splintered empire, dominated by the shogun and the daimyos, who ruled over the country’s more than 250 decentralized domains and who were, in the main, cut off from the outside world, staunchly antiforeign, and committed to the traditions of the past. Before long, the shogun surrendered to the emperor, a new constitution was adopted, and Japan emerged as a modern, industrialized state.

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Okayama 1935 • School Girls Eating Bento

Japanese School Girls Eating Bento in the Classroom
Lunch time at a Japanese school
click to enlarge

Japanese school girls eating bento (lunch boxes) in their classroom. The students are wearing the same hairstyles and dark Western style school uniforms consisting of a long skirt and buttoned top. The building appears to be a wooden structure, a common occurrence in Japan until the 1950s when they were massively replaced by concrete buildings. The inset photo shows lunch time at a modern Japanese school (click to enlarge).

During the Meiji Period (1868-1912) a new educational system was introduced in Japan. A Ministry of Education was established in 1871 (Meiji 4) which was followed by the enactment of the Education System Order (Gakusei) in 1872 (Meiji 5). Organization began of a universal elementary education offering eight years of elementary education. For the first time, Japanese women were universally allowed to receive an elementary education and the government actively encouraged parents to send their daughters to school.

To ensure that education reached all of the nation, Japan was divided into eight university districts, further divided into 32 middle-school districts, each accommodating 210 primary-school districts. Students went to school from Monday through Saturday for five hours a day. The curriculum consisted of more than fourteen subjects, among which reading, calligraphy, vocabulary, spelling, history, geography, physical education, drawing, music and morals.

Simultaneously with the development of universal education, new ideas about the role of women spread and well-known educators like Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901) and Masanao Nakamura (1832-1891) and the statesman Arinori Mori (1847-1889) started to promote equality between men and women.

The term girls’ high school (高等女学校, koto jogakko) was first introduced in the 1891 revision of the 1886 Middle School Order. It created educational institutions for girls comparable to ordinary middle schools for boys. In 1895, the length of the course was set at a basic four-year program. Applicants had to have finished the four-year course of an ordinary elementary school.1

In spite of this encouragement, old ways of thinking did not change easily. Between 1873 to 1878, the enrollment rate for boys rose from 19.9% to 57.6%, but that for girls rose just from 15.1% to 23.5%.2 The following graph shows how even thirty years later, female enrollment at so-called higher elementary schools still fell far behind that of boys:

Year | Boys | Girls

1899 | 614,542 | 178,689
1900 | 664,417 | 206,778
1901 | 709,506 | 234,392
1903 | 748,048 | 295,930
1905 | 851,162 | 380,732
1907 | 923,979 | 459,6303

While during the first half of the 20th century, Japanese education at the primary level was egalitarian and increasingly universal, it was extremely elitist at higher levels. Although there were women’s colleges and three imperial universities admitted women, albeit at very limited numbers, there were few opportunities for women to enter higher education.

The few opportunities that did exist were offered by private schools and universities founded by Christian missionaries. By 1930, 37 of the 46 women’s senmon gakko (three year vocational schools) were private. Especially important among the Christian schools were Nihon Joshi Daigakko (1901), Tokyo Joshi Daigaku (1918) and Jiyu Gakuen (1921). The education that students received here stressed freedom and individuality instead of the good wife, wise mother ideology that was prevalent at the time.4

In his book Nationalisms of Japan: Managing and Mystifying Identity, McVeigh gives an excellent description of the difference in education for men and women in pre-war Japan:

What was the purpose of higher education from late Meiji until the end of the war? In the case of men, it was very clear: training professionals to work in a modernizing society’s political and economic system. For women, however, the purpose was quite different. Rather than just intellectual and mental training, they received what may be called gender-specific “moral training.”

As a way to instill within students the moral dictates of good wives-wise mothers ideology, the school culture of many women’s senmon gakko encouraged moral training through manners. Inner self-control, obedience, patience, and discipline for future roles were cultivated through strict rules about dress and dormitory life. Extracurricular activities such as tea ceremony and flower arrangement were practiced for the same purpose.5

Initially, educational ideas in Japan were strongly influenced by Western education. But by the 1890s, conservative and traditional values based on Confucian precepts made a comeback resulting in the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education. The Rescript would play a major role in the dissemination of nationalism, militarism and undying loyalty to the emperor. These ideas would last until the end of World War II in 1945.


1 Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The Promulgation of the Girls’ High School Order. Retrieved on 2008-07-27.

2 Chan Lei Lei (2008). Women in Japan and Hong Kong. The University of Hong Kong.

3 Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The Promulgation of the 1886, 1890 and 1900 Elementary School Orders. Retrieved on 2008-07-27.

4 McVeigh, Brian J. (2003). Nationalisms of Japan: Managing and Mystifying Identity. Rowman & Littlefield, 228-229.

5 ibid, 230.

6 For more details on Japan’s modern education system, read Japan’s Modern Educational System on the site of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Photographer: Unknown
Publisher: Yusa Studio
Medium: Silver Gelatin Print
Image Number 70302-0010

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 70302-0010 @ MeijiShowa.com.

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Reference for Citations

Duits, K. (2008, July 26). Okayama 1935 • School Girls Eating Bento, Old Photos of Japan. Retrieved on 2021, Nov 28 from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/316/school-girls-eating-bento

Posted by • 2008-07-26
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