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70302-0010 - Japanese School Girls Eating Bento in the Classroom, 1930s

Okayama 1935
School Girls Eating Bento

Artist Unknown
Publisher Yusa Studio
Medium Gelatin Silver Print
Period Showa
Location Okayama
Image No. 70302-0010
Purchase Digital File

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.

80515-7637 - Lunch time at a Japanese school, 2008
Lunch time at a Japanese high school in 2008.

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 boys3:

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 923,979 459,630

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 Japan5:

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.

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 (Showa 20).

This photo comes from a year album for 1935 of a girls’ school in Okayama City, Japan. The 55 photographs show the female students studying, doing traditional Japanese as well Western sports, playing games, posing, at the train station and about town. The album also includes classroom scenes, portraits of teachers as well as administrative personnel and the Showa era wooden school building itself.

Related images

Okayama 1935 • School Girls Eating Bento.
Okayama 1935 • Girls in a Classroom.
Okayama 1935 • School Girls Reading.
Okayama 1935 • Practicing Naginata.
Okayama 1935 • Practicing Naginata.
Okayama 1935 • Practicing Kyudo.
Okayama 1935 • Practicing Table Tennis.
Okayama 1935 • Playing Toryanse.


1 Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The Promulgation of the Girls’ High School Order: a. The Issuance of the 1895 Girls’ High School Regulations. 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: d. The 1900 Elementary School Order. 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.


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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). Okayama 1935: School Girls Eating Bento, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on March 22, 2023 (GMT) from

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