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"Nationalism in Japanese Education: Pre and Post World War II Conditions" by Caitlyn Ferrecchia

Nationalism in Japanese Education: A Comparative Analysis of Pre and Post World War II Conditions

Caitlyn Ferrecchia, Worcester State University

Abstract: At face value, it would appear that nationalism in Japanese education has been in a constant state of flux, morphing and evolving due to various conditions. However, based upon Japanese educational codes, textbook examples, and other curricula, it is clear that at its roots, nationalism in Japan’s educational system has been far more static. This paper explores nationalism in Japanese education through a contrastive lens; the pre-World War II era compared to the post World War II era, with a theoretical framework based upon the imagined community. The imagined community is a theory of nationalism developed by Benedict Anderson, which suggests that nationalism fosters a sense of community where people view themselves as part of a collective whole. World War II was a transformative period for Japanese education, as factors like U.S. occupation and demilitarization significantly altered the role nationalism played in education. Prior to World War II, nationalism was emphasized in educational materials and curricula, however, after the war, educational codes and materials were adapted to align with less nationalistic goals, partly due to democratization attempts of the U.S. Based upon these comparisons, it is clear that the war resulted in a variety of implications for Japan’s imagined community. This analysis reveals that the appearance of nationalism can vary based on any set of conditions, however, foundational nationalistic principles and ideals can remain constant despite these apparent changes. Additionally, these changes can have profound effects on the functioning of an established imagined community.


World War II resulted in drastic changes for the structure of Japanese government and society, which also stimulated the reformation of the Japanese primary and secondary education systems. Between 1912 and 1945, Japan’s system of primary education granted all students, regardless of social status, educational opportunities, and it also only contained a single track for students to follow in their path to graduation. When students reached secondary school, however, different tracks were available to students, as some could choose to enter the labor force or continue their education. Additionally, upper secondary education and higher education were only available for elite members of society. Gender was also a major factor in this inequity, even in elementary settings, as the education of boys was prioritized over the education of girls. It was believed that young girls would benefit from learning how to operate a household, whereas young boys would benefit from learning how to become functional members of society and the military. Prior to the war, a six-year compulsory education existed for elementary students who were between the ages of six and fourteen. Japanese leaders believed that educating and training students of these ages would allow them to develop a strong army (Duke 61-76). After the war, particularly due to democratization made by the U.S. in Japan, the entire Japanese education system was transformed. The United States eliminated the multi-track system that was present prior to the war and implemented a single, uniform track for all students. This track consisted of first attending shōgakkō, or elementary school, then chūgakkō, which were lower secondary schools, and finishing with kōtōgakkō, or upper secondary schools. After this, select students could attend daigaku, or college. Additionally, young girls were given more opportunities to receive an education after the war, particularly in the realm of higher education with the opening of more universities (Okuda and Hishimura, 567-579).

The Japanese system of education has consistently demonstrated nationalistic goals and content through its nationalistic courses, the use of biased educational materials, and the employment of militaristic educational policies. However, when examined through pre- and post-World War II lenses, these aims were comparatively different, yet they are parallel concepts of the imagined community. According to Benedict Anderson, the imagined community is a theory, which suggests that nationalism fosters a sense of community where people view themselves as being a part of a collective group. Anderson explains that, although most of the members of an imagined community will never directly interact with one another, a unifying factor connects them within this group. According to Umut Özkirimli, “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship,". Anderson suggests that it is ultimately this sense of fraternity which makes it possible for “so many millions of people to willingly lay down their lives for their nation,”. This theory is critical to the analysis of nationalism in Japanese education, as the nationalistic elements of Japanese education contributed to the strengthening of the imagined community in this nation-state. However, the central beneficiaries of the growth within Japan’s imagined community both prior to and after World War II were Japanese governmental leaders. Ultimately, because Japanese citizens were participating in this sense of community, government officials believed the entire nation-state would prosper and grow economically, politically, and socially, which they also believed would benefit their personal success (McCullough, 20). Furthermore, Japan’s imagined community can be observed from an external perspective as well. Essentially, Japan collectively embraced both nationalism and internationalism as a means to establish itself as a modern “Western” nation-state, thereby allowing the entire nation-state to become a part of its own imagined community, which was also believed to add strength. Being considered part of this group of modern Western countries meant that Japan as a nation-state was part of a global imagined community (McCullough, 21). Japan’s educational codes, its leaders’ goals for education, and the forms of nationalism that were present in Japan during the World War II era confirm the existence and significance of the imagined community.

Prior to World War II, Japan’s central goal for education was to promote nationalistic ideals, which governmental leaders hoped would strengthen the country militaristically, economically, and socially. This examination of pre-war conditions includes an analysis of the early roots of Japanese educational codes and the ways in which these guidelines were utilized to promote nationalism in Japanese education. Early Japanese educational codes were a key indicator of nationalistic thought in schools. An educational code from 1872 stated that the overall purpose of education was to strengthen the nation. Governmental and educational leaders felt that by educating the populace to improve their economic and social conditions, the state as a whole would advance (Vrtiska, Brantner, and Coble 5-7). The 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, which was created during the Meiji dynasty, emphasized similar goals, as it focused on loyalty to one’s nation, national unity, and respecting one’s ancestors. The document states, “be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true… and promote common interests,” (Imperial Rescript on Education). This segment is particularly powerful, as it presents a striking parallel to the imagined community through its suggestions of strong familial ties and common interests. Therefore, the Japanese educational system was utilized as a societal tool to advance the nation and maintain the community rather than to provide opportunities for citizens, which confirms the nationalistic goals of Japanese education prior to World War II. Japan’s early educational codes and foundational goals for education confirm the significant presence of nationalism in schools prior to World War II.

Leading up to World War II, both governmental and educational leaders were highly influential in promoting the nationalistic goals of Japanese education. Yoshimitsu Khan, a scholar in Japanese education explained that the purposes of Japanese education grew to be excessively nationalistic after 1932, as leaders in the early Showa period desired to train young people in Japanism to serve their race and state sufficiently. Essentially, Japanism was a movement that stressed the significance of anti-foreign, anti-communist, anti-socialist, and anti-rationalist thought, which Japanese leaders believed would strengthen the state (Vrtiska, Brantner, and Coble, 6). A few years later in 1936, this ultra-nationalism was enhanced, as the purpose of education emphasized the role of Japanese citizens in their nation and their loyalty to the military state. It is clear that, in the years leading up to World War II, militarism and nationalism were highly stressed in Japanese education to enhance the imagined community and further strengthen the state. Prior to World War II, the most critical Japanese educational document was the Kyoiku-chokugo, or the Imperial Rescript on Education, as it outlined the desire of Japanese leaders to preserve their youth’s moral compasses while also promoting Japan’s status as an Imperial power. At this time, Japanese leaders also wanted to dismantle a new form of nationalism, which conflicted with the current brand of nationalism that the state suggested, known as kokkashugi (Vrtiska, Brantner, and Coble, 7). To do this, Japanese leaders sought to restructure the nation-state’s national identity through education by emphasizing Japan’s role in the world and its status among powerful nations (Lincicome, 338). Prior to World War II, Japanese leaders highly emphasized militarism, imperialism, and nationalism in education to strengthen the state, particularly regarding its world view.

When World War II ended, various reforms were implemented to completely transform Japanese education. The United States’ occupation of Japan beginning in 1945 and ending in 1952 presented specific complications and alterations to nationalism in Japanese education, as demilitarization and democratization were two of America’s major post-war goals for Japan. The aims of Japanese education changed drastically after World War II, as Japan became a “peace state” so their educational curriculum was altered to reflect this, thereby removing several examples of war glorification from textbooks and curricula (Ienaga, 116-117). When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, its leaders decided upon revising the Japanese educational system. America’s leaders were aware of the nationalistic and militaristic nature of Japanese education prior to World War II, so to remedy this, they decided to craft a strong centralized Japanese educational system (McCullough, 23). The United States also attempted to organize a structure for secondary schools which combined the American education format with the specific educational needs of Japanese (Hishimura and Okuda, 567). Overall, U.S. occupation in Japan after World War II stimulated the elimination of traditionalism within Japanese education, as the modern system of education utilized in the United States was implemented in Japan. Therefore, America’s influence in Japanese education is seen through its attempts to democratize the nation and make it a “peace-loving” state, which conveys the significant alterations Japanese education experienced in the years following World War II.

The decade immediately following the end of World War II saw a steep decline in nationalism within Japanese education due to the implications of Japan’s loss in the war. The most profound educational reform occurred between the years of 1945-1952, which reflected a decrease in nationalistic thought present in Japanese education. In the ten years directly following the war, one of the main struggles that education reformers faced was the condition of educational facilities. Educators, reformers, and students alike lacked resources because of the damage to infrastructure and property during the war. This was a major issue, as the national government had little resources to assist its people due to the poverty of the national treasury at the time. Despite this, local governments, groups, and organizations donated and cleared plots of land to make room for new schools. Additionally, these groups endured high taxes and monetary demands to create these new buildings for students (Hishimura and Okuda, 570). These efforts convey the Japanese peoples’ desire for education reform as well as the power of the imagined community, as citizens were able to rally together to create positive change after extensive loss.

On the contrary, Ota Kozo, the outgoing educational minister after the war ended in 1945, outlined his reasons for Japanese defeat, which further complicated education reform. Kozo was leaving office as the minister of education at this time and his sentiments were received as rather harsh by the general population. According to Nozaki Yoshiko and Inokuchi Hiromitsu, “His message was that Japan's defeat had been brought on by the people's insufficient dedication to the emperor, along with their failure to bring into full play the spirit nurtured by their imperial education” (37). In his final address as minister in 1945, Kozo also suggested that, in the future, educators and students alike should dedicate their focus to preserving the kokutai, or national essence. Clearly, the minister of education felt that the imperial education received by Japanese students was beneficial for the country, however, he claimed that, because citizens did not completely buy into the process, Japan lost the war (Hiromitsu and Yoshiko, 37). Therefore, according to Japan’s leaders, further education reform was needed at this time. To fulfill this goal, a new foundation for modern secondary education was implemented following the war and the former minister’s sentiments (Hishamura and Okuda, 570). The decade immediately following the end of World War II included extensive education reform for Japan.

The U.S. also had a major influence on the reformation of the subjects and courses offered to students in Japanese schools. The following were the new subjects offered in Japanese schools after reform: “Japa Studies, Mathematics, Science, Music, Drawing and Fine Arts, Phystion, and Vocational Education”. Social studies was a unique subject for Japan, likely due to American influence, as history, morals (shushin), and civics (komin) were combined to create one course (Hishimura and Okuda, 569). In addition to revising subject selection, the content of these courses was also altered. According to Shinjo Okuda and Yukihiko Hishimura, “Emphasis was placed on the development of moral attitudes desirable in a democratic society, and efforts were required to enhance the moral development of pupils and the development of their ability to make judgments and conduct themselves independently,” (Hishimura and Okuda, 570). This clearly reflects not only U.S. involvement, but also the significance of the imagined community, as the government’s desire for citizens to function in a collective democratic society would allow for a more unified national identity.

After World War II, Japan was left to repair both the physical destruction from the war as well as damages to national morale and identity. Japan’s loss in the war presented several challenges for education reform, the most severe of which lasted for about seven years following the war and extended far beyond property damage and organization. Primarily, Japan had conflicting national narratives after the war, making it difficult to establish or identify a particular national identity (Nozaki, 157). These counter memories of the war played a significant role in the Japanese textbook crisis, which began in the mid 1950s and has extended into present-day. The textbook crisis was a national movement that occurred after the war in which Japanese citizens began questioning the material that governmental and educational leaders included in textbooks. This movement occurred as the government was attempting to rewrite history to reflect nationalist ideals after the war, so therefore, this was not simply a textbook controversy, but a historical and nationalistic controversy as well (Nozaki, 158).

Saburo Ienaga was the leading scholar in the battle for objectivity in educational materials as opposed to strict nationalist rhetoric and content. Throughout the textbook crisis, Ienaga popularized the major issues that existed with Japanese educational materials. For example, Ienaga referenced a tanka, or a thirty-one syllable Japanese poem, written by a housewife that recognized those who died in war and who were “killed” by misrepresentation in textbooks (Ienaga, 117). In addition to misrepresentation of events, textbooks also glorified Japanese soldiers. A third-grade textbook described soldiers as brave “human bombs” who charged directly into China, sacrificing their own lives to clear a path for other soldiers (Ienaga, 122). Additionally, Ienaga recounted a line he wrote in a Japanese textbook: “China after 1937: ‘Japanese forces everywhere killed civilians, burned villages to the ground and raped women. The loss of life and property, and the number of Chinese women violated, were incalculable,’” (Ienaga, 127). The editor of this textbook refuted Ienaga’s statement by claiming that soldiers raping women was commonplace at the time and that these details were inappropriate for a textbook, thereby justifying the actions of Japanese soldiers. The overall romanticization of war and military life confirmed the militaristic goals Japan reinforced through education before the war and while these ideas were certainly more emphasized prior to World War II, they were still exhibited after the educational reform. This crisis was also a major component of Japan’s struggle to develop a stable national identity after the war. With turmoil swelling in the realm of education reform and tensions mounting over historical discrepancies, both the Japanese people and the government found it difficult to formulate a concrete national identity (Nozaki 157-158). At face value, the Japanese textbook crisis seemed like a minuscule event compared to the other obstacles that arose after the war, however, this movement transformed education and the Japanese national identity in a profound way. According to Hiromitsu and Yoshiko, the Japanese textbook crisis was monumental in constructing both personal and national identities after the war, as it allowed citizens to understand exactly who was included in the “we” they had heard about throughout their historical education. This was crucial, as it encouraged citizens to make sense of their own histories, particularly because “who controls the past controls the future” (44).

As the goals of Japanese education have evolved due to historical events and figures, the structure of the imagined community in this nation-state has also been transformed in considerable ways. Both prior to and after the war, vocational trades involving agricultural and industrial subjects were major elements of the educational experience for students, however, the times in which students took these subjects differed after the war. Despite this alteration in structure, the emphasis educational leaders placed on vocation strengthened and maintained the imagined community (Hishimura and Okuda, 569). The designated specialties or roles exhibited in these vocational subjects gave the illusion of unity for students and later, the pretense of a community of laborers. Formulating this pretensive imagined community in the decade following the war was advantageous for the Japanese government, as they believed it would help boost morale and promote unity after experiencing a destructive war. Leaders also believed it would advance their economic, political, and social structures to world power status, which also promoted their status in an external imagined community of modern countries.

Additionally, Japan’s national education standards underwent various revisions throughout the decades following the war, specifically, in 1958, 1969, and 1977. These revisions altered the allotted times designated for teaching, the electives being taught, as well as the curricula and content being explored. Additionally, in 1947, the Education Reform Council created the Fundamental Law of Education, which outlined national standards for Japanese education. The mere fact that Japan had a national set of standards for education contributed to the emphasis of the imagined community, as all children were expected to learn the same material, which unified the general population significantly. Despite the significant effort involved in recovering from a World War, the Japanese government was able to adapt and modify their education system while still maintaining the power of the imagined community (Hishimura and Okuda, 570).

The evolutionary nature of nationalistic Japanese education during World War II illustrates a variety of critical themes regarding nationalism and the imagined community. Primarily, this case study reveals that nationalism is not a concrete concept; it evolves and develops according to any set of circumstances. Clearly, the factors that contributed to Japan’s nationalistic evolution were World War II, US occupation, and a lack of resources. However, Japan’s set of nationalistic and militaristic beliefs were not necessarily decimated by these factors, but were concealed by them. For example, based upon textbooks and the Japanese curriculum after World War II, it is clear that the Japanese government still held the same nationalistic beliefs as before, but given the circumstances of the war, officials were required to suppress this. It is also critical to consider whose imagined community was present in Japan throughout the war eras. It appears this was the Japanese government’s imagined community because the actions taken by leaders and officials were clearly motivated by the need to preserve nationalism. Educational codes and curriculum sets confirm that governmental and educational officials believed that the state itself would be advanced by maintaining the imagined community and therefore, nationalism. The nationalistic goals of Japanese education changed drastically because of World War II, which presented extensive challenges for the preservation of the imagined community.


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