Educating Japan’s Crown Prince, 1859

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 46-47:

Sachinomiya’s schooling began in 1859 when Prince Takahito (1812–1886) was appointed as his calligraphy teacher. The fact that Sachinomiya’s first teacher was a calligrapher suggests the importance attached to being able to write a distinguished hand. Although calligraphy was of only minor importance to a European prince, in Japan it was an indispensable element in the education of the aristocracy. A member of the imperial family was required to display his skill as a calligrapher on relatively few occasions, but it was essential that whenever he did write, his handwriting would be not merely acceptable but an imposing mirror of his character. It is difficult to say how proficient Emperor Meiji eventually became, however, because so little survives in his handwriting.

Sachinomiya had actually begun calligraphy practice during the previous year, but this instruction was apparently casual; now that he was in his eighth year, he was expected to study calligraphy (and other subjects) systematically under appropriate tutors. Prince Takahito was chosen to teach the prince calligraphy because his family had long been renowned for its penmanship. …

From this time on, Prince Takahito came several times a month on appointed days to offer calligraphy instruction to Sachinomiya. On June 4 the pupil presented for his teacher’s approbation some characters of which he had made fair copies, an occasion for a further exchange of gifts. By August 10 the young prince, apparently pleased with his own progress, was presenting to attendants samples of his calligraphy—one or two characters each, most frequently naka [中] and yama [山]. [These two ubiquitous characters were the first ones our daughter learned to recognize at age 2 when we lived in Zhongshan (中山) City, Guangdong in 1987–88.]

In the meantime, he had commenced another kind of study, reading the Confucian classics. On May 29 Fusehara Nobusato (1823–1876) was appointed as his reading tutor. During the first session with his pupil, he read a passage from the Classic of Filial Piety three times. Naturally, a boy of seven could not be expected to understand a Chinese philosophical text, even when read in Japanese pronunciation; but before long, Sachinomiya was able to recognize characters and read them aloud, following his teacher. This method of learning, known as sodoku [素読], was surprisingly effective, as we know from the generations of Japanese who learned Chinese in this way and were later able to read and write it competently; but it must have been excruciatingly boring for a boy to recite by the hour words that meant nothing to him.

As soon as Sachinomiya completed the sodoku reading of the Classic of Filial Piety, Emperor Kōmei commanded that he begin reading the Great Learning. In a sodoku class of boys of the same age, there might at least have been the pleasure of friendly emulation or perhaps fun shared at the expense of the teacher, but Sachinomiya at first had little companionship in his lessons. The nobleman Uramatsu Tarumitsu (1850–1915) became Sachinomiya’s sole school playmate in 1861, when he was eleven and the future emperor Meiji was ten (by Japanese count).

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Filed under China, education, Japan, language

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