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History of Gakushuin

Origin in Kyoto

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Former site of Kyoto Gakushuin    Gakushuin’s origins lie in the educational institution of the court nobility established in Kyoto in the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate. In the early 19th century, Emperor Kōkaku strongly wished to restore the imperial court’s authoritative powers and establish a new educational institution similar to the training institute of the government administrators in the Heian era. In the reign of Emperor Ninkō, a plan was decided to create an academic institute for court nobles. In March 1847, during the reign of the next Emperor Kōmei, a new academic institute was set up on the east side of Kyoto Imperial Palace, and lectures commenced. In 1849, two years later, the emperor granted an imperial plaque bearing the title “Gakushuin”, and this is how the school’s name was decided. The initial school code at the time revealed an education policy that placed a high value on the study of “Japanese classics” as well as “Chinese classics.”
Imperial plaque In 1853, Japan saw a major turning point with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships, which triggered turbulent times in the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate. As the Sonnō jōi doctrine (“Revere the emperor and expel foreigners”) began to spread, samurai from the Chōshū domain in western Japan gathered with other anti-Tokugawa factions in Kyoto, and attempted to manipulate the Imperial Court into joining with those court nobles who supported the doctrine. For a certain period of time Gakushuin in Kyoto was used as a meeting place for these samurai and court nobles. However, in 1863 the Kōbu gattai faction (which sought to unite the Imperial Court and the Shogunate) initiated a coup d’état (the August 18 coup), and drove out the Chōshū samurai and Sonnō jōi group from Kyoto. Thereafter, Gakushuin returned to being an educational institute, as initially intended. Lectures took place at Gakushuin until immediately after the restoration of imperial rule in 1867.

Book list in the Kyoto Gakushuin era    Soon after the restoration of imperial rule and the establishment of the new Meiji government, Gakushuin was renamed “Daigakuryō-dai,” a name that suggests nostalgia for the ancient centralized governance system. Daigakuryō-dai subsequently underwent a series of restructurings. Kyoto Daigakko, one of the successors of the old Gakushuin, was abolished in 1870.

Establishment of Gakushuin and creation of a modern nation

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Gakushuin in Kanda Nishiki-chō    When the emperor moved to Tokyo in 1869, feudal lords returned their land and vassals to the emperor. Feudal lords and court nobles were referred to as the new nobility. In 1871, Emperor Meiji delivered an imperial rescript, stating that the new nobility should make greater efforts considering their “exalted status”. The Peers’ Club, an organization of members of the nobility, planned to set up their own educational institution and subsequently established the Peers’ School in Kanda Nishiki-chō, in Tokyo, in 1877. At the opening ceremony on October 17, Emperor Meiji granted a new imperial plaque and delivered an imperial rescript that gave the school the name Gakushuin, following the tradition of the old Gakushuin in Kyoto. We recognize this to be the founding date of the present Gakushuin.

Female students in the Kanda era    Gakushuin in its early days had education programmes at the Boys’ and Girls’ primary school and middle school levels. Even though the main emphasis was placed on the education of peers, Gakushuin also accepted applicants from the former samurai and commoner classes. Education at Gakushuin at that time was characterized by a stronger emphasis on military education and physical exercise. Swimming, martial arts and equestrian skills were all incorporated in the Gakushuin education programmes. The school adopted a naval officer-type uniform for male students in 1879, and in 1885 its students began to use school satchels modeled on military backpacks. The school became a government school under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Household Ministry in 1884. In 1885, the Peeresses’ School, separate from Gakushuin, was established at Yotsuya. The Peeresses’ School is the origin of the current Gakushuin Girls’ Junior and Senior High School.

   Taneyuki Tachibana, the first Gakushuin Chancellor, was a former feudal lord and played a central figure in setting up the Peers’ School. In the early days of Gakushuin, Hiromoto Watanabe, who served as the first President of the Imperial University in his later days, and Jigoro Kano, the founder of the Kōdōkan Judo Institute, both worked as instructors at the school. Watanabe drafted an educational framework by developing Gakushuin’s internal rules. While serving as assistant principal, Kano established the Kōdōkan Judo Institute in 1882, which attracted some Gakushuin students. When Takeki Tani was the second Chancellor, Gakushuin actively engaged in military education and set out new education policies in order to foster useful human resources in the political, civil service and judicial fields. The third Chancellor, Keisuke Otori, a former Shogunate warrior who fought with the new government army in the Japanese civil war between the Imperial and Shogunate forces in 1868-1869, served as principal at the Imperial College of Engineering before his appointment to the position of Gakushuin Chancellor. When Goro Miura became the fourth Chancellor, Gakushuin improved its education framework and developed course curricula. Article 1 of the Gakushuin School Code in 1890 clearly states the purpose of the school by proclaiming: “Gakushuin shall, in accordance with the will of the emperor, provide male noblemen with an appropriate education for peerage.”

Campus history and students

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Yotsuya Campus    As Gakushuin’s school buildings in Kanda Nishiki-chō were destroyed by fire in 1886, the school was temporarily relocated to the former site of the Imperial College of Engineering in Toranomon while the new school buildings were constructed in Yotsuya in 1890. However, because the school buildings in Yotsuya were rendered unusable due to an earthquake in 1894, it was decided to relocate the school for the third time to Mejiro (then Takada Village, Kita-Toshima County) in 1896. After the construction of school buildings were delayed due to financial problems and the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, the Middle and High Schools were finally relocated to these new buildings in 1908. Our wooden buildings, such as the library (which today is the Museum of History), stable blocks and former school dormitory (Nogi House), were designated as registered cultural assets in 2009. The location of our Primary School has remained in Yotsuya to the present day.

The first issue of Hōjin-kai Journal    In 1889, our extracurricular activities association, Hōjin-kai, was established, and it has since continued to play a central role in sports/cultural club activities as well as student activities, such as cultural or sports festivals. Gakushuin was one of the first schools to play lacrosse in Japan. Lacrosse was not played for a long time in Japan, but was revived as a college sport in the 1980s. In 1890, the “Hōjin-kai Journal” was first published. As one of the oldest extracurricular association journals, a total of 264 issues have been published to date under the “Hōjin-kai Journal” title.

   In 1907, General Maresuke Nogi of the Imperial Japanese Army was appointed as the 10th Gakushuin Chancellor. Through strict education, he called for students to act on the spirit of simplicity and fortitude. The Middle and High Schools became a boarding school after being relocated to Mejiro. Rather than using the Chancellor’s house, Chancellor Nogi also lived in a student dormitory.
Lacrosse players While the spirit of simplicity and fortitude was brought into Gakushuin, the literary magazine “Shirakaba” (White Birch) was first published in 1910 by a group of writers and artists that included Gakushuin alumni Naoya Shiga and Saneatsu Mushanokoji, and current students Ton Satomi and Muneyoshi Yanagi (Soetsu). Shirakaba magazine exerted a considerable cultural influence in Japan, introducing to its readership Tolstoy, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Rodin and other leading Western writers and artists. In the late Meiji era Kitaro Nishida, Daisetsu Suzuki, Kurakichi Shiratori and Hajime Kawakami all served as professors at Gakushuin.

Unique girls' education

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Female students in western clothes    In 1885, the Peeresses’ School was opened in Yotsuya to provide education for the children of peers. As the empress at the time (Empress Shoken) lived in the Akasaka Palace near Gakushuin, she frequently visited the Peeresses’ School to see classes at work. In 1887, the empress granted to the school a song “Kongoseki, mizu wa utsuwa.” This song explains the importance of improving together with friends and studying hard and is still sung by students at the Girls’ Junior and Senior High Schools. The Peeresses’ School had its own educational programmes at both the primary and middle schools. As the number of students increased, the school was relocated to Nagata-chō in 1889. In 1894, the Peeresses’ School Kindergarten was established to start childcare services for small boys and girls.

   Teachers who played important roles in girls’ education in the pioneering days served at the Peeresses' School. Utako Shimoda, who played a central role in the school administration, was involved in various aspects of girls’ education, such as setting up the Jissen Girls’ School (the current Jissen Women's Educational Institute) and accepting international students from China. Umeko Tsuda, who went to the USA at the age of seven and returned to Japan at the age of 18, taught English at the Peeresses’ School. She founded the Joshi Eigakujuku (the current Tsuda College) and opened up the way for women’s higher education.
Sports festival of the Girls’ Division In 1887, the Peeresses’ School required its students to wear European style clothing. This period, when upper class people started introducing western customs into their daily lives, is called the “Rokumeikan era”. However, since students at the time spent most of their time wearing Japanese-style clothing, Western style clothing proved an inconvenience in many respects and did not take root deeply. For this reason, the school adopted the Japanese-style skirt or hakama invented by Utako Shimoda, which is easier to move in. The hakama and boots style of dress eventually became a commonly adopted code of dress among girls’ high schools nationwide. The Peeresses’ School proactively introduced physical education from the very beginning. Its sports festivals have served as spectacular events to date.

Gakushuin Girls’ School Main Building    The Peeresses’ School merged with Gakushuin in 1906 and was turned into the Gakushuin Girls’ Division. With this merger, the boys’ and girls’ schools existed in parallel, although the Girls’ Division was treated as a separate school from Gakushuin. The Gakushuin Girls’ Division in Nagata-chō was destroyed by fire in 1912 and it was decided to relocate to new school buildings on the site of the former Aoyama parade ground. In 1918, the division was relocated to new school buildings in Aoyama (now the site of the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium), and again branched off from Gakushuin as the Gakushuin Girls’ School. The school’s “simple but strong” wooden buildings escaped damage in the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923.

Gakushuin during wartime

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Primary School Main Building    Gakushuin’s educational programmes consisted of Primary School (6 years), Middle School (5 years) and High School (3 years). In most cases, graduates from the Gakushuin High School went on to the Imperial Universities or other state universities. Approximately one third of these graduates entered Tokyo Imperial University. Before the First World War, Gakushuin Middle and High Schools had 60-70 students per grade, with approximately 500 students studying at Mejiro Campus. On the other hand, the Gakushuin Girls’ School consisted of the Kindergarten (3 years), Main Course (11 years) and Advanced Course (2 years). The Main Course provided integrated education at primary school and middle school levels. These also provided unique educational programmes such as a dual school-year programme by accepting new students in April as well as in October.

Evacuation of Girls’ School    After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, Gakushuin constructed reinforced concrete-based school buildings. The Science Special Building (the current South Building No.1) and Middle School Building (the current West Building No.1) in Mejiro, and the Primary School Main Building in Yotsuya were all constructed in the pre-war Showa era, and still serve as school buildings today.

   In the 1935-1944 period, the wartime regime exerted a strong influence over Gakushuin’s education as well as student life, and male students at the Middle School and upwards were required to take part in military drills and labour services. The Girls’ School also engaged in volunteer labour services and started classes on how to use naginata or long-handled swords. School buildings damaged by fire (in Mejiro) After the Pacific War started in 1941, mobilization of labour services became permanent. In 1943, university students were mobilized as soldiers. At the Gakushuin High School, students who reached draft age and alumni who had already entered university were conscripted into military service.

   In 1944 pupils from the Primary School and Girls’ School began to be evacuated, and the Kindergarten was closed on the orders of the city authorities. Most of the wooden buildings on the Mejiro campus were destroyed by an air raid on April 13 1945, while on May 25 the Girls’ School in Aoyama was burned to the ground. The Gakushuin schools would have to start afresh, rebuilding from the ruins.

Revival from ruins

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Middle School students in Koganei    In order to start functioning again, Gakushuin and Gakushuin Girls’ School both needed to construct new school buildings. As the Middle School was relocated to Koganei in the Tokyo suburbs in 1946, Crown Prince Akihito (the present-day emperor) spent his middle school life in Koganei. After temporarily using Yoshichika Tokugawa’s house and the Gokokuji Temple in Otowa as temporary school buildings, Gakushuin Girls’ School acquired the former site of the Guards Cavalry Regiment in Toyama in March 1946.

   In post-war Japan, GHQ/SCAP pushed ahead with democratizing and demilitarizing Japan. After the peerage was abolished, it seemed that both Gakushuins, as educational institutions for the children of noble families, might also be abolished. In December 1945 they amended their school codes, intending to abandon the the status of “Peers’ school” and to survive as ordinary schools.

Red brick school building in Toyama Campus    Following this, the government decided to separate both Gakushuins from the Imperial Household Ministry and make them juridical foundations – in other words, private schools. In order to become independent from the state, both Gakushuins were required to take over the school sites and buildings, operating funds and other imperial assets that Gakushuin had hitherto obtained from the Imperial Household Ministry. However, GHQ refused to hand over these assets, asserting that since imperial assets were properties of the state, it could not make an exception and allow Gakushuin to become a private school. Gakushuin faced difficulty in surviving as a school.

   In this context, Gakushuin negotiated with GHQ, with Chancellor Katsunoshin Yamanashi playing a leading role. GHQ finally accepted the provision of funds and the allocation of school buildings in Mejiro and Yotsuya to both Gakushuins. Thus Gakushuin successfully managed to negotiate its way through a crisis and survive as a private school. However, because the funds provided from the imperial assets were only half of the intended amount, Gakushuin faced further financial difficulties that were compounded by the postwar economic turmoil.

Record of negotiations with GHQ    In April 1947, Gakushuin and the Gakushuin Girls’ School merged to create the Gakushuin Foundation and restarted as a private school.

Rebirth of Gakushuin as a private institution

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Chancellor Yoshishige Abe    In April 1947 when Gakushuin became a private school, the School Education Act and Basic Act on Education came into force as an essential part of the current school system. In the same year, Gakushuin also opened the Primary School as well as the Boys’ and Girls’ Junior High Schools under the new administration. The new Boys’ and Girls’ Senior High Schools were established in the following year. The former Education Minister Yoshishige Abe was appointed Chancellor to oversee the administration of the school. He interacted kindly with students by teaching the importance of “honesty” and worked hard to restore Gakushuin’s financial health.

   Immediately after Gakushuin restarted as a private school it suffered from financial difficulties. Chancellor Abe personally made every effort to collect financial contributions. In addition to holding jumble sales, he made firewood and charcoal by cutting down trees on campus and distributing them to school staff as bonus payments, intending to spend as much of the earnings as possible on educational activities. Under these circumstances, Gakushuin students spent their school life in a relatively carefree atmosphere. The Hōjin-kai association also resumed its activities after a short interval during wartime. The novelist Akira Yoshimura, who entered Gakushuin Boys’ Senior High School in 1947, recalled, “The so-called former peer’s children who came from the Gakushuin Middle School are, in many cases, relatively carefree people. Some of them have a mischievous nature. The teachers taught us strictly, but they also took a tolerant attitude towards mischievous students; therefore, I feel they respected our freedom. I felt relieved and blended right in with them.”

Gakushuin University Charter    In 1949, the new Gakushuin University was opened with two faculties: Science, and Letters and Politics. In the “Gakushuin University Charter,” the Chancellor and Gakushuin University’s first president Abe pointed out the university is characterized by “fostering international knowledge, mastering foreign languages, understanding practical knowledge about the world and domestic situations, and fusing together western and eastern cultures to foster cultural progress in Japan.” In addition, he concluded “I hope that the establishment of the university will aid the reconstruction of our defeated nation Japan. We will make a new fresh start despite anticipating potential serious difficulties in front of us.” Abe made every effort for the university’s development by inviting talented teaching staff and made several lecture tours to attract prospective applicants.

Mejiro Campus at the time of establishing the University    In 1950, the Gakushuin Women's Junior College Division (renamed Gakushuin Women's Junior College in 1953) was established. Abe’s long-time friend Toyotaka Komiya served as president.

Growth and development after the war

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University’s Central Classrooms (Pyramid school building)    In the period 1955-1964, Gakushuin grew in parallel with Japan’s economic growth, enhancing and improving its educational and research capabilities. The campus took on a brand new look as Gakushuin University constructed new school buildings, such as the Central Classrooms (“Pyramid school building”, demolished in 2008). In 1964, the university came to have four faculties, with the establishment of the Faculties of Law and Economics and the existing Faculties of Letters and Science. In 1963, the Gakushuin Kindergarten was opened to resume the infant childcare services that had halted in 1944, which led to the provision of integrated education services from kindergarten through to university/graduate school. In 1998, Gakushuin Women's Junior College was transformed into the four-year Gakushuin Women’s College with the establishment of the Faculty of Intercultural Studies.

Chancellor Abe and kindergarten pupils    In 1973, Gakushuin put forward its education goals of “Broad Outlook,” “Strong Creativity” and “Deep Sensitivity.” Gakushuin encountered an unusual fate because it was born as a peers’ school at the time of the birth of a modern nation, but started over again as a private institution that arose from the ashes in the post-war era. Gakushuin is continuing its educational traditions by caring about students’ personal freedoms and broad international perspectives.


Public Relations Section, General Planning Division, Gakushuin School Corporation

1-5-1 Mejiro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 171-8588 Tel: 03-5992-1008

Office hours: 8:40-16:45 on weekdays/8:40-12:30 on Saturdays

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