Growing people keen to study abroad Teaching method of Yoshida Shoin

海外へ飛び出す人材づくり ―吉田松陰の教育法に学ぶ―


Japanese students who study abroad have been decreasing in number in recent years. Pundits argue that young people who live in abundance of information and materials may not be much interested in studying in foreign countries with different cultures where they can face risks of terrorism and infectious diseases. Standing at the extreme opposite of them is perhaps Yoshida Shoin (1830-185), a clansman of the Choshu Domain (today’s Yamaguchi Prefecture), who is featured in this year’s serial TV drama “Hana Moyu” aired by NHK


  He was one of the lecturers at the domain’s private school, Shoka Sonjuku, which turned out many patriots in the closing days of the Tokugawa shognate (1603-1868) who went down in history, among them Takasugi Shinsaku (1839-1867) and Kusaka Genzui (1840-1864). There is a famed anecdote about Shoin. He attempted to migrate abroad as a stowaway. Looking at the fleet of black ships led by U.S. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry off Uraga, east of Tokyo, he keenly felt he must go out to learn Western civilization. When Perry revisited Japan later to conclude the Treaty of Kanagawa (1854), Shoin dared to row a small boat to one of the black ships with his comrade Kaneko Shigenosuke (1831-1855) and asked for a chance of secret passage to the United States.


However, Perry turned down his request. Shoin was sent back to Choshu, where he was put into Noyamagoku Prison in Hagi. Even while locked up in jail, he devoted himself to reading books, particularly history books. During this period, he wrote a book titled “Yushuroku” (literally meaning a chronicle of imprisonment). In his book published in 1868, he made a thorough review of Japan’s contacts with foreign countries since ancient times and advocated the validity of studying abroad.


The way Shoin taught his students at Shoka Sonjuku was quite characteristic. His style was not to interpret classical writings such as “The Book of Mencius”, “Zizhi Tongjian” (a Chinese history book covering the period from 403 B.C. to 959 A.D.) and “Nihon Gaishi” (an unofficial history of Japan), which was the mainstream in those days, but to explicate his way of thinking and consciousness of the problems and issues presented there. He gave his students no uniform textbooks for his lesson but chose to cultivate their abilities in a comprehensive manner by combining his lectures with group discussions and homework on essays.


Another feature of his style was the personal education he gave by writing letters to his students. Many of those letters remain today. He advised and encouraged his students and wrote more often than not about the good and strong points each of them had. This helped them find their course of life upon graduation. Throughout his contacts with his students, he encouraged them to go out of their school, learn about the outside world and turn their mind to what was going on at home and abroad.


Shoin obviously aimed to help his students cultivate a spirit to see things in their own eyes, think with their head and act for themselves. He seemed to have tried to achieve the purpose by giving all his knowledge and problem consciousness to his students and having daily discussions with them.


 Ito Hirobumi (1941-1909), Japan’s first prime minister, was one of his students. He smuggled himself four years after Shoin died and studied at the University of London with some of his fellows including Inoue Kaoru (1836-1915), who held a number of Cabinet posts in later years. In those days, a secret passage was a state crime subject to capital punishment in the worst case. Ito took his action arguably under the influence of Shoin’s teaching.


Nurturing young people willing to play an active role outside Japan may require an environment that will motivate them to act with no hesitation. It may be worth while to have another look at Shoin’s education method as a model case.


(Written by: Takahiro Kusunoki)