Teachers and National Ideologies

I have been collecting and reading various materials that could potentially reveal how people lived in rural villages between the 1910s and 1940s. Village teachers were particularly eager to write down their thoughts and experiences. Since most of them did not get enough pay to survive, being a teacher (especially in the late 1920s onwards) required a lot of commitment and self-sacrifice on their part. In their writings, good information is often covered by the thick coat of ideological arguments on nationalism, agrarianism (農本主義), which the Home Ministry encouraged to develop as a part of social moral suasion (社会教化), and/or respect for the military that became more and more ostensible during the 1930s. In fact, it is impossible for me to tell whether they truly embraced these ideologies, but their writings are passionate enough to appear that they meant it.

Now I face a difficult question of how to interpret these teachers. How would I depict them if I was making a movie? Were they ideological machines to create an ideal nation? Were they the first ones to be “brain-washed” before brain-washing other populations? As soon as I put the question this way, I am urged to say “no, things must have been more complex than that.” No matter how blindly nationalistic they sounded,  I also see that this was out of their struggle to find a way to give their students control over their own lives. In most of the cases, they found the methods that the central government advocated the most effective way. One youth school teacher in Oita Prefecture, for example, argued in 1939 that becoming a hardworking and advanced farmer was the only way to survive in the increasing susceptibility of agricultural business to external factors:

農業は外界の事情に支配されることが多い。経済界の動き、自然的事情特に天候の如何によっては半年の労苦を一朝にして水泡に帰せしめることが有り勝ちだ。今日の農業は安全確実な職業とは言えなくなった。…かかる時代においては篤農家、老農、精農の手合いが次第に輝きを増してくるように感じられる。世間が押し並べて風害虫害病害にしてやられる中に一人老農は以前と農作を謳うものだ。物価は下落し農村は不況の裏に沈淪し鋏状価格差の声頻々たる中に平然として余裕ある生活をなし禍を転じて福となす者は篤農の士である。86 (下郡平治『専任教員農村青年学校の経営』東京・第一出版協会 1939、86)

I came across his writing right after reading another book which introduces a teacher in the Meiji/Taisho period who was extremely dedicated to teaching the standard pronunciation of the Japanese language to children in Akita. The skill in the standardized Japanese, or the lack thereof, tremendously affected how young people experienced their national lives like the conscription and higher education, and still means a lot to the people from this region today. It is a typical and blatant nationalizing project from historians’ point of view, yet he was also providing control over life to their students in an important way.

Going over these thoughts, I just realize how similar the problem of interpretations is between these teachers and intellectuals in the colonies. Just like in the cases of colonial intellectuals, however, I also wonder if it is irresponsible for me to leave them outside of my own judgment, pointing out that they were in difficult positions. This must be a ‘being a historian 101’ question, but I still cannot find a comfortable solution to it.


  1. I just had a very similar discussion with a friend about whether modernizing projects and nationalism were necessarily linked, in particularly about the nexus between educational institutions and anxieties about national status. You’re coming at it from the other direction, though, by looking at the writings of these teachers and trying to puzzle out the mix of motivations and rationalizations, and I think that will be very productive.

    “Being a historian 101” questions only have easy, comfortable solutions in workbooks: in the real world, it’s about balancing ambiguities.

  2. Although a bit removed from your project, I was reminded of it the other day when reading about the personal background of Ienaga Saburō, a figure who is of course quite famous for his ongoing series of lawsuits regarding history textbook contents filed against the Japanese government from the mid-60s up until the time of his death. I had forgotten that Ienaga had been a high school teacher during the war and that it was only after 1945 that he went on to become a university professor (somewhat like Amino Yoshihiko who, although from one generation later and thus someone whose career only started post-1945, likewise worked as a high school teacher for many years before moving on to a university post). Ienaga was not, it should be noted, a teacher in a rural village, but rather appears to have taught high school first in Niigata and then Tokyo. He was also probably quite unlike most rural teachers in terms of his educational background as a graduate from Tokyo Imperial University.

    Still, in later years Ienaga credited his experiences as a high school teacher during the war as one of the reasons that he felt so strongly compelled to argue for textbook reforms in order to ensure that education would never revert back to the style seen in the years before and during World War Two. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, Ienaga has stated that he disagreed with what he forced to teach students at the time.

    Obviously his experiences, recounted years later, are in no way generalizable to any larger group. Still, I was wondering if you had looked at Ienaga, and whether his particular history had crossed your mind when looking at these accounts of rural teachers?

  3. Thank you to Jonathan and David for your thoughtful comments.

    David, you are right, both Ienaga and Amino have their background as highschool teachers in the prewar period. It did not occur to me until you pointed that out. From Ienaga’s case, it also makes sense that teachers became left-leaning (at least more clearly so than the prewar period) in the postwar period.

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