Who was Makiguchi?

Brian Covert

To introduce Dayle Bethel’s article about the great Japanese educator, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, we will quote from a short profile of the man recently written by Brian Covert, which originally appeared in KnoK News.

Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was born into poverty in a rural village in Niigata Prefecture, northern Japan, in 1871 (three years after the Meiji-era opening of Japan had begun). As a child he was abandoned first by his father, then his mother, and was brought up mostly by relatives. As a young man he moved to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, where he continued his studies and became a schoolteacher, specializing in geography. He married Kuma Makiguchi, a distant cousin, and they would go on to have eight children in all.

Makiguchi and his family eventually moved down south to the capital city of Tokyo, and he worked as a teacher and principal at several primary schools. Makiguchi apparently was a thorn in the side of school administrators, teachers and parents alike because of his rejection of factory-type public education and his unwavering faith in the natural abilities of learning among children.

He published his most famous work,
Jinsei Chirigaku (A Geography of Human Life), in 1903 and he had hoped it would serve as a new, more humanistic guide for Japanese teachers in the area of childhood learning. He was later forced to retire from the education field, and devoted himself to Buddhism, in particular his own ethics philosophy of “creating values” in society.

As World War II raged on, Makiguchi found himself imprisoned in 1943 by the fascism-adherent military authorities in Japan — not for his educational beliefs, ironically, but because he and other scholars of the day refused to recognize the state-imposed version of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion. By the time he was serving his wartime prison sentence, Makiguchi had outlived five of his own eight children.

Makiguchi himself died of malnutrition in Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison in 1944, a year before Japan’s surrender in the war. He was 73 years old.

Having died behind bars, Makiguchi was never to see the direction Japan’s educational system would take: Just two years after the end of the war, under pressure from the U.S. occupation forces, the Japanese government adopted in March 1947 the “Kyoiku Kihon-ho” (Fundamental Law of Education), which essentially took education out of the divine realm of the Japanese emperor and placed it in the hands of the Japanese public. Around the same time, Japan also adopted the “Gakko Kyoiku-ho” (School Education Law), which set up, for better or worse, an “American-style” 6-3-3 [yearly] structure of compulsory public education. These two laws remain, to this day, the pillars of Japan’s education system — and both laws continue to be sources of heated controversy in Japanese society.