Historical Aspects of Learning: Navigating through Challenges and Developments in Modernization
Period Tuesday, October 12 –Sunday, December 12, 2021
Venue Special Exhibition Galleries A&B, National Museum of Japanese History

Adults: ¥1000
college students:¥500
* Admission to permanent exhibitions included.
* Free admission for High school age and below.

Hours 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:00 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)


This exhibition aims to understand “what people have learned, and why people learn,” by focusing on the process of establishing a modern nation-state in Japan from the perspective of learning since the late 19th century. The exhibition deals with the history of education in Japan in a very broad sense, including various related themes. For example, in order to understand the significance of learning in Japan during the period of modernization, it explores themes such as the people’s conception of Japan and the world from the late Edo through the early Meiji Restoration period (1850’s-70’s), the roles played by the former retainers of the shogunate in Meiji period society (1868-1912), exhibitions envisaging a prosperous nation, the introduction of hygiene awareness and the resulting social tensions, modernization for the Ainu, and the establishment of an education system based on the concept of “the people.” In particular, the process by which the Japanese people evolved into members of a modern nation-state, through education and learning, is explained from various angles. Here, you can see how the people experienced challenges involving tensions such as tradition vs. modernization, Western countries vs. Asian countries, center vs. periphery, and the strong vs. the weak.


Highlights of the exhibition

  • Elucidating the aspects of learning in the period of radical change from the late Edo to the Meiji period (1850’s-1912) based on the histories of foreign relations, culture, economy, medicine, sanitation, and the Ainu.
  • Presenting a large amount of items borrowed from all across Japan, including sources on the history and language of the Ainu in the north and modern materials concerning Shuri and Yaeyama in the south of Japan.
  • Introducing a wealth of materials stored in the National Museum of Japanese History to the greatest extent possible, including some items exhibited for the first time in our museum, such as the 1876 map of Nippon (Japan) by Richard Henry Brunton and a painting of the Yushima Seidō Exhibition, an event held in the former site of the shogunate’s school of Confucianism.
  • An audio exhibition, including the melody of the little known first version of Kimigayo, Japan’s national anthem.

Exhibition Lineup

Chapter 1: Learning in Relation to the People’s Evolving Conception of Japan and the World

How did the Japanese acquire and deepen their knowledge of Japan and the world around the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868), and how did the Westerners who came to Japan in the kurofune (black ships) acquire and accumulate their information on Japan? The first chapter considers the aspects of learning from inside and outside Japan, at the beginning of the modern era, from the perspectives of language acquisition and geographical information. In terms of language acquisition, we will show how the intellectuals of the Edo and early Meiji period acquired overseas information through two channels:1) Classical Chinese; and 2) the Western languages of Dutch and English. In the perspective of geographical information, we will trace what kind of interactions had emerged in the recognition of Japan’s geography, as the information on maps of Japan created in the early-modern era (mid-16th to mid-19th century) was introduced overseas. The focus will be placed on the evolution of nautical charts.

1. Chiri-zenshi, Comprehensive Record of Geography, 1859, National Museum of Japanese History Collection 2. Nippon (Japan), the 1876 map by Richard Henry Brunton, National Museum of Japanese History Collection
3. Japan [South Part], the coastal map published by James Imray and Son, London, 1870,
National Museum of Japanese History Collection


Chapter 2: Culture and Education in the Meiji Period and the Former Retainers of the Shogunate

If we regard the Meiji Restoration as the starting point of modernization in Japan, did the former administration, the Tokugawa shogunate, run counter to modernization? Who then took a lead in promoting modernization in cultural spheres, such as education? In fact, the Tokugawa shogunate contributed to the launch of modernization by appointing personnel who had been educated in Western studies and by establishing a professional navy and army. Former retainers of the shogunate, moreover, continued to contribute to the new society in the Meiji period. By focusing on the roles played by the shogunate and its former retainers from the eve of the Meiji Restoration to the Meiji period, we will show how they demonstrated their leadership through cultivating knowledge and virtue, not only in the spheres of culture and education but also in broader fields such as politics, administration, and economics.

4. Enrollment record in the research division of animals, plants, and minerals at the Institute of Western Studies established by the shogunate, 1862, National Museum of Japanese History Collection
5. Journal of Tokyo Sūgaku Gaisha (predecessor of the Tokyo Mathematics Society), 1877-81,
National Museum of Japanese History Collection
6. License for drum playing in the Dutch army style, 1867, National Museum of Japanese History Collection


Chapter 3: Civilization and National Prosperity Envisioned in Exhibitions

The late 19th century has been called “the age of exhibitions.” Beginning with the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, international exhibitions began to be held throughout the Western world. Such an exhibition boom expanded worldwide, even to Japan, which had just begun building the country as a modern nation-state. Japan in the Meiji period, which was eager for modernization and civilization, expected exhibitions held in Japan to provide an opportunity to come in contact with an extensive range of knowledge. Japan’s attitude towards the exhibitions, however, was not held in a consistent manner throughout the Meiji period. In response to the circumstances of the time, the persons in charge, the exhibited materials, and the significance of “learning” all changed. In the present exhibition, the National Industrial Exhibition of 1877 is seen as a critical turning point in the understanding of civilization and national prosperity.

7. Painting of the Yushima Seidō Exhibition, 1872, National Museum of Japanese History Collection
8. Illustration of the National Industrial Exhibition of Japan, 1877, National Museum of Japanese History Collection


Chapter 4: Illness Nesting in Civilization

Here you can view the progress made by both the “healthy” and “sick” in optimizing the relevant knowledge and coming to terms with the diseases they faced from the 19th to mid-20th century. This chapter explores not only the history of battling diseases, but also of humans learning to live with them when they could not entirely beat them. What you can learn from this is how our predecessors tried to survive through trials, errors, and struggles while being involved in handling a disease. The initial struggle was in confronting the disease itself, but then this challenge sometimes developed into struggles among people or even between different societies. We are currently experiencing this complex and difficult problem, and living in a world with diseases was no longer someone else’s problem. In this chapter, we explore this new form of life from a historical viewpoint and in three aspects: ‘identifying a disease,’ ‘protecting a life,’ and “coexisting with a disease.”

9. Avatar of a smallpox demon, 1875, National Museum of Japanese History Collection
10. Instructions for preventing cholera, 1879, National Museum of Japanese History Collection


Chapter 5: The Future Envisioned by the Ainu

The Ainu, who were assimilated as citizens in the modern nation state, took an independent stance against the society while being oppressed from all sides. In this chapter, we explore the Ainu’s life and challenges at this time, under three themes: (1) Learning and Ainu Communities in the 19th Century in the 19th Century; (2) Modernization and Learning; (3) Ainu communities and Schooling. Under the first theme, we explore Ainu communities as an intermediary in mutual learning between China, Japan, and Russia, in the context of the contemporary international environment. For the second theme, we explore the kind of future envisioned by the Ainu as they acquired modern knowledge. Finally in the third theme, we ask what the modern Japanese education system meant to the Ainu. The Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park was established last year, and in this spirit, we hope the present exhibition will further contribute to our understanding of Ainu history and culture.

11. A schematic illustration of the Ezo islands, 1804-18?, National Museum of Japanese History Collection


Chapter 6: Encounter with School

This chapter deals with people’s first encounter with modern schooling. One of the sub-themes, “Between the Horizons of Change,” focuses on the spatial and temporal transition from the early modern to the modern age. How did the people accept or reject modern values and systems that were brought into Japan in large numbers, while maintaining their conventional way of life and culture? As examples to gain insight, we explore children learning a new subject of gymnastics in Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island and the warrior class struggling in Japan’s northeastern region of Tohoku to comprehend Western music for the first time. The last section of this exhibition, “A New Concept: the Japanese People,” traces the people’s evolution into a distinctly “Japanese people” through school-based education, from the perspective of the history of school ceremonies.

12. “Physical Exercise Using Arei Dumbbells” (one of the paintings depicting the customs of Yaeyama), around 1890, Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum Collection.



This exhibition explores the modern history of learning, but what will learning be like in the future? What, where, and how will people learn from this point forward? What if we imagined this through the eyes of a girl who first encountered modern learning in the Meiji period?

13. Children Getting Out of School: a drawing by Jirokichi Kasagi, around 1899, Hoshino Gallery Collection