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Okayama: 350-year-old School Philosophy still Lives on

Courtesy of Preservation Association in honor of former Shizutani School
Panoramic view of the former Shizutani School

OKAYAMA — This year marks the 350th anniversary of the founding of the former Shizutani School, the nation’s oldest school for commoners. The school was established in the 17th century during the early Edo period in present-day Bizen, Okayama Prefecture.

The ideologies and teachings of the school have recently expanded in new ways as The Analects is now being used in local schools and town planning.

The Analects is an ancient Chinese anthology comprising the words and deeds of Confucius (B.C. 551-479) and his correspondence with his disciples. The Shizutani School focused on the study of Confucianism, particularly The Analects of Confucius.

Encouraging discussion

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Students read passages aloud from The Analects at Wakeshizutani High School in Wake, Okayama Prefecture.

Wakeshizutani High School in Wake, near Bizen, is a descendant of the Shizutani School.

“If everybody hates something, you need to be critical of it. If everybody loves something, you need to be critical of it.”

The voices of students echoed in a classroom as they read passages from The Analects.

The student who was leading the class that day explained the meaning of the passage in front of the other students and expressed her opinions on it.

“I try to always make sure that I’m not influenced by others’ opinions but reflect on how I really feel,” she said.

The school holds a classroom-wide recitation of The Analects every morning to carry on the tradition and spirit of the old school.

“They are old-fashioned lessons but are still applicable today,” said a teacher at the school. “By reading it every day, I want the students to become more compassionate.”

A Youth Education Center on the grounds of the former Shizutani School in Bizen holds seminars about The Analects in the Lecture Hall, which is designated as a national treasure, for both students and adults. Participants have said sitting on the wooden floor and reading The Analects provides them with an opportunity for self-reflection.

The center has previously held readings of The Analects, but recently, it has also held discussions to allow participants to share their thoughts regarding a passage.

“I hope it will be an opportunity to find a hint to the meaning of life,” an official of the center said.

■ Education for everyone

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People participate in a reading and discussion of The Analects in the Lecture Hall at the former Shizutani School in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture.

The former Shizutani School was located in present-day Bizen, a mountainous city in eastern Okayama Prefecture. The school was built by the first feudal lord of the Okayama clan, Ikeda Mitsumasa (1609-82).

Mitsumasa founded a school for his servant samurai in nearby Okayama Castle in 1669. In 1670, he opened the Shizutani School as an educational facility for commoners, placing The Analects as the foundation of its education.

During the Edo period, there were establishments dedicated to education such as terakoya for the commoners, clan schools for the samurai and private schools run by famous scholars. Shizutani was unique in that it combined all of these different types of schools.

Students were admitted into the school at about 8 years of age and learned to read and write. They would then move on to read old Chinese books and listen to lectures, and those who did well were able to receive a more advanced education.

In addition to being a school that took in students regardless of status, students from other clans were also accepted. It is said that there was no other school like this one.

Shizutani School student records can be found in the Ikeda family archives dating back to 1868. Sons of samurai and doctors are listed in the records, but many students were children of commoners who did not have a surname.

Mitsumasa’s belief that a prosperous country starts with the development of its people made the Shizutani School an ideal place for learning. Following this philosophy, education was imparted to a wide range of people, not just the ruling class, and if a student showed a certain aptitude for learning, admission requirements were not strictly enforced.

Courtesy of Preservation Association in honor of former Shizutani School
A kainoki, a type of Japanese lacquer tree, is seen from inside the Lecture Hall of the former Shizutani School in November 2019.