School life for Japanese teens can be tame, torturous or a time of towering achievement

School life for Japanese teens can be tame, torturous or a time of towering achievement


During the course of the junior high school life of my daughter and particularly in the past year, I have witnessed a huge transformation in her. From an extremely shy and mousy girl who would not speak before others during early elementary grade school years, and from someone who showed consistently lacklustre grades and academic performance, she suddenly came to be the Hermione-like girl (a Harry Potter reference) who would shine academically, speak confidently in class, raise her hands, volunteer for all sorts of things, etc. She also won several awards, for her science experiment with wind energy, newspaper competition and artwork. On top of all that, her crowning achievement, must be that she made team captain for badminton (with a fierce rival) and was chosen to attend leadership training seminars.

The only factor or change that could be attributed as the cause for my daughter’s drastic transformation in personality, is the inculcation of the “Bunbu Ryodo” spirit or principle in Japanese school education. During a rare visit-the-home visit, her homeroom schoolteacher explained to me and persuaded me to let my daughter have her way in choosing the path of the sports, saying that, in tandem with academics, Bunbu Ryodo was the idea that it was possible to strive for and achieve excellence in both fields or arenas. I said I didn’t see how that was possible judging from her current school performance assessments.

I have to admit grudgingly but with relief that I was wrong, that this mother doesn’t always know best. At the start of this huge learning curve transformation of hers, I had opposed her choice all out, and thought her insistence on choosing the grueling and all-consuming sport, badminton both during school and as an afterschool activity would doom her chances of getting into a good high school. I had thought that since she was not showing strength in any area of schoolwork, having a busy afterschool (and before school early morning practices “asa-ren”) the strenuous athletics, sports and endless tournament schedule would naturally cause her schoolwork to deteriorate further. But I eventually relented, as she begged and alternately argued at length to be allowed to go ahead with her choice of sports, with the proviso that she would be pulled out of the sport, if her grades didn’t pick up and continued to be lacklustre.

To my astonishment, her grades began to soar in practically all subject areas soon within the same term of beginning her chosen afterschool activity. It was no breezy walk in the park, however, she was often bone-tired at the end of the day, falling asleep with her nose in her books, and the roomlights on, unable to wake up in the mornings, trudging off to practice or faraway tournaments during the weekends when other students were able to laze in bed. Her schoolbag probably weighed down daily like Midas’gold as well with double the usual waterbottles, bentos, and sporting clothes and equipment, all of which she has to carry on her tiny frame in all-weather on a 30-minute track each way to school. Not the schoollife I wished for her. But despite the tough days, balancing schoolwork and sports, and navigating the politics of teen social life, she is on the whole happy with her choices, achievements and her social life.

So for parents who want to know why I who once tut-tutted and shook my head at the crazy afterschool life of the Japanese student, now embrace it, the following section may help you understand the educational philosophy of Bunbu Ryodo and its objectives of promoting the personal growth and character formation, and self-cultivation-advancement of students in the whole afterschool club activity arts and sporting scene.


Defining “Bunbu Ryodo”

“The first kanji 文, bun literally means letter or writing. In this term it means 文事 or学芸 which means “arts and science” or “liberal arts” including the Japanese arts of shodo n(brush writing), kado (flower arrangement) and sado (tea ceremony). In other words, it represents the mastery of the general education and the cultural studies. The second kanji 武, bu should be more familiar to the karate-ka. Of course it means military. In this term it means 武事 or 武芸 meaning military affairs or martial arts. The third kanji 両, ryo means both. I am sure you know the last kanji, 道 do that means road or path. Now you can easily guess what the term means. Yes, it means the ability of being excelled in both education and also in martial arts. It also refers to someone who possesses such an ability.

This term can be found to be as old as the famous literary Heike Story of the 13th century. We do not know exactly when this term was invented but the combination of two kanjis 文 and 武 was popular in ancient Japan. We find the combination of 文武 was used for the 42nd emperor 文武天皇 in the 7th century. Though the pronunciation of those kanjis was “Monmu” the meaning remained the same and it represented the meaning that this emperor was to excel in both higher education and military affairs. ” – Source: Asai Shotokan Association What is bunbu-ryodo-文武両道とは何ぞや?

In contemporary understanding, the term now means “balance” as defined by

“My dictionary explains the meaning of the word balance as “a stable mental or psychological state; emotional stability.” One of the more important aspects of our martial training deals with the concept of life balance. Bunbu Ryodo, or the balance of pen and sword, is derived from the the Edo period of Japan. During this period, the Tokugawa Shogunate encouraged the members of its warrior class to pursue both the literary and martial arts with equal emphasis. It was an attitude that helped the bushi adjust from the warring period of Japan to one of peace. And today it helps those who pursue the martial ways develop into complete human beings.”


Bunburyodo is defined by “Bunburyodo”  (Kenshi27/4) as follows:

It’s a term used to describe someone who has become or is trying their best to become ‘accomplished in the both military and literary arts’ (martial arts and arts/sciences). The first recorded use of a similar term (「文事ある者は必ず武備あり」) is found in the ‘Records of the Grand Historian’ (史記), written in Han-era China around about BCE 109-91. When the Records came to Japan and how and when the term was was changed to ‘bunburyodo’ seems to be unknown, but various other synonymous kanji combinations have been used for a very long time.

During the classical, feudal, and Tokugawa periods of Japanese history, the term is said to have referred to the importance of understanding both academic and warrior arts in order to be able to govern effectively. That is, an effective ruler (and subordinates) would ideally have a balance of both. The need for this balance was promoted by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and became increasingly looked at as an ideal situation for the ruling class in general by the 19th century. However, nowadays in Japan (a country with a far less hierarchical class system that existed before), this ideal has been reworked to simply refer to those that try hard in both their study and some sort of physical activity (e.g. baseball), and it seems to be used almost exclusively in reference to students. — Bunburyodo (Kenshi27/4)

A good exposition of how bunbu ryodo developed as a result of Zen Buddhist influences upon the cultural and spiritual education of the warriorset, upon the samurai values, mentality and spirit of self-cultivation, advancement and its evolution into the idea of personal growth and advancement that pervades Japanese education and general societal philosophy today…may be found at “Science and Comparative Philosophy: Introducing Yuasa Yasuo“, (ed. David Edward Shaner, Shigenori Nagatomo, Yasuo Yuasa), pp. 241-249


Martial ideals and modern Japanese education

The infusion of martial ideals in modern and contemporary Japanese education is owed to a large extent, to the life of Dr Jigoro Kano, who was in his professional life, an educator (having, served as director of primary education for the Ministry of Education (文部省Monbusho from 1898 to 1901, and as president of Tokyo Higher Normal School from 1901 until 1920) but is perhaps best known as the Founder of Kodokan Judo, and who played a key role in making judo and kendo part of the Japanese public school programs of the 1910s.

Dr. Kano (a graduate of the private Kaisei school, and Tokyo Imperial Iniversity) served for 23 years as principal of the Higher Normal School and the Tokyo Higher Normal School, which were forerunners of the University of Tsukuba. During those years, he devoted himself to educational reform, the promotion of physical education and sports, and the development of the Olympic Movement.

Dr. Kano’s philosophy and achievements as an educator gave Japan guidelines for university education and enhanced the role of Japanese in the world.

Dr. Kano developed traditional jujitsu into judo and founded Kodokan judo in 1882 for students to acquire a scientific approach, a sense of justice, fairness, and humility, and the ability to make full use of the knowledge acquired during the judo training. He advocated the philosophy “Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort, Mutual Welfare and Benefit.”

He toured all over the world to disseminate judo and its philosophy. Now judo has spread to over 200 countries as a sport to train one’s body and mind. Dr. Kano is well known as a founder of judo throughout the world. (See also the Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano)

Martial but not militaristic … spirit

The promotion of martial discipline in Japanese schools is commonly misunderstood and equated with militarism … however, Dr. Kano in effect, achieved innovative school reform, including the establishment of a free campus environment instead of military-style discipline, the introduction of extracurricular activities, and the admittance of Chinese students during his term as the principal of the Higher Normal High School. He extended the duration of teacher training to be the same as that of universities and laid the groundwork for promoting higher normal schools to the level of universities to foster educators with profound knowledge. As the result of this, modern Japanese secondary and teachers’ education have improved. The Tokyo University of Education and the University of Tsukuba have produced a large number of capable educators and researchers. Dr. Kano also devoted himself to the establishment of girls’ high schools in prefectures and to the introduction of Roman letter education.

Dr. Kano’s philosophy and achievements as an educator thus influenced and guided the development of university education and helped enhance the role of the Japanese to the rest of the world.

Dr. Kano became the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee and devoted himself to the Olympic Movement in Asia and Japan. Dr. Kano emphasized the integration of the spirit of martial arts and the Olympic creed. Through his efforts, Judo became the first Japanese martial art to gain widespread international recognition, and the first to become an official Olympic sport. Pedagogical innovations attributed to Kanō include the use of black and white belts, and the introduction of dan ranking to show the relative ranking between members of a martial art style. Well-known mottoes attributed to Kanō include “Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort” and “Mutual Welfare and Benefit.”

In his professional life, Kanō was an educator whose important postings included serving as director of primary education for the Ministry of Education (文部省 Monbushō?) from 1898 to 1901, and as president of Tokyo Higher Normal School from 1901 until 1920.[1] He played a key role in making judo and kendo part of the Japanese public school programs of the 1910s.

The European IOC members called Dr. Kano a “true educator of youth” and “a man of character in sports education”. Dr. Kano played a key role in getting sports included in the school curriculum by establishing the Department of Physical Education at the Tokyo Higher Normal School in 1915. He also encouraged students to actively participate in extracurricular activities. In 1911, he established the Japan Sports Association for all Japanese people to practice sports such as swimming and long-distance running. These sports activities have become popular throughout Japan with the support of educators who graduated from the Tokyo Higher Normal School.

Leggett in “The Spirit of Budo” says that Dr Kano exemplified Bunbu Ryodo himself, as well emphasizing Bunbu Ryodo’s martial or fighting will and courage principle and the balancing of power with culture-philosophy as an educator.

Bunbu Ryodo today

Bunbu ryodo, today, as a concept pervades much of Japanese education and schooling, (although it may have been rolled back a little? during the yutori hoiku years) and is expressed not only as a pillar of the educational philosophy of many top Japanese schools(see Toin Gakuen’s manifesto below) but is promoted generally, as a means of promoting or driving educational excellence in the varied fields of school academics, sports, the arts and afterschool club activities:

“Education of Body and Mind

In the past, samurai warriors were respected for being both strong martial artists as well as good scholars. This way of life was called the Bunbu-Ryodo (bun = letters, bu = martial arts, ryodo = both ways)
Today, students at Toin Gakuen live the modern Bunbu-Ryodo, which stresses the importance of a universal education, including academics, sports, and arts. Remarkable achievements in all of these fields have made us one of the top educational institutions in the country.” — Toin Gakuen’s educational philosophy

There are any number of writings on the benefits of introducing martial arts discipline into the school curriculum and how they have the effect of strengthening focus and concentration, attention span and therefore improving academics. They are reported to have promoted self-regulation, character development and also to have produced self-esteem and self-confidence in students. Recently, a relative, who holds a black belt in seven different martial arts, told me how the martial arts training for him, was a life-saver and anchor during his youth, following his father’s untimely death, and that the Bunbu Ryodo principle and other martial principles, continued to be a guiding beacon during the course of his rather long and illustrious career in the world of banking and finance. Well, as dor me, I am certainly glad for my daughter to have an upclose and personal encounter with Bunbu Ryodo.