Ashikaga School in Ashikaga, Japan

The school building.

Originally founded during the late 12th-century by samurai lord Ashikaga Yoshikane (or during the first half of the 9th-century according to some sources), the Ashikaga School is the oldest academic institution in Japan.

Students came from across the country, even from the Ryukyu Kingdom to study Confucianism, I Ching, Chinese medicine, and strategics. Although the school’s teachers largely consisted of Buddhist monks, it was unusual in that it lacked Buddhist studies in its curriculum, unlike other academic institutions of that period. It was due to the Ashikaga School’s belief that one should learn Buddhism in temples, not in school.

Surprisingly, it was free of tuition and all pupils became monks upon entering. There were no dormitories, so students usually lodged at local homes or guest houses. To provide food, they also grew vegetables and herbs on the school grounds.

The school flourished during the Sengoku (“warring states”) period, despite the fire that partially destroyed the facilities during the 1530s. The number of students kept growing, and it was recorded at one point that the Ashikaga School held a total of 3,000 students. Many of the alumni are said to have made good use of their studies and served samurai lords across Japan. Saint Francis Xavier, the Roman Catholic missionary who introduced Christianity to Japan, noted in 1549 that the Ashikaga School was the largest and most famous school in Japan.

By the 18th-century, however, the school’s curriculum was considered dated, as Japan had entered a period of relative peace. It was no longer the center of academics, but rather a library that held several rare books.

Not long after the Meiji Restoration, the Ashikaga School was disestablished in 1872. Most of its buildings were demolished and the rest was used as an elementary school and a public library.

In 1921, the former Ashikaga School was designated as a National Historic Site. The elementary school and public library were relocated during the 1980s to prepare for the site’s restoration, which was completed in 1990. The school building, along with its garden, has been restored to its Edo period glory.

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