Ashikaga School

Ashikaga Gakkō: Japan’s Oldest Academic Institution

Ashikaga Yoshikane (1154 – April 5, 1199) was a Japanese samurai military commander and a feudal lord during the late Heian and early Kamakura period. He played a pivotal role in the Genpei War a national civil war between the Taira and Minamoto clans that lasted from 1180-1185. He was a close relative of the first Kamakura shogun, Monamoto no Yorimoto. This gave the Ashikaga clan an influential position as gokenin, a vassal of the shogunate of the Kamakura and the Muromachi periods.

Ashikaga Yoshikane

Japan’s oldest school

Ashikaga Gakkō or “Ashikaga School”, was founded by Ashikaga Yoshikane and is considered to be Japan’s oldest academic institution. It is located in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture. Students would come from across the country, even as far off as the Ryukyu Islands to attend the school. Ashikaga School’s teachers were mostly Buddhist monks who taught I Ching, Confucianism, Chinese medicine and strategics.

Ashikaga Yoshikane.

Ashikaga Gakkō offered free tuiton for students. Most of them became monks and it was up to the pupils to decide how much and for how long they wished to learn. Some students would stay as long as ten years while others only lasted days. There were no available dormitories at the school so students usually stayed in guest houses or local homes. The students would grown vegetables and herbs on the school grounds for food.

Ashikaga Gakkō through the years

A fire greatly ravaged the Ashikaga School in the 1530’s. Even during the “warring states” period, students continued come in numbers and it was recorded that at some point, the school had about 3,000 students. Many of the pupils that finished their studies at Ashikaga Gakkō served as samurai lods across Japan. The Roman Catholic missionary, Saint Francis Xavier, who introduced Christianity to Japan observed that in 1549, Ashikaga School was the largest and most popular school in Japan. Ashikaga Gakkō

Ashikaga Gakkō.

During the 18th century the school’s curriculum was deemed outdated as Japan entered a period of peace and calm. Ashikaga Gakkō was no longer the center of academics but rather an archive that held a number of rare books.

The Ashikaga School closed its doors in 1872 but most of its buildings were destroyed and whatever was left standing was used as an elementary school and a public library. In 1921, Ashikaga Gakkō was designated as a National Historic Site. In the 1980’s the elementary school and public library were relocated and restoration was completed in 1990. Ashikaga Gakkō and its gardens today are what it was during its glory days.