The Kanō Chronicles® – Kanō and the Kōbun Gakuin 嘉納歴代 • 嘉納師範と弘文学院

One episode of Kanō shihan’s life not generally appreciated by jūdōka is his extended effort to educate Chinese students. This effort saw him undertake a Meiji government sponsored months’ long, thousands of kilometers official trip through Q’ing dynasty China in which he met mandarins, had secret conversations with overlords, visited the tomb of the founder of orthodox neo-Confucianism, contacted future revolutionaries, and dodged pirates.

Beginning with a small private juku in a rented facility Kanō developed a purpose built school that inducted almost 8,000 Chinese over years, hundreds enrolled at any given time. He changed its name from 亦楽書院, a name derived from an ancient Confucian classic text, then again changed the kanji for the new name after inadvertently violating an obscure ancient naming taboo seen as an insult by traditional Chinese. Today in Japanese we know it as the 弘文学院 Kōbun Gakuin, in Chinese history it is known as the Hongwen Academy.

It was essentially a preparatory school, primarily intended to bring the diverse group of polyglot Chinese students to an acceptable level of comprehension and communications in spoken and written Japanese and other topics so the students could later enroll in regular advanced education in a number of Japanese higher education institutes, including Kanō’s own 東京高等師範学校 Tōkyō Kōtō Shihan Gakkō Tokyo Higher Normal School, where they would study to become the new teaching cadre that backwards China so desperately needed to modernize its education system.

In doing so, almost inadvertently the school became one of the foremost working laboratories of teaching Japanese. In mid-Meiji, the school developed a Japanese language training program which it published; the book and its training program was so well regarded that it stayed in print for over thirty years.

The school remained in operation for years until political propaganda fostered by Europeans and Americans fueled anti-Japanese sentiment to the point that enrollment fell off sharply. Kanō, who lived on the school compound in a large house built with Chinese government funds, acquired the huge plot of land years after the school closed and lived there until his death in 1938, when his eldest surviving son and future Kodokan president Kanō Risei inherited it.

In the years of the Kōbun Gakuin, Kanō met key Chinese political figures, future actors including men who became founders and leaders of all three rival Chinese governments vying for power in World War II and the subsequent Civil War, and contributing to the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, and teachers and businessmen desperately trying to bolster the faltering China. Some stayed in touch with Kanō for decades afterwards.

The students included future Communists, Nationalists, collaborators, political leaders, soldiers, artists, authors, and even Mao’s father in law. They included: 陈天华、黄兴、李待琛、杨度、胡汉民、牛保才、杨昌济、张澜、朱剑凡、胡元倓、李琴湘、方鼎英、许寿裳、鲁迅、沈心工、陈幼云、陈师曾、陈寅恪、劉勳麟、鲍贵藻, 李四光、侯鸿鉴、郑菊如、李书城、林伯渠、邓以蛰、趙戴文、and 程鴻書.

Kanō provided a forward to the language training text book, which he wrote in kanbun, the ancient Sino-Japanese writing style that would be understandable by most educated Chinese despite their different spoken dialects of Chinese.



Recently there is a Chinese cultural movement.


These new scholars.


Skilled in our Japanese language and grammar.


And Japanese is actually getting more and more important every day for Chinese scholars。


However, educational books.


I have not seen good ones.


I regard that as regrettable.


The study of speech and writing.


As easily as possible.


But what else?


Our Kōbun Gakuin.


Educated Chinese students for many years.


Our national language professors.


Studied how for a long time.


Men of considerable achievements.


As a result, Professor Matsumoto* compiled this Japanese language book.


Various professors supported it.


Its colloquial use cases are established first.


And is published with.


Grammar and a reader, etc.


It is complete.


Finally the day of its release!


We welcome this book!


And its teaching material for Japanese and Japanese literature.


It is almost ready.


This book.


Is thus made for Chinese.


Teaching of our Japanese to typical foreigners.


Nor is it for this reason.


The benefit of this book.


is not small, after all.


April Meiji 39 (1906)


Kōbun Gakuin head Kanō Jigorô

– translation copyright 2020 by Lance Gatling


* Matsumoto was Kanō’s vice principal

** The first name of the school was 弘文学院 Kōbun Gakuin later changed to 宏文学院 which is also pronounced Kōbun Gakuin in Japanese; not accidentally both are pronounced Hongwen Xuéyuàn in Mandarin, usually rendered as Hongwen Academy in English. We will explore the naming taboo that the original name violated.

Hat tip to Geoff Newman for his translation suggestions! 谢谢!

5 thoughts on “The Kanō Chronicles® – Kanō and the Kōbun Gakuin 嘉納歴代 • 嘉納師範と弘文学院

  1. Greetings, nice article. You do not mention another founder of martial art – Sambo.
    View at
    According to several sources he was first picked by Kano to study in Japan. If I remember right he achieved 2nd Dan. It was this dubious connection with Japan that caused him to be almost written out when Anatoly Kharlampiev got the permission from Stalin to create Sambo.


    1. Hello, Vakkilainen-san!

      Thanks for your note. I always wondered if Kanô shihan had directly inspired any of his Chinese students to continue in martial arts.
      I have always been fascinated by the triumph and tragedy of Vasili Oshchepkov.
      I have never seen that Kano shihan chose him to study in Tokyo before. What I’ve read that makes sense to me that he worked on a Russian (Soviet) fishing boat that made a port call in Hokkaido, and he jumped ship (an English / American phrase meaning left the ship despite his agreements to work on it).
      He made his way to Tokyo, where he gravitated towards the Russian orthodox church in Shin Ochanomizu, which is not far from where Kano shihan was the principal of the Tokyo Higher Normal School, and the Kodokan not far from there.
      A number of judoka interested in continental areas that studied Russian attended the church services to listen and interact with Russian speakers, so he may have met some.
      His connection to Japan probably did get him imprisoned, which led to his imprisonment.
      Anyhow, did you hear about the Kodokan a couple of years ago?
      Coinciding with a visit by Putin to Japan and the Kodokan, the Kodokan arranged s special exhibit on Oshchepkov not inside the Kodokan but nextdoor at the Bunkyo City Hall. I thought it a very wise move – if inside the KDK, Putin may have been insulted, but nextdoor, Russian Tokyo-based diplomats would have reported the event to Putin’s circle.
      And soon Oshchepkov was ‘rehabilitated’ and found innocent of the ‘crimes’ that put him in prison, which killed him.

      Judo diplomacy in action!

      Thanks for reading,

      Lance Gatling


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