Kanō and his 7000 Chinese students at the Kōbun Gakuin 嘉納歴代 • 嘉納師範と弘文学院 – The Kanō Chronicles

One episode of the life of Kanō shihan (master) 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 first named it 亦楽書院 Jiraku Shoin, a name derived from an ancient Confucian classic text, then again changed the kanji for the new name after being informed by some of his students that such a name violated an obscure ancient naming taboo by using the name of a Chinese Emperor, an affront to 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 a foundation in other topics so the students could later enroll in regular advanced education in Japanese higher education institutes, including Kanō’s own 東京高等師範学校 Tōkyō Kōtō Shihan Gakkō Tokyo Higher Normal School, Japan’s highest teacher training academy. There they would study to become the new teaching cadre that backwards China so desperately needed to modernize its education system. They were joined by a number that went on to study at military or police training facilities until the Japanese government banned the practice.

In teaching Japanese to so many foreigners at once, almost inadvertently the school became one of the foremost working laboratories of teaching the Japanese language, which Kanō himself helped to codify. In mid-Meiji, the school developed a Japanese language training program which it published; the book, Nihongo Kyōkasho, A Japanese Textbook and its training program was so well regarded that it stayed in print for over thirty years.

日本語教科書 Nihongo Kyōkasho Japanese Textbook
Kōbun Gakuin ed.
, 1906

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 bought for the project in a large house he had built, 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 the compound.

In the years of the Kōbun Gakuin, Kanō met many men and women who would become key figures in the future of China. Some became founders and political leaders of all three rival Chinese governments vying for power in World War II and its subsequent Civil War, contributing to the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, as well as 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 with the invading Japanese, 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 wrote a forward to the Japanese Textbook in classic Chinese that would be understandable by the Chinese despite their different spoken dialects and varying levels of Japanese skills. It reads:


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, The Kanō Chronicles


* Matsumoto was the Kōbun Gakuin vice principal and a principal Japanese instructor.

** 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!

Lance Gatling
Author / Lecturer
The Kanō Chronicles
Tokyo, Japan
Contact@kanochronicles.com – please send a note to give us feedback.
Thank you!
©Copyright 2020 Lance Gatling – The Kanō Chronicles

5 thoughts on “Kanō and his 7000 Chinese students at the Kōbun Gakuin 嘉納歴代 • 嘉納師範と弘文学院 – The Kanō Chronicles

  1. Greetings, nice article. You do not mention another founder of martial art – Sambo.
    View at Medium.com
    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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