Private schools run by Buddhist temples (terakoya) and neighborhood associations were nationalized as elementary schools; feudal domain schools run by daimyo became middle schools, and the Tokugawa shogunal Academy became the foundation of Tokyo Imperial University.
However, the early educational system proved unwieldy and ran into considerable opposition. Although an attempt was made to decentralize the system in the Education Order of 1879, the Revised Education Order of 1880 strengthened central control and added a new curriculum which emphasized conservative, traditional ideals more reflective of Japanese values. Confucian precepts were stressed, especially those concerning the hierarchical nature of human relations, service to the new Meiji state, the pursuit of learning, and morality. These ideals, embodied in the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, along with highly centralized government control over education, largely guided Japanese education until the end of World War II.
In 1885, the cabinet system of government was established, and Mori Arinori became the first Minister of Education of Japan. Mori, together with Inoue Kowashi created the foundation of the Empire of Japan's educational system by issuing a series of orders from 1886. These laws established an elementary school system, middle school system, normal school system and an imperial university system.
Elementary school was made compulsory from 1872, and was intended to create loyal subjects of the Emperor. Middle Schools were preparatory schools for students destined to enter one of the Imperial Universities, and the Imperial Universities were intended to create westernized leaders who would be able to direct the modernization of Japan.
With the increasing industrialization of Japan, demand increased for higher education and vocational training. Inoue Kowashi, who followed Mori as Minister of Education established a state vocational school system, and also promoted women's education through a separate girl's school system.
Compulsory education was extended to six years in 1907. According to the new laws, textbooks could only be issued upon the approval of the Ministry of Education. The curriculum was centered on moral education (mostly aimed at instilling patriotism), mathematics, reading and writing, composition, Japanese calligraphy, Japanese history, geography, science, drawing, singing, and physical education. All children of the same age learned each subject from the same series of textbook.
During this period, new social currents, including socialism, communism, anarchism, and liberalism exerted influences on teachers and teaching methods. The led to teachers unions and student protest movements against the nationalist educational curriculum. The government responded with increased repression, and adding some influences from the German system in an attempt to increase the patriotic spirit and step up the militarization of Japan. The Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors became compulsory reading for students during this period.
Specialized schools for the blind and for the deaf were established as early as 1878, and were regulated and standardized by the government in the Blind, Deaf and Dumb Schools Order of 1926. Blind people were encouraged toward vocations such as massage, acupuncture, physical therapy and piano tuning.
After the Manchurian Incident of 1931, the curriculum of the national educational system became increasingly nationalistic and after the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the curriculum became increasingly militaristic and was influenced by ultranationalist Education Minister Sadao Araki.
In 1941, elementary schools were renamed and students were required to attend vocational training schools on graduation, which mixed vocational and basic military training (for boys) and home economics (for girls). The Seinen Gakkō also conducted classes at night for working boys and girls.
Normal schools were renamed , and were often affiliated with a university. The Senmon Gakkō taught medicine, law, economics, commerce, agricultural science, engineering or business management. The aim of the Senmon Gakkō was to produce a professional class, rather than intellectual elite. In the pre-war period, all higher school for women were Senmon Gakkō.
After the start of the Pacific War in 1941, nationalistic and militaristic indoctrination were further strengthened. Textbooks such as the Kokutai no Hongi became required reading. The principal educational objective was teaching the traditional national political values, religion and morality. This had prevailed from the Meiji period. The Japanese state modernized organizationally, but preserved its national idiosyncrasies. Emphasis was laid on the Emperor worship cult, and loyalty to the most important values of the nation, and the importance of ancient military virtues.
After the surrender of Japan in 1945, the United States Education Missions to Japan in 1946 and again in 1950 under the direction of the American occupation authorities abolished the old educational framework and established the foundation of Japan's post-war educational system.