Terakoya were educational institutes for ordinary citizens during the Edo period. Monks, bushi (samurai) and doctors taught reading, writing, soroban (using an abacus), and other practical knowledge and skills to children of ordinary citizens at these institutes. Also called Tenarai-dokoro or Tenarai-juku.
The origin of Terakoya is said to be traced to education at temples and shrines during the middle ages. Later, in the Edo period, with the development of commerce and trade, and with the rise in importance of documents, the demand for practical education grew, which led to the spread of Terakoya initially in city areas such as Edo and Kyoto. From the 1690s, it spread to agricultural and fishing villages, and became even more widespread after the middle of the Edo period (eighteenth century), especially around the Tenpo era (1830s) during the late Edo period. There also was a trend for management to become more occupational.
The teachers (shisho) of Terakoya were often monks, priests, doctors, bushi, ronin (masterless samurai), calligraphers, and townspeople. Many students that finished their schooling went on to schools to train teachers for Terakoya such as the Ashikaga gakko, which trained Terakoya teachers who taught throughout Japan. In addition, different from juku (after-school lessons) of the present, a shisho of Terakoya was often a mentor for life. The students of a Terakoya were called 'Fudeko' and when the shisho died, the Fudeko would chip in to pay for the shisho's grave. These graves are called Fudekozuka, and there are over 3,350 graves confirmed to be Fudekozuka just in the Boso Penninsula.
The Terakoya not only taught basic reading, writing and calculation, but also a comprehensive curriculum that included subjects required for daily life such as geography, people names and preparing letters. Education first started with learning numbers and then went on to writing. Then the students received education on knowledge and skills required for daily life.
Terakoya was the name used mostly at Kamigata (Kyoto, Osaka, Ise) and it was called 'Tenarai-shinanjo' or 'Shuseki-shinan' in Edo. This was because 'Koya' in Terakoya sounded like 'shed' and 'Ya' sounded like a shop name and was considered unsuitable as a name for a place of education.
When tension both internally and externally increased near the end of the Edo period, ronin found more work (in government service) and the ratio of shisho who were townspeople rose. Terakoya that taught Koten (classics) which was the basics of Kokugaku also increased, and Terakoya gradually changed with the times.
When in 1872, the school system was put in place by the Meiji Restoration, Terakoya gradually ceased to exist. However, practical education by Terakoya had been entrenched among the ordinary citizens and the literacy level of the Japanese in the beginning of the Meiji period was among the top in the world. One of the factors that led to the rapid modernization of Japan in the Meiji period was the high educational standards that Terakoya had provided the ordinary citizens.
Text books included Oraimono such as "Teikin Orai" (collection of letters used for family education), "Shobai Orai" (a Guide to Commerce), "Hakusho Orai" (a Guide to Farming), "Senjimon" (a poem consisting of one thousand Chinese characters) for learning characters, "Nagashira," "Myojizukushi" for learning names of people, "Kunizukushi," "Chosonzukushi," for learning place names and geography, "Shishogokyo," "Rikuyuengi" for Confucianism, and history books such as "Kokushiryaku," "Juhasshiryaku" and classics such as "Toshisen," "Hyakuninisshu" and "Tsurezuregusa." Oraimono, collection of correspondences were frequently used as textbooks because the public during the Edo period often prepared various letters for practical life and eventually 'Oraimono' became a pronoun for textbook.
The starting age and graduation age at Terakoya was not particularly fixed, and many started at around 5 to 6 and graduated around 13 to 14, up to 18 years of age. There were some Terakoya which only took boys or girls, but most Terakoya were coed. The percentage of children attending school was about 70 to 86 % in the Edo period around 1850s, and was higher compared to foreign countries such as 20 to 25% for major industrial cities in Britain (1837), 1.4% for France (1793) and 20% for the Soviet Union (1920, Moscow). By the end of the shogunate, there were 1,500 schools in Edo, and a total of 15,000 Terakoya throughout Japan. The number of students per school varied from 10 to 100.
UNESCO World Terakoya Movement
A movement to establish Terakoya throughout the world as part of improving literacy in the world is the World Terakoya Movement by UNESCO.