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Local Heroes

Margaret Mehl explains the surprising adoption of two Japanese scholars by their hometowns as major tourist attractions.

In 1988 Japan’s prime minister Takeshita Noboru announced his intention to give one hundred million Yen (more than half a million pounds) to each of Japan’s 3,268 local governing towns and villages. How does one spend one hundred million Yen? One town opted to buy a 63kg lump of gold and put it on display. But the small town of Kannabe in Hiroshima prefecture and the village of Shitada in Niigata prefecture used their grants to build museums to local heroes – in both cases scholars of Chinese learning, even though this field of knowledge has been in sharp decline since the mid nineteenth century.

The museum in Kannabe is named after Kan Chazan (1748-1827). Confucianism was the dominant ideology in his time, and Chinese learning was held in high regard as a source of knowledge. Though learning had once been a monopoly of the samurai class, the way of the Confucian scholar was then open to a merchant’s son like himself. The museum in Shitada is devoted to Morohashi Tetsuji (1885-1984). He grew up when Western knowledge was seen as the key to raising Japan’s international status, but Chinese learning was still for many the hallmark of a good education. So it was for Tetsuji’s father, who taught his son to read using Chinese works even before he entered the public elementary school.

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