Education Opinion

How Teachers Saved a Nation

By Anthony J. Mullen — December 17, 2009 3 min read
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I am gazing at an image of a Japan long gone. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was built in 1397 for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu as part of a great estate he used for a retreat and later as a retirement villa. The temple is coated with gold leaf and is placed picturesquely in a garden at the edge of a large pond. The pavilion extends partly over the pond and is brilliantly reflected in the calm water. The gold leaf reflects the autumn sun and the warm mood of the many tourists who flock to Kyoto to see this iconic site. I take a few photographs and marvel at the pristine condition of a temple built 100 years before Columbus sailed to the Americas.

An elderly Japanese man politely offers to photograph me with the temple in the background.

“I can’t believe this temple is over six hundred years old,” I remarked.

The man smiled and told me to read the brochure in my hand. My awe-inspiring moment is deflated when I read the brochure and learn about the history of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. On July 2, 1950, at 2:30 am, the original Golden Pavilion was burned downed by a monk named Hayashi Yoken. The pavilion I marvel at was built in 1955 and the coating of lacquer and gold-leaf veneer was completed in 1987. The ornate roof was restored in 2003.

I asked the Japanese gentleman why the young monk set fire to the temple.

“The monk’s motive is not clear because he tried to commit suicide behind the building,” he answered.

“Did the police investigate the arson?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “The police questioned the monk’s mother and ask her to explain why her son would commit such a sacrilegious act”.

“What did she say?”

The man took my photograph and then replied, “She committed suicide by jumping from a train.”

I learned the monk later died in a mental institution and the police probably thought it wise not to question another Yoken family member. Why risk further decreasing the family clan?

I notice a tall bronze statue of a phoenix on the roof of the temple and realize how it symbolizes the most important lesson I have learned while visiting Japan: The Japanese people understand the importance of education more than any other country in the world because education is the phoenix of their nation.

The elderly Japanese man hands back my camera and I look at his face. I see warmth and wisdom in his eyes and possibly a window to the past.

“Do you remember World War Two?” I asked.

The man did not seem surprised by my off topic question, so I follow-up my lead-in question. I asked him how a nation decimated by war could literally rise from the ashes and become the world’s second largest economy.

The old man is quick to answer. “We never lost our school system,” he said. “During the war and after the war, children went to school. Japan lost much during the war, but we never abandoned our schools.”

I believe the greatest institution of social change is the school and the greatest instrument of change is the teacher. No other true democracy designed by the hand of man has ever existed. And the Japanese people practiced my belief after World War II by displaying an indomitable desire to rebuild a country through its schools.

War often destroys much more than lives and buildings. Social and governmental institutions are shattered, infrastructure decimated, food and clean water scarce, and people grow weak with the laborious task of burying the dead. Defeated nations seldom arise from the cinders of battle with the physical or psychological strength necessary to survive, let alone prosper, and Japan is one of the few exceptions in recorded history in which a nation found a collective resolve to not allow a vanquished people to become a vanished people.

Foreign aid and investment helped rebuild the many cities destroyed by Allied bombs but the will to endure and to thrive in a post-war economy was instilled in children by teachers. A people turned to its education system to renew a nation and teachers and schools were there to answer the call. The so-called “Japanese Economic Miracle” could not have occurred without schools and teachers.

And this is the greatest and most profound lesson I learned during my visit to Japan.

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.