The literature on nationalism ascribes a pivotal role to schools in creating what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community,” through the formation and dissemination of a common national identity and a shared national consciousness where none existed before (e.g., Anderson 1983; Gellner 1983; Hobsbawm 1990; Smith 1991). It is not unusual to find Japan cited as a prime example of this process, not only among theorists of nationalism, but among Japan specialists, as well (e.g., Beauchamp 1988, 226–29; Cummings 1980, 17–25; Hunter 1989, 192–97; Ienaga 1978; Pyle 1996, 125–30; Rohlen 1983, 46–57; Schoppa 1991, 29–31; Thomas 1996, 254–62). In general, they portray the first two decades of the Meiji period, between 1868 and 1890, as the era when a modern national consciousness merged with a revivified nativist identity to form an “emperor-centered nationalism” that was institutionalized and propagated by the state, chiefly through a newly established compulsory, centralized school system. Frequently, this assertion is supported by citing the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890), which begins, “Our Imperial Ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting and have deeply and firmly implanted virtue; Our subjects, ever united in loyalty and filial piety, have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof.” This distinctive brand of Japanese nationalism is also regarded as a factor contributing to the subsequent development of Japanese imperialism and the country's pursuit of a colonial empire abroad, which began with its victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), and concluded fifty years later with its defeat in the Pacific War.

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