What Japan Learnt from Swedish Education: From Thunberg to Thunberg


Despite the distance between Sweden and Japan, both countries have benefitted from a 245-year reciprocal learning relationship. Since 1775, the nations have contributed to, and benefitted from, each other’s educational successes. This article reviews the history of Swedish education in Japan.

The initial encounter between Sweden and Japan took place in August 1775, when the naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg arrived in Nagasaki. A student of Carl Linnaeus at Uppsala University, Thunberg travelled throughout Africa and Asia with the Dutch East India Company. To preserve strict border controls during this era, foreigners coming to Japan could only lodge on Dejima, a small artificial island in Nagasaki.

Carl PeterThunberg and Japan

Thunberg experienced dramatic success in Japan. After arriving at Dejima, he began collecting specimens of Japanese plants and insects from the fodder and fauna. Furthermore, he developed networks with interpreters by trading his medical knowledge for Japanese botanical knowledge. He helped treat syphilis with mercury, and his reputation spread rapidly among the people, ultimately earning him permission to visit Nagasaki City. During his visits to Nagasaki, Thunberg taught students Dutch and European etiquette, which led to the establishment of the Rangaku, the academic discipline of Western studies in Japan.

In 1776, Thunberg travelled to Edo (current Tokyo) accompanying the Dutch ambassador to meet with the Shogun, the leader of the time. During his travels to Edo, he engaged with the culture of the local people (Thunberg, 1788-1793) and later published two books, entitled Flora Japonica (1784), and Fauna Japonica (1833). His works later influenced Japonisme, the European boom of cultural interest in Japan.

As the first Swede and foreign teacher to visit Japan, Thunberg’s transmission of European expertise to Japan, and of Japanese culture to Europe, was significant. His achievements are often taught at upper secondary schools in Japan.

Iwakura Mission (1873)

After the Edo government was terminated, and Japan entered the Meiji period, the new government dispatched a group of statesmen and scholars to the United States and to European countries as diplomats, in what became known as the Iwakura Mission. The primary purpose of the mission was to revise the unequal treaties that had been signed at the conclusion of the Edo period. This attempt was unsuccessful, but the voyage provided the participants with the opportunity to experience Western civilisation. These statesmen ultimately became executives of the government, with some reaching the high office of Prime Minister. Young students later established colleges and universities and contributed to the modernisation of education in Japan.

The Iwakura Mission visited Sweden from 23-30 April 1873. They arrived at Malmö port from Copenhagen by ferry. After a short break at the Hotel Kramer, they boarded an overnight train to Stockholm. A Swedish officer informed them that there had only been one Japanese person who had visited Sweden previously, an acrobat, and that the missionaries were the first gentlemen to enter their country. The official report describes the beauty of the natural scenery as observed through the train window, including the reflections of lights on the lake, the pine forests, granite, hills, and plains. The journey to Stockholm took 19 hours. They stayed at Hotel Rydberg in Gustav Adolfs torg and all their expenses were covered by the Swedish government. They were invited to the Royal Palace and greeted by the King of Sweden at the time (Kume, 1878, Okuda, 1996).

On the 29th, the mission visited a primary school and was instructed by a doctor, who was an educational specialist. Kume (1878), the official report, describes ‘all boys and girls from 5 or 6 years old to 14 to 15 years old, about 10,000 pupils, mostly from poor families, are taught general subjects, and when they leave school, they work in their family business. All the expenses are provided by the schools, and families need not pay any fee’ (p. 201). Additionally, ‘both male and female teachers are there, and non-expert teachers care for 25 pupils, while others instruct 45, and some teachers are responsible for as many as 56 pupils’ (Kume, 1878, p. 201).

The mission observed the pupils’ march exercises and found that they employed the American style, the same as Japan. The doctor explained the mission characteristics of general education in Europe, emphasising that the foundation for both men and women, regardless of wealth, should guarantee primary general education for life and pleasure. For this reason, eight subjects (national language, literature, writing, mathematics, national history, world geography, science, and singing) and exercise should be taught in an attentive and attractive manner (Kume, 1878, pp. 202-203).

Gymnastics and Swedish Ladder

Thirty years after the Iwakura Mission, Motokuro Kawase introduced gymnastics to Japan in the book Swedish Gymnastics of Education (Dainippon Taiikukai, 1902, Kawase 1902). Kawase studied at the Medical Institute of Boston College in 1892 and learned medicine and gymnastics.

A decade later, Domei Nagai published a handbook titled The Teaching Points for School Gymnastics (Ministry of Education, 1913) which also followed the Swedish gymnastics trend. As a result of this work, wall bars, vaulting boxes, and balance beams were installed in most Japanese schools. Previously, Nagai had studied in Boston, but he was not enthusiastic about Swedish gymnastics at that time. After one and a half years of residing in Boston, he moved to Stockholm to enter the Royal Gymnastics Central Institute (Gymnastiska Centralinstitutet). In Sweden, he learned educational gymnastics and adopted the philosophy of the founder of Swedish gymnastics, Pehr Henrik Ling.

During this time in Japan, regional hegemonism was believed to strengthen the nation. In this context, gymnastics not only served to develop pupils’ physical abilities but was also regarded as a valuable strategy for the success of imperialism (Kimura, 1964). After returning to Japan, Nagai was appointed as a professor at two teacher training institutes, teaching men at Tokyo Higher Normal School on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and instructing women at Tokyo Women’s Higher Normal School on the other weekdays. In addition to teacher training, Nagai was appointed as a member of the National Committee for Gymnastics. His handbook was distributed to all schools by the Ministry of Education as the official curriculum (Nagai Domei sensei Kouenkai, 1988).

Figure 1. Instruction of Swedish Gymnastics in The Teaching Points for School Gymnastics. Source: Ministry of Education, 1913, pp. 218-219.

Gymnastics continues to be included among mandatory subject matter in the national curriculum for primary schools today (MEXT, 2017). However, currently, only a few teachers know the origin of gymnastics, and the Swedish ladder has become indigenous to Japanese schools.

Tuesday Study Circle

No scholars have specifically researched Nordic education in Japan before 1970. Significant works such as Ellen Key’s The Century of the Child (1900) was translated and occasionally attracted attention but did not become a major movement. During the 1970s, the Swedish model of welfare states increased in popularity. The Japanese economy was growing during this era, and the soon to be Prime Minister, Kakuei Tanaka, published A Plan for Remodelling the Japanese Archipelago in 1972. The plan strategised the country’s future for networking throughout the territory and outlined the construction of the Shinkansen speed train and highways (Tanaka, 1972). The early 1970s were often described as a hundred million people, all middle-class mentality. The welfare state was a mental model for the population.

The first generation of Nordic education studies in Japan was established by Professors Iwao Matsuzaki and Hiroshi Nakajima. Matsuzaki conducted seminars called ‘Tuesday Study Circle’ (Kayokenkyuukai) at the University of Tokyo from the beginning of the 1970s, during which he introduced the Swedish education system. Nakajima translated Torsten Husén’s The School in Question: Comparative Study of the School and its Future in Western Societies (1979) in 1982, and Leon Boucher’s Tradition and Change in Swedish Education (1982) in 1985. Matsuzaki and Nakajima’s efforts were primarily focused on the introduction of the Swedish education system to the Japanese people for a wide range of topics including history (Matsuzaki, 1983, 1986), philosophy, the policy of the school system (Imai, 1975), and the learning society (Nakajima, 1994).

They translated the latest literature into Japanese, mostly from Swedish but sometimes even from English or German. Their work shows the enthusiasm to learn from advanced countries with a focus on perspectives other than the U.S. and U.K.’s.

From the direct and indirect impact of their discussions, in 1986, the Provisional Council of Education Reform reported that there was an urgent need to shift from a school-centred to a lifelong learning system. Following the report, in 1988 the Lifelong Learning Bureau was established in the Ministry of Education, and the government enacted legislation for the promotion of lifelong learning. In 2001, the Bureau was reorganised as the Lifelong Learning Policy Bureau and prioritised lifelong learning for the Ministry’s policymaking.

Focus on Practice

The second generation of Nordic education research in Japan occurred from the late 1980s to the 1990s. In 1997, the Swedish textbook of social science SAMS 2, Ditt Eget Samhälle (Lindquist & Wester, 1992) was translated and published in Japan. Princess Masako (the current Empress) introduced the book at a press conference when she was asked about caring for her daughter, Aiko, expressing how impressed she was by the book and reading a portion of it before the media. Her introduction attracted general interest in Nordic education.

Because of a long economic downturn in Japan, the middle class was declining, and the lower class had expanded. Marketisation and privatisation reforms worsened the situation, and the Nordic countries’ efforts to aim for both economic growth and social equality were regarded as a utopic model by Japan (Study Circle on Nordic Education, 2021). Subject teaching such as slöjd (woodwork; Endo, 1987, 1993), home economics (Nagashima, 1988, 1998, Arai, 1996), geography (Murayama, 1995, 1996), and so on as well as special education (Nimonji, 1988) were positively introduced by researchers. Scholars not only translated original Swedish literature, but also attempted to investigate teaching practices through reviewing their curriculums, textbooks, and teaching materials.

Figure 2 illustrates the trend of publications on Swedish education from 1949 to 2020. Data were gathered from the Japanese literature database CiNii Articles (Scholarly and Academic Information Navigator; blue bars) and NDL ONLINE (National Diet Library, Japan; orange bars), using keywords ‘スウェーデン (Sweden)’ and ‘教育 (Education)’. CiNii Articles specified database for academic papers. NDL ONLINE includes a comprehensive collection of the publications in Japan, both printed and digital contents. The figure shows the growing trend of publications since the 1990s.

Figure 2. Trend of publications about Swedish Education in Japan (1949-2020)

Study Circle on Nordic Education

When OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) was made available to the public, Finland’s surprising success impacted Nordic Education studies in Japan tremendously. Influenced by this phenomenon, the Swedish education system regained significant attention. Numerous books about Nordic education have since been published. Most of these have been written by Japanese authors who moved to Sweden as a result of marriage or work, and were introduced to ‘real life’ through the perspectives of parents, teachers, and local citizens (Sanpei, 1993, Koumoto, 2000, 2002, 2003, Uno, 2004). These books attracted teacher training students and encouraged them to study in Sweden, forming the next generation, one that focused their research on Swedish education.

It was generally known as the Nordic education boom, the trend lasted nearly a decade. Articles not only addressed positive aspects but also attempted to delve into the reality and struggles of local life by applying a wide variety of methodologies (Hayashi, 2014, 2015, Tabira & Hayashi, 2021). Most prior research relied heavily on literature reviews, but this generation often used lesson observation, interviews, questionnaires, and a mixture of each, which were commonly conducted in Swedish. At this time, the author majority shifted to female.

The Study Circle on Nordic Education was organised in 2004 under the leadership of Professor Yukiko Sawano. The group hold regular meetings and have gained hundreds of members. The exchange students who return to Japan are often invited to speak at meetings and share the experiences they had in Sweden. The circle has welcomed a wide range of people including researchers, students, schoolteachers, parents, politicians, publishers, and television and mass media staff. Since 2018, the circle has published a series of articles in the Education Newspaper in Japan (Kyoiku Shimbun), which is popular among schoolteachers (Study Circle on Nordic Education, 2021).

The Age of the Social Networking Society

In the 2010s and 2020s, Internet use evolved prolifically, and people connected to the world directly. Through this technological development, Japanese teachers receive information directly from Swedish teachers and pupils. Seminars, blogs, and Edu-tourism have become new sources of information.

Early childhood education in Sweden has become a current popular topic among Japanese teachers and parents. There are at least three major aspects of interest. The first is the organisational integration of the nursery and kindergarten. Swedish preschool reform has been referred to as a model case of integrating early childhood care and education (Ohta, 2010, Nasukawa, 2014). The Japanese government has considered the merging of nurseries and kindergartens since the 1990s and legislation has been gradually developed to enhance pre-primary education.

The second aspect concerns the environmental and ecological perspectives found in early childhood education. The National Network of Forest Kindergarten in Japan was established in 2008 following preparations since 2005. With parents’ apprehension concerning outdoor experiences in early childhood, forest kindergartens spread rapidly over Japan and had grown to 179 nurseries and kindergartens in 2014. Many teachers joined seminars, and some participated in study tours to Sweden, learning by visiting preschools. Along with the forest kindergartens, sustainable development and environmental education are also key topics.

The third and growing interest is in child-centred and creative education which is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach. Scholars and educators pay special attention to how Sweden accepted this approach through the Stockholm Project in 1993 and pedagogical documentation (Shiraishi, 2018). Besides the direct interest in Reggio Emilia in Italy, some Japanese scholars and educators visit Reggio-inspired preschools in Sweden (Asai, 2018).

Greta Thunberg

Coincidently, 245 years after Carl Thunberg’s visit to Japan, Greta Thunberg has become the most influential Swede of the time. As a developed country, and as proud hosts of the Kyoto Protocol, Japan is also responsible for reducing CO2 to prevent climate change. However, following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the country has struggled with energy and environmental dilemmas.
Greta Thunberg’s “Skolstrejk för Klimatet” movement is also well-known in Japan. However, for several reasons, Japanese students are far from accepting her ethos. Although many students in Japan warmly support her, unlike in many European countries, few actually participated in the school strike (Sou et al. 2019).

However, her actions inspire many school children in Japan, motivating them to learn. Thunberg’s efforts provide many topics for learning such as environmental issues and the future, youth democracy and leadership, participation and responsibility for society, and courage and representation. Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations conference is introduced in the Home Economics’ textbook (Jiji.com News, 2021), and most students also learn about, and discuss the movement in Social Sciences, English, or the comprehensive learning period.

There are 1,116 UNESCO Associated Schools in Japan (as of October 2018), which make up the largest share of the project network. Students learn to contribute to Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and Greta Thunberg’s accomplishments are often introduced in lessons.

Lesson Study

As discussed above, education in Japan has been directly and indirectly inspired by Sweden. However, today we can also find an example where education in Sweden is inspired by Japan: lesson study and learning study (Holmqvist et al. 2006, Lo et al. 2004, Munthe et al. 2016). Lesson study is a way in which teachers can improve teaching collaboratively, wherein teachers open their classrooms to colleagues for observation and, later, they discuss and reflect on the lesson procedure. While there is a wide variety of lesson study styles among schools and regions regarding the focus of discussions and other aspects, lesson study has been practised in Japanese schools for more than a hundred years. It plays a significant role in improving teaching, learning, and teacher professionalism in Japan.

When Igelboda skola in Nacka held their first lesson study in 2012, not only teachers from neighbouring schools but also staff from the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), researchers, and media gathered to see the open lesson and the discussion afterwards (TV4, 2012). These teachers learned about Japanese lesson study via relevant literature and joined the WALS (World Association of Lesson Studies) international conference in Tokyo before conducting their first lesson study.

Sweden is suffering from teacher shortages and, therefore, has been investing in professional development and the recruitment of teachers for the last few decades. Teacher salaries have gradually increased and there are now more professional development opportunities. The ‘legitimated teachers’ and ‘first teachers’ system has been implemented. With this background, lesson study may become attractive as a way of enhancing teacher professionalism individually and collectively.

The tradition of lesson study in Japan is based on the philosophy of developing the democratic school and autonomous teacher professionalism. Japanese teachers often emphasize the importance of not being too technical but focusing on the dynamic learning process to grow the learning community. With a shared view on democratic values, this perspective may have a high affinity with Swedish schoolteachers.

Reciprocal learning opportunities could also occur in individual subject areas. Teachers in Nacka who conducted the first lesson study visited Japan in 2019 to learn specifically about math lessons in primary schools. A typical Japanese math lesson begins with individual or small group work on the day’s mathematical problem, followed by the sharing of different views and methods of problem solving among students. Lastly, more general summaries and reflections are made about abstract mathematical concepts. This pattern of math lesson has been practised in Japanese classrooms for a long time, supported by lesson study practice, spontaneous study groups among local teachers, and the nationwide textbook distribution system (Hayashi, 2019).

Figure 3. Swedish delegates visit a Japanese Classroom

Swedish teachers noted that the composition of math textbooks in Japan is quite different from those in Sweden. In Japanese math textbooks, pupils’ characters sometimes present intentionally incorrect answers to a mathematical problem. These views are discussed and reflected on in the textbook, often in a dialogue format with a teacher character, leading to the correct mathematical concept, just as in real classroom lessons. Swedish teachers told us that they will analyse the textbook to prepare math lessons that place more emphasis on how students think and understand. Their luggage was full of Japanese math textbooks on their way home.


It is enlightening to see how the relationship between the two countries has developed over time. Like other countries, Japan seeks to find ideas and experiences overseas when implementing new policies. Sweden is regularly more advanced in terms of civilisation; however, learning is a bilateral and symbiotic phenomenon, and Sweden has learned from Japan as well. Currently, the lesson study movement and teaching mathematics in Japan are hot topics among some teachers. It is hoped that both countries will continue to learn from each other.

Kampei HAYASHI, born in 1981, is an Associate Professor at Shinshu University, Japan. Hayashi studied at Gothenburg University as an exchange student in 2003/04 and conducted research at Uppsala University as a Guest Researcher in 2006/07 and 2018/19. Major fields of study include comparative education and educational administration. Research interests include the decentralisation and change of lesson style in Sweden, globalisation of education policy, and current trends in education exports.


This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Numbers JP16H05960, JP20KK0286, and JP 21H00832.


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