Fukuzawa Yukichi

Fukuzawa Yukichi, founder of Keio University and one of the first experts on the West in modern Japan, is generally looked on positively as having played an important role in the modernization of late 19th-century Japan. As Jyunosuke Yasukawa points out in his article in Ten Great Educators of Modern Japan, however, many modern historians find it hard to accept Fukuzawa as a national hero.

The majority of historians who question Fukuzawa find fault with his opinions and actions regarding Japanese national strength and expansion, education, and his dichotomal views on class. In his elderly days Fukuzawa was very happy to see the Japanese victories over China, and that is generally pointed to as an illustration of his support of expansionist Japan. Rather than an expansionist Japan, what he actually supported, however, was a strong Japan, one which would be able to gain the respect of the West through not only impressive military might, but also an educated populace. He believed that every man could benefit from at least a rudimentary education, and that only when the Japanese people were taught to stand independently could the Japanese nation hope to be free of the influence of Western powers. This education, however, needed to be strictly controlled by the government, and was not something to be given equally to all. For one, women could not benefit from education, because of their inferiority to men and simple lack of the ability to teach. Also, although the samurai and wealthier merchants and farmers could all to benefit from full education, the peasant class was a potentially dangerous force, and as in Europe, if given too thorough of an education they could rise in rebellion against the establishment. That in turn would weaken the state, giving the Western nations a perfect opportunity to step in and take control of Japan.

As mentioned above, Fukuzawa did not necessarily support today's image of imperialistic Japan. His death in 1901 came before the Japanese war machine had begun to gain the momentum that would carry it into World War II. He could not see in what direction their path would lead. Perhaps if he had died thirty or forty years later he would have been bitter and angry with the government, rather than happy and content. His "backwards" views on education, women, and the class system were perhaps not enlightened by today's standards, but for his day they were quite advanced. In an era in when "Chinese learning" was the main school of thought, Fukuzawa put all of his energy into creating a new generation of leaders versed in Western ways. Although it can be argued that he was well-read and well-versed in Western ways, and that he had no excuse to not accept Western views on equality and individualism. However, as Fukuzawa wrote in his autobiograpy:

In the early years of the Restoration I translated a book on the methods of bookkeeping, and I know that all the current texts follow the example of my book. So I should know something of the practice, if not enough to be an expert. But apparently the brains of a writer of books and those of a businessman are different; I cannot put my bookkeeping into use.

Similarly, even if he should read a book on human equality, which there were probably not many of in this age of social Darwinism, he would not have been able to implement those theories or beliefs. In his story of going to Europe for the first time and having everything explained to him -- hotels, party politics, police officers -- and not being able to comprehend it at first, it is quite possible that he would not be able to grasp such a supposedly fundamental concept as "human equality" even if he were to read an argument in its favor. Not that he was a monster to those below him. He never cheated on his wife, always treated women kindly, and did his best to spread awareness to peasants of their lawful rights in this changing period.

Fukuzawa Yukichi was a man with ideas which were progressive and yet still palatable to his contemporaries. Although he did not show the Japanese an example of what they should hope to become in the far future, he did provide a model for the men of his era in the next step towards adapting Western culture to Japan, a feat which is still incomplete today.

Robert Ketcherside, July 1996

Note on 6/30/98 : Reading this piece now, it seems quite random to me. I think it would best serve the reader to first read a bit about Fukuzawa, such as his biography or the essay listed above, and then read this page again. It is useful more as a way of viewing his life, rather than a review of his life. Maybe I'll update this someday into more of a bio of the man.