As an author and educator, Fukuzawa Yukichi was probably one of the most important nongovernment Japanese figures from the Meiji Restoration, which followed the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868. Fukuzawa wanted Japan to embrace many Western ideas in order to make the country stronger and wrote more than 100 books explaining his ideas.
Fukuzawa was born on January 10, 1835, at Buzen, Japan, the younger son of a lower samurai. His father’s family had been recently impoverished, but he was able to go to school in Nagasaki, where he studied Western ideas called rangaku (“Dutch learning”).
Although the ideas were no longer solely Dutch, the concept had arisen because the Dutch had, for many years, been the only Europeans who were able to visit Japan.
As a result of this, Fukuzawa went on some of the first Japanese missions to the West, which took place in 1860 and in 1862. The initial idea had been that the shogun should send envoys overseas, and Fukuzawa offered his services to Admiral Kimura Yoshitake.
The 1860 mission was the first Japanese delegation to the United States, and it set sail for San Francisco. On arrival, Fukuzawa bought a copy of Webster’s Dictionary, which was to form the basis of his study of English.
It helped him produce a Japanese-English dictionary, his first book. Japan’s 1862 mission went to Europe, and by this time Fukuzawa was the interpreter, accompanying the delegation to Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Prussia.
On his return his book Seiyo jijo (Conditions in the West) was published and became an instant best seller because of its simple but detailed explanations of the political situation in Europe and the United States. He would visit the United States again in 1867, going to Washington, D.C., and New York.
In Japan, Fukuzawa started writing prolifically, public speaking, and entering debating competitions. His championing of many Western ideas led to some hatred from conservatives, and there were a few attempts on his life.
Fukuzawa wrote more than 100 books. Seventeen of them form the Gakumon no Susume (An encouragement of learning), which was published between 1872 and 1876. His most famous work was Bunmeiron no Gairyaku (An outline of the theory of civilization), which was published in 1875. In this book he argued that “civilization is relative to time and circumstance.”
As a result, a comparison of civilizations over a long time period was not as important as a comparative study of them at a particular snapshot in time. He was a strong supporter of parliamentary government, access to education for everyone, women’s rights, and other causes championed in the West.
These ideas were regularly expressed in Meiroku Zasshi (Meiji six magazine), which Fukuzawa helped to publish. With the Meiji Restoration, he founded Keio Gijuku, which became Keio University in 1890.
In 1882 Fukuzawa founded a newspaper called Jiji shimpo (Current events). It became one of Japan’s most important political newspapers and was read by many liberal politicians, quite a number of whom also contributed articles.
These included men like Ito Hirobumi, Inoue Kaoru, and Okuma Shigenobu. During the 1890s, Fukuzawa wrote his autobiography, which was published in English in 1934.
In it he spoke of his great support for the Meiji government abolishing feudal privileges and also saw Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, which gave Japan the status of a great power, as one of his happiest moments.
However, this did lead to criticism of him as an imperialist and a supporter of Japanese expansionism. In reality, Fukuzawa’s support for the war was because he deplored the living conditions in China at the time, with foot-binding, cruel punishments, and some areas suffering from famine.
He felt that Japanese knowledge could contribute to improving the lot of the poor in China and would also serve as a counterweight to the Western imperial powers that had established treaty ports throughout China.
He was also critical of the unequal treaties forced on China by the colonial powers and thought that Japan, embracing modernity, would be able to prevent this system from spreading. Furthermore, he genuinely believed that the progressive Japanese would be able to improve the living conditions of the peasants in Korea.
Much of his interest in Korea came from a period when he invited some young Korean noblemen to Japan, and they misbehaved dreadfully, even trying to steal the school safe. With these men as the potential future leaders of the country, he despaired of what might happen if the Japanese were not able to exert themselves as a modernizing influence.
Fukuzawa died on February 3, 1901, in Tokyo. His house in Nakatsu remains a major tourist attraction in that city and is a nationally designated cultural asset. A statue of him stands in the grounds of Keio University, and an engraving of him by Edoardo Chiossone appears on the 10,000 yen banknote.