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Keio’s man ahead of his time

by Eriko Arita

Next time you come by a ¥10,000 bill, take a look at the face of Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901) that appears on the front, for he was a most remarkable man.

In October 1858, Fukuzawa, then a 23-year-old samurai, opened a small school of Western science (known as “Dutch studies,” because the textbooks were from Holland) in Edo, present-day Tokyo. In 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration, when the Emperor was made head of state after the overthrow of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate, the school was named Keio Gijuku after the name Keio then given to that era. In 1918 it became Keio University, the first private university in Japan.

To mark its 150th anniversary, the school is now holding an exhibition focused on the ideas and achievements of Fukuzawa, one of the iconic intellectuals of modern Japan.

Fukuzawa wrote many books introducing Western science and liberal thought to Japanese people still mentally cowed after more than 250 years of oppression under the Tokugawa regime, even as the 1868 Restoration catapulted Japan into the modern world.

“It is said that heaven does not create one man above or beneath another man. This means that when men are born from heaven they all are equal,” Fukuzawa wrote in his best-selling 1872 work “Gakumon no Susume” (“An Encouragement of Learning”). Also in that book he declared that heaven does not give riches and dignity to people but their learning and labor does.

While such ideas of equality and encouragement for learning may sound unremarkable nowadays, in 19th-century Japan they seemed quite shocking — or plain wrong — to many. However, the fact that some 200,000 copies of the book were sold meant there was one out there for every 160 people in the country — so he must have struck quite a chord.

But how did Fukuzawa, born a low- ranked samurai in far-off Kyushu, come to pioneer progressive thought in Japan?

Certainly, in Nagasaki and Osaka he studied Dutch, which was the only Western language allowed to be learned in a country still then in sakoku — the self-imposed international isolation that the shogunate rigidly enforced for some 200 years. But in 1859, when Fukuzawa visited Yokohama — a port outside Tokyo newly opened to foreign vessels — he was shocked to find Dutch was of little use compared to the English spoken by American and European merchants there.

As no English-Japanese dictionary existed then, he got hold of a Dutch-English dictionary and taught himself English using that. The following year, Fukuzawa managed to join the first envoys of the Shogun ever sent to the United States, sailing by steamer across the Pacific to San Francisco.

After he returned in 1862, he was appointed as an interpreter with the first Japanese mission to Europe — visiting France, Britain, Holland, Prussia (then the leading state of the German Empire), Russia and Portugal.

On his return from that mind- expanding trip, Fukuzawa changed his school from Dutch studies to English studies, and when he visited Washington and New York with a government delegation in 1867, he bought back chests full of English books covering various academic fields as texts for his students.

As the exhibition makes clear, it was based on his studies of things Western and his travels to America and Europe that Fukuzawa wrote “Bunmeiron no Gairyaku” (“An Outline of a Theory of Civilization”) in 1875. There, he maintained that the attainment of civilization — which he identified as the progress of man’s knowledge and virtue — was of the greatest importance to any country.

He also insisted that many Japanese people, who neither reflected on the past nor looked ahead to the future, were hindering the country from really opening itself to “civilization.”

“Consider if you will how, since ancient times, progressive steps in civilization were always unorthodox at the time they were first proposed,” Fukuzawa said in the book. “When Adam Smith [Scottish economist, 1723-90] first expounded his economic theory, did not everyone condemn it as heresy?”

Fukuzawa himself was unorthodox in a feudalistic Japan, said Yuichiro Anzai, the president of Keio University, in a recent interview.

“For more than 200 years in the Edo Period [1603-1867], people had taken it for granted that they should follow the direction of the Shogunate government. However, Fukuzawa strongly believed that every person should think independently, take action and accept responsibility for the outcome,” Anzai said. “His belief was that this would help create a civil society. He was unorthodox and far-sighted at that time.”

In an attempt to promote communication and wider debate in society, Fukuzawa introduced the term enzetsu (literally meaning “speech performance”) into popular parlance and tried to popularize the public speaking it refers to. To further that aim, Mita Public Speech Hall was built on the campus of Keio Gijuku in Tokyo’s Mita district in May 1875, and Fukuzawa and his school’s graduates had made more than 400 public speeches there by January 1900, as the exhibition points out.

Back then, expressing your ideas in public was not part of Japanese culture, and as speakers were afraid to be looked down on as odd, the exhibition explains how they would rehearse their speeches repeatedly in deserted places — such as on the clothes-drying platforms of their lodgings or on boats on the Sumida River.

Through these speakers’ efforts — and bravery — though, public speaking soon became popular and significantly contributed to growing democratic movements in Japan.

Meanwhile, in yet another initiative to promote communication in society, in 1882 Fukuzawa launched a newspaper named Jiji Shimpo. Although there were then several newspapers in existence, Jiji Shimpo was the first daily to declare that it was politically impartial.

“Through the newspaper, he aimed to establish the basis for communication for citizens with independence and self- respect,” Anzai said.

With the same goal, Fukuzawa then helped the launch of The Japan Times in 1897, by advising Sueji Yamada, a relative who was its founder, according to Takeyuki Tokura, an assistant professor at Keio University’s Fukuzawa Memorial Center for Modern Japanese Studies.

But all this isn’t just history, Anzai said, explaining that “Keio University continues to uphold Fukuzawa’s philosophy in the 21st century.”

Anzai pointed out as a practical illustration of that philosophy the fact that the university now offers some 300 courses taught in foreign languages and has nine double-degree programs through three graduate schools that have partnerships with prestigious institutions abroad. He also noted that Keio offers various scholarships and housing assistance to both Japanese and international students to ensure that an individual’s personal circumstances will not prevent them studying there.

“If Fukuzawa was alive today, he would do his best to enhance the quality of education and research at Keio, so students of any nationality and circumstance could learn in an open and global environment,” Anzai said.

And that means whether they have ¥10,000 notes to spare, or not.

The exhibition “Fukuzawa Yukichi: Living the Future” is at Tokyo National Museum until March 8. It then moves to Fukuoka Art Museum in Fukuoka from May 2 to June 14 and to Osaka Municipal Museum of Art in Osaka from Aug. 4 to Sept. 6. For more information (in Japanese, though the exhibits have English explanations), visit www.fukuzawa2009.jp The Japan Times is giving away five pairs of tickets to the Tokyo exhibition. To apply, send a postcard stating your name, address, phone number and comments on The Japan Times to: Fukuzawa Yukichi-kakari, Gakugei-bu, The Japan Times, 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023.