The political scientist Masao Maruyama wrote in 1943 (at the very height of wartime nationalism) that Yukichi Fukuzawa “was a Meiji thinker, but at the same time he is a thinker of the present day.”
Fukuzawa (1835-1901) was, in a way, the first Japanese cosmopolitan. He was an educator, writer and propagator of Western knowledge during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and he was also an opponent of narrow nationalism.
He writes in his autobiography (“Fukuo Jiden,” 1897): “I was opposed to the closing of the country and to all the old regime of rank and clan. I was in the service of the shogunate but had not the least idea of rendering service. I disliked the bureaucratic, oppressive, conservative, antiforeign policy of the shogunate, and I would not side with it.”
This is a brave stance even now for anyone to take and Fukuzawa’s anti-authoritarian views became very visible to his contemporaries. As Albert Craig has observed in his informative afterword: “he criticized the ‘shifty faintheartedness’ of those who went over to serve the new government, and he himself refused to take government office; he rationalized his position outside the government in terms of the importance of nongovernmental roles in a laissez-faire society.”
He is still remembered, and revered, for his individuality. In 1858 he went to Edo (now Tokyo) from Osaka, walking the entire distance, where he devoted himself to the pursuit of “Dutch studies,” or what we would now call Western learning. In 1860 he joined the first Japanese mission to America and two years later he was a member of the mission to Europe.
Along the way he always found much to criticize. “One ridiculous idea held by our embassy was that its members should not meet the foreigners or see the country any more than they had to. We were under the seclusion theory even while we were traveling in foreign territory.”
Indeed, other members of the mission often served as spies, and every time Fukuzawa wished to go out, the ometsuke (inspectors general) went along. “We were not out to smuggle, nor could we possibly impart any national secret. So the ‘eye fixer’ following us was simply a nuisance — but the greater inconvenience was that when all the ometsuke were occupied elsewhere, we could not go out at all.”
It is remarkable that a man in Fukuzawa’s position could keep aloof from ever-present authority all of his life — and at the same time get so much done. Books, dictionaries, accounts of life in the West, championing of the rights of women, the founding of Keio Gijukui (now Keio University), much else — and this autobiography.
Though called in Japanese a self-chronicle (jiden) by the old man (o) Fuku (zawa), this autobiography is, as the scholar Carmen Blacker has rightly called it, “vivid and lively” beyond compare with other Meiji writings.
He writes of himself as a boy, curious, alert, but one who lies and also occasionally steals, and at once there on the page before you is not a Meiji exemplar, but a living person — one who is, as Maruyama claimed, someone “of the present day.” The standards for which Fukuzawa stood remain imperiled (one wonders what he would think of the present government), but his staunch example is still here.
The Meiji government at one point asked him to take charge of Japan’s schools, saying he had done special service for the country. The government thus offered him a signal position of honor. Fukuzawa’s answer is gloriously typical of him: “What is remarkable about a man’s carrying out his own work? The cartman pulls his cart, the student reads his books, the tofu man makes tofu. If the government wants to recognize the ordinary work of its subjects, let it begin with my neighbor, the tofu-maker, and give up any ideas about my own special service.”
As readable as it was a century ago, this honest autobiography now comes to us in a new edition. The original translation (1934) has been revised (1960), and the 1966 edition has been here refurbished with Craig’s excellent introductory and terminal essays and a number of appendixes. Included are textual notes and a chronological table, as well as a full index.
Through it Yukichi Fukuzawa lives on. He is indeed very much a thinker of the present day.
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