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In its ongoing campaign of inoculation against the pessimism born of current circumstances, business magazine President (Oct. 31) proposes a singular role model.

Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901) was arguably Japan’s first thoroughly modern man. Born into the ancient, withering, reactionary social order he did so much to dislodge, he has multiple, memorable achievements to his credit. His immensely popular books preached a gospel of Westernism, industrialism, capitalism, democracy, freedom of thought, freedom of speech and gender equality — the latter almost shocking in his time and elusive still in ours. He founded Japan’s first modern university — Keio — and its first daily newspaper, the Jiji Shimpo.

His most famous book, “An Encouragement of Learning” (1872-76), stakes out his philosophical territory. People differ, he said, but “from the point of view of inherent human rights all men (and women) are equal.” Government has its place, but “the people are the real masters and bosses.” The Confucian air he’d breathed in childhood and youth choked the human spirit; those who clung to it were “as narrow-minded as the proverbial frog at the bottom of the well.”

These are the views he’s best known for; his name is practically synonymous with them. You won’t find them in President’s article. President addresses businesspeople of presidential caliber — people on the way up in society as it is. Social reform is not its issue. It is other aspects of Fukuzawa’s character that interest it.

He was an active, restless man, at radical odds with the status quo, a builder of a new order. His path was a difficult one. What he symbolizes for President is therefore somewhat surprising: zero stress.

Really? It seems so. His autobiography, writes Meiji University literature professor Takashi Saito in President, describes a character fazed by nothing. As a child he mocked gods, fortune-tellers and foxes — objects of superstitious dread since time immemorial.

In adolescence, he was as argumentative as the next puffed-up kid — or maybe not, because when the argument grew heated he withdrew, “thinking to myself,” he wrote in his autobiography, “‘Why does this fool love to make so much noise?’”

He had many friends, but no close ones. He was convivial, but never confiding. His deepest thoughts and innermost feelings, Saito writes, he kept to himself — or saved them for his books.

Yukichi Fukuzawa | MUSéUM NATIONAL D'HISTOIRE NATURELLE / VIA WIKICOMMONS
Yukichi Fukuzawa | MUSéUM NATIONAL D’HISTOIRE NATURELLE / VIA WIKICOMMONS

Maybe we should do the same, Saito implies. The advantage of online social networking is that it draws us together. The disadvantage may be that it draws us too close together. Fukuzawa, Saito speculates, would have been alarmed at how vulnerable unreserved self-expression leaves us to the hostility of the ill-natured. Hostility breeds stress, stress breeds hostility — a vicious circle evident even before coronavirus; a good deal more so since.

Fukuzawa practiced social distancing before the virus gave it its current meaning; in this as in so much else he was ahead of his time. Premodern Japan — and premodernity ran to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Fukuzawa was 33 — threw people together in ways later concepts of privacy would make impossible. Disembodied online socializing is a mere ghostly afterglow.

As historian Jun Yonaha explains in a talk last month with the Asahi Shimbun, in old Edo (present-day Tokyo) perfect strangers mingled quite uninhibitedly in restaurants, hostelries, wherever they happened to meet. Then came the Restoration, with its “hypereducation” and the inwardness prefigured by Fukuzawa. Today a restaurant with pretensions to quality is more likely than not to curtain individual tables off from one another. The curtain is physical there, symbolic elsewhere — on a packed commuter train, for instance, where passengers rarely look at each other, let alone speak to one another.

The anonymous intimacy of online exchanges brings us back, in a sense, to Edo — or very much farther back, to our proto-human beginnings, suggests primatologist Shun Hongo. Humans are unique, he told the Asahi Shimbun in an interview published in October, in their ability and eagerness to make friends with strangers casually encountered. The primates closest to us have no analogous impulse, he says. Human aggression is often described as “beastly,” “brutal” — but suspicion and hostility seem more deeply rooted in the brutes than in us. If they ever acquire human weapons of mass destruction, rapid extinction seems a foregone conclusion.

Hongo fears the effects of coronavirus isolation. Remote work and remote schooling are all very well, but solitude beyond a certain point may corrode something fundamentally human in us. He advocates as much “real” — as opposed to virtual — classwork as possible. “The risk is not zero,” he acknowledges, but the alternative, he says, is tomorrow’s leaders of society growing up asocial today.

College sophomore and student council member Yuna Suzuki sees it that way, too. Her personal experience confirms it. Online lectures bore her, isolation depresses her. Conviviality stifled can turn sinister, breeding suspicion and distrust. “Online,” she tells the Asahi Shimbun, “my friends and I tell each other, ‘I really want to get together with you’ — but I find myself wondering, ‘Do they really mean it?’”

Zero stress? Spa magazine last month described our situation in quite different terms. “Cerebral fatigue” is its diagnosis of what we’re going through. Encouraged by technology and forced by the virus to live more digitally than ever, we are awash in data of fleeting importance and starved of more substantial fare. The brain’s short-term memory functions are over-exercised; long-term memory and operations attendant upon it — planning, analysis — go slack. The result, the magazine says, can reach extremes of debilitation reminiscent of dementia.

Fukuzawa stood on the threshold of a new age. So do we. He no more knew what lay ahead then than we know what lies ahead now. In his book “The New Greater Learning for Women” (1898), he exhibits the serenity of spirit praised by President. He envisaged men and women newly free to enjoy each others’ company, at “parties to enjoy blossoms, birds and the moon, or even just tea … big or small, intellectually uplifting or only for fun … any excuse should be used to bring people together.”

Maybe we’ll get back to that, when all this is over.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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