On The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi


A portrait of Fukuzawa Yukichi.

Somewhere around 2013, I was reading a certain book on world history which referenced Fukuzawa Yukichi and his autobiography, originally titled Fukuou Jiden. Back then I didn’t even know much about who Fukuzawa was, apart from him being an important political person from early-modern Japan. But I kept the book in memory and eventually bought a used copy and finished reading it in August 2017. What I expected was an account of the enormous changes of the Meiji era, but the book isn’t really about that – first and foremost, as the title suggests, it’s a biography. Anyway, I decided to reread it and write a bit on the book, since now that I’m done with it, I think it deserves a blogpost.

Fukuzawa was born in 1835 as a lower samurai in Nakatsu, in the southwestern corner of Japan. His father died when Yukichi was very young, which made him spend a sizeable portion of his life in relative poverty. Nakatsu was an insufferably cramped little community where the ruthless rules of feudal society were making young Fukuzawa grow into a resentful contrarian. He held views sceptical of religion, to which he was indifferent until death, and the social order, partly because of his father. Though Fukuzawa Hyakunosuke himself was a typical loyal subject of the shogunate, his son felt deep frustration over his family being trapped in a country where social mobility is nonexistent, forced into squalor. That’s why, at a young age, Fukuzawa felt obligated to run off from his hated hometown as soon as possible and oppose feudalism to the best of his abilities. To avenge his father.

Eventually, he stumbled upon the opportunity to study Dutch in Nagasaki – for a long time it was the only place in Japan where interaction with the outer world was possible due to sakoku, the isolationist policy of the shogunate. He spent a short while there acquiring the basics of the language and pirating his acquaintances’ books. Then, he landed in Osaka, in the school run by the renowned scholar and trailblazer of Western studies, Ogata Kouan. His school taught medicine, but Fukuzawa managed to enter it as a translator and thanks to his diligence, become his most famous disciple. The school was just Ogata-sensei’s house, filled to the brim with young and passionate students busying themselves with studying, translating, and copying books manually (which was profitable enough to live off). And trying out chemical experiments they read about, to the annoyance of their neighbors. They led a fascinating intellectual life, even though the surroundings treated those scholars-in-the-making like the caste of untouchables. Back then, nobody even suspected them of eventually turning into the country’s elite. The students witnessed the gigantic difference between Japan and the Western civilization firsthand, which made them into unabashed, confident supporters of everything Western, in spite of everpresent conservatism. They despised their older scholarly colleagues for preaching old, obsolete Chinese learning, too.

Later, Fukuzawa is called to Edo, where his mission is to learn English. Before he did, however, he had to go through hell to acquire any kind of resources for that purpose, since the only foreigners allowed into Japan until then were the Dutch and the Chinese. Later, he sets off on some voyages overseas, joins the Shogun’s translation bureau, and starts publishing books – his first famous work was Seiyou Jijou, packed with information about Western countries he gathered during his travels.

After a passing look at world history, one might think that the Meiji Restoration was an unprecedented grand example of a whole nation swallowing its conservative, self-serving pride and enthusiastically adopting everything foreign, which eventually drastically transformed a Third World country into the future second biggest economy of the world. That’s not what it was, however. The time around the Meiji Restoration was the toughest period in Fukuzawa’s life – the country was experiencing a bout of fascist frenzy, when foreigners and even people slightly suspected to be sympathetic towards anything foreign were in constant danger. They were being assaulted either by the Shogun’s followers or the Emperor’s party – both of the major political forces fighting against each other in the 1860s were bloodthirsty rightists accusing each other of wanting to sell the country off the foreign powers. Of course, Fukuzawa, the intellectually confident rationalist he was, resisted the ubiquitous xenophobic sentiment and had to live in fear for his life. The scholar was forced into internal emigration, which he never really left until death. Out of hate for the obscurantists, he starts living a hermit’s life, hardly ever leaving home. Still, because of his rare abilities, both sides in the conflict courted him, and yet he was of the opinion that they’re both awful. He was given the title of a direct servant to the Shogun shortly before the shogunate’s fall, which he accepted in the most sarcastic way possible. History proved him right – the imperial government formed after 1868 embraced the Western civilization and turned to liberalism. Fukuzawa never fully stopped being bitter towards them, however. He had no respect for turncoats who changed their minds at the drop of a hat.

The biography spends little time on the remaining decades of Fukuzawa’s life – he died in 1901. He spent all this time teaching the young at the school he founded (which is now Keiou University), and writing books to educate adults too old for school. He managed a newspaper, too. He stubbornly maintained his policy of neutrality and never assumed a governmental post and dedicated himself whole to intellectual activism. Until death, he kept on being the honest, wise giant of intellect and continued his lonely struggle to promote the new civilization.


I think the most striking thing about Fukuzawa Yukichi is how much he achieved by doing so seemingly little. All he did was writing, translating texts using the knowledge of two languages, publishing books, teaching at his school, and later owning a newspaper, the content of which he usually left to its employees and their judgment. He’s an argument for the thesis that it’s literature that will redeem humanity. Being an apathetic personality, he never actively went out there to work “physically” for the sake of his goals – all he was doing was passive. And yet, he managed to make a huge contribution to Japan’s progress. To its adoption of Western technology, political organization, customs, philosophy and social order – he should be the one credited for teaching Japan that modernity is more than just technology. He gave his country a lesson which ass-backwards rightist regimes all around the world don’t understand to this day. Can’t have a great, modern state without free speech, dude. Announcing Jesus as the head of state is in fact in conflict with electronics and the internet being everywhere, bro. He might even have been too enthusiastic about the West at times – there were moments in the book when I was like “The West isn’t as fabulous as you seem to think”. And yet, he thought (and I wholeheartedly agree with the man) that the more West in Japan the better. It’s kind of sad that he never assumed a more powerful position in Japanese politics – he could have achieved even more. Even in 2018, in contemporary Japan, the remains of ugly old feudalism can be seen everywhere. I guess Japan can thank for that to the conservative malcontents pulling Japan in the opposite direction to Fukuzawa’s – like that unfunny codger Souseki. Man, I hate him.

If Fukuzawa Yukichi was to be summed up in one keyword (“likeable dude” doesn’t count), i’d say he was a “left-wing nationalist”, one of the brightest examples of those in world history. When the word “nationalist” is used, what comes to mind is his opposite, however. Shortsighted xenophobes. Trigger-happy adherents to “don’t think, feel”, people with no intellectual discipline, who “associate” instead of “thinking”. Fukuzawa spent a huge portion of his life fearing those – wandering rightist assassins who’d hunt for people around the Meiji Restoration. And yet, Fukuzawa saw the world as a grand competition of nations and consciously dedicated his entire life to serving his homeland and trying to push his country forward in that race, with considerable success.

Although he was powered by personal experiences with Chinese learning, in his book Fukuzawa doesn’t miss an opportunity to diss China, the nearby once-great country being partitioned by colonial powers during his life. When considering Japanese achievements, he liked saying that China could never do what Japan did, due to it being way deeper into self-satisfied backwardness. He was partly right, but only because China experienced its own Meiji Restoration-like event in late 20th century, a hundred years after Fukuzawa’s prime…

Anyway, this book is definitely worth reading – even if Fukuzawa’s example doesn’t impress or inspire you, you could do it only to learn a bit of 19th century Japan. It can be bought cheap, and if you know Japanese and are an even bigger cheapskate than me, you could read it in Japanese at Aozora Bunko.

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1 Response to On The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi

  1. Pingback: On Hidamari no Ki | Bednorz: The Weeablog

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