Fukuzawa Yukichi (福澤諭吉, 1835-1901) was a prominent educator, writer, and propagator of Western knowledge during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), founder of Keio Gijuku (慶應義塾, a private college, later Keio University), of Japan's first daily newspaper Jiji Shinpō (時事新報), and introduced the art of public speaking in Japan. His collected works, written over a period of thirty years, fill 22 large volumes and cover a variety of subjects ranging from philosophy to women's rights.

Fukuzawa was born in Ōsaka into the family of an impoverished low-ranking samurai of the Okudaira clan of Nakatsu (中津, now part of Ōita Prefecture) in Kyushu. His father was a Confucian scholar who had to serve his feudal domain as an accountant. When he died the family moved back to Nakatsu, a place Fukuzawa hated for its "narrow stiffness". Although the best student in his class, he had to address the children of higher-ranking samurai respectfully, while they treated him with contempt. To escape from Nakatsu's restrictions, he went to Nagasaki in 1854 to study Western gunnery and on to Ōsaka in 1855 to join the Tekijuku (適塾), the celebrated school for Dutch studies (蘭学 rangaku) run by the scholar Ogata Kōan (緒方 洪庵, 1810-63). There, he studied Western science consisting of Dutch language combined with any branch of Western science - chemistry, physics, or anatomy - for which there were textbooks in the modestly stocked library.

In 1858, the daimyō of Nakatsu asked Fukuzawa to establish a school in Edo (modern-day Tōkyō) to teach Dutch to his agents in the capital. The tiny language school later became Keio University. He wasted no time and visited the new foreign trading community in Yokohama, only to discover that the foreign merchants spoke not Dutch, but English, a language he was now be compelled to master as fast as possible.

In 1860, he joined the first Japanese mission to America as an interpreter, sailing in the small vessel Kanrin Maru navigated by Katsu Kaishū to San Francisco, where the party was lavishly entertained. Two years later, he joined the first Japanese diplomatic mission to Europe, visiting France, England, Holland, Russia, and Portugal, learning all he could of Western civilisation.

The information he collected on this journey later formed the basis of his celebrated work Seiyō jijō (西洋事情, "Conditions in the West", published in three volumes in 1866, 1868, and 1870). This book gave a straightforward, readable account of everyday Western customs and institutions and proved so popular that in 1866 the sales of the first volume reached 150,000. Fukuzawa was a wealthy man at the age of thirty-one, firmly establishing himself as an authority on all things Western.

During the Boshin War, he stayed neutral; he despised the repressive shogunal regime. However, he also dreaded the fanatical imperial forces who propagated the expulsion of the "foreign barbarians". He was delighted to see that the Meiji administration abandoned the idea of expelling foreigners and embarked on modernising Japan. It was only after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, however, that he came to realise his true mission in life. This was nothing less than to educate his countrymen to an entirely new way of thinking based on the principles of Western civilisation. Japan was weak and backward, he decided, because her culture lacked two things possessed by Western nations: science and the spirit of independence. Infuse these things into the Japanese nation, and it would soon grow in power and wealth to rival Great Britain and be secure from any threat of Western attack and exploitation. The introduction of free speech in 1870 gave him the opportunity to express these concepts and views. He championed the equality of men and nations, causing a sensation when he stated that "heaven does not create one man above or below another man".

To the task of enlightening (啓蒙 keimō) the Japanese people in this manner, Fukuzawa devoted the rest of his life. In his teaching at Keio Gijuku (already one of the largest schools in the country), through the policy of his newspaper, in his personal life, and his extensive writings, he intended to prove that traditional Japanese ideas and values were wrong and to replace them with others derived from Western positivism and liberalism. He defined a new concept of jitsugaku (実学, "practical knowledge") and proffered new views of history, ethics, politics, and international relations. He proposed a new system of family relationships, advocating the cause of women particularly. He fiercely attacked polygamy, calling "anyone supporting the plurality of wives a criminal".

While embracing Western ideas, Fukuzawa never blindly advocated all things Western: he was not a Christian, supported the emperor system in Japan, thus had no desire to turn Japan into a republic; he criticized Western colonialism and inequality and argued for the adoption of Western-style freedom, science and technology in order to build national strength. He was extremely pleased over Japan's victory in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894/95 which he described as "a triumph of Japanese civilisation" and a sign that Japan was "too strong to lose its independence to the West".

Fukuzawa never accepted any government post, remaining a private citizen all his life. He disliked the arrogance of the bureaucracy and called it a "foolish game to bully those below while being bullied by those above". By the time of his death, he was a national figure, with former pupils in all walks of life, and revered as one of the founders of the new Japan.

Fukuzawa Yukichi is displayed on Japan's 10,000-yen note.

Principal works:


  • Craig, Albert M., Civilization and Enlightenment: The Early Thought of Fukuzawa Yukichi, Cambridge 2009
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
  • Weston Mark, Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan's Greatest Men and Women, Kodansha 1999


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