Fukuzawa Yukichi was born in 1835. When he was a young man, Japan was still a feudal society: static, rigid and almost completely isolated from the outside world, wanting nothing and unwilling to give anything. When he died in 1901, it was a modern industrialized country, ready to take its place on the world stage. How did this extraordinary change come about? How did it come about so fast?
As has so often been the case, Japan’s development was altered by western interference. Europeans had been coming to Japan since the mid-sixteenth century, but for 200 years its rulers had imposed tough restrictions on any contact—partly out of concern about Christian proselytizing. Foreigners were confined to a single trading post off the coast of Nagasaki, and were generally forbidden to set foot on the mainland. For a Japanese person to travel abroad without special permission was punishable by death. Even Japanese fishermen who got shipwrecked and were rescued by non-Japanese were not allowed to return home. Then, in 1852, the US forced the Japanese to open their ports to foreign trade at gunpoint. Suddenly there was a perceived—and probably quite real—threat of being colonized.
The reaction divided Japan into two camps. One side advocated continuing and intensifying the policy of national seclusion. The other side—Fukuzawa among them—called on people to embrace the west. Books of western learning, especially on medicine and the military arts, had slowly made their way into the professional canon by that point, and their usefulness—even superiority—was generally acknowledged. Fukuzawa and his kindred spirits, however, were more radical. Instead of just collecting the fruits of western society, they proposed to adopt the ideas and values that had produced them: individualism, equality, universal education, entrepreneurship, public discourse, parliamentarianism, constitutional rights, centralized government, separation of powers, industrialisation and the scientific method. Only by bringing Japan up to speed with the western world, they believed, could independence be maintained.
Their side prevailed and, following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, brought about the most far-reaching set of reforms in the history of the country. And Fukuzawa, despite never holding a post in the new government, became one of the movement’s most important spokespeople. Today, he is revered as one of the founding fathers of modern Japan. Towards the end of his life, he dictated his autobiography: a gripping account of what it was like to live through this period of upheaval, and cause quite a bit of it oneself.
One might imagine such a man would be stern, strident and unyielding. He was anything but. He certainly was an assiduous scholar, and would sit up day and night for weeks to copy by hand one of the precious foreign books that had been lent to him. He also led a raucous student life of drinking and practical jokes: he was easy-going, with a streak of mischief. But he did not like being told what he might and might not think. Recalcitrance may have been his defining character trait. One early passage in his autobiography demonstrates this.
While playing around the house at the age of twelve or thirteen, he accidentally stepped on some of his elder brother’s correspondence, which bore the name of the lord of their feudal clan. There followed a grave lecture about the proper respect due to one’s lord, and Fukuzawa, not inclined to take it to heart, started reasoning: If it was so bad to step on a man’s name, how about the name of a god? And he repeated the procedure with one of the sacred charms from the household shrine. When the god made no attempt to strike him down, he decided to try the worst thing he could imagine and threw it into the pit of the outhouse. Still nothing happened, and Fukuzawa concluded his brother had been in the wrong for scolding him.
This was clearly a boy who would make it far, and stir up things along the way. However, he did not go into politics but education, working mainly as a teacher and translator of western books. He founded what became the country’s foremost school of western studies and, eventually, its first private university. Schools like his and their precursors, where Fukuzawa himself had studied, acted as Japan’s Ivy League, churning out new generations of open-minded men (I’m afraid it was all men in those days) to start their march through the institutions. The process was by no means a smooth one, as debates often proceeded by way of assassination, and to advocate for anything foreign was deeply unpopular in certain quarters—Fukuzawa himself had a couple of narrow escapes. But the tide would turn, and he would live to see the results. No wonder the pen is mightier than the sword has been adopted as a motto by the university that he founded.
The idea that a non-western culture should learn from and even adopt the ways of the west is as blasphemous nowadays as throwing sacred charms down the toilet was in Fukuzawa’s age. Given the overall track record of the west, there certainly is an argument to be made against that. But Fukuzawa would probably have looked askance at such an argument. For him, the pursuit of western knowledge was emancipating, not only in that it allowed his country to keep its independence, but on a personal level as well.
The struggle between the pro-foreign and anti-foreign factions was in part a class struggle. Members of the former, including Fukuzawa, often came from the lower ranks of the samurai—part of the ruling elite in name, but in reality little more than servants of the more powerful aristocrats who actually ran the country. They had no social mobility, though they did enjoy the privilege of a good education, including in western studies. After all, those aristocrats needed someone to read up on military know-how, translate diplomatic correspondence, and so on. Oppression and education do not sit well together at the best of times, and, in this case, education also directly revealed how things could be different.
His disaffection with the system was a major driving force in Fukuzawa’s life. The study of western thought gave him the rare opportunity of an alternative career path outside the traditional feudal structures, and a tool to chip away at them. It made him embrace a form of universal humanism in which a person is judged by character and merit, not by rank or race. He would scoff at the idea that Japan’s own epistemologies needed protection from western influence, and condemn it as deeply reactionary, the sort of thing he would hear from the xenophobic bigots among his countrymen. He shed no tear for the time-honoured traditions that crumbled under the onslaught of western thought, and hailed the new age as one of enlightenment, not of cultural submission. At the same time, he was perfectly aware of the dangers of western imperialism and the need to resist it (that Japan in due course tried its own hand at imperialism is an irony of history). But knowledge, he would tell you, is not imperialistic. It is there to be shared across cultures, and some forms of knowledge are more useful than others:
If we have something in excess, we can hand it over to them. If they have something more than enough, we may ask them for it. With no arrogance or obsequiousness, the international community must teach each other, learn from each other and benefit each other, wishing for each other’s happiness.
What then, is the lesson to be drawn from this? It might be tempting to make a general case that maybe the west did come up with some good ideas from which everyone might profit. Such a statement, however, would need strong qualification. A country modernizing largely on its own terms, as Japan did, is a rare exception. The best ideas taste bitter if they’re shoved down your throat, and quite often, enormous harm has been done in the name of “educating” another people. Fukuzawa would surely have agreed that any adoption of foreign ideas should be voluntary. But what if it is?
At the very least, his example serves as a cautionary tale for those who wish to protect non-western societies from the hegemony of western thought—because what do you do if members of those societies disagree? What if a modern-day Fukuzawa were to insist on her right to pick and mix from different cultures, or to enlist western thinkers in his or her struggle against oppression? Would you dismiss the author by saying that she was displaying false consciousness? Certain self-styled progressives would do just that—and thus, ironically, continue the western tradition of deciding what is best for others. Fukuzawa’s vision of mutual, respectful exchange seems a lot more wholesome to me.