Fukuzawa Yukichi: A Driving Force in the Moderization of Japan

Fukuzawa Yukichi. Photograph taken during his trip to Paris in 1862.

Fukuzawa Yukichi was a powerfully influential man during Meiji Japan, when the country changed from a feudal government to a constitutional monarchy.

The most successful reformers of modern Japan were men and women from samurai families, who were among the first Japanese to travel to Europe and America. Actually, most of the men who traveled on the first ship were sword-carrying samurai. Fukuzawa Yukichi had the ambition and the fortuitous timing to study Dutch and English right before the Meiji Restoration, thus became a translator on the first Japanese tall ship. The purpose of the trip was to make further treaties and gather information about American technology, education and culture. The dignitaries on the ship were being preened for government positions. No one would have expected the young interpreter to become a foremost educator and writer in new Meiji Era (1868-1912).

As a Samurai and afterwards, Fukuzawa Made Good Career Choices

Fukuzawa was born in a low-rank samurai family when Japan was still isolated from the West, but after 1853, once Americans, British and Russians reached Japanese shores and demanded to make treaties for trade, Fukuzawa made the right choices during such a time of great change, and began to learn Dutch. As an ambitious young man, he soon realized that learning English would be more profitable for his future because of the numbers of British and Americans pouring into Yokohama. In 1860, as an interpreter for the dignitaries, he stayed in San Francisco for one month. He was not surprised by the technology he saw because he had read about these inventions from Dutch and English books. He chose a Webster’s Dictionary for his own study. In 1867, he went on a year-long-trip to the U.S. and Europe. When he returned, his writings became a prominent window to the West for Japanese people.

At the time of the Meiji Restoration, the last Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu gave his samurai retainers the freedom to choose (1) to become subject to the Emperor renouncing the Shogun; (2) to remain as a retainer of the Shogun and follow him to his place of exile; or (3) to abandon their class of samurai and become ordinary citizens. Fukuzawa, in his Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, reveals, “Without hesitation I chose the last condition and from that day gave up the wearing of swords.” He also declined a stipend from his clan; stipends were withdrawn for all samurai in the 1870s, which led to poverty among many generational samurai families. In his autobiography, he states in retrospect,

“I never admired the old regime of the Shogun and I was not by any means endorsing the new administration. I was letting both sides have their will to fight it out. This being my doctrine, both my school and I were able to come through the Restoration safely.” Fukuzawa was often asked to be in government service, but he always refused. He was a non-partisan, who thought he could do more through his influence in reformed education and by the popularity of his articles and books.

Fukuzawa Founds a Modern Private School, which Turns into Keio University

From what he saw in France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and Portugal, Fukuzawa wrote his findings in The Conditions of the West (Seiyo jijo) when he returned to Japan. It became a best seller. In addition, he started a school called Keio. However, even though Fukuzawa had early success, there were ultra-nationalists who wanted to get rid of all foreigners and the newly internationalized Japanese, who wrote about the West. During such a rapidly changing era, after the last Shogun stepped down in 1868, Fukuzawa found his life was at risk. This was especially true of government officials, for example, the Minister of Education Mori Arinori, who was assassinated by an ultra-nationalist.

In Fukuzawa’s An Encouragement of Learning (Gakumon no susume), he wrote, “It is said that heaven does not create one man above or below another man. Any existing distinction between the wise and stupid, between rich and the poor, comes down to a matter of education.” He was against the oppressive hierarchy in Japanese society.

Fukuzawa Acknowledged Women’s Rights and Promoted Western Education without Religion

In the autobiography, he confesses, “Among my family of nine children, we make no distinction at all in affection and position between boys and girls. In our society it is customary to make a great deal over the birth of a boy baby; but when a girl arrives, people say they should perhaps offer congratulations if the baby is strong and gives no trouble to the parents.” Fukuzawa continued to be somewhat concerned about the place of women in society and recommended that women be educated in law and economics to protect them from being belittled by their husbands in their homes. Women continue to benefit from the respect in Japanese society for their money-saving skills and responsibility for their children’s education, though they battle discrimination in the corporate workplace.

Historian Marius Jansen put Fukuzawa on a pedestal in The Making of Modern Japan, “Beyond the voyage of 1860 and the time of his death in 1901 Fukuzawa earned recognition as nineteenth-century Japan’s foremost modernizer. Founder of Keio, destined to become Japan’s first private university, commentator on cultural and public matters in a never-ending series of essays and books, his influence permeated every aspect of Meiji life.”

Fukuzawa saw both Confucianism and Christianity as deterrents to Japan’s progress unlike the traditionalists who favored Confucianism or reformers who favored Christianity such as Niijima Jo and Tsuda Umeko, the founders of Doishisha University and Tsuda Juku College, and Education Minister Mori Arinori. Fukuzawa’s legacy of Keio University and Okuma Shigenobu’s Waseda University (also founded in Meiji) remain the top two private universities in Japan today. In addition, Fukuzawa Yukichi’s face has been commemorated on the 10,000-yen bill since 1993.


  1. Fukuzawa, Yukichi. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, trans. Eiichi Kiyooka, New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.
  2. Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.