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What does Fukuzawa Yukichi’s life story tell us about how the Japanese understood and responded to the challenges posed by the West in the 19th century? Fukuzawa Yukichi was an influential 19th-century intellectual who played a big role in the Westernization of Japan.
Born in Osaka in 1835 to a lower-rank samurai family, Fukuzawa rose to become a renowned proponent of Western civilization in the Meiji era. His life history is a struggle for a social revolution to adopt Western imperialism as an avenue to the academic and industrial development in Japan. Japan faced challenges in trying to protect its national polity and social order against Western civilization, but it became clear that it must adopt some Western facets of civilization to prosper.
Fukuzawa, throughout his life, advocated for a change from the Japanese social order to a system where resources were allocated on merit, not custom or family status. Facets of westernization such as transparency, openness, and intellectualism appealed to Fukuzawa.
His notions about the West largely reflect the aspirations of the lower-class Japanese in the 19th century. Thus, by taking into consideration Fukuzawa’s life experiences, we can understand the challenges the Japanese underwent as Japan transitioned from a hierarchical society to a capitalist and classless one characteristic of the West.
Alleviating Inequality in the Clan
It was through westernization that Japan established an equal modern society. Fukuzawa recounts how the clan system disadvantaged the lower-rank samurai. Education and family inheritance was restricted through laws enacted by the ‘bakufu’ government. The upper classes received a better education in areas like military training, Confucianism, and art, which were considered noble fields at the time.
In contrast, lower classes only learned arithmetic and reading. This social inequality made Fukuzawa embrace Western ideals as a way of escaping the clan system at Nakatsu that relegated him to inferior disciplines. His enthusiasm to study ‘rangaku’ (Dutch) as a child is an indication of his discontent with the social order. At the time, the only Westerners allowed into Japan were the Dutch people.
Besides unequal education, child adoption practices also made foster children subordinate to others. Children severed links with their families and took new parents. A ‘bakafu’ official adopted Fukuzawa when he went to Nagasaki to learn Dutch and modern weaponry. The hierarchical system of governance in Tokugawa also made some people inferior to others. Men dominated over women while parents had absolute control over their children.
Everybody clung to the hierarchical system where people were born unequal. The lower-rank samurai could not ascend to a higher position even if he/she was intelligent or possessed unique abilities. Fukuzawa disliked this system that condoned subservience to superiors and arrogance to lower-rank samurai.
The rulers were entirely separated from the other classes in many respects. The customs and way of life of the rulers were different from those of farmers and merchants. This social inequality that distinguished people into high and low ranks made Fukuzawa increasingly restless. The unease and dissatisfaction with this system culminated in the 1868 downfall of the Tokugawa Shogun at the height of Meiji establishment that spearheaded the modernization of Japan.
Fukuzawa and other proponents of westernization of his time portray an exasperated people yearning for social change. Being a descendant of a family, Fukuzawa could not become successful in the future. The unequal social conditions created discontent and disapproval of the hierarchical system that centered on the family lineage. Fukuzawa favored merit and intelligence as opposed to family background. The West favored the meritocratic form of social organization, which valued intelligence and individual abilities.
At the time, intellectual Japanese, including writers and physicians were invisible and resided with the Buddhist monks in villages. Despite being educated, the feudal social system could not allow them to contribute to economic development. Thus, Westernization served as a tool for social reformation to alleviate the oppression of the intellectual class and instill an entrepreneurial spirit into Japanese society.
Fukuzawa derives his ideas of social change from his Western studies, which he rated higher than the Japanese and Chinese philosophy. Fukuzawa and his Tekijuku classmate agreed to leave Osaka for Edu to head a Nakatsu-Han school that taught the Dutch language. His enthusiasm with Western ideologies reflected he believe that westernization was a model embraced by the middle class that could bring social change in Japan.
These sentiments became evident during the Meiji regime, which set out to modernize Japan by adopting Western ideologies. Fukuzawa viewed civilization as social progress that could only thrive in a meritocratic system of governance. Fukuzawa and his friends got fascinated with Western science and technology, which they attempted to learn at Ogata household in Osaka.
They became knowledgeable of western disciplines, including electricity, steam engine technology, and chemistry as well as industrial inventions. Thus, Fukuzawa and his colleagues saw westernization as a tool for overcoming their exasperation and satisfying their intellectual curiosity.
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Japanese National Identity
Fukuzawa and his contemporaries equated westernization to civilization. Japan underwent immense changes in the wake of civilization that affected various sectors, including culture, learning, and industry. Fukuzawa, after his short stints Europe and America, realized that Japan was inferior to the West in terms of scientific advancement. He recognized that Japan had a long way to go to catch up with the West.
The restoration of the imperial rule and the opening of borders to Westerners opened new frontiers for Japan’s social and economic transformation. The sudden changes left many Japanese confused, as they could not understand anything. As a result, they viewed their culture and customs as backward. Fukuzawa, who had earlier learned Dutch, realized that the English language was the epitome of modernity.
For Fukuzawa, the social, economic, and political transformations represented an avenue for reshaping the national identity. He developed an idea of westernization that suited the social class and drew from Western and Asian ideologies to construct a unique national identity.
Fukuzawa sought to protect Japan’s national polity from western influence. He regarded civilization as a means of achieving independence in terms of economic and social development. Achieving autonomy in education, commerce, and industry would allow Japan to compete effectively on the global stage. It can be concluded that many Japanese viewed modernity as a form of a political system that could promote Japan’s national identity and international standing.
Fukuzawa’s notion of the West underscores his strong belief that civilization would lead to the emergence of a new Japan. He traveled to America and Europe not to learn their technological and scientific advancements, but to study their political systems and institutions and fashion out a model that could work in Japan. His intention was not to replicate the social systems in the West but to develop a model that is compatible with the Japanese ideals.
To the middle-class Japanese, the West was a society full of meritocracy and fairness in terms of social organization. Fukuzawa believed that these qualities could make strengthen Japan’s imperial rule and enable the country to withstand Western aggression and competition. This explains his strong desire for Japan to adopt modernity in ways that preserved its national identity and uniqueness.
The Meiji imperial rule established westernizing rules to bring about social and economic transformation in Japan. However, it is important to note that, in the 19th century, the Japanese regarded westernization and democratization to be two different concepts. Fukuzawa’s account of the scientific and technological advancements of the West indicates that he associated westernization with progress.
In his view, a civilized society was one where people’s abilities and intelligence were recognized and rewarded. This implies that he regarded westernization as different from democratization. In addition, Fukuziwa associated the West success with the colonization of less civilized nations. This suggests that the Japanese viewed westernization as a form of domination.
Fukuzawa’s life experiences depict the challenges the middle-class Japanese went through in the 19th century in the wake of civilization. The Japanese lower-rank individuals, who were exasperated of the hierarchical social organization, considered westernization as a remedy for social inequality and an avenue for social and economic development.
Fukuzawa attributed the developments in the West to the society’s emphasis on meritocracy and intellectual development. He sought to fashion these Western ideals in a way that is compatible with Japanese society as embodied in the Meiji imperial policies.