Book Review: The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa
The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa (Amazon) is both engaging and interesting throughout the work. Fukuzawa’s determination for the betterment of both himself and Japan is pervasive. This drive and his goals are especially evident in his “Encouragement of Learning” and can be summed up in the following excerpt: “The important thing for everyone for the present is that he should regulate his conduct according to humanity, and apply himself earnestly to learning in order to absorb a wide knowledge and to develop abilities worthy of his position.”
At times one finds it difficult to tell how much influence Yukichi Fukuzawa had prior to and following the Meiji Restoration, as he makes a conscious effort to distance himself from official ties and connections to the government. Following the restoration, he realizes such separation has caused shadows of intrigue and distrust to fall on him. However, he feels that the distance will allow him to advise more easily and independently when he disagrees with government actions.
Two parts of the book were especially interesting. The many adventures of the students in Osaka is highly entertaining. The amount of learning and studying that occurred concurrently with the carousing is also very impressive. Fukuzawa is very confident throughout his childhood and his education at Ogata’s school of his intellectual abilities. He is a fast and dedicated learner, whose motivation is both internal and external. He is self-motivated, which seems to stem from the inferiority he was shown be others of higher Samurai rank. Also he wants to show the other students that he is smarter or at least more knowledgeable than they. A prime example of this is the times when he offers to take either side of a debate declaring that he will win regardless.
One can also certainly identify with the despair many of the educated young men experienced when they discovered that the Dutch they had spent years learning for more-or-less useless in the business world. Only a very small percentage of the world’s population spoke the language; if they wanted to communicate more effectively, they would be best served to learn English. Many chose to give up, while those who persevered to learn the new language would be find their rewards. A few, like Fukuzawa, became interpreters and served the government.
Yukichi Fukuzawa was privileged to serve on Japan’s first transoceanic voyage first to America and a second voyage to Europe. On his first trip he served as an interpreter to a group that visited San Francisco. Many were the shocks that were experienced by the Japanese delegation as they had previously not experienced a culture other than their own. Similar shocks and several cultural blunders were experienced later throughout the European journey as well.
Of course these anecdotes, while the more entertaining of the story related throughout the autobiography, were not the main focus. Concurrent with these, Japan was undergoing a culture war. One faction wanted to modernize Japan, build her industries, fraternize with other countries (both foreign and neighboring), but the other faction, led by the Choshu and Satsuma clans, were anti-foreign and wanted to keep Japan as she was. Those such as Fukuzawa who wanted progress realized that Japan would either modernize of her own accord or by force with takeover by the European powers.
Soon Fukuzawa started a school to help in the education of others who were interested. Attendance at the school fluctuated with the ebb-and-flow of the anti-foreign movement. Eventually the Meiji restoration occurred in 1868, and modernization was certain, as was the ability to educate oneself without fear. Fukuzawa spread his teachings further than his school by publishing pamphlets, such as “Encouragement of Learning,” and eventually newspapers.
These writings encouraged people to take their responsibility for education into their own hands rather than to depend on others. He taught that men are not born into ranks that make them better than other men; all men are born equal, it is what they do after their birth that determines their status. This seems to be the most difficult point of acclimation to a modern society that the Japanese years. After hundreds of years of farmers and merchants showing obeisance to Samurai, suddenly there were no more Samurai, and those who had been of that status were to be treated as equally high or low as everyone else.
Many are the lessons that can be taken from Fukuzawa’s life. He spent his life trying to create a better Japan and attempting not to get tangled in politics, which he believed would hinder his efforts. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa is a very good read and a solid introduction to the Meiji Restoration from the perspective of one highly influential man of the era.