Message from the 1800s: Toughen Up

Japan would do well to learn from Yukichi Fukuzawa, a Meiji-era educator and reformer, if it hopes to turn itself around

By Brian Bremner

In Japan, few Meiji-era figures are as revered as Yukichi Fukuzawa, the brilliant educator who founded Keio University and was a fierce critic of the feudal hierarchies that ranked ordinary Japanese by family lineage rather than ability or initiative. His writings on Western society had a profound impact on the Meiji reformers who paved the way for Japan's rapid industrialization in the late 19th century.

Although he died in 1901, Fukuzawa's name and philosophy are often evoked in the press these days. Perhaps it's not surprising, given that Japan is adrift both economically and intellectually. While change must occur for the country to regain its status as a top global competitor, Japan's leaders and its people are undecided whether what's needed is a dramatic shake-up of the archipelago or a more modest, gradual path to reform.


  I've been plowing through Fukuzawa's 1899 autobiography, and it seems to me anyone looking for guidance about what course Japan should take ought to be studying him more closely. (The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa, an excellent English translation by Eiichi Kiyooka published by the Columbia University Press, is still in print.) He lived through a time of great domestic upheaval, with Japan facing the constant threat of foreign domination or even colonialism by the naval powers of the day, the U.S., Russia, and England.

As Fukuzawa tells it, he learned at a tender age that the rigid social hierarchy and family fealty demanded by the Tokugawa warrior government could be suffocating. His brother once asked him what he would like to do with his life. The young Yukichi replied: "I'd like to be the richest man in Japan and spend all the money I'd like to." To express such ambition in a society whose structure had been in place for centuries was downright subversive.

Not surprisingly, Fukuzawa broke a lot of rules along the way. He fled his hometown for Nagasaki and later Osaka and Edo (today's Tokyo) to study Dutch and English. His mastery of the languages -- which gave him access to Western texts -- was a rarity in late-19th century Japan. Small wonder he was able to land some cushy jobs as a government translator. He was a member of the first Japanese missions to the U.S. and Europe.


  The insights he picked up abroad shaped Conditions in the West, his three-volume exploration of Western educational systems and the values of liberty and independent thought. His work had a profound impact on the early architects of the Meiji Restoration, many of whom -- like the Shogun -- wanted to isolate Japan from the rest of the world.

What would the old master make of contemporary Japan? It's no longer threatened by colonization, but it is deeply dispirited by a decade of stagnation and the prospect of Asia's economic leadership shifting toward China. It's unwilling to accept the short-term pain necessary to truly reform its business practices, fix its banks, and get its economy moving again.

If Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Cabinet could somehow hold a séance with Fukuzawa, I bet they would receive the scolding of their lives. Fukuzawa hated the political leaders of his time -- conservatives and supposed reformers alike -- for their unwillingness to open their minds to new ideas, however unsettling they might be. He knew that clinging to the old certainties jeopardized Japan's future, and such is still the case. A thriving and vibrant society constantly benchmarks itself against the world's best and raises the performance bar when it should.


  Make no mistake: Fukuzawa was no intellectual groupie of Western ideas. Had it been China rather than the West that posed the biggest strategic challenge, he would have studied Mandarin. (In fact, he did so in later life to better refute other Japanese scholars who, heavily influenced by the Chinese classics, defended the social hierarchy of the old era.) He simply didn't want his children growing up in a backward and impoverished Japan that would be forever pushed around by foreign powers. He was actually a Japanese patriot in the truest sense.

I think he would view with revulsion the dithering over Japan's sick banks, the arrogance and power of bureaucrats, and the rank corruption in the political sphere. I believe he would have little patience for a Japanese public that expects the government to protect it from global competition and believes in an odd social egalitarianism in which everyone is supposed to make out the same in life.

Fukuzawa was brash and given to being cocky and abrasive, yet his portrait graces 10,000-yen notes. Today, it's considered bad form to be too ambitious, too flashy, or, heaven forbid, enormously talented and proud of it.

Fukuzawa would tell Koizumi & Co. to get their act together for the good of the nation. And he would remind everyone else that life doesn't come with guarantees. Finally, he probably would urge his countrymen to break out of their endless cycle of self pity and inaction, toughen up, and get moving.

He would say these things because, above all else, he revered Japan.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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