At a time of rampant male chauvinism in Meiji-era Japan, Yukichi Fukuzawa pioneered the idea of equality between "both men and women...[as] human beings." Having recognized the need for women's education early on, he made Keio University a vehicle for female empowerment in various ways. Here, we look back on the history of women's education at Keio University to better understand Fukuzawa's philosophy and how he helped ease the plight of women in 19th-century Japan.
"Let me here take up the question of the relations between men and women. In the first place, they are both born as human beings."
–An Encouragement of Learning, Section 8
Fukuzawa repeatedly emphasizes the humanity of both men and women in his famous work, An Encouragement of Learning. He does so because readers at that time were predisposed to Confucian ways of thinking whereby, if a book started out using the word “person,” it was assumed to refer to an adult male.
Fukuzawa, however, believed that cooperation between the sexes was essential to transforming a then-feudal Japan into a modern society.
To Fukuzawa, modernization meant that women would be just as responsible as men for building a better society, and Japan's national independence hinged on the individual independence of its people. In order to attain "personal independence," as he called it, an individual must achieve a spirit of independence through learning, as well as financial freedom through work appropriate to their station in life. In an 1873 letter, Fukuzawa stated that he had started female education at a "school for girls" within Keio, a clear indication that he sought to encourage women's education early on.
Fukuzawa's recognition of the need for equal rights and women's education can be traced back to his three excursions abroad. During his visit to Europe in 1862 at the behest of the Tokugawa shogunate, Fukuzawa observed educated women taking on work outside the home and shouldering professional responsibilities in a new, industrialized society. It is believed that Fukuzawa formulated his philosophies on women and their role in modern Japanese society after returning from this trip while compiling Things Western, which would be published in 1866.
In August 1872, Fukuzawa established the Keio Gijuku Tailoring School, a vocational school intended to help women achieve economic independence. Looking at the handpainted hikifuda flyers made for the grand opening of his new school, one could assume there were further plans to grow this into a larger educational institution for women. It is also known that Wada-juku (the predecessor to Keio Yochisha Elementary School) enrolled female students for about two years beginning in September 1879, namely Fukuzawa's daughters and those of his faculty, disciples, and business affiliates. However, neither the Keio Gijuku Tailoring School nor women's education at Wada-juku lasted long.
Following these experiences, Fukuzawa must have realized that to break down gender stereotypes and achieve equality, it wasn't only laws that needed to change but also people's minds. And so, he attempted to disrupt the status quo through discourse. In 1885, he developed his own theories in "On Japanese Womanhood," an editorial penned for the Jiji Shimpo newspaper. To try and change the minds of ordinary people, he would give relatable examples like, "Mustard is spicy and sugar is sweet, regardless of sex." He would later repurpose the Onna Daigaku (lit. "The Great Learning for Women"), a popular Edo-period textbook widely criticized for its misogynistic nature. It advocated for women to be subservient to their fathers and husbands and support their families. He poked fun at the contradiction of a male-dominated society in which men asked women to suffer an existence that men themselves likely couldn't bear to live.
At the same time, the Jiji Shimpo started a cooking column called "What Shall We Make?" in 1893, which many scholars believe was intended to interest women in social pursuits.
Nearly half a century after Fukuzawa's death, Japan emerged from World War II as a democratic nation, and in April 1946, Keio University officially began admitting female students. That said, the school had already started allowing women to audit courses in 1938, and the original Faculty of Nursing and Medical Care, established in 1918, also provided vocational education to women.
Among Keio University's affiliated schools, Chutobu Junior High School was established as a coeducational school in 1947, and Yochisha Elementary School officially opened to both boys and girls the following year. Keio Girls Senior High School was established in 1950, and the number of female students across the Keio community continued to grow. In the 2020 academic year, 2,684 of Keio's 6,652 graduates were women—about 40%. Fukuzawa's legacy still endures today in the many initiatives at Keio to challenge stereotypes, like the Women's AI Study Group, which launched in the spring of 2021.
Despite the considerable gender gap that still exists in Japanese society today, Fukuzawa's words encourage us to grapple with social issues surrounding gender differences regardless of our own sex or gender, just as he did 150 years ago.
Naoko Nishizawa, "Fukuzawa Yukichi's Ideas about Modern Japanese Society: The Viewpoint of Family Theory," The Journal of History of Ryukoku University 150 (March 31, 2020).
*This article appeared in Stained Glass in the 2022 Autumn edition (No. 316) of Juku.