One may be surprised to learn that Yukichi Fukuzawa, one of the leading educators of the Meiji Era and the founder of Keio University, was a relative of Sueji Yamada, a founder of The Japan Times. But they shared more than kinship. Living in the turbulent times of the Meiji Restoration, both experienced the huge gap between Western cultures and traditional Japanese society.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Gakumon no Susume" ("An Encouragement of Learning"), one of Fukuzawa's most influential books, in an era when Japan had just opened itself to the world after a long isolationist policy under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867). Fukuzawa, whose portrait has been on the ¥10,000 bill since 1984, wrote in the book that "heaven, it is said, does not create one man above or below another man," which had a significant impact on the Japanese people of the time.
He also wrote that all people are born equal, and that what makes the difference between a wise man and a fool is whether a person learns or not. We should not be satisfied with simply having a good family and a good life — we must always strive to create a better society. For that purpose, we need to keep on learning, he said. Although Japan had taken its first steps as a modern society, it was still controlled by a small number of privileged people. Fukuzawa believed Keio University's mission was educating people who could learn by themselves and guide all of society in the right direction to build a better country.
When "Gakumon no Susume" was first published in 1872, it became a big hit. The book was later serialized, and the last volume was the 17th, published in 1876. The overall sales of the bestseller reached 3.4 million copies in total.
The Japan Times, the oldest English newspaper in Japan, was founded in 1897 and often reported about Fukuzawa's role in the country and about Keio University, which he had established in 1858.
On Oct. 31, 1922, the newspaper featured an article on Fukuzawa's possible role in forming the modern educational system promulgated in 1872. Kumaji Yoshida, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an educationist from the Meiji to Showa eras, wrote that one could reasonably say Fukuzawa's study in the United States and Europe as a member of a government mission had affected the new educational system, because the idea driving the educational reform was identical to the core of "Gakumon no Susume" — that whether people achieve success or not depends on their education. Yoshida quoted the late Emperor Meiji as saying, "It is imperative for everyone to receive a sufficient education in order to enable people to develop their ability in all manner of work according to each one's talent." The article also said the Imperial Rescript announced in 1872 stated that "education shall be so diffused that there may not be a village with an ignorant family."
On Nov. 8, 1958, The Japan Times published articles on Keio University's 100th anniversary. In one of them, Carmen Blacker, a Japan expert at University of Cambridge, wrote about Fukuzawa's motives behind the "enlightenment" movement, which called for Japan's societal transformation in the early Meiji Era. According to Blacker, "enlightenment" meant urging Japanese people to "rethink, in the light of the new Western knowledge, the whole of their traditionary way of thought."
Blacker said Fukuzawa believed that in the new age, he could not advocate the values behind the hierarchical feudal system. "They must be replaced by a new set of values, which would incorporate what Fukuzawa considered to be the two most important features of Western civilization lacking in Japan — namely, Jitsugaku, i.e. science and the 'spirit of independence,'" she wrote.
Fukuzawa devoted his life to the huge task of "enlightening" or "civilizing" the Japanese people. His writings from the 1860s covered diverse topics because the task of "enlightening" them was not just about teaching them new facts, but also providing a completely new worldview, Blacker wrote.
On Oct. 19, 1954, The Japan Times featured three pioneers in the Meiji Era — Hirobumi Ito, Eiichi Shibusawa and Fukuzawa — as "foster fathers" to the newspaper. The story said Fukuzawa was "the man who raised the necessary funds to put The Japan Times into operation." It also said Ito, the father of modern Japanese parliamentary government, financed in 1890 a tour by Sueharu Zumoto, who was then his private secretary and later became the first editor-in-chief of The Japan Times, to inspect newspaper facilities in Europe and the United States. Shibusawa, the father of modern Japanese finance and commerce, founded the Kokusai News Agency to promote global understanding of Japan, which was later merged with The Japan Times in 1914.
It has been a century and a half since "Gakumon no Susume" was published. But even now, what he called for in the book — that it is important to keep on learning — remains true in our rapidly changing society.