chapter  28
An Outline of a Theory of Civilization (Fukuzawa Yukichi, 1835–1901)
Pages 6

In 1875 Fukuzawa published Bummeiron no gairyaku, his mature reflections on the nature of civilization and its implications for Japan. At the time his country was in the midst of shaking off feudal ways and embracing reforms on behalf of rapid modernization. Reformers were still debating what and how much of Western ways to adopt. There is hardly a more dramatic, revolutionary example of change in a country than the Japanese experience in the second half of the nineteenth century. After 250 years of self-imposed seclusion from the rest of the

world, a rigidly stratified feudal regime suddenly collapsed, the emperor Meiji was restored to authority over the ruling Tokugawa clan, and a band of “enlightened” reformers set out to make Japan a modern state equal to Western nations in power and prosperity. Fukuzawa estimates these reformers at about ten percent of five million samurai who ruled the country, and on balance they were “men with brains and no money” (Outline, 70). In less than two generations they succeeded in modernizing the

economy, education, civil law, the military, and the political system. The fabric of society was rewoven. Commoners were recognized as citizens and formerly ruling, sword-carrying samurai were deprived of their traditional status and powers. Victory in a major war with China in 1894 made Japan the preeminent Asian power. Victory over Russia in 1905 made her a world power. At the heart of this transformation was not just a response to diplomatic and military challenges of Western powers that threatened Japanese autonomy, but a swift reassessment of Japan’s relationship to history. The agent of that reassessment was Fukuzawa Yukichi, public

intellectual, teacher, scholar, translator, author, journalist, and tireless student of Western civilization, several of whose publications, some 22 volumes, were best sellers. He was not part of government, but leaders of Japan’s modernization read his works and counted themselves as participants in keimo (Enlightenment), the reform movement for which he was a major spokesman. In Theory of Civilization the dominant theme of its ten chapters is

the primacy of Western civilization, the only source in the world

from which Japan might acquire means to “enlightenment” and “independence.” He says

those who are to give thought to their country’s progress in civilization must necessarily take European civilization as the basis of discussion, and must weigh the pros and cons of the problem in light of it. My own criterion throughout this book will be that of Western civilization, and it will be in terms of it that I describe something as good or bad, in terms of it that I find some things beneficial or harmful. Therefore let scholars make no mistake about my orientation

(Outline, 15)

What circumstances led him to a point of view that magnified the West and diminished Japanese traditional culture? According to his Autobiography, he was born a low level samurai in

a small town in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Although samurai were the ruling group, his clan was rigidly stratified and class differences were strongly enforced. If on a journey, a lower samurai was obliged to prostrate himself by the roadside if he encountered an upper samurai. Being near the bottom rung of samurai status, his family was impoverished and often treated with contempt by their betters. The annual rice stipend was a meager 65 bushels a year, which his father had to convert into money by negotiating with merchants, a task considered demeaning in the samurai code. Because of these oppressive circumstances, he learned to despise a society and government that blocked social mobility for men of talent and enterprise. No matter how brilliant, he had no chance of rising in the samurai pecking order and was often treated by upper-level clan members as no better than a commoner. In due time he exploited the advantage of two perspectives at his disposal, one facing backward to the feudal past, the other looking forward to modernization on a Western model. His first 30 years were spent in the social and cultural straightjacket of old Japan, the remainder of his years in an emerging modern Japan. He did not lament passing of the former and was heartened by success of the latter. In 1854 Commodore Perry arrived in Japan from the USA with

threatening warships to demand a treaty arrangement and sparked government interest in Western gunnery to defend the country. At age 19, Fukuzawa seized a rare chance to study Western arms in Nagasaki with countrymen who knew Dutch. Under Tokugawa seclusion policy, the Dutch were the only Westerners allowed to trade

with Japan and were the only available window on the West. A handful of men had immersed themselves in “Dutch learning.” He went on from there to a school in Osaka to study Dutch and read books about unfamiliar knowledge. The clan sent him to the capital at Edo, soon to be renamed Tokyo, to start a school for Dutch studies that in due time became Keio University. He soon decided that his Dutch was inadequate for the times and undertook to master English, which he took to be a world language. In 1860 he visited San Francisco. In 1862 he was translator for a

delegation and went to France, England, Holland, Germany, Russia, and Portugal. Out of his vivid experiences and copious notes came Conditions in the West in 1866, which sold 250,000 copies in several editions. A key insight from these foreign missions was that the West had not always been in the forefront of civilization. The leap to power, prosperity, and enlightenment came after Ca. 1800 in about two generations. Standing on shoulders of the West, a similar leap was within Japan’s grasp. Thereafter Fukuzawa unleashed a steady stream of writings,

including several on the status of women, praised civilization in the West, and faulted customs, institutions, and beliefs of old Japan. He concluded that his country lagged behind on every front that mattered and had nothing to recommend it except beautiful scenery. Power, prosperity, and enlightenment were centered in the West: “The Confucian civilization of the East seems to me to lack two things possessed by Western civilization: science in the material sphere and a sense of ‘independence’ in the spiritual sphere.”1 Ongoing achievement in Japan, understood in the Western sense as progress, would not be possible without hard work supported by advanced knowledge and individual initiative, both of which Japan lacked. In An Encouragement of Learning, he defined the role of a scholar in critical times: “ … I find that Japanese civilization will advance only after we sweep away the old spirit that permeates the minds of people … Some persons must take the initiative in doing things to show the people where their aims should lie. We cannot look to the farmers, the merchants, or the scholars of Japanese or Chinese learning to personify these aims. The scholars of Western learning must fill this role” (Encouragement, 24). The keimo scholars and reformers were acutely influenced by two

European historical works, Françoise Guizot’s History of Civilization in Europe (1829-32), and Thomas Buckle’s History of Civilization in England (1857-61), both subsequently translated into Japanese.2 For both authors, Western civilization is characterized by progress, that is,

steady improvement in knowledge, institutions, and morality. Buckle argued there could be no history without the natural sciences and thought he was writing scientific history. The two Western historians were instrumental in transmitting a spirit of positivism (confidence in science) to Japan. The eighth chapter of Theory of Civilization is a deft summary of European development from the fall of Rome, based substantially on Guizot and Buckle. Fukuzawa believed Japan’s traditional historiography, dominated

by Confucian texts and teaching heavily freighted with ethical bias, obstructed progress. History was viewed as a repository of timeless moral examples both good and bad. The reason for studying the past was application of those lessons to the present as a guide or warning to those in authority. Confucian historiography did not attempt to connect events in a chain of causation or development. Events stood alone and got their significance from the moral status of rulers and officials. Fukuzawa was persuaded there could be no advancement toward enlightenment with such a narrow understanding of the past. He argued that history alone could explain why the West was

advanced and Japan was backward. Japanese historiography was not up to the job because of its claim that ethical behavior is what matters while knowledge of things (i.e., nature and society) is irrelevant. He explained that a ruler’s goodness could not result in progress without a “spirit of the times” ( jisei ) cognizant of natural law and ordinary people as well as rulers. His analogy is a ship with an engine capable of one speed. With such an engine, a navigator (the ruler) cannot make the ship go faster and exceed the mechanical limit no matter how virtuous he is. Design and power of the engine must improve. Without a progressive climate of opinion receptive to discovery a

ruler is mostly helpless to push the status quo in a direction of progress. A society may remain static for centuries no matter how upright the rulers are. Then some precipitating event may change the general way of thinking and initiate a new jisei, which in Japan’s case was the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet. China’s jisei, on the other hand, had remained retrograde even in dangerous, changing times, which explained failures to adapt and successfully resist foreign intrusion. Japan’s weakness lay in too much sameness of opinion:

The point of difference between Western and other civilizations is that Western society does not have a uniformity of opinions; various opinions exist side by side without fusing into one … There are proponents of monarchy, theocracy, aristocracy, and

democracy. Each goes its own way … Although they vie with one another, no single one of them ever completely wins out … Once they start living side by side, despite their mutual hostility, they each recognize the others’ rights and allow them to go their ways… eachmakes its own contribution to one area of civilization… until finally, taken together, the end result is one civilization. This is how autonomy and freedom have been developed in the West.