Why the world may need Yukichi Fukuzawa

Professor Hirokazu Kono, Dean of Keio Business School, shares the story of Yukichi Fukuzawa, founding father of Keio University, Japanese statesman and enlightened modernizer, and contends that his life and actions may well provide a model to follow in today’s world.

Things have changed. Look back over the past ten years and you will notice that our lives continue against a background of tumultuous technological, political and social change. Look back at even more recent years and you will also notice that a certain instability has occurred. Change is now more rapid than ever, new technologies are disrupting the pattern of things, communication leads us fast and often in directions we do not wish to go, political instability and uncertainty touch us every day. And from a world economy that previously and openly embraced globalization there has been a backlash among many into a mindset of anti-globalization and much-aired rhetoric on protectionism. It is at times like this that we need to look back in time at our figureheads and role models – those who in their own time had a visionary understanding of what was needed for the future and whose values and actions remain universal and enduring for the generations ahead of them.

One such figurehead is Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), a man of uncommon courage, vision and wisdom who defied the established powers of the time to champion a global outlook beyond Japan’s isolation and who created the foundations of the country’s higher education system. Most notably, he was the founder of Keio University that today houses Keio Business School. Today, Fukuzawa still provides the driving values and vision for the institution’s teaching body and students. It is in Fukuzawa’s life, actions and values that this little known figurehead for western cultures may serve as a truly universal role model for our modern world – regardless of nationality and, most importantly, regardless of background.

The journey to understanding

Born in Osaka in 1835, Yukichi Fukuzawa’s early life – as with many of those who reach the status of greatness – was characterized by trial and hardship, almost as if misfortune were a test in which to understand the world from a different perspective. With the sudden death of his father, a minor treasury official, Fukuzawa’s family was reduced to poverty. He spent most of his youth doing odd jobs until money for his education became available and he began studies at the age of 14, nearly ten years later than the usual starting age. A fast learner, he excelled at school. At 18, the arrival of the US fleet off Japanese waters had a profound effect on the direction his life would take: it was the time of the Meiji – the enlightenment – and Japan was in the throes of discarding nearly three hundred years of national isolation. The vision of the fleet and the modernism it incarnated sparked him to want to find ways of improving his understanding of all things western. After a first setback in the Dutch trading enclave of Nagasaki, he headed, penniless, for Tokyo with a dream of furthering his education. Learning Dutch and English, he found himself in Yokohama, one of the three sea ports open to western traders, and volunteered as a Japanese government envoy to the United States. A brief stay in San Francisco was followed two years later by a long stay in Europe, with lengthy visits to Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Portugal and Russia. When just 30, Fukuzawa returned to Japan with an immense wealth of observations, knowledge, and books. Just four years later, he travelled once again, this time to Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York.

Aim for the horizon and you will learn

Through his travels, Fukuzawa came to realize that technical progress had made western countries more prosperous and he began to believe that if Japan were to experience similar results, a revolutionary change in people’s knowledge and thinking was necessary to make it happen. As such, after his return from the US, Fukuzawa created his own school to teach others according to his beliefs and experiences: it was the birth of Keio Gijuku, the forerunner of Keio University. By 1867, one hundred students were studying at the school with Fukuzawa lecturing political economy, and it was not long before he brought in professors from overseas, thus providing students with a completely new educational experience. Little by little, Keio opened its studies to private students coming from the popular classes and over two decades other subjects appeared on the curriculum – mathematics, economics, and medicine among them.

New words, universal values

By being outward-minded, exploring the wider perspective and introducing new concepts, Fukuzawa and his teaching colleagues found themselves having to coin new Japanese terms to describe these in ways that could be understood by the average person. Of particular significance was the word enzetsu used to describe the English word speech. The art of debate and speech-making were alien to Japanese society at the time, but without them Fukuzawa believed that the ultimate goal of democracy would be impossible.

Aiming to make Keio a source of noble character and a model of intellect and virtue for Japan, Fukuzawa wrote down the principles and values of the school that he hoped would inspire daily behaviour that would benefit not only the student and the institution but society as a whole. These principles are inscribed in Keio University’s code of conduct until this day and include Dokuritsu Jison – independence and self-respect – that is, protecting the dignity of oneself and others and acting with discretion and responsibility in every matter. Jitsugaku, or science, is another. In this, Fukuzawa called for students to solve issues by thinking critically in order to reveal the empirical truth rather than focus on short-term practical solutions. Further principles included Hangaku-hankyo which can be translated as learning while teaching, teaching while learning which calls for making no distinction between student and professor – that is, between the learned and those just on the outset of learning – both alike having the capacity to both teach and learn together.

Jiga Sakko – creating history to define the future – urges students to acquire a sense of purpose and courage to achieve something unprecedented and stay true to this aim while enduring setbacks and overcoming hardships and challenges along the way. And finally, there is Shachu Kyoryoku which literally translates as ‘collaboration with the company’, company able to be applied to a wider sense of stakeholders. In Keio’s case, this means teachers, staff, students, graduates and even the parents – all working together in a common cause and the will to make improvement.

Not a closed issue

In many ways, the model that Yukichi Fukuzawa provides is valid for the world we live in today. Indeed, it may well be essential. Change, even in its most anodyne form, brings with it the natural emotions of denial, anger, and fear. Think of what has changed in those last ten years referred to at the beginning of this article. In today’s global context, there are those who may fear the loss of their roots and identity, those who express fear at the impact that technology, in the next decade or so, will have on their jobs – indeed some job areas will disappear completely. And there are those who show anger when they see their national industries open to fierce competition from abroad. One reaction is to choose the defensive, close ranks and form a wall against the outside and everything that is different and new. Another reaction, in line with the life and actions of Yukichi Fukuzawa, is to open up to the wider world, seek knowledge, learn from the best practices of others and use this to positively transform one’s own home country. It is by learning and a purpose towards the wider community that real progress is always made. It keeps our mind fresh, hopeful and youthful. Any barriers, both physical and mental, are artificial and cannot split our society. After all, as any enlightened child understands, walls are built by us to be climbed over by ourselves.

Useful links: 

Read more on issues at the crossroads of business and society in the Council’s Global Voice free eMagazine.

The Council on Business & Society Global Alliance is an international alliance between four of the world’s leading business schools and an organiser of Forums focusing on issues at the crossroads of business and society – The Council Community helps bring together business leaders, academics, policy-makers, students and journalists from around the world. Follow us on Twitter #The_CoBS

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