[This is one of the finalists in the 2024 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked]

I had been living in Japan for a year before I got the idea to look up whose portraits were on the banknotes I was handling every day. In the United States, the faces of presidents and statesmen adorn our currency. So I was surprised to learn that the mustachioed man on the ¥1,000 note with which I purchased my daily bento box was a bacteriologist. It was a pleasant surprise, though. It seems to me that a society that esteems bacteriologists over politicians is in many ways a healthy one.

But it was the lofty gaze of the man on the ¥10,000 note that really caught my attention. I find that always having a spare ¥10,000 note is something of a necessity in Japan. You never know when you might stumble upon a pop-up artisanal sake kiosk beside a metro station staircase that only accepts cash and only opens one day a year. So over the course of my time in Japan I had come to know the face of the man on that bill rather well.

Editor’s note: I have added this picture for context.

In his portrait, gracefully curled back hair and expressive eyebrows sit above two wide eyes that communicate a kind of amused resignation. It is the face of someone watching from afar as a trivial misunderstanding blossoms into a full-fledged argument.

His name, I learned, was Yukichi Fukuzawa. And an English translation of his autobiography happened to be available in main stacks of the University of Tokyo library.

Fukuzawa was born into a low-ranking samurai family in Osaka in 1835. He is often described as a Japanese Benjamin Franklin. But with his knack for popping up at moments of great historical importance he also slightly resembles a Japanese Forrest Gump. When Japan opens its ports to American and European ships, he’s there. When Japan makes its first diplomatic missions abroad, he’s there. And when you dive into the history of Japan’s modern institutions—the police force, the universities, the banking system, the press—Fuzukawa is there as well.

He is most famous for translating, distilling, and disseminating Western knowledge in multiple fields through books such as An Encouragement of Learning and An Outline of a Theory of Civilization. But it is his autobiography, published just two years before his death in 1901, that offers the most comprehensive record of his life and thought.

We are lucky to have the book at all. As one of Fukuzawa’s students says in the preface, for years he rebuffed requests to set down his life story in writing. But when a visiting foreign dignitary began asking him some questions about his early childhood and education, Fukuzawa summoned a stenographer to record his answers. The book we have is an edited transcript of that impromptu oral history. And—as I found to my great surprise—it’s absolutely hilarious.

Abominable Numbers

Fukuzawa’s father is a frustrated scholar who wants nothing more than to study his Chinese classics in peace. However, due to his position as treasurer for the lord of Nankatsu, he must spend his days negotiating loans on his superior’s behalf.

Hoping to give his children a proper Confucian education, he sends Fukuzawa’s older siblings to calligraphy classes, only to be shocked to discover that they are also being taught math: “It is abominable,” he recalls his father saying, “that innocent children should be taught to use numbers—the instrument of merchants. There is no telling what the teacher may do next.”

When his father dies, the family moves to the small village of Nankatsu, where Fukuzawa proceeds to spend his childhood… not doing much of anything. He says he didn’t go to school because “there was nobody to force me to do so.” So instead he spends his time learning how to mend sandals and engaging in casual acts of blasphemy.

One day he inadvertently steps on a paper charm. After being upbraided by his brother for this breach of propriety, he decides to test the powers of these sacred charms by stealing one and deliberately trampling on it. When “heavenly vengeance” fails to manifest, he decides to up his impiety game by dropping the same charm in the stinky outhouse. When nothing happens again, he concludes that all religion is superstitious nonsense. He proceeds to replace the sacred stones in the local shrines with stones that he picks up along the side of the road. A little later, watching his neighbors make rice wine offerings to the shrines during a holy festival, he scoffs to himself: “There they are—worshipping my stones, the fools!”

From an early age he bristles at the hierarchical structure of Edo-period Japan. One objection is that feudalism forces people like his father into roles they have no interest in or aptitude for. But he also rails against the innumerable regulations, which make people behave in ridiculous ways. For example, there is a law banning samurai from attending theatrical performances (it was considered vulgar entertainment). To circumvent this ban, he says, “[m]any of the less scrupulous samurai would go to the plays with their faces wrapped in towels.” But these incognito samurai were not about to pay for their tickets like commoners, so instead they would break through the bamboo fence surrounding the theater. If the management of the establishment objected, the offending samurai would simply “utter a menacing roar and go striding on to take the best seats.”

Mostly, Fukuzawa resented the deferential attitude he had to adopt when interacting with higher-ranking samurai, especially if they were stupid. To be fair, he also expresses disdain for the sycophantic tones that peasants, artisans, and merchants were trained to assume when addressing samurai like him.

He decides to leave Nankatsu as soon as he can, in the hopes that the social atmosphere elsewhere might prove less stifling. But first he must finally attend to his education.

By the age of “fourteen or fifteen,” he says, “many of the boys of my age were studying… and I became ashamed of myself.” He finally begins going to school, which, in his case, involves reading aloud passages from Confucius and other Chinese sages in the morning and then debating the meaning of those same passages in the afternoons. Despite his late start, he learns Chinese, and proves himself a quick study. After a few years he graduates to the position of “ zenza , or sub-master, in Chinese classics.”

Climbing by One’s Brush

When Fukuzawa was born, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate—a hereditary military dictatorship founded in 1603. Under the rule of the shoguns, Japan enjoyed a remarkable two and a half centuries of peace. This was accomplished through a combination of techniques, including a policy of isolationism, the codification of a social hierarchy that granted privileges to the samurai warrior class (particularly those samurai whose ancestors had been allies of the first Tokugawa shogun), and the embrace of a Confucian ideology of duty and subservience.

Fukuzawa says that the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ships in 1853 and 1854 “made its impression on every remote town in Japan.” The resulting treaty, the Convention of Kanagawa, opened select Japanese ports to American ships. Harmless as such a treaty may sound, the Japanese had just watched Britain attack the Qing dynasty over domestic trade policy. Japan seemed destined to endure a similar loss of sovereignty now that the Americans had gotten a foot in the door.

Also worth remembering is the fact that the shogun’s formal title was sei’i-tai shogun , roughly “the general in charge of defeating the barbarians.” Given this was precisely what the shogun had failed to do in this instance, dissent was bound to grow.

Indeed, the failure of the shogun to expel the barbarians cast suspicion on every pillar of the Tokugawa regime. Far from protecting Japan, many perceived Japan’s isolationism as contributing to its technological stagnation. Moreover, the contradictions between Confucian teachings, which advocated meritocracy, and the reality of Tokugawa society, in which rank was determined by birth, threatened the intellectual rationale underpinning feudal society. This was particularly true among the samurai, whose relative status was largely determined by the side for which their distant ancestors had fought at the Battle of Sekigahara over 250 years earlier.

Finally, those who were dissatisfied with the status quo were quick to point out that the shogun nominally ruled at the pleasure of the emperor (who lived a cloistered life in Kyoto under the shogunate’s watchful eye). This imperial imprimatur had previously cemented the shogun’s legitimacy. But it suddenly seemed like a massive vulnerability. If the emperor had authorized the shogunate, the thinking went, he could also dissolve it.

These political matters seem to have hardly entered into the consciousness of the young Fukuzawa except for the fact that the intensified interest in Western learning represented a ticket out of Nankatsu.

For over two centuries, the sole point of contact between Japan and Europe had been an artificial island in Nagasaki called Dejima. The Dutch had occupied the island since 1641, exercising a carefully monitored monopoly in trade. As a result, the few Western books that entered Japan were generally written in Dutch. Any Japanese person who wanted to learn Western science therefore needed to gain fluency in that language (which, given the limited opportunities for interaction between the two groups, was not so easy).

Soon after Perry’s arrival, Fukuzawa’s older brother tells him that Japan needs more people to study Western science. He asks Fukuzawa: “Are you willing to learn the Dutch language?”

It is worth noting at this point that not everyone in Japan was thrilled at the prospect of studying Dutch.

Some of these objections were aesthetic in nature. One Japanese scholar complained that Dutch letters were simply too ugly to communicate civilized ideas. Whereas Chinese characters were “balanced and well-proportioned” like “beautiful women” and “deftly constructed” like “golden palaces and jade pagodas,” the letters of the Latin alphabet were “confused and irregular,” resembling nothing so much as “dried bones” and the “slime lines left by snails.”

Popular verse conveyed a similar message. “When the samisen string snaps,” one Japanese poet exclaimed, “it looks like a Dutch letter.”

Whether or not the scholars and poets had a point, such sentiments were also indicative of what the kids today would call “massive cope.” After the arrival of Perry’s ships, notions of Japanese supremacy had collided headlong with an unforgiving reality wherein Japan was at the mercy of powerful and predatory Western nations.

Of these consequential political developments, the young Fukuzawa seems to have been mostly unaware. Remembering this time near the end of his life, he says, “I would have been glad to study a foreign language or the military art or anything else if it only gave me the chance to go away.”

Undoubtedly, part of the attraction of such a course of action lay in the fact that the classroom formed a rare place in Japanese society where a parallel hierarchy based on competence could emerge. Despite never evincing a concern with acquiring a better social position, Fukuzawa could not have been totally ignorant of the fact that scholarship represented one of the few opportunities for upward social mobility in the shogunate—a phenomenon captured by the delightful phrase “climbing by one’s brush.” Schoolrooms were a rare place where he could leave his social betters in his dust; and by becoming a noted scholar he could force his superiors to acknowledge his abilities.

A Two-Sworded Man

After setting his mind to learning Dutch, Fukuzawa accompanies his brother on a business trip to Nagasaki.

Things begin smoothly enough. Soon after his arrival, he manages to get a position as an “eating guest” in the house of an expert on Dutch artillery. The son of his lord’s chancellor is also studying Dutch in Nagasaki and helps show him the ropes. But within a few months, Fukuzawa has become an indispensable assistant to his host. He earns his keep making handwritten copies of Dutch books and translating diagrams for operating field cannons.

Fukuzawa’s swift progress upsets the chancellor’s son, his social superior. In a fit of jealousy, the chancellor’s son asks his father to order Fukuzawa home.

Because defying such an order by staying in Nagasaki would be unthinkable, Fukuzawa decides to defy the order by leaving for Osaka instead. He fakes a letter of introduction for himself which earns him a stay in some hotels. By sailboat and by foot he gradually makes his way to his family’s storage office in Osaka where his brother has assumed their father’s role as treasurer.

In Osaka he resumes his studies of Dutch at a local academy. But before too much time has passed, Fukuzawa’s brother dies. Fukuzawa returns to Nankatsu to observe the mandatory fifty days of mourning. But upon his arrival, he finds that his relatives have decided on his behalf that he will assume his brother’s position—a role filled with obligations and responsibilities that would tie him down for life.

In order to return to his studies, Fukuzawa must now navigate a minefield of formal and informal rules. On the informal side, he must manage his family, who are all furious that he is even considering abandoning his post. He gets approval from his mother to return to Osaka, which overrides the objections of his other disgruntled relatives. But there is also the matter of attaining official sanction from his lord. Due to his new status as a household head, he must get a permit to travel “abroad” (in this case, to another city).

He writes a petition asking for permission to go study Dutch. The lord’s secretary reviews the petition and tells Fukuzawa flatly that it “will not be accepted.” The reasoning is simple: “in this clan,” says the secretary, “there has not been any precedent of a samurai leaving his duty for the purpose of studying Dutch culture.” But the solution is simple: Fukuzawa is to lie and say he is going to study artillery instead, because someone else has done that before. When Fukuzawa objects to such underhanded tactics, the secretary responds with a statement that is very culturally revealing: “It does not matter whether your statement is true to fact or not so long as it follows precedent.”

After rewriting his petition in the recommended fashion, Fukuzawa gets his permit and sets off again for Osaka. At this point the reader is treated to a detailed description of Japanese student life in the late 1850s.

There are sophomore hijinks, many of them involving alcohol (plus ça change): “I was pretty well behaved in most respects,” he says, “but in drink I was a boy without conscience.” At one point he decides to quit drinking. To ease his cravings, he takes up smoking instead. But after less than a month he relents (“my old love of wine—it would not be forgotten”) and finds himself a “‘two-sworded’ man”: a drinker and a smoker.

In summer, the students walk around drunk and naked (to the horror of the maids); in winter they leave their undergarments outside in the freezing cold to kill the hordes of lice that infest them. They threaten gatekeepers and rampage through the city’s dark streets and steal cups and trays from their favorite restaurants.

Nevertheless, Fukuzawa is keen to impress upon his readers that a lot of studying happened as well. There were sleepless nights spent practicing for the reading competitions that would determine their rank in the academy. As they copied out passages from chemistry textbooks and metallurgical texts they also engaged in haphazard experiments, occasionally producing sickening gases and noxious fumes. At one point, though, Fukuzawa and a group of friends bask in the triumph of having plated iron with tin using zinc chloride—“a feat beyond the practice of any tin craftsman in the land.”

Due to the fortuitous arrival of a new Dutch science book at the school’s library, Fukuzawa and his fellow students also become the country’s leading experts in electricity. Such were the times: because of their uncommon linguistic skills, their knowledge of the world outstripped that of any “prince or nobleman.” He says: “we students were conscious of the fact that we were the sole possessors of the key to knowledge of the great European civilization.”

To Edo and Beyond

Having become one of the best students in Osaka, Fukuzawa is invited by a leading advocate of Dutch culture to open a school in Edo. His timing is very good. Soon after his arrival the Ansei Treaties are signed, which open up more of Japan’s ports to foreign ships. Excited to communicate with real foreigners, he goes to Yokohama and begins speaking to some of the merchants in residence there. Only he is saddened to realize that communication is impossible. Nobody speaks Dutch.

Eventually he learns that the Dutch have ceased to be a naval superpower and that their language is not very widely spoken at all. “I had been striving with all my powers for many years to learn the Dutch language,” he says, “[a]nd now when I had reason to believe myself one of the best interpreters in the country, I found that I could not even read the signs of merchants who had come to trade with us from foreign lands.”

Rather than Dutch, he learns that English is now dominant. He realizes “that a man would have to be able to read and converse in English to be recognized as a scholar in foreign subjects.” There’s one big problem with this: nobody in Japan knows English.

He manages to find a Dutch-English dictionary and begins the difficult business of learning the new words. At first, he is fearful that English will prove to be as different from Dutch as Dutch is from Japanese. Happily, this turns out not to be the case. “In truth,” he says, “Dutch and English were both ‘strange languages written sideways’ of the same origin. Our knowledge of Dutch could be applied directly to English.”

While Fukuzawa is in Edo, the shogunate decides to send a diplomatic mission to the United States. It will be the first Japanese ship ever to cross the Pacific Ocean. Fukuzawa desperately wants to go, so he approaches the captain with a letter of introduction (a real one this time) and is accepted to become part of the crew.

What follows is an exquisite outsider’s view of nineteenth-century Californian society. Upon their arrival in San Francisco, the Japanese are shocked by the sight of horse-drawn carriages, wall-to-wall carpeting, and ice-filled champagne glasses. Fukuzawa is also amazed by the prices of groceries in California (plus ça change) and is even more astounded when a gentleman he meets says he does not know where George Washington’s descendants live (“I could not help feeling that the family of Washington should be regarded as apart from all other families”).

But Fukuzawa’s greatest joy comes from having his photograph taken. At the studio, he invites the photographer’s daughter to pose next to him, to which she readily agrees. After leaving San Francisco harbor, Fukuzawa shows his prize to his fellow crew members: “You all talk a lot about your affairs,” he jokes, “but how many of you have brought back a picture of yourselves with a young lady as a souvenir of San Francisco?” Fukuzawa basks in the crew’s “extreme envy of [his] relic.”

At one point, he reflects on the significance of this voyage, and the reader cannot help but agree with the general sentiment: “It was not until the sixth year of Kaei (1853) that a steamship was seen for the first time; it was only in the second year of Ansei (1855) that we began to study navigation from the Dutch in Nagasaki; by 1860, the science was sufficiently understood to enable us to sail a ship across the Pacific. This means that about seven years after the first sight of a steamship, after only about five years of practice, the Japanese people made a trans-Pacific crossing without help from foreign experts. I think we can without undue pride boast before the world of this courage and skill.”

Once back in Japan, Fukuzawa publishes his first book: a Japanese-English dictionary. Two years later, he is invited to join Japan’s first embassy to Europe as an interpreter. He purchases stacks of books in London, marvels at the size of the Hotel du Louvre (“the large party of our Japanese envoys was lost in it”), and faints while watching surgery performed in a St. Petersburg hospital.


When Fukuzawa began studying Dutch, he says people often thought of it as an eccentric habit. They were more incredulous than anything that someone would choose to spend their time doing such a thing. But upon his return from Europe, he says the mood changed considerably. “All Japan was now hopelessly swept by the anti-Western feeling, and nothing could stop its force from rushing to the ultimate consequence.”

Of course, there had been precedents for such outbreaks of anti-foreign sentiment. In 1839, before Perry’s arrival, a group of scholars founded the “Barbarian Studies Group” to advocate for the study of Western culture. But when they criticized the shogunate’s aggressive attitude towards foreigners, they were charged with “planning to leave Japan”—a crime punishable by death. This event, known as the “Purge of the Barbarian Scholars” resulted in the three men committing suicide.

During the subsequent period, in a grim foreshadowing of the twentieth century, many politicians publicly embraced hostile rhetoric (the phrase “expel the barbarians” was popular) while acknowledging privately that such a course was untenable. Various radical groups, lacking the same discernment, embarked on a campaign of assassination against anyone perceived as pro-Western.

Fear was palpable. Fukuzawa says that “even some of the merchants engaged in foreign trade suddenly closed up their shops for fear of these lawless warriors.” One of his friends narrowly escapes assassination by jumping into a castle moat. Another manages to escape through the back door of his house when it is broken into. For all this, Fukuzawa says that he “could not think of giving up [his] major interest nor [his] chosen studies.” Nevertheless, for a period of about “thirteen or fourteen years,” he does “not once venture out of doors at night.” He becomes, by his own admission, a “recluse.”

As much as his social life may have suffered as a result of this isolation, he makes great progress on a number of translations. Among them is the first Western economics book translated into Japanese. In the course of this work, he encounters difficulties with the concept of “competition.” He decides to coin a new Japanese word, kyoso , derived from the words for “race and fight.” His patron, a Confucian, is unimpressed with this translation. He suggests other renderings. Why not “love of the nation shown in connection with trade”? Or “open generosity from a merchant in times of national stress”? But Fukuzawa insists on kyoso , and now the word is the first result on Google Translate.

Against this backdrop, the shogunate and supporters of the imperial house begin waging a civil war. Fukuzawa does not take sides. “After all, both parties seemed to be alike in their anti-foreign prejudice.” On the one hand, the end of the feudal society that Fukuzawa disliked so intensely was in sight. On the other hand, the opposing side had a habit of murdering people with his chosen profession. He does his best to stay out of it, and as war comes to the streets of Edo, he begins building a new school just as everyone else evacuates the city. So much the better, he says, for “all the carpenters and masons were delighted to get work then.” The school would form the basis of the institution that would eventually be named Keio University.

He goes on to found a newspaper and write many more books that are “accepted eagerly by the public.” Most writers of the time, he says, composed works that they hoped would earn them government posts (the nineteenth-century equivalent of publishing for tenure), and as a result, Fukuzawa “seemed to be alone in writing for popular causes.” His success leads people to assume that he must covet a post in the new imperial government anyway, and he delights in foiling these expectations.

Fukuzawa Sensei’s Guide to Life

The autobiography concludes with some remarks on his “household economy” and private life. Despite his drinking habit, he is happy to say that he has never acquired debts or lived beyond his means. The future success or failure of his school does not seem to bother him. If he could not afford to keep his teachers, he would simply “teach by [himself] as many students as [he] could handle alone.”

He explains his philosophy of childrearing in some depth, which entails encouraging “gentleness of mind and liveliness of body.” That seems to mean no physical punishment and taking the occasional piece of broken furniture or torn sliding door in stride. His unorthodox thoughts on educating children also deserve mention: “I do not show them a single letter of the alphabet until after they are four or five years old. At seven or eight, I sometimes give them calligraphy lessons.” Fukuzawa stresses that his “chief care is always for their physical health.” While “many parents are liable to be overanxious about their children’s studies,” he says, “in my house no child is praised for reading a book.” Instead, he rewards them “when they take an unusually long walk, or if they show an improvement in jujitsu or gymnastics.”

When his grown sons leave to study in America, he writes them every week—for six years. Before they go, he tells them: “I don’t want you to come back great scholars, pale and sickly. I would much rather have you come back ignorant but healthy.”

In his old age, he begins to wean himself off alcohol. “First I gave up my morning wine, then my noon wine.” In these times his “mouth and mind were always at war.” But he manages. He pounds rice and chops wood for exercise, walks four miles every day before breakfast, and dresses himself in simple cotton shirts. When the mood strikes, he composes poems about autumn dawns and temple bells.

But perhaps his greatest piece of advice is this one: “I never forget that all my personal worries and immediate concerns are but a part of the ‘comedy’ of this ‘floating world,’” and “our entire lives but an aspect of some higher consciousness.”

What Would Fukuzawa Do?

As I write this, the American president has accused the Japanese of xenophobia. As Fukuzawa’s story demonstrates, such sentiments have played a major role in Japanese history. Though I must say, having lived for nearly two years in Japan, I have never been treated poorly. On the contrary, I struggle to name another place in the world where people might have been so patient with a foreigner who can hardly speak the language and who understands so little of the local customs.

But Japan does have some problems.

The litany is familiar: a shrinking and aging population, low growth, falling productivity, a depreciating currency, static wages. Proposed measures to address these challenges (Abenomics, childcare allowances, etc) have had limited success. After reading his autobiography, I have to wonder: “What would Fukuzawa do?”

A man who dedicated himself to teaching people English may balk at the state of English language education in Japan, where only around 5% of the population are fluent. This arguably has some benefits, insofar as it insulates Japan from some of the silly ideas currently infesting the Anglosphere (though QAnon still seems to have made it through). But the link between English language fluency and global economic competitiveness seems pretty well established.

If I could summarize Fukuzawa’s primary skill in one clunky phrase, it would be “cultural arbitrage.” As a teenager he seemed to realize the vast world of information hidden in foreign languages. And with only a cursory grasp of global geopolitics, he saw that knowledge of English would be key to future success on the international stage. Becoming one of the first Japanese people fluent in English made him the gateway through which torrents of knowledge in every field entered Japanese society.

So what opportunities for cultural arbitrage exist today? How can Japan put Fukuzawa’s skillset to work?

One capacity that Japan enjoys that seems beyond the reach of their American counterparts is the operation of clean, safe, and dynamic cities. Some are so distraught by the state of American urban life that they are trying to build new countries in the cloud or secede from the U.S. Given the massive spike in urban crime after the pandemic, such ideas are understandable.

Japanese policymakers should look at this situation with Fukuzawa’s eyes. What would he see? I venture he might notice two things: 1) a country with a shrinking population but an unmatched capacity to build, and 2) a large group of wealthy and competent people desperately seeking a functional urban space to live and work.

Bring these things together, and you get Dejima 2.0: a new Japanese city for skilled foreigners fleeing urban dysfunction. Dejima 2.0, much like the first Dejima during the shogunate, would serve as an interface between Japan and the outside world, facilitating trade and offering a test bed for new technologies.

Imagine it: a new Hong Kong without the authoritarianism, a Próspera with better sushi. Many islands in Japan are now populated by more cats than people. There’s not a shortage of promising sites.

But the best thing of all, which I think should make it palatable to even the most conservative Japanese official: it follows precedent.