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Analysis of Fukuzawa Yukichi’s View on Modernity

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Modernity has become an ultimate goal of all nations as it symbolized the highest level that human intelligence can be attained. In this research paper, I am going to demonstrate Fukuzawa Yukichi’s view on modernity according to three aspects, his view of the modern world, his description of the process of civilization and Japan’s relation to Asia based on Naoki Sakai’s insight. And under the process of civilization, I would further explore what elements should be included in civilization and the emanation model of modernity.

In today’s world, nations are mainly classified into three categories, highly civilized nations, semi-developed countries and primitive lands. In Yukichi Fukuzawa’s “An Outline of a Theory of Civilization” (2009), he gave examples with respect to the above categories. Nations of Europe and the United States of America are the most highly civilized, while the Asian countries, such as Turkey, China, and Japan are called semi-developed countries, and Africa and Australia are to be counted as still primitive lands. It shows that the world is classified according to the stages of civilization, and this would be further illustrated in the following paragraph. Apart from this, there is one more simplified classification of the world also using modernization as the index. According to Naoki Sakai “You Asians” (2000), the world can be divided into two, the West and the Asian, or the West and the rest, which is a binary opposition. Apart from the cartographic index, those who live in the geographic area called Asia are naturally designated as the Asians, it is also recognized as “different and therefore Asian”. And therefore, it is well known that the word Asia was invented by the Europeans in order to distinguish Europe from its eastern others.

According to Fukuzawa, there are total three stages of civilization, stage of primitive man, semi-developed stage and modern civilization. In the stage of primitive man, there are unstable housing and food supplies, man is still unable to be master of his own situation, dependent on the favors of other, or on the chance vagaries of nature. In the next stage, there are sufficient daily necessities. Men only know how to cultivate the old, but not how to improve it. They blindly followed the customs and accepted rules governing society, and could never form rules in the true sense. It is a stage that man only imitates, but does not invent as they lack the courage to think outside the box. The ultimate stage would be modern civilization in the eyes of Fukuzawa, where men subsume the things of the universe within a general structure while not being bound in it. They have free spirits that allow them to act autonomously and do not have to depend upon the arbitrary favors of others. They cultivate their own virtue and refine their own knowledge and are not credulous of old customs. They would not satisfy with small gains and plan great accomplishments for the future and commit themselves wholeheartedly to their realization. To conclude with Fukuzawa’s words, the index of the modern civilization is “Today’s wisdom overflows to create the plans of tomorrow”. From his point of view, civilization is an open-ended process but must pass through sequences and stages. His view can be further replenished with Takeuchi’s opinion that modernity is “self-transcending project of struggle with the remnants of the past”. He also added that the above designations are essentially relative, we shall not satisfy with the present level of attainment of the West though we accept that Europe and the United States of America are the most highly civilized.

There are mainly two elements in civilization, external forms and the spirit. The externals of civilization are all empirical details, from food, clothing, shelter, implements, to government decrees and laws. While the spirit of civilization is a people’s spiritual makeup which can neither bought nor sold. It is what differentiates the manners and customs of Asia and Europe. It could be described as the sentiments and customs of a people.

Fukuzawa believes that countries who intend to adopt Western civilization should give priority to the spirit of civilization and make the spirit theirs and then adopt its external forms. The cornerstone of modern civilization will be laid only men national sentiment has thus been revolutionized, and government institutions with it. When that is done, the foundations of civilization will be laid, and the outward forms of material civilization will follow in accord with a natural process without special effort on our part, will come without our asking, and will be acquired without our seeking. As a result, obstacles can be eliminated in advance and the assimilation of external civilization can be facilitated although it seems more difficult to follow this order.

Apart from the material aspect and immaterial aspect, modernity is depicted to be something that continually spreads as it emanates itself. With its unique characteristic, Fukuzawa describes civilization as an epidemic of measles. He gives an instance that modernization in Tokyo has come eastward from Nagasaki, spreading gradually with the warm spring weather. Although Sakai agree that modernity spread fast and wide, he refuses to describe modernity as an epidemic as it is not start from a border and gradually spread to downtown or somewhere central. Instead, it is imagined to be emanating in a reverse manner from the center to the hinterlands of the world.

Due to the emanation of modernity, Japan has to re-examine its relation to China. In Fukuzawa’s opinion, Japan has to have a distance relation with Asia. He treats Asia as a stumbling block to Japan as countries in Asia such as China and Korea, are not civilized and do not know how to reform themselves. And since the above three countries are geographically adjacent to each other, they are shinshihosha, which means they are interdependent, or sometimes even all the same in the eyes of civilized Westerners. He demonstrates his ideas with examples like “the governments of China and Korea follow old-fashioned absolutism rather than depend upon the law, the Westerners suspect that Japan is also an unlawful country”. He believes being a part of Asia would create significant obstacles to Japan’s diplomacy. And therefore, he emphasizes that Japan should depart from Asia countries’ rank and cast her lot with the civilized countries of the West to avoid bad reputation from being with the bad companions, Asia and Korea. Besides him, another nationalist thinker, Maruyama Masao, shares the same view with him. According to Sakai’s “You Asians” (2000), Maruyama stated that “flight from Asia, entry into Europe,” in his wartime historiography. It clearly shows that Maruyama believed Japan should be capable of modernizing itself while the rest of Asia must wait for the West’s initiative and justified Japan’s political superiority over China. Both Maruyama and Fukuzawa agree Japan should not belong to Asia. In the meantime, another nationalist, Takeuchi Yoshimi, had an opposite historicism to them, though the foundational logic of it is the same and shared. Takeuchi agreed that Asia could never be conscious of itself before it was invaded by the West, according to Sakai (2000). Without the acknowledgment of its lost autonomy of its dependence on the West, Asia could not acquire its civilizational, cultural, ethnic, or national self-consciousness reflectively. However, Takeuchi has a different view on the way to accomplish modernization. According to Sakai’s (2000), Takeuchi believed that “…actualization and appropriation of modern values must first require the people’s radical negation of the external forces and of their internal heritage of a feudal past. He believed that Asian modernity could be accomplished only by appropriating the essence of Western modernity. But in order to appropriate the essence of Western modernity,” and “Asia was to modernize itself by negating both the West outside and its own past inside. Where there was no resistance to or negation of the West, there was no prospect of modernity for Asia”. Therefore, from Takeuchi’s point of view, Japan did not succeed in modernization as the genuine negativity was absent. In contrast, he had excessive idealization towards China. He hoped that China, unlike Japan, which had rashly accepted the West without resisting it, would actualize a truly authentic modernity by negating the West’s domination as well as the feudal remnants of the past, so that imperialism would not be reproduced. From his expression, I believe Takeuchi also value spirit, which is mentioned in the previous paragraph, when it comes to civilization. He treasures the spirit of civilization hat differentiates the manners and customs of Asia and Europe, and therefore he hopes that China could modernized herself with the negation of the West. So, the modernized nations would be distinct from one another instead of being unitary. It shows that although both Takeuchi and Fukuzawa emphasis the spirit of civilization, Takeuchi stresses on the customs of the own nation while Fukuzawa put his attention to the reform of people’s mind.

In my opinion, I share the same view with Takeuchi. Since being civilized should be one who is not bound in a general structure while subsume the things of the universe within it, who is able to be innovative, whose spirit enjoys free play and can act freely, a nation who needs to be modernized is not needed to accept the West. Furthermore, in order to differentiate Asia and Europe, I believe there is a need to negate the West as each nation has their own uniqueness, customs and culture. It is pointless to be a copycat and blindly follow how the West modernized them. And if we do so, I believe the intention and the original meaning of civilization is lost. It is because we are still cultivating the “old”, the way how the West accomplished modernization, but not how to improve it. Thus, we are still in semi-developed stage instead of entering modern civilization. Despite that, I still have a concern whether it is really feasible to be civilized without accepting the West ideas. Although Takeuchi hopes that China would not follow the path of Japan that genuine negativity was absent throughout the modernization, Japan seems to be the only one Asian country who is modernized successfully. I believe China did pay efforts in reforming herself and paving her way to modernization without the help of the West, but it has taken so long time and seems it is not that successful in reality. And this phenomenon makes me doubt whether negating the West would be a good option while China is paving her way to modernity. I believe that getting exposure to some Western ideas is inevitable during modernization, as I agree that reforming people’s mind is a crucial step to enter modern civilization. But whether China can insist negating the West and succeed in modernization, I suppose the answer can only be told by the fact in future.

In conclusion, Fukuzawa Yukichi believes that the world is classified into three categories: highly civilized nations, semi-developed countries and primitive lands, and these are classified according to the stages of civilization. He believes that civilization is an open-ended process but must pass through sequences and stages, and the above designations are essentially relative, even the most highly civilized nations can be further modernized. He also believes that countries who intend to adopt Western civilization should give priority to the spirit of civilization and make the spirit theirs and then adopt its external forms. Finally, he upholds the idea of departing Japan from Asia as he treats Asia as a stumbling block. Japan is the only Asian country that is civilized but the West would not value Japan more as it is geographically adjacent to other uncivilized countries, thus if Japan does not depart from Asia countries’ rank would greatly harm its diplomatic relations with the West. I appreciate how Japan modernized herself but I believe China could modernized better if she negate some western forms of civilization. 

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