Book review: The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi

Title: The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi
Author: Fukuzawa Yukichi
Page count: 300 pages (Dutch hardback)
Rating: 4/5 stars on Goodreads

Okay wow that bit at the top here is just a mess isn`t it. That`s what you get with a book written in Japanese in 1899, then translated to English later and then having that translation in turn translated to Dutch. You end up with a bit of a mess.

Considering the string of translations this book went through, I`m not sure how much of this translation was actually trustworthy, as things get lost in translation. So I`m a bit hesitant to really judge this book as a whole and Fukuzawa as a person.

For those unaware – which I`m going to assume is most of you (including me until I read the book) – Fukuzawa Yukichi is kind of an Important Person in Japan. He has written countless books, played an integral role in the reformation of the country during the Meiji revolution in and around 1868, started one of Japan`s very best universities (Keio Gijuku), started a newspaper, you name it. They even have his face on a banknote.

"10000 Yenes (Anverso)" by Fer1997 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“10000 Yenes (Anverso)” by Fer1997 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

So here are some things I noticed while reading his autobiography:

  • He is very probably an unreliable narrator. He paints himself as a fairly wholesome man with just a few issues, like his “preference for wine”, but still as someone who never fought anyone, who outsmarted everyone, and who singlehandedly and without anyone noticing changed Japan. It`s a bit….unbelievable. I`d like to believe it all, and I definitely believe he had a massive influence on Japanese society. But I can see why some people would want to assassinate him, even outside of the whole “you`re really into foreign things” issue of the time.
  • I love how he kept saying he hated those government workers who just love tyranny, because boy have I seen those types of government workers (and similar people in companies) and I really understand his hatred of them and his unwillingness to join their ranks.
  • He`s still a bit of a special snowflake, which at some points made me laugh and at some points made me sigh.

Despite all that, this is a very interesting book with a lot of insight in what Japan was like at the time, from neither a “normal civilian” nor a “real samurai” point of view, but from someone somewhere in between the two and outside of it all. He has an interesting outlook on life. One that, unfortunately, did not really get through to the rest of the Japanese people. He believes in putting your own health first, and never pushing yourself, your studies or your work to a point where you compromise your own health or financial stability.

I might not always agree with him, and in all honesty at times I felt like shutting the book and putting it away forever because he annoyed me so much. But the man had some very good points and interesting views on things, and in the end I`m glad I read it all. I`m even willing to read more of his books, to see what else he had to say. I`m looking into maybe, MAYBE, buying some of his books printed by his own school, Keio University Press. After all, if one of the highest ranking schools in the world publishing a book by their own founder is not reliable, then I don`t know what is anymore.

Speaking of Keio University – this book had one more side effect: it rekindled my interest in studying there. For years, I have wanted to study at Keio. I don`t know what I would study there outside of intercultural communication, but it is a dream I have had for years. It`s also a dream I had to give up on when absolutely nothing was going right in my life, I needed more money to be able to go to Keio, and then I started having a lot of mental problems that stopped me from doing, well, anything really.

Who knows, maybe one day. But for now, it`s nice to just have this feeling of ambition again.
So is this book a good book?

Well, yes. If you`re interested in Japanese history, especially the change from a closed country to one that`s not only open to other countries but willing to look at them and learn from them. It`s a different perspective on the change, and a less dramatic one than you`ll see in most history books. Still, the man had a very interesting life (and a lot of luck), and it is an interesting glimpse into different cultures at a time of immense change.

(I am  currently reading All that Is Solid Melts Into Air, by Darragh McKeon)

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4 Responses to Book review: The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi

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