Fukuzawa Yukichi was born into an impoverished low-ranking samurai family of the Okudaira Clan of Nakatsu in 1835. His family was poor following the early death of his father. At the age of 14, Fukuzawa entered a school of Dutch studies (rangaku). In 1853, shortly after Commodore Matthew C. Perry's arrival in Japan, Fukuzawa's brother (the family patriarch) asked Fukuzawa to travel to Nagasaki, where the Dutch colony at Dejima was located. Fukuzawa was instructed to learn the Dutch language in order to study European cannon designs and gunnery techniques.
Although Fukuzawa did travel to Nagasaki, his stay was brief as he quickly began to outshine his host in Nagasaki, Okudaira Iki. Okudaira planned to get rid of Fukuzawa by writing a letter saying that Fukuzawa's mother was ill. Seeing through the fake letter Fukuzawa planned to travel to Edo and continue his studies there because he knew he would not be able to in his home domain, Nakatsu, but upon his return to Osaka, his brother persuaded him to stay and enroll at the Tekijuku school run by physician and rangaku scholar Ogata Kōan. Fukuzawa studied at Tekijuku for three years, and became fully proficient in the Dutch language. In 1858, he was appointed official Dutch teacher of his family's domain, Nakatsu, and was sent to Edo to teach the family's vassals there.
The following year, Japan opened up three of its ports to American and European ships, and Fukuzawa, intrigued with Western civilization, traveled to Kanagawa to see them. When he arrived, he discovered that virtually all of the European merchants there were speaking English rather than Dutch. He then began to study English, but at that time, English-Japanese interpreters were rare and dictionaries nonexistent, so his studies were slow.
The Tokugawa bakufu decided to send envoys of the Shogun to the United States, and Fukuzawa volunteered his services to Admiral Kimura Yoshitake. Kimura's ship, the Kanrin Maru, arrived in San Francisco, California in 1860. The delegation stayed in the city for a month, during which time Fukuzawa had himself photographed with an American girl (one of the most famous photographs in Japanese history), and also found a Webster's Dictionary, from which he began to seriously study the English language.
Fukuzawa became an official translator for the bakufu upon his return in 1860. Shortly thereafter he brought out his first publication, an English-Japanese dictionary which he called "Kaei Tsūgo" (translated from a Chinese-English dictionary) which was a beginning for his series of later books. In 1862, he visited Europe, as one of the two English translators in the 40-man embassy sent by the Tokugawa bakufu, the First Japanese Embassy to Europe. Negotiations were made in France, England, Holland, Prussia, and finally Russia. In Russia, the embassy negotiated the southern end of Sakhalin (in Japanese Karafuto), but it was failed. They were gone almost an entire year.
The information collected during these travels resulted in his famous work Seiyō Jijō (西洋事情, "Things western"), which he published in ten volumes in 1867, 1868 and 1870. The books describe western culture and institutions in simple, easy to understand terms, and they became immediate best-sellers. Fukuzawa was soon regarded as the foremost expert on all things western, leading him to conclude that his mission in life was to educate his countrymen in new ways of thinking in order to enable Japan to resist European imperialism.
Fukuzawa's writings may have been the foremost of the Meiji period. Between 1872 and 1876, he published 17 volumes of Gakumon no Susume ("An Encouragement of Learning" or more literally "of Studying"). In these texts, Fukuzawa outlines the importance of understanding the principle of equality of opportunity and that study was the key to greatness. He was an avid supporter of education and founded one of Japan's most prestigious universities, Keio-gijuku, now known as Keio University. He believed in a firm mental foundation through education and studiousness. His famous textbook Sekai Kunizukushi ("All the countries of the world, for children written in verse") became best seller and used for an official school textbook.
In the volumes of Gakumon no Susume which were influenced under Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.) by Francis Wayland, Fukuzawa advocated his most lasting principle, "national independence through personal independence." Through personal independence, an individual does not have to depend on the strength of another. With such a self-determining social morality, Fukuzawa hoped to instill a sense of personal strength among the people of Japan, and through that personal strength, build a nation to rival all others. His understanding was that western society had become powerful relative to other countries at the time because western countries fostered education, individualism (independence), competition and exchange of ideas.
Fukuzawa also published many influential essays and critical works, a particularly prominent example of which is Bunmeiron no Gairyaku ("Outline of civilization") published in 1875, in which he details his own theory of civilization. It was influenced under Histoire de la civilisation en Europe (1828; Eng. trans on 1846) by François Guizot. According to Fukuzawa, civilization is relative to time and circumstance, as well as comparison. For example, China was relatively civilized in comparison to some African colonies, and European nations were the most civilized of all, at the time. Many of Fukuzawa's views were shared by colleagues in the Meirokusha intellectual society, and were published in his contributions to Meiroku Zasshi (Meiji Six Magazine), a scholarly journal he helped publish. In his books and journals, he often talks about the word "civilization" and what it means. He advocates a move toward "civilization", which means to him basically material and spiritual well-being, which elevate human life to a "higher plane". Because material and spiritual well-being correspond to knowledge and "virtue," to "move toward civilization" is to advance and pursue knowledge and virtue themselves. He contends that people can find the answer to their life or their present situation from "civilization", and furthermore that the difference between the weak and the powerful and large and small is just a matter of difference between their knowledge and education. He also basically says that the advance of Japan shouldn't be just importing of foreign/new guns and materials, but most importantly the advancement of knowledge to establish firm basis for knowledge and education above material things, which would eventually take care of the material necessities. He also talks of Japanese concept of being practical and/or pragmatic (jitsugaku) and building of things that are basic and useful to other people as another piece on his writings. Therefore basically "civilization" is furthering of knowledge, education and nothing more.
According to Fukuzawa Yukichi no Shinjitsu ("Truths of Fukuzawa Yukichi", 2004, ISBN 4-16-660394-9) by Yō Hirayama, it is caused by Mikiaki Ishikawa who was the author of Biography of Fukuzawa Yukichi (1932) and edited Fukuzawa's complete works (1925-1926) or continued Fukuzawa's complete works (1933-1934). As Hirayama, Ishikawa inserted his own editorial in "Fukuzawa's complete works" and adapted "Biography of Fukuzawa Yukichi" as his desire. Fukuzawa criticised the Chinese or Korean governments, but did not discriminate those races and those discriminating editorials were due to Ishikawa not to Fukuzawa. Hirayama points out in the book as follows:
In Fukuzawa Yukichi complete works (1958-1964), the volumes from the 1st to 7th and the volumes from the 8th to 16st of Jiji Shinpō editorials are differ from historical details. That is to say, the volumes from the 1st to 7th are composed of the signed works, and the "Jiji Shinpō editorials" are composed almost all of the unsigned works which were chosen by Ishikawa form "Jiji Shinpō". In "Fukuzawa Yukichi complete works" vol.16, there are contained six editorials which were written at six month later after Fukuzawa's death, and so of course there editorials cannot be written by Fukuzawa!
Fukuzawa's ideas about individual strength and his knowledge of western political theory, as presented in his writings, were instrumental in motivating the Japanese people to embrace change. He may well have been one of the most influential personalities in the modernization of Japan and one of the most progressive thinkers in Japan. He is regarded as one of the leaders of the Meiji Restoration. Fukuzawa never accepted a government position, and remained a private citizen all of his life. By the time of his death, he was revered as one of the founders of modern Japan. All of his work was written and was released at a critical juncture in the Japanese society and uncertainty for the Japanese people about their future after the signing of the Unequal treaties, their realization in the weakness of the Japanese government at the time (Tokugawa Shogunate) and its inability to repel the American and European influence. It should also be noted that there were band of groups of samurai, that tried to forcefully remove the Americans and Europeans and their friends by force such as through murder and destruction, so Fukuzawa was also in danger of his life. One of his colleagues lost his life to the group, because of the same stance he took that is similar to Fukazawa's. He came in a time in when whether the Japanese people should be bitter about the American and European forced treaties and "imperialism", or understand and move forward, and the latter took effect and he helped greatly to make that move.
Fukuzawa appears on the current 10,000-yen banknote and has been compared to Benjamin Franklin in the United States, interestingly since Franklin appears on the similarly-valued $100 bill. Although all other figures appearing on Japanese banknotes changed when the recent redesign was released, Fukuzawa remained on the 10,000-yen note.
Yukichi Fukuzawa's former residence in the city of Nakatsu in Ōita Prefecture is a Nationally Designated Cultural Asset. The house and the Yukichi Fukuzawa Memorial Hall are the major tourist attractions of this city.