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FUKUZAWA Yukichi 福沢諭吉 (1872 [1866]): Newspapers (新聞紙)

Published onApr 13, 2017
FUKUZAWA Yukichi 福沢諭吉 (1872 [1866]): Newspapers (新聞紙)

Fukuzawa Yukichi: Newspapers (translation and commentary by Robert Kraft)

The term ‘newspaper’ (shinbunshi) means that there are companies, which investigate the latest state of affairs, record their findings and bring them to the public’s attention. That is, discussions from that country’s court; notifications of official orders; officials’ movements1; rumors from the street; developments in foreign countries; the current state of sciences2; commercial ups and downs; rich or poor harvests; price fluctuations; the joys and sorrows of the people; announcements of birth and death; oddities; put simply, anything that is new to people’s ears and eyes is reported, illustrated, and brought to light in detail. Even when it comes to trivialities like directions to gatherings or publicizing the names of newly opened shops, the search for lost property or for the owner of a found item, etc., people contact a newspaper publishing company (shinbunshi kyoku) about such things and ask for them to be reported. Therefore, even if somebody stays indoors and does not look outside, or if he goes to a remote place and does not receive letters from home, one look at a newspaper and he will see what is going on in the world just as clearly as if he had experienced it himself.  It is rightly said that people in the West read newspapers with such enjoyment that they even forget to eat. It goes without saying that many books exist in the world, but nothing is more suitable than newspapers for widening one’s knowledge, gaining insight into recent conditions, and learning about how to get on in the world.

There are newspapers that are issued every day and others published once every seven days. Wherever Westerners reside, be it in Western countries or abroad, they are sure to publish newspapers. This is carried out most extensively in London, Britain, and in New York, America. In London they collect news from all nations, incorporate this into their own paper, and distribute it to the world. This is the so-called London News.3 Newspaper coverage is supposed to be fast. With the help of steam engines, fifteen thousand pages can be printed in just one hour. After being bound, the papers reach their various destinations via quick transportation like steam trains and steamships. The speed is astonishing. To give an example: there was once a great debate held in the parliament of London which lasted the whole night. After it had ended at four in the morning (seven o’clock our time4), the course of the debate was instantly written down, published, and reported to the country. The news reached Bristol, located a hundred miles5 away from London, the same day at twelve o’clock (nine o’clock our time4).

Depending on the country and the opinion of the people involved, the view held by a newspaper may not be non-partisan, but basically papers under government license aim towards unrestricted, unbiased discussions of political rights and wrongs and criticism of individuals. That is why newspapers are highly valued by all people and sometimes turn the tide of public opinion (jinshin) temporarily, even bringing about a change in governmental deliberation. For example, in case country A deliberates whether it should start a war and attack country B, it may help prevent war if the people in country B discuss the pros and cons and make their opinion public via newspapers.


1Or: inaugurations and resignations of officials.

2Nowadays ‘gakugei’ means ‘arts and sciences’, but Fukuzawa seems to have used the term to refer only to sciences, especially that of the West.

3Probably refers to The Illustrated London News, a newspaper that first appeared in 1842 and indeed included a variety of foreign news.

4Calculation of time in Japan differed from that in the West.

5Fukuzawa uses the term ‘ri’ as a direct translation of the English ‘statute mile.’ At the end of the book he explains that one ‘ri’ is equivalent to a little less than fourteen ‘chō’ and forty-three ‘ken’ in Japanese units of length. That is approximately 1611 meters or a little more than one statute mile.

Japanese: (old kanji have been replaced by new ones and gōryakugana by katakana)



(Source: FUKUZAWA Yukichi 福沢諭吉, Seiyō jijō shohen kan no ichi 西洋事情初編巻之一 [Conditions in the West, Part One, Vol. One], Tokyo: Keiō gijuku shuppankyoku, 1872.)


This small text is an excerpt from the first volume of part one of Enlightenment philosopher Fukuzawa Yukichi’s (*1835-†1901) larger work ‘Conditions in the West’ (Seiyō jijō shohen kan no ichi), first published in 1866. Unlike the parts of the work published later in 1868 and 1870, which are primarily translations of English books, this first part is based not only on foreign books but also on Fukuzawa’s personal experiences, i.e., on what he witnessed and heard when traveling to Europe as a translator for a Shogunate embassy in 1861. Therefore, it has a more descriptive character rather than a theoretical one. The work primarily aims at introducing the West as a model of civilization and enlightenment to the Japanese people and, since the Western things described in the text were completely new to most readers, it is written in a generally uncomplicated style to prevent confusion. In terms of the press in Japan, the country had only rudimentary print journalism, which was hardly comparable to that in the West when Fukuzawa’s book was published. One form was a kind of woodblock print newssheet called ‘kawaraban’, which reported on simple facts such as the occurrence of earthquakes and the like. As Japan faced political turmoil in the late Edo period, some of these sheets also contained political statements. Fukuzawa then mentions Westerners who reside in places other than their home countries and have their own newspapers there; the same was true for Westerners living in Japan in the late Edo period. Lastly, the Tokugawa Shogunate allowed translation of foreign newspapers as a source of information about world issues (see OKA 1977: 2-9). The first Japanese daily newspaper was the Yokohama mainichi shinbun (‘Yokohama Daily Newspaper’) founded in 1870, which was then followed by many other Tokyo-based newspapers (see ibid.: 15-16). Even though the young Meiji government forbade coverage as early as 1869 that was critical of its own politics (see ibid.: 12-13), the early years of the Meiji period (until about 1874) were characterized by a comparatively harmonious relationship between the government and the press simply because newspapers were regarded as an effective medium for the propagation of civilization and enlightenment (see YAMAMOTO 1981: 350-351). Just as Fukuzawa explained: ‘nothing is more suitable than newspapers for widening one’s knowledge, gaining insight into recent conditions, and learning about how to get on in the world.’ The government later changed its stance and turned to a stricter control over print media, as was the case during the ‘Freedom and People’s Rights Movement’ (Jiyū minken undō) when the popularity of newspapers in support of the movement surpassed that of the pro-government newspapers (see ibid.). Put under pressure by the ‘Freedom and People’s Rights Movement’ in 1881 the Meiji government promulgated the establishment of a diet to be realized in 1890. Political parties were consequently founded, some of which backed the government while others represented the movement. Again, newspapers became divided along party lines. Against this backdrop, Fukuzawa – who, in ‘Conditions in the West’, had described newspapers as aiming at unbiased discussion – founded his own daily newspaper Jiji shinpō (‘News on Current Events’) in 1882, which took a politically neutral position (see OKA 1977: 31-34 and 41-45). Considering these historical developments, it seems possible to retrospectively read the small text presented above as one example of proto-media theory.


FUKUZAWA Yukichi 福沢諭吉, Seiyō jijō shohen kan no ichi 西洋事情初編巻之一 [Conditions in the West, Part One, Vol. One], Tokyo: Keiō gijuku shuppankyoku, 1872. (For a new edition with explanatory notes and comments see: SAUCIER, Marion ソシエ・マリオン/NISHIKAWA Shunsaku 西川俊作 (eds.), Seiyō jijō 西洋事情 [Conditions in the West], Tokyo: Keiō gijuku daigaku shuppankai, 2009.)

OKA Mitsuo 岡満男, Kindai Nihon shinbun shōshi: sono tanjō kara kigyōka made 近代日本新聞小史――その誕生から企業化まで [A Small History of Newspapers in Modern Japan: From Birth to Commercialization] (Shakai kagaku sensho 60), revised edition, Kyoto: Mineruva shobō, 1977.

YAMAMOTO Taketoshi 山本武利, Kindai Nihon no shinbun dokushasō 近代日本の新聞読者層 [The Readership of Newspapers in Modern Japan] (Sōsho/Gendai no shakai kagaku), Tokyo: Hōsei daigaku shuppankyoku, 1981.

Martin Roth:

[@highlight/1124] You are certainly right in the sense that the text did not aim to develop a theory. Interestingly, Fukuzawa does indeed identify several key characteristics (speed, coverage, dispersion) and speculates about the effects (political influence) newspapers might have. In this sense, I would say it has a theoretical moment, albeit not fully developed. As you point out at the end of your comment, this is a kind of media theory "sketch", or, if you prefer, "proto media theory" (proto might sound like a rather strong claim, since it associates original or first).