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Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Liberal Nationalism

Nationalism
Liberalism
Political Ideology
P12
Emanuela Ceva
University of Geneva
Nikolas Kirby
University of Oxford

Wednesday 16:00 - 17:00 (24/11/2021)


Abstract

What is the liberal nationalist canon? Whose ideas should one study if one wants to understand the idea of liberal nationalism? The aim of this essay is to show that An Outline of a Theory of Civilization by the Japanese thinker Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901) should be recognised as a classic of liberal nationalism alongside John Stuart Mill’s chapter ‘Of Nationality’ in his Considerations on Representative Government, Mazzini’s The Duties of Man and Isaiah Berlin’s essays on nationalism.  Although Outline is widely recognised as a crowning achievement of the Japanese Enlightenment (bunmei kaika), it has been neglected by most Anglophone political theorists, as virtually all texts by non-Western thinkers have been. This is regrettable not only because there is something morally questionable about the Eurocentric bias of Political Theory but also because our understanding of liberal nationalism would remain impoverished if we continue to ignore theorists located in the non-Western world, where the development of nationalist sentiments, ideologies and movements has often been inseparable from the reality and legacy of European imperialism and colonialism. Japan in Fukuzawa’s time serves as an especially interesting case. As he matured as a thinker and a writer, his country went through a revolutionary transformation from a neo-Confucian feudal society into a modern state and an increasingly assertive regional power.  This essay is in four sections. First, it gives an overview of Fukuzawa’s life, and discusses Outline and its place in the development of his career. Then, I consider his liberalism, examining both political and economic aspects of his thought. Each of the key ideas that constitute his liberalism, such as liberty, civilization, progress, knowledge and rationality, will be discussed, and special attention will be paid to his effort to import the Western idea of liberty and elaborate it in the nineteenth-century Japanese context. The third section turns to Fukuzawa’s nationalism, discussing how this was formed out of a disparate set of sources, including his indignation at the predatory activities of ‘white people’ in India, China and elsewhere, his frustration at his compatriots’ responses (or lack thereof) to the Western invaders, and his intellectual debt to Western theorists of nationality, including Mill. Finally, I consider what the student of liberal nationalism gains if he or she studies Outline as part of the liberal nationalist canon today, when the uncontrollable forces of nationalism appear to make a mockery of the liberal nationalist wish to ‘tame [nationalism] and make it more liberal and tolerant’ (Yael Tamir). I argue that Fukuzawa was exceptionally attentive to the risk of nationalism developing in illiberal, xenophobic and ultimately self-destructive directions. I also show that his work challenges the standard historiography of liberal nationalism, which conforms to what Dipesh Chakrabarty called the 'first in Europe, then elsewhere' structure of global historical time’.