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The Politics of Japan's New Banknotes: From Fukuzawa to Shibusawa

Banknotes tell an intriguing story about their country. Japan's switch to Eiichi Shibusawa may signal the arrival of a more entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan era.



New banknotes being printed at the National Printing Bureau Tokyo Plant in Kita Ward, Tokyo on June 19. (©Sankei by Takumi Kamoshida)

In July 2024, a completely new set of Japanese banknotes will go into circulation. Like many countries, Japan refreshes the designs and the famous people featured on the obverse from time to time. But the person featured on the highest denomination note has only been replaced once since 1946. That happened in 1984 when Meiji-era educator and intellectual Yukichi Fukuzawa took over from the seventh-century administrator and promotor of Buddhism, Prince Shotoku.

Banknotes Tell a Story

So familiar has Fukuzawa's portrait become subsequently that "Yukichi" has sometimes been used as a slang term for the ten thousand yen banknote, like "Benjamins" in the United States. Now, though, Fukuzawa is about to give way to Eiichi Shibusawa, a serial entrepreneur who was born five years later and lived much longer.  

Banknotes are used less now, even in Japan's cash-based retail economy. Yet even if they are replaced by digital money, there will surely be room for superior design and interesting choices of historical figures. Banknotes tell a story about the country that issues them. Indeed, Japan's highest denomination banknotes depict different versions of Japan itself. So the switch from Fukuzawa to Shibusawa is intriguing and potentially significant. What kind of Japan will be ushered in by Eiichi Shibusawa?

The new 10,000 yen bill features a hologram of Eiichi Shibusawa's face. It appears to rotate depending on the angle. Kita Ward, Tokyo, June 19. (©Kyodo)

Shibusawa's Legacy

Shibusawa's main claim to fame is that he founded and invested in over five hundred companies, from banks and insurance companies to breweries and haberdashers. Many of them are thriving today. If you take tea at the Imperial Hotel, you are patronizing one of Shibusawa's start-ups.

Management guru Peter Drucker, writing in the 1970s, considered Shibusawa to be the greatest venture capitalist of modern times. Unlike the hard-nosed Yataro Iwasaki, the founder of the Mitsubishi Group, he had no interest in assembling a huge zaibatsu conglomerate. Instead, Shibusawa usually sold out of the companies he had sponsored when they could stand on their own two feet. A believer in ethical capitalism, rather like philanthropic businessmen such as Josiah Wedgewood and the Lever brothers, Shibusawa sought "to maximize talent, not profits" as Drucker put it.

Shibusawa was a doer, rather than a thinker or writer. This is probably why he is less well-known overseas than Fukuzawa. He was likely the first Japanese to drink coffee, which he took with milk and sugar, during his journey to France in 1867. While there, he became the first Japanese to invest in foreign securities. His flutter in the Paris bourse turned a useful profit.

Back in Japan, Shibusawa was recruited to the newly created Ministry of Finance. He was one of the few people who understood double-entry accounting. After a year, he left and founded the appropriately named Daiichi Bank ("Number One Bank") which today is part of Mizuho. The traditional slogan kanson minpei — "respect bureaucrats, despise the people" — was not for him.

A postbox commemorating the change from Yukichi Fukuzawa to Eiichi Shibusawa on the new 10,000 yen bill. Fukaya City, Saitama Prefecture, June 11. (©Kyodo)

From Fukuzawa to Shibusawa 

Fukuzawa (1835-1901) and Shibusawa (1840-1931) knew each other and in some ways were similar. Both men had little standing in the feudal system into which they were born. Fukuzawa came from an impoverished samurai household, and Shibusawa from a peasant family that had done well by producing and trading indigo. Both participated in official trips to Western countries in the years leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Both greatly valued education and founded famous universities — Keio in the case of Fukuzawa, and Hitotsubashi in the case of Shibusawa. They also promoted women's education.

Yet there are significant differences between them. Fukuzawa was not the enlightened proto-democrat that he has sometimes been painted as. According to historian Earl Kinmonth, Fukuzawa believed "the former samurai were still, in his opinion, the source of everything good and edifying in Japan. He declared that even when the shizoku (former samurai) went into unfamiliar occupations such as business or agriculture, they did better than merchants or peasants, thanks to their natural superiority."

It is unclear whether Fukuzawa authored the anonymous essay "Datsu-A Ron" ("Goodbye Asia") which recommended Japan to abandon Asian cultural norms in favor of the West. It was, however, in line with his thinking, as expressed in his prolific writings. Indeed, Shibusawa initially had a poor impression of Fukuzawa who seemed an uncritical admirer of Western modernity. Specifically, the elder man considered The Analects of Confucius worthless, whereas Shibusawa always revered them, writing a book called The Analects and the Abacus late in life.

Global Changes

In 1984, when Fukuzawa took his place on Japan's most prestigious banknote, it was still possible to describe the world in terms of the West and the Rest, with Japan as an honorary Westerner, thanks to its high level of economic development. The crisis-plagued "third world" was going nowhere on a GDP per head basis. Although a few small Asian countries were growing strongly, China had yet to recover from the ravages of Maoism. India seemed somnolent, and the other large Asian countries were wracked with political and economic instability.

Much has changed since then. The G7 world is now a shadow of its former self, with per capita growth flatlining in many Western countries and political fissures becoming ever more visible. Meanwhile, "the Rest" are doing much better, with China having reached a high level of technology and India, Indonesia, and other countries sustaining rapid growth.  

No surprise, then, that American strategist and think tanker Elbridge Colby is advocating a kind of geopolitical "Datsu-O," or "Goodbye Europe." His thinking is straightforward. America's superpower status is dependent on its presence in this booming and increasingly wealthy part of the world. As the US can no longer confront challenges in both Asia and Europe, it must choose the more important — which is clearly Asia.

A staff member arranges the newly cut banknotes at the National Printing Bureau Tokyo Plant. Kita Ward, Tokyo, June 19. (©Sankei by Takumi Kamoshida)

American, European, and Chinese Banknotes

Most countries use their banknotes as signifiers of the culture and values they hold — or aspire to hold. American banknotes bear the images of long-dead presidents and imposing buildings in Washington. They tell a story about America's brand of democracy. English banknotes bear the image of the sovereign on the obverse side. The reverse side features famous writers, inventors, and national heroes such as Jane Austen, Adam Smith, and the Duke of Wellington. 

Euro banknotes, by contrast, bear no human images, presumably because that might privilege one of the pre-existing nation-states. Instead, fittingly, they depict a series of bridges that cannot be found anywhere because they are imaginary. Perhaps one of the signs of the success of the European Union project will be when those non-existent bridges are replaced by Dante, Archimedes, and Mozart.

The story told by Chinese renminbi banknotes is a lot clearer and more disturbing. Since 1999, all denominations have depicted the figure of Mao Zedong. He was the author of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. At least, Vladimir Putin's Russia has not decorated its banknotes with pictures of a young, handsome Josef Stalin. 

Symbolism of Japan's Banknote Figures

Japan's monetary history is well displayed in the Bank of Japan's Currency Museum in Nihonbashi. The first banknote of the modern era is one of the most remarkable. In contrast to the austere administrators that were to follow, it features a plump, merry, short-legged fellow called Daikokuten, who is one of the Seven Gods of Good Luck. Daikokuten was particularly associated with prosperity, fertility, sexuality, farmers, and bankers. He came to Japan by way of India and China.

In the post-war period, Prince Shotoku was the ideal frontman for Japan's most valuable banknote. Under militarism, Buddhism had been downgraded in favor of State Shinto, and in some cases, devotees had been harshly treated. The Prince evokes the long history of Buddhism in Japan, pacifism, and good relations with China. Likewise, Fukuzawa was the man to embody the Japan of the 1980s that had Westernized so successfully that its auto and consumer electronics companies had outcompeted its rivals. 

Like Daikokuten, Shibusawa stands for shared prosperity. In terms of the companies he fathered, he was highly fertile. He also produced 38 children. His appearance on the ten thousand note promises a different Japan, more entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan, both Asian and Western at the same time. 


Author: Peter Tasker

Find other essays and analyses by the author on JAPAN Forward.