One hundred fifty years after Japan began its transition to an industrial economy, visitors can now buy a 1000-yen coin made of silver commemorating the Meiji Restoration.
The restoration was a period of profound change in Japan, and is often considered as the start of the island nation's drive toward modernity.
A 1000-yen silver coin commemorating 150 years after start of Meiji Restoration. /Photo from website of Japanese Finance Ministry
“Datsu A Ron” and Keio University
Many influential figures that have shaped the thinking and material progress of Japanese society since then have graced the country's banknotes.
“Our country should not hesitate and wait for the enlightenment of our neighbors. It is better for Japan to leave away from the Asian national system and cast our lot with civilized nations of the West instead of waiting for the openness of our neighbors to revitalize Asia,” wrote the intellectual Fukuzawa Yukichi in a newspaper article back in 1885, when Japanese society was at a critical juncture where a lot of uncertainties existed.
While people have come and gone on Japanese currency, Fukuzawa has stayed on the 10,000-yen banknote since his visage's appearance in 1984.
Fukuzawa Yukichi on 10,000 yen note. /Photo by Shen Shiwei.
More than a political author, translator for the English-Japanese dictionary, entrepreneur and journalist, Fukuzawa was also the founder of Keio University. Established in 1858, the university is Japan's very first private institution of advanced learning and has become one of the top private universities in the country and the world at large. Visitors can find Fukuzawa's statue at the Hiyoshi campus in Yokohama, not far from Tokyo.
Iwakura Mission and Japan's new power
Today, the 500 yen in circulation is a coin. But before 1994, it was a banknote carrying a portrait of Iwakura Tomomi, a noble statesman responsible for the establishment of the Meiji government.
Iwakura Tomomi on 500 yen note. /Photo by Shen Shiwei.
Soon after his appointment as Minister of the Right (the Junior Minister of State) in 1871, the mission to the US and Europe headed by Iwakura had a significant impact on the country's modernization after a long period of isolation from the West.
Under the slogan of "Enrich the country and strengthen the military," the Meiji Restoration accelerated Japan's industrialization, which led to its rise as a military power by the year 1905.
Ito Hirobumi, an influential figure in the early restoration government, became Japan's first prime minister after the introduction of the Meiji Constitution. After holding the post four times, Ito became one of the longest-serving PMs in Japanese history. In 1963, Ito made it onto the 1,000-yen banknote.
Ito Hirobumi on 1000 yen note. /Photo by Shen Shiwei.
The restoration, however, was plagued by incomplete reforms that resulted in a mixture of constitutional and absolute monarchy that later doomed the country to aggression and militarism.
This duality eventually gave rise to the First Sino-Japanese War, commonly known in China as the War of Jiawu from 1894 to 1895 and is regarded as a national humiliation. Furthermore, Japan's aggression and annexation of Korea left bitter memories, all due to Ito. Thus, his portrayal on Japanese currency at the time struck the nerve of East Asian countries that had suffered from the country's imperialistic overtures.
Encouragement through literature, science
The 1000-yen note eventually gave way to lighter fare. In 1984, the famous author Natsume Soseki took the spot. He is known for his works "I Am a Cat" and "Kokoro" published in the 1900s.
Natsume Soseki on 1000 yen note. /Photo by Shen Shiwei.
The 1,000-yen note today gives a nod to the island nation's scientific breakthroughs, containing the portrait of prominent Japanese bacteriologist Noguchi Hideyo , who in 1911 discovered the agent of syphilis as the cause of progressive paralytic disease.
Noguchi Hideyo on 1000 yen note. /Photo by Shen Shiwei.
As the country entered the contemporary era, more figures from literature, science, education, and philosophy made their way onto the currency, compared with the focus on politicians during the start of the Meiji Restoration.
For instance, Higuchi Ichiyo, Japan's first prominent modern female writer, took to the 5,000-yen note.
Higuchi Ichiyo on 5000 yen note. /Photo by Shen Shiwei.
She died young at 24, but her writings focusing on people from lower classes under the dramatic social transformation of the Meiji period earned her a place in the country's literary pantheon.
Nitobe Inazo on 5000 yen note. /Photo by Shen Shiwei.
Those who have given outsiders insight into the Japanese condition have also been commemorated, such as author Nitobe Inazo on the 5,000-yen note from 1984 to 2007. His work " Bushido: The Soul of Japan" was published in 1900, and remains a best-seller today. It has even been read by US presidents Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Copy Editor/Zu Chuang
Author: Shen Shiwei is an Adjunct Fellow at Charhar Institute and former government relations and business consultant for Chinese enterprises in Africa.
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