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All About the Fukuzawas: The Faces on Your Yen

You handle them everyday, but do you know who they are?

By 6 min read

Back in 2004, facing a sharp spike in counterfeit activity due to advances in computer technology, Japan decided to give its three major bills, well… a face lift. Newly peppered with “holograms, watermarks, and special inks” to prevent copying, the new notes were also created to flush out all the “mattress money” citizens had in savings. To do this, new faces were necessary.

We start with a bacteriologist whose statue can be seen near the National Science Museum within Ueno Park in Tokyo…

¥1,000 Note: Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928)

A ¥1,000 banknote with bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi on the front.

I have been living each day on its own, trying to make the best possible use of every moment I am given. I have no time to worry much about what the weather may be like tomorrow or the day after. Everyone is born with a certain destiny set out before him. It isn’t possible to see what this fate may be, but I believe it is decided for us nonetheless.” — Hideyo Noguchi

Selected for his energetic humanity and drive, Hideyo Noguchi devoted most of his medical career to the cure of yellow fever — a pursuit that ultimately cost him his life after contracting the disease while on a research trip in Ghana funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Noguchi also made important medical advances in helping to cure syphilis, but it was his no-fear spirit that endeared him to the Japanese public, and gave him a reputation as someone who often pushed the envelope too far while searching for a cure in the laboratory. After contracting syphilis late in his life, Noguchi often became “careless” around other colleagues, causing several to be “exposed to dangerous pathogens.”

Noguchi would be nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, helping to advance research connected to syphilis. He is remembered as a Japanese hero, but Noguchi was a devoted expat — spending only a few scattered months in Japan as an adult until his death in Africa in 1928. He may be the sen (1,000) yen man, but Noguchi had a traveler’s heart. His body now lies at the Woodlawn Cemetery, in New York, near the Bronx, buried there with honors after being taken care of by the Rockefeller Foundation.

¥2,000 Note: Shuri Gate, Okinawa Prefecture (16th century-present)

A rare ¥2,000 note with the Shureimon Gate on the front.

Ships are means of communications with all nations; the country is full of rare products and precious treasures. Inscription on the Bridge of Nations bell, cast in 1458. A replica of the bell hangs inside the Shuri Castle.

If you haven’t come into contact with it, you should know that there is a rare and ever-vanishing ¥2,000 note. Released in the year 2000, the bill is far more popular and accepted in Okinawa. On the front is Okinawa’s Shureimon Gate, or “Gate of Courtesy,” which leads to the historic Shuri Castle that dates back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, nearly 600 years ago. Through the centuries the castle came to close to ruin, eventually being destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in June 1945.

The continued use of the note, at first pushed by former prime minister Keizo Obuchi as a way of shining positive light on the island as it hosted a G-8 Summit, may now simply represent a way for Okinawans to differentiate themselves from the mainland.

Many international travelers are given a glimpse of a ¥2,000 note at their home country’s bank when exchanging currencies. This may be because of the note’s lack of use domestically and overprinting that has led the Bank of Japan to issue the note to partner banks in big cities around the world.

So, if you’re given five ¥2,000 bills before your flight to Tokyo — see if you can hold on to them for a future trip to Okinawa’s Shuri-jo. You’ll fit right in.

¥5,000 Note: Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-1896)

A ¥5,000 note with Japanese author Ichiyo Higuchi on the front.

Every time I read famous tales and novels, both ancient and modern, I become distressed over my own writing and finally I begin to feel like giving up. However, perverse as I am, I can’t give it up quite so easily, and presumptuously enough, I have started writing again. I must, by all means, complete it by day after tomorrow. I feel that I will die if I don’t finish it. If people wish to laugh at my faint heart, let them laugh!” — Ichiyo Higuchi

The first woman to ever appear on a Japanese bank note had a short, turbulent but artistically packed writing career. Chosen due to her symbolic status as being “the last woman of old Japan” and then, later (according to biographer Robert Lyons Danly), “modern Japan’s first women’s liberationist,” Higuchi’s brief lifetime has allowed her work to be interpreted from a variety of perspectives.

In the last four years of her young life, Ichiyo Higuchi wrote nearly 20 short stories that delved deeply into the troubles of young women in Meiji-era Japan, specifically Tokyo’s pleasure districts. She also kept a diary and her insights into the agonies of youth were read over the radio daily in Tokyo during the 1970’s as ways to help relieve stress. Believed to be one of the most influential female writers in Japanese literary history, Higuchi died of tuberculosis in 1896. “Ichiyo” was her pen name, which means “floating leaf” in Japanese, but her name at birth was Natsuko.

The work considered her “masterpiece,” a novella titled Takekurabe (“Child’s Play”), was completed in 1895, shortly before her death at the age of 24. The tale centers around two children in the district of Yoshiwara, where prostitution had been legalized. Although the plot sounds as if constructed to gain attention, Higuchi was far more concerned with the quality of her stories: “Even though I write for our livelihood, what is poorly done would seem poor to anyone’s eyes. Once I have claimed myself as a writer, I would dare not write anything that may be thrown into a wastebasket after being read once, as is the case with the majority of writers.”

¥10,000 Note: Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901)

¥10,000 notes with educator Yukichi Fukuzawa on the front.

It is said that heaven does not create one man above or below another man. Any existing distinction between the wise and the stupid, between the rich and the poor, comes down to a matter of education.— Yukichi Fukuzawa

The face of the ichiman (10,000) yen note, Yukichi Fukuzawa had quite a few mic drops in his life: founder of Keio University, best-selling author of multi-volume sets of literature analyzing the ways of the West, philosopher and cultural critic. As a poor child in Nakatsu in Oita Prefecture, Fukuzawa resisted early on the arrogant ways of the feudal system set in place. He decided for the rest of his life to keep a neutral state of mind, following a Chinese the proverb that proclaimed to “never show joy or anger in the face.”

This balanced state of mind allowed Fukuzawa a chance to objectively critique his own country’s transition to modernism, while also analyzing the West’s influence on Japan. Foremost on his mind was to move Japan away from its three centuries of isolationism: “To me, indeed, the feudal system is my father’s mortal enemy, which I am honor-bound to destroy.” By mastering Dutch, then English and traveling on one of the first ships designated for America, Fukuzawa helped “open” Japan to the rest of the world.

So there you have it: A bacteriologist, an ode to Okinawa’s history, a literary maven and a cultural educator. Now, the next time you place a few of your notes on a silver coin tray, you’ll have a few more facts about the faces staring back at you.

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