Farewell, Soseki

I’m going to miss Natsume Soseki. I know, he’s been dead for a long time (are there any plans in the works for centennial editions or celebrations, because the hundredth anniversary of his greatest works, as well as his death, are coming up), and I’m not going to stop referencing or using his writings in my modern history classes. But one of the things I could always tell my students, if they doubted the importance of this particular novelist, is that he was featured on the ¥1000 note. No longer.

He’s being replaced by Noguchi Hideyo, discoverer of the syphilis bacterium. This is a good choice, I suppose: promotion of science and all that. Looking for images for currency, I stumbled across this article on photocatalytic substances and their use in evironmental rejuvenation and eco-friendly construction, and this article on natto-based water-absorbing resins. I spent two summers translating and cataloging Japanese technical writing, so I’m used to a certain overstatement in these kinds of articles, but there’s something very, very intriguing about the work being done here. It’s something of a truism among environmental activists that environmentally-friendly technology is its own economic reward, reducing costs and stimulating demand, but it can be hard to find really good examples when everyone points at the solar cells and says “why aren’t they cheaper yet”? I think Japan’s long-term economic importance in the world will be sustained by such technological creativity — melding scientific and economic and social innovation — and that’s worth noting. It’s also worth noting that he did the work that made him famous in the United States

Inazo, the educator and writer who worked so hard to introduce Japanese culture to the world in the early 20th century, is losing his place on the ¥5000, as well. I have more mixed feelings about that: though Nitobe is described in Hunter’s Concise Dictionary as “a strong opponent of militarism and nationalism.. an internationalist, Christian and liberal,” my strongest association with him is the cultural essentialism which he promoted through books like Bushidō: the Soul of Japan. That is a strain of Japanese culture commentary which provided great support to the militarists and nationalists over the course of the 20th century, and which still plagues us today in a variety of forms (including overwrought undergraduate essays on the samurai, which I’m plowing through now).

Nitobe is being replaced by Higuchi Ichiyo, about whom I know almost nothing. I’ll admit it: the woman being described as one of the first and most important feminist novelists in Meiji Japan I know nothing about. I know some of the work of Enchi Fumiko and Ariyoshi Sawako and Tawara Machi…. but not Higuchi. I guess I’ve got some reading to do. Still, she is the first modern woman to appear on Japan’s currency, and it’s nice to see a novelist still holding a place, though the ¥5000 is something of a ghetto in terms of daily use.

The reverse of the bills is changing as well: you can see them here. Mt. Fuji is moving from the ¥5000 to the ¥1000, and picking up some cherry blossoms. The cranes (I liked the cranes) are not moving the other way, though: the ¥5000 now features “Kakitsubata, or rabbit-ear irises, drawn by Korin Ogata.”

The ¥10000 bill will retain Fukuzawa Yukichi, which makes me very happy, though it will also be modified slightly to include the anti-forgery features of the other new bills.

And in a sign of how long I’ve been out of Japan, I hadn’t realized that they introduced a ¥2000 bill in 2000, featuring the Tale of Genji and its author “Murasaki Shikibu.” I do remember the phase-out of the ¥500 bill, and I still think that the transition to a coin for that denomination is a model of what the US government should do with its $1 and $5 paper denominations. Even I’ve mostly given up on the Sacajawea dollar, but that’s partly because I’m on an island where it’s harder to get them, but the cost savings in shifting to coinage would be considerable.

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