The Revolutionary Faces of Japan’s New Currency

The Revolutionary Faces of Japan’s New Currency

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Japan's New Money
Japan may be pivoting to a cashless society, but cash is still king - and the figures chosen for its new currency express both the nation's pride in its past and its hopes for the future.

A new era, a new emperor – and now? New currency.

On April 9th the Japanese government announced it will be changing the designs of the current 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 yen bills. The announcement was made after the new era name Reiwa was revealed to the public. Some thought the timing was perhaps too coincidental (and some thought it was meant to distract from a mounting series of scandals in Prime Minister Abe’s government) but the government assured the public that the two events had nothing in common.
(JP) Link: Government Announces 2024 Banknote Designs

But why change the banknotes in the first place? Simple. Unlike the US, every 20 years or so Japan rolls out new currency to fight back against counterfeits.

Japan eschews featuring political or military figures on their currency to avoid ruffling regional feathers, and to remain neutral. Thus it’s common to see figures that made waves in education, science, and business. While the government won’t be rolling out the new banknotes until 2024, it won’t hurt to get familiar with whose faces will be on them this time around. The striking commonality all three figures have is their adventures overseas at a time when Japan was struggling to catch up with the progressing West.

Kitasato Shibasaburō (1853 — 1931)

Kitasato Shibasaburō
Kitasato Shibasaburō (Picture: Wikipedia)

Gracing the new ¥1000 banknote will be Kitasato Shibasaburo (北里柴三郎), a bacteriologist and major contributor to the medical world’s understanding and prevention of pathogens. He was born and raised in Ogunimachi, Kumamoto Prefecture, and initially wanted to be a policeman or soldier. He eventually enrolled in Kumamoto Medical School under the guidance of Dutch doctor Constant Georg van Mansfeld. From there he went on to enroll in the prestigious Tokyo Medical School. It was at Tokyo Medical School where Kitasato narrowed his focus towards the research and development of preventative medicine.

Following his graduation in 1883, Kitasato joined the Central Sanitary Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs. In 1886 Kitasato resumed his studies in Germany under the tutelage of renowned microbiologist Robert Koch who successfully isolated the agents in the pathogens cholera, tuberculosis, and anthrax. Kitasato accomplished many medical firsts in Germany, including growing the tetanus bacteria in pure culture. In 1901 he later developed a serum therapy for tetanus using this culture with the assistance of Emil von Behring. Both men were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Unfortunately, Emil von Behrig ended up taking all the credit for this creation when he alone won the award.
(JP) Link: The Father of Japanese Modern Medicine: The Origin of The Spirit Inherited from Kitasato Shibasaburō

Kitasato’s talents were called to action in 1894, where Hong Kong was falling victim to a terrible outbreak of bubonic plague, a disease that had already caused thousands of deaths in medieval Europe. He traveled to Hong Kong at the behest of the Japanese government along with fellow colleague Aoyama Tanemichi. Doctors from other countries were sent as well, and the race was on to find the destructive agent. Kitasato and researcher Alexandre Yersin discovered the cause of the outbreak, the bacteria pasteurella pestis, around the same time, but due to Kitasato’s convoluted lab notes, most of the credit was assigned to Yersin. Many modern scientists today assign dual credit to both men.


His organization the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, established with the help of Fukuzawa Yukichi (the current face of the ¥10,000 bill) merged with the Tokyo Imperial University in 1914. Kitasato didn’t support this merge and resigned in protest. He eventually went off to found the Kitasato Institute where he continued his work in developing serum therapies for diseases such as rabies and dysentery. The Institute was the progenitor of the Kitasato University.

In a perhaps humorous turn, after the announcement of the new currency figures, confusion spread on whether his name is pronounced Kitasato (きたさと) or Kitazato (きたざと). According to Kitasato University, it’s Kitasato, but whether that will lay the issue to rest remains to be determined.

Umeko Tsuda (1864 — 1929)

Kitasato Shibasaburō
The Iwakura mission included Nagai Shigeko, Ueda Teiko, Yoshimasu Ryōko, and Yamakawa Sutematsu. Umeko (second from right) was nine at the time of this photograph. (Picture: Wikipedia)

On the new ¥5000 banknote will be Tsuda Umeko (津田梅子). Hailing from Ushigome in Edo, Umeko was the daughter of agriculturalist and pro-West Tsuda Sen. Eager to see his daughter experience Western ways, he volunteered her for the Iwakura mission (岩倉使節団; Iwakura Shisetsudan), one of many diplomatic expeditions sent abroad for the purpose of learning Western technologies and fixing unequal trade treaties. Of the five women selected for the expedition, she was the youngest member at the tender age of six. The group set sail from Yokohama for San Francisco in 1871.

Umeko lived with a host family in Washington DC and attended elementary and secondary school. She purportedly excelled in numerous subjects, including English, science, and piano. Eventually, she asked to be baptized as a Christian. Umeko returned to Japan in 1882 at the age of 18, having spent over a decade in the United States.
(JP) Link: The History of Tsuda School: Tsuda Umeko

To say Umeko experienced a culture shock upon her return to Japan would be an understatement. Having lived her formative years in the United States, Umeko was shocked at women’s roles in the Meiji world, and especially their limited access to education. While women in the United States certainly had their own struggles, compared to Japanese women, American women were making large social gains. The expected social roles for Japanese women at that time required them to be ladies, subservient to the patriarchy and limited in education. Umeko had difficulty reconciling her experiences with those of other Japanese women.

After seeing the educational and social disparities firsthand as a teacher at a school for girls and women of nobility, Umeko resolved to return to the United States and further her dream of opening her own school in Japan. With the assistance of writer and foreign advisor Alice Bacon, Umeko did just that, excelling in her chosen fields of biology and education at Bryn Marr College. She co-wrote a dissertation on egg development titled “The Orientation of the Frog’s Egg” which was later published in a British science journal. She also established a financial scholarship for Japanese women seeking to further their own education in the States.

Tsuda Umeko at Graduation
Umeko at her graduation from Bryn Marr college in 1890. (Picture: Wikipedia).

Following her graduation, Umeko returned to Japan and taught at a school for Chinese women. After years of learning and securing funding, Umeko opened the Girls’ English School (女子英学塾) in 1900 with the help of Alice Bacon and Princess Ōyama Sutematsu, another prodigy of the Iwakura mission. The school suffered a lack in steady finances, prompting Umeko to spend her days gathering up enough funding to keep the school running. Thanks to her efforts, the school was officially recognized in 1903. The school later became Tsuda College after World War II, and remains one of Japan’s most prestigious colleges for women in higher education.

Shibusawa Eiichi (1840 — 1931)

Shibusawa Eiichi
Shibusawa wearing traditional Japanese clothing in 1866 and Western attire in 1867. (Picture: Wikipedia Japan)

Last but not least, the new face of the ¥10,000 banknote is Shibusawa Eiichi (渋沢栄一), known as the “father of Japanese capitalism” (日本資本主義の父; Nihon shihon shugi no chichi). He nurtured his knack for finances and business management while helping run his family’s farm and indigo dying businesses. Unfortunately, he fell in with extremist ideals headed by the political philosophy of sonnō jōi (expel barbarians, revere the emperor) and ended up fleeing to Kyoto after a plan to capture Takasaki Castle and burn down foreign quarters in Yokohama failed. There Shibusawa managed to secure employment with Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu, then next in line to become the shogun, and made a favorable impression with his adept handling of the family’s finances. This earned him the opportunity to join a delegation accompanying Tokugawa Akitake to Paris for the 1867 World Exhibition.

Shibusawa remained in Europe after the Exhibition and traveled all over witnessing social and economic practices at work. During this time the Meiji Restoration occurred, paving the way for new forms of thinking and acting. Upon his return Shibusawa opened Japan’s first joint-stock company, Shōhō Kaisho. This venture inevitably caught the eye of the Ministry of Finance, who invited Shibusawa to work for them. Following his departure from government work in 1873, Shibusawa assisted in the establishment of over 500 companies in the private sector, including the First National Bank, progenitor of the mega-giant Mizuho Bank.

Unlike other businessmen, Shibusawa refused to have a stake in any of the companies he established. Shibusawa’s business philosophy involved a blend of Confucian ethics and progressive economic thought. His resounding belief was that morality should always precede profit. Public interest should guide the way towards fruitful economic practices, not greed or political influence. Along with his business ventures, he was also active in over 600 charities and welfare organizations, especially education.

His work and business philosophy have witnessed a revival in recent years amid growing concerns over the extent of power-hungry entity that is global capitalism. Since the 2008 financial collapse that sent tremors all over the globe, the Shibusawa Eiichi Memorial Museum in northern Tokyo has seen an increase in visitor numbers, and with the translation of Shibusawa’s book The Analects and the Abacus (論語と算盤; Rongo to Soroban) into Chinese, more Chinese business executives have paid the museum a visit.

The Last Faces of Japanese Money?

Alas, with the announcement of the new currency, many are already hailing Shibusawa as the “last face of the ¥10,000 bill” (万札最後の顔). With Japan witnessing an uptick in cashless payments, revamping paper currency and coinage seems pointless to many.
(JP) Link: Large Bills Disappearing from the World: Is Shibusawa Eiichi “The Last Face of the ¥10,000 Yen Bill?”

But the death of cash is, in all likelihood, greatly exaggerated. The Abe government’s current goal is to achieve a cashless payment rate of 40% of 2025. If those numbers hold, it’s safe to say people will still be clinging to cold hard cash for a while.

As always, when it comes to the faces of its currency, Japan has chosen the best of the best to showcase the many influential men and women who helped Japan towards modernity. Expect to see their faces more often in 2024, and, as you use the bills to make your way through the country, remember all they’ve done to contribute to Japan’s development.

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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