Japanese yen
Photo: かいくう/photo-ac

Tokyo Q&A: Who are the people on Japanese yen banknotes?

Who's printed on the ¥1,000, ¥5,000 and ¥10,000 Japanese yen notes – and how they will change in 2024

By Emma Steen
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You may have looked at the faces printed on Japanese yen currency and assumed they were monarchs or politicians, but the truth is that Japan hasn't featured a member of the Imperial Family on banknotes since 1969. Rather, the portraits are often of writers, educators and doctors – pioneers of Japanese arts and sciences.

Japan changes its banknotes roughly every two decades, so while the current banknotes were only introduced in 2004, they will soon be replaced by new ones in 2024. Here's the background on the famous faces printed on current Japanese banknotes, along with the ones that will replace them in four years' time.

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Japanese yen
Photo: HiC/photo-ac

Current ¥1,000 note (since 2004)

Hideyo Noguchi was a bacteriologist who worked extensively on diseases such as rabies, polio and syphilis. Noguchi wanted to become a doctor, but the severe burn on his left hand from a childhood injury meant hospitals were reluctant to hire him. Instead, he travelled to the United States, where he found work as a research assistant studying the properties of snake venom. 

Despite being considered one of the most prominent figures in medical research during his active years, Noguchi's reputation came under scrutiny within a year of his death. Some of his findings were deemed inaccurate or couldn't be reproduced. Not only that, his methods of experimentation also came under fire as unethical, so perhaps it is just as well that the current ¥1,000 banknote will be replaced with one featuring a different bacteriologist.

Japanese Yen
Photo: ©Ministry of Finance Japan

New ¥1,000 note (for 2024)

The new ¥1,000 banknote will feature Shibasaburo Kitasato, who was born in 1852 in Kyushu. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Tokyo in 1883, Kitasato briefly worked as an associate professor at the university before going to Berlin to study with German bacteriologist Robert Koch, who he greatly admired.

In 1889, Kitasato became the first person in the world to grow a pure culture of tetanus and went on to work with German physiologist Emil von Behring to produce a serum therapy for the disease, along with antitoxins for diphtheria and anthrax. Both Kitasato and von Behring were nominated for the first Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1901, but sadly, the prize went only to von Behring.

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Japanese yen
Photo: Hic/photo-ac

Current ¥5,000 note (since 2004)

Ichiyo Higuchi was the pen name of Natsu Higuchi, Japan’s first prominent female writer. After her father died when she was 17, Higuchi was forced to support her mother and sister. Encouraged by the success of a classmate who wrote a novel, she decided to become a writer herself.

In 1891, Higuchi became the literary apprentice of Tosui Nakarai and began earning money as a published writer for the first time. Although she tragically died of tuberculosis at age 24, Higuchi's prose, in masterpieces such as ‘The Thirteenth Night’ and ‘Child’s Play’, opened people’s eyes to what Japanese literature could be and her legacy inspired a new generation of writers.

Japanese yen
Photo: ©Ministry of Finance Japan

New ¥5,000 note (for 2024)

Umeko Tsuda was only six years old when her father sent her on a diplomatic expedition from Yokohama to San Francisco in 1871. She lived with a host family in Washington, DC, and studied there until moving back to Japan at the age of 18. Her return was marked by some serious culture shock – Tsuda found she had forgotten most of her mother tongue.

Working as a tutor, Tsuda was dismayed by the Japanese curriculum, with its emphasis on educating girls to be 'good wives and wise mothers'. Tsuda dedicated the rest of her life to improving opportunities for women in Japan, eventually founding Tsuda University, which is today considered one of the best educational institutions in the country.

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Japanese yen
Photo: Navy Blue Lion/photo-ac

Current ¥10,000 note (since 2004)

The current ¥10,000 banknote features Yukichi Fukuzawa, a writer, educator and journalist who founded the prestigious Keio University. Though Fukuzawa spent his early years as a low-ranking samurai in the 1800s, he was also a scholar. Fluent in Dutch and English, he was quickly picked for diplomatic work overseas.

Fukuzawa travelled across Europe as well as the United States, and became an expert on the West. After publishing several books on Western culture, he dedicated his time to advocating for educational and political reform as well as gender equality, eventually becoming one of the founders of modern Japan.

Japanese yen
Photo: ©Ministry of Finance Japan

New ¥10,000 note (for 2024)

The new face of the ¥10,000 banknote is also known as the ‘father of Japanese capitalism’. Eiichi Shibusawa was born in 1840 to a family of wealthy indigo farmers. His father taught him how to read and write, and he studied Japanese history and the Confucian classics with his cousin, who was a scholar.

A pioneer of modern banking, Shibusawa introduced the concepts of double-entry bookkeeping and joint-stock corporations to Japan. He also established the First National Bank in 1873 and pushed for long-term business growth over short-term profits. In his lifetime, Shibusawa was involved in founding more than 500 companies, including Sapporo Brewery and Tokyo's Imperial Hotel.

More of your questions answered

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