The Life of Japanese Quaker Inazo Nitobe

At Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, numerous epistles are read from other yearly meetings throughout the world. Likewise Philadelphia sends its annual epistle and greetings to all yearly meetings. Japan Yearly Meeting’s epistle this year mentioned the “Nitobe lectures.” Friends outside of Japan may not know about the extraordinary life of Inazo Nitobe. My purpose here is to acquaint Friends Journal readers with him.

Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) became a Christian while a college student, and later a Friend. He rose to fame as an agricultural sugar expert, was the president of several colleges, was a Carnegie exchange professor to the United States, and was a tireless worker for Japanese- U.S. understanding. Most notably, he was the leader of the Japanese delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1919, and when he arrived there he was promptly appointed under-secretary general of the League. Nitobe is famous for coining the phrase, “Bridge across the Pacific”; for writing the history of William Penn; and for the book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan. He is the only known Quaker whose picture is on his country’s currency.

Nitobe stemmed from a Samurai (Japanese nobility) family on Honshu, the main island of Japan. His grandfather was distinguished for developing irrigation projects and bringing much additional land under cultivation. His father died when he was five and his mother when he was 13. He was the youngest of eight and was raised by his uncle, who adopted him.

At 13, he entered Tokyo English School. By studying English, he became acquainted with Christianity and the Bible. In 1877 he entered the newly founded Sapparo Agricultural College in the northern island of Hokkaido and graduated in 1881. William S. Clark, from Amherst College, was the viceprincipal of the Sapparo Agricultural College, although he left the college before Nitobe started attending. He left a strong influence on the students, particularly in the way ethics was taught. He said the only way he could teach ethics was by teaching the Bible. All of his students became Christians and signed Clark’s “Covenant of Believers in Jesus.”

Nitobe subsequently became a Friend when he was 22 years old while doing graduate study at Johns Hopkins University. He joined Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

He had previously attended Tokyo University, but found the professors there poorly trained. He persuaded his uncle to finance his graduate study in the United States, first at Allegheny College in western Pennsylvania, and then at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. While there, he was appointed assistant professor in absentia by his original Japanese college, Sapporo Agricultural College. This college financed his further study in agricultural economics for three years in Germany at Bonn, Berlin, and Halle universities. He received his PhD from Halle.

In 1885, Inazo and a Japanese classmate were invited from Baltimore to Philadelphia by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Association of Friends to advise them about establishing a Quaker mission in Japan. This ultimately resulted in the establishment of the Friends Girls School in Tokyo and ten agricultural missions in Iberaki Province, just north of Tokyo. The Friends Girls School continues to flourish, educating the daughters of prominent Japanese business leaders. Three of the agricultural missions still continue as Friends meetings in Tsuchiura, Shimotsuma, and Mito. Samuel Nicholson, now retired at Friends Village in Newtown, Pa., and his father before him were instrumental in founding a ceramics center at Mito Friends Center.

Gilbert Bowles, Gurney and Elizabeth Binford, Herbert Nicholson, Edith Sharpless, Esther Rhoads, and others were instrumental in the success of Friends School and the success of the various monthly meetings during the past 100 years.

An important outcome from Nitobe’s visit to Philadelphia was meeting his future wife, Mary Patterson Elkinton, the daughter of Joseph S. Elkinton, later widely known for his help in bringing the persecuted Dukhobors from Russia to Canada, as well as for his family business, Philadelphia Quartz Co. They were married in 1890 upon Nitobe’s return from Germany.

Mary Elkinton’s parents objected to the marriage because it would take her to Japan. Her meeting initially also opposed the marriage because of her parents’ objection. Mary’s brothers persuaded the weighty members to change one by one. The wedding ultimately took place, and subsequently, her parents approved.

Mary’s family of Elkintons, Evanses, and Jameses have inspired many others to support Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Japan Committee (now International Outreach Committee) in nourishing the growth of the Friends Girls School in Tokyo.

A corollary of this relationship was the friendship of Mary with her Westtown classmate Anna H. Chace (one of the founders of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Chace Fund) and a member of both Providence (R.I.) and Fallsington (Pa.) meetings. This friendship lasted all their lives. When Nitobe subsequently became an under-secretary general of the League of Nations from 1920 to 1927, Anna went to Geneva each year while the League was in session to be with Mary and Inazo. One year, when Mary was ill and could not come to Geneva, Inazo asked Anna to be his hostess at all official functions. Anna was in effect the “first lady of the world” for a year.

When Nitobe initially enrolled in University of Tokyo after Sapporo and before his German study, he expressed his interest in studying agricultural economics and English literature. The interviewer said “this is a queer combination.” Nitobe responded that “he wished to be a bridge across the Pacific Ocean,” a bridge across which Western ideas could flow to Japan and over which Japanese and Oriental ideas could flow to the United States. This term “bridge across the Pacific,” embraced Nitobe’s life.

His PhD thesis at Halle was Land Possession and Distribution, and Its Agricultural Use in Japan. He also subsequently completed his thesis at Johns Hopkins, The Intercourse between United States and Japan: An Historical Sketch. Later, as a college professor, he published a 400-page biography of William Penn.

In 1900, while recuperating from overwork in Japan, he took a leave of absence in California where he wrote his most famous book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan. It was instantly acclaimed in the English-speaking world as one of the few accounts of Japanese spiritual history written by a Japanese author in eloquent English. It was subsequently translated into several languages. Bushido means literally “the way of Samurai,” and it relates to traditional Japanese moral values.

Returning with his degree from Germany, Nitobe became a full professor at Sapporo. He taught agronomy, colonial theory, history of agriculture, economics, English literature, and German, and was the college librarian. He was also a technical advisor to the government of Hokkaido, two-thirds the size of Pennsylvania.

Inazo established a secondary school in Hokkaido and became its headmaster, with financial support from a local businessman. He and Mary also established a school for poor working girls in the Sapporo slum, supported by faculty and student volunteers from the college. After a few years he exhausted himself from too many duties, and in March 1899 he took the abovementioned leave of absence in Vancouver and then in California.

While recuperating in California, Nitobe was offered numerous positions in Japan. He accepted a position as advisor to the Japanese colonial government on Taiwan in 1901. His reform plan for sugar production there increased it sixfold in 10 years and by 45 times in 20 years. His reforms continue today to support Taiwan’s prosperity.

This brought him wide acclaim. He was appointed professor at University of Kyoto Law Faculty and also headmaster at the First Higher School, the successor of his alma mater, Tokyo English School. He began teaching on the faculty of Agriculture at University of Tokyo.

Inazo and Mary were invited to visit the emperor in 1905. As a boy, the emperor had spent the night with Nitobe’s family at Morioka.

In 1911, Nitobe was chosen as the first exchange professor between the U.S. and Japan, funded by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Nitobe tried to neutralize a rising tide of ill feeling in the United States that was building against Japanese immigrants.

He spent one month each at Brown, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and the universities of Virginia, Illinois, and Minnesota. He also visited and lectured in many other universities and colleges, including Stanford, Clark, Haverford, and Earlham. These lectures were collected and published in 1912 as The Japanese Nation: Its Land, Its People, and Its Life. He spoke to other groups like the National Geographic Society and Maryland Peace Society. He delivered a total of 166 lectures to approximately 40,000 people, trying to build goodwill between Japan and the United States. Brown University awarded him an honorary degree and he ultimately received five such degrees during his lifetime.

Upon returning to Japan, he became a full-time professor of Colonial Studies at University of Tokyo. A conflict had developed among educators about the Europeans and Japanese supporting colonialism rather than liberation of their colonies. Some, like Germany and its South African colony Namibia, thought a colony was merely for enriching the mother country. Nitobe espoused the more humanitarian view that the mother country should bring benefit to its colonies and raise their standard of living.

Nitobe also was concerned for women’s rights. He assisted several prominent women’s educational institutions such as Smith School at Sapporo, the prestigious Tsuda College (founded by a Bryn Mawr graduate, Umeko Tsuda) in Tokyo, Keisen Women’s College (established by another Bryn Mawr graduate), and Tokyo Women’s School of Economics.

In 1918, he was appointed the first president of the newly established Tokyo Women’s Christian College. This was heavily subsidized by the Methodist Church of Canada. Soon after assuming the presidency, he and Mary and other Japanese officials toured Europe to inspect the damage from the World War. While in London, he was advised by the Japanese minister that he had been selected to be the under-secretary general of the newly formed League of Nations, under Sir Eric Drummond, the secretary general. It is interesting that Nitobe had studied at Johns Hopkins with Woodrow Wilson, whose ideas formed the League.

The League of Nations moved from London to Geneva in 1920. Nitobe quickly became a favorite spokesman for the League. According to one of his colleagues, nine times out of ten he was chosen to speak to audiences rather than his superior, Drummond. Drummond himself explained that Nitobe was most highly qualified when he said, “He gives his audiences a deep and lasting impression.” One of his colleagues wrote:

There is no office in which more visitors were received or more work done; . . . yet there, one always had the feeling of quiet, of reflection, of that silent gathering together of the internal forces of human nature. One always left that room convinced afresh that it was worthwhile doing one’s best in dealing with even the smallest everyday problems of office life, because one had realized once more the essential connection between his work . . . and the great current of human development which is embodied in the League.

Contemporaneous with the idealist growth of the League was the increasing hostility in California to Japanese. Initially there was a “gentlemen’s agreement” in 1907 between Japan and the United States that only 146 Japanese individuals per year would be permitted to immigrate here. In 1924, the U.S. Congress unilaterally repudiated this agreement and passed the Oriental Exclusion Act, forbidding any Japanese to immigrate to the United States.

Nitobe was outraged by this Act. He tactfully spent the rest of his life trying to influence the international community to appreciate Japan’s problems and attributes.

He resigned as under-secretary of the League in 1927 at the age of 64. He was appointed a member of the House of Peers, the Upper House of the Japanese Diet. He joined the editorial board of the Osaka newspaper and wrote a regular English column. Many organizations requested him to be their advisor. He enthusiastically supported the union movement in aid of labor. He became chairman of the Morioka Farmers Cooperative, and he was instrumental in preventing the intervention of local conservatives in union activity.

Nitobe played a significant role in establishing Japan’s universal medical care system. (Does the Japanese system have any provisions that we might emulate today?) This medical care system had been initiated by Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960), who is known to numerous older U.S. Friends for his Social Gospel work among the poor in Tokyo.

Politically, Nitobe’s speech against the pro-military cabinet of Prime Minister Tanaka in the House of Peers in 1929 aided in Tanaka’s being condemned by many and led to his cabinet resigning.

The rise of militarism in Japan coincided with the London Naval Treaty in 1930, which adopted the 5:5:3 ratio in battleship strength between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. The Japanese Navy strongly opposed this. Japan resigned from the League of Nations in 1933, in part because of this treaty.

In 1931, to Nitobe’s great sorrow, the Japanese military bombed the Japanese-run South Manchurian Railroad and blamed the Chinese for it. The Japanese army then established Manchukuo as a separate nation carved out of Manchuria, over which it appointed a puppet government.

Nitobe was interviewed by a group of reporters about this development, with the promise that his views would not be reported. One reporter violated his promise and published Nitobe’s anti-military comments. A furor arose in Japan and Nitobe delivered a tactful apology.

With this as background, Nitobe toured North America in 1931 and attempted to present a clearer picture of the events in Manchuria. He viewed Manchuria as a three-way conflict between Russia (dating from the Sino- Japanese War of 1895), China, and Japan, with its historical presence in Manchuria. He stated that this historical and economic background needed to be distinguished from the current military action.

He pointed out how the Japanese civilian occupation of Manchuria occurred. Russia had occupied Manchuria after 1895 despite strong Anglo-U.S. protest. Through President Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts, the Russo-Japanese War ended in 1905, and the rights to administer Manchukuo that Russia had previously obtained from China were transferred to Japan. Japan invested one billion yen in gold in Manchuria to develop it. Japan, not China, was administering Manchuria, based upon the Chinese- Russian treaty. Japan, in hindsight, justified its actions because of the U.S. Oriental Exclusion Act. Japan reasoned that it needed Manchukuo for its expanding population. Nitobe compared the hostility in India against British administrators and the U.S. advocacy of the Monroe Doctrine in the Caribbean, to the prohibition of Japanese immigration to the United States.

Nitobe toured North America again in 1932, conferred with President Hoover in the White House, received an honorary degree from Haverford College, and in ten months delivered one hundred lectures on Japanese culture and on the Manchukuo issue to audiences in the United States and Canada, starting with a CBS radio address in New York, in which he said, “My keen concern over Japanese-American relations and my earnest desire to study the American sentiment toward Japan, are what have brought me over to America.”

Nitobe’s final trip to U.S. in 1933 was to attend the Institute of Pacific Relations conference in Banff, Canada. This conference of scholars in various fields from countries around the Pacific Ocean met annually. Nitobe had been chairman of the Japanese delegates since 1929, and this was his fifth conference. In his final address he said: “China and Japan sit side-by-side at the conference table. . . . There are differences between our governments . . . but as man-to-man, we harbor no ill-will the one to the other. . . . Is it too much to hope then that in the intimate contact of nationals from all over the Earth, the day will gradually come when not passion but reason, when not self-interest but justice will become the arbiter of races and nations?”

In September, he collapsed in Victoria, Canada, and died on October 15, 1933, at age 72.

A memorial service was held in the Wesley United Church in Vancouver. Mary took his ashes to Japan. A Quaker memorial service was held in Tokyo. Over three thousand people attended, including his former students, politicians, the emperor’s emissaries, and citizens. There is a monument honoring him at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Vancouver.

I made a pilgrimage to his home in Morioka, four hours north of Tokyo, after attending the Friends World Committee gathering in Tokyo in 1988. There in the public park is a sarcophagus six feet long and three feet high bearing the name NITOBE in Japanese. Morioka and Victoria have been sister cities since 1985. Nearby is a sign in English directing one to Nitobe’s boyhood homestead. There is a stone statue of him sitting in a chair with one hand under his chin, in a contemplative mood with the inscription “Bridge across the Pacific” and a quotation from one of his famous speeches.

The 1945 will of Anna Harvey Chace provides for a $10,000 scholarship in honor of Inazo Nitobe, the income from which is to assist a Japanese student to attend Haverford College. The corpus of this scholarship is today valued at $55,000.

Nitobe is the only known Quaker to be honored on his country’s currency, a 5,000-yen note, authorized in 1981.

Among Inazo Nitobe’s legacies to the world is the present United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which grew out of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of which he was a founding director in the 1920s.

Friends are encouraged to visit the Nitobe Memorial Garden at University of British Columbia when in Vancouver, Canada, and also the Nitobe homestead garden at Morioka when visiting Japan.

Samuel M. Snipes

Samuel M. Snipes, a member of Fallsington (Pa.) Meeting, is a lawyer. He and other family members operate Snipes Farm and Education Center in Morrisville, Pa. He is active in many Bucks County peace activities.

1 thought on “The Life of Japanese Quaker Inazo Nitobe

  1. A very interesting article about a fascinating figure whose achievements spanned so many fields. Please note though a correction to the last line of the second paragraph: “He is the only known Quaker whose picture is on his country‚Äôs currency.” In fact the ¬£5 note issued by the Bank of England in 2002 featured a portrait of Elizabeth Fry.

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