Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan is historically important, representing one of several efforts by intellectuals in modernizing Japan to explain the country to themselves as well as westerners. It should NOT be taken as a factual account of widespread ethics or philosophy before the Meiji Restoration of 1867. On the contrary, Nitobe was looking for an ethical system to make the basis of the new Japan, and specifically wanted something that would be as effective a base as Christianity in Europe and the United States. Bushido was not a unified ethical system until Nitobe made it so. There were samurai codes in the Tokugawa period, but no nationwide system, and in any case it did not apply to non-samurai Japanese. To the extent that there was a society-wide ethical system in Tokugawa Japan, it was that of Confucius and especially the two neo-confucian thinkers Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming. It’s better to read Nitobe’s book as a prescription for what came after, rather than as an explanation of what came before. It is particularly interesting that this text, elevating the values of warriors above all else, was written by a Christian–Nitobe was actually a Quaker–yet the nationalism over-rides any desire he might have felt to argue for the evangelization of his country. Nitobe’s construction of the way of the samurai has now thoroughly penetrated popular culture inside and outside Japan, which makes this still a very important book. All one has to do is look at how many Japanese anime popular worldwide revolve around the themes in his book to see that. Nitobe had a moment of genius here in synthesizing a variety of pre-modern Japanese ideas and practices with those of modern nation-state ideologies, and the results were very useful to the expanding Japanese empire. The same could be said of Okakura Kakzuo’s Book of Tea: important to subsequent historical events, but unreliable as a guide to earlier times.
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.”