The Iaido Newsletter  January 2000

Inazo Nitobe

By Rennis Buchner
Copyright © Rennis Buchner, 2000. Not to be used without permission

Most Western martial arts practitioners are at least aware of the existence of the book entitled “Bushido”. Many people have even read it as it is one of the few books on the subject in English that is readily available nearly anywhere. Most of the more knowledgeable people know that this book, while widely accepted as the source for information on the Japanese warrior's spirit in the mainstream American martial arts community, is in fact not a very accurate depiction of the morals that the Japanese warrior lived by. The ones who are even more knowledgeable know that this is the case because it was written after the warrior class had been abolished and is a highly idealized version of what the author wanted the warrior class' values to be. However, it seems there are very few people in the English speaking mainstream martial arts community who have been willing to dig into the life of the author, Inazo Nitobe. I suspect that is partly because people think there isn't much information available on him in English as there are no books about him available in your favorite Karate magazine.

I must admit, I never had much interest in him and assumed he was just some cranky old ex-samurai who was complaining about how kids these days aren't like the warriors of old. In typical fashion, it was proven that I couldn't have been more wrong. Nanao Senjiro sensei, Karate sensei at Minnesota State University Akita, decided to do a lecture on “Bushido” and the author as well. Furthermore Nanao sensei knows a relative of Nitobe’s who manages the Inazo Nitobe Memorial Hall in Towada, Aomori and has all kinds of great information on him (I want to say this is Nitobe’s grandson, but I can’t remember for certain). The following is a summary of Nitobe's rather interesting and unusual life from both the lecture and a discussion we had further on the topic afterwards. Much of the factual stuff is from a book he received from the Memorial Hall, but unfortunately since the book is in Japanese, I wasn't able to get the title or author's name. I'll try and hunt that down later. As this is just a rough summary of the highlights, as I understood them, readers interested in additional and more accurate information are encouraged to dig around in the Japanese history section of their local library or bookstore.

Inazo Nitobe was born in August of 1862, before the fall of the samurai class. I have heard people claim his family were commoners, but his family had in fact been of high status in the warrior class and supposedly were descendants of the Emperor Enryaku  (a.k.a. Katsurahara, question on the spelling) who ruled 781-782. His great great grandfather was the Heiho Shihan (master military strategist/scholar may be a decent translation) for the Han (clan or family) that they belonged to. His grandfather practiced martial arts as did his father and Nitobe himself. His father was involved in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, Toda Ryu Kenjutsu, and Jinto Ryu Sojutsu. When Nitobe was young he used to awake at 4 am and train in some form of kenjutsu, jujutsu and sojutsu (possibly the same ryuha his father trained in).

His grandfather was sent to Tozawa in present Aomori prefecture and told to cultivate the land there. Previous to this time, that area was very poor and had no agriculture to speak of. His grandfather spent a great deal of time working on making a usable irrigation system for the area and his father continued the work by actually working to get rice grown there. The year Inazo was born was the first rice harvest in Towada and because his father was so happy, he named his son Inazo (one of the kanji in his name is an old Chinese kanji relating to rice). (I should note that because of his family’s status, I doubt they actually were out digging in the fields, they were probably the planners of the project and in charge of organizing labor and such) Because of his family’s high status, Inazo was strongly encouraged to become a highly educated and wise individual. He began to study English at an early age and at 13 enrolled in a famous English school in Tokyo.

During the time he was in Tokyo, there was a famous American Professor teaching at Sapporo Agriculture College named Clark. (He is famous throughout Japan for a quote he said to his students when leaving Japan, "Boys be ambitious"). Inazo had a strong desire to study with this famous professor so upon graduation from the English College, he enrolled in Sapporo Agricultural College, only to find Clark had since returned to America. Regardless, he continued his studies there and eventually graduated in 1883.

After graduating from Sapporo, he returned to Tokyo and became an English teacher for a time. He felt, however, that he needed to further his education (2 degrees wasn't enough I guess) and enrolled in Tokyo University to study international relations. He did not graduate from Tokyo University, however, because he got the chance to go to America and study at John Hopkins University. While at the University, he met an American woman named Marry, who was a Quaker studying at the same college. They formed a long relationship and eventually they were married in the U.S. (despite opposition from her parents that didn't subside until after her death).

She eventually became known in Japan as Mariko, as the name sounded similar to Marry. Inazo himself eventually converted to Quakerism as he thought it was similar to Samurai ethics (FN1). Upon returning to Japan, he became a professor at Sapporo University and through their recommendation was able to again leave the country and study at three different colleges in Germany. It was during this time in Germany that the idea for the book Bushido was born. Marry often asked Inazo where the Japanese moral system came from, naturally curious, as it was so different from the American system. When in Germany, a professor posed a similar question. He asked Inazo what religions values were taught in Japanese schools. He replied none. The professor asked then what moral system they were taught in school. Again the answer was none. Probably perplexed himself, he began to ponder the question.

Because of the long years of nonstop study, Nitobe became very ill at 37 and went to California in order to recuperate in the warm climate. It was during this time in California that he wrote the book “Bushido”. The book was written in America and in English. It was only later translated into Japanese. From this point on, Nitobe became very involved in foreign affairs through out the world. In 1920 he became the vice-director of the United Nations. In 1930, relations between the US and Japan were growing steadily worse and he made several trip to try and resolve the countries' differences. In 1932, after Japan's work in Manchuria the year before, he again traveled to the US to try and patch things up between the two countries. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so and was severely disappointed. Because of the conditions between the US and Japan, he couldn't even bring his wife back to Japan since she was American. In 1933, at the age of 71, he attended a conference in Canada to again try to make peace between the US and Japan, which was again ultimately unsuccessful. He died later that year.

Nitobe's greatest influence was not in the martial arts at all, but in international affairs. Nitobe himself expressed a great desire to bring understanding of the Japanese abroad and is well known for it. Even recently, a Japanese friend of mine was asked why she wanted to go to America to study and the answer she gave was to quote Nitobe’s famous “I want to be a bridge over the Pacific” line. The book “Bushido” was written not out of a love so much for Japan's warrior class system, but in a search for how to explain how Japan's ethical system developed. The book is a potent mixture of Confucian, Shinto and Buddhist views that was intended to be used in international affairs and as an explanation for a foreign audience, rather than an educational text for would-be Samurai. He touched on many aspects of the Japanese character and tried to find an answer for their existence in the warrior class' ethics. Any brief study of Japanese history will quickly show that his views were highly idealized and not a true reflection of the Samurai class (although the ideal end result was probably much the same). The Japanese government itself skewed the teachings in “Bushido” for its own aims, which were radically perverted from anything Nitobe intended or believed. The book is the work of one of Japan's first truly international men and a great look at the ideal intent that Japan was striving for, even if it is not the most accurate portrayal of the warrior class you’ll ever find. And if you have any doubts about Nitobe’s influence within Japan, just look at the 5000-Yen bill.

Footnotes: hit your back button to return to the text.

FN1- This comment struck some members of the audience as rather odd. We discussed the obvious differences between Quakers and the Samurai culture. One person pointed out that it should be noted that this was supposedly before the major revisions in the Quaker religion and Quakerism at that time was substantially different from how it is today.

TIN Jan 2000