Nitobe Inazô, statesman and educationalist (1862-1933), is best known in the West as the author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1998)., a book which owes its once great popularity in part to the rarity at the time of books on Japan in English and the other languages into which it was translated, and in part to the novelty of hearing a Japanese address the world, presenting an attractive picture of his country and its animating traditions. Nitobe, for his part, had fully internalized the authoritative discourses of the English speaking world. His eloquent English was modeled on the approved masters of the time, and gained in charm from its slightly unidiomatic touches and the general warmth and candor of his attitude. The contemporary reader will no doubt find it to be weighed down by Victorian fustian, notably in its ornamental literary allusions to Shakespeare, etc. This problem may disappear in translation and did not obstruct the recent ‘Nitobe boom’ in Japan.
In addition to the old-fashioned style, another obstacle to retrieving Nitobe’s thought today is the atmosphere of naïve idealism that pervades this young man’s book. It is an idealism of dubious alloy, of a piece with the complacent outlooks lampooned by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians (1918). One is tempted to suspect that Nitobe’s popularity came from the way he could reproduce the fatuous delusions of his western audience in an exotic guise, holding up a flattering mirror. At that time Japan encouraged its representatives to westernize themselves so as to present the country to the world. Conversion to Christianity was a means of ingratiating oneself with America, and many conversions, including that of Nitobe’s Sapporo classmate and insepable companion Uchimura Kanzô, were inspired by patriotic motives. Attracted to Christianity since his teens, Nitobe succumbed to pressure from sophomores at the Sapporo Agricultural College to sign William S. Clark's 'Covenant of Believers in Jesus Christ'. “At the time of graduation, three men: Kanzo, Inazo Ohta (later Inazo Nitobe) and Kingo Miyabe swore among themselves that they would devote themselves to two J's: Jesus and Japan Amherst Japan Japan
Nitobe’s Christianized bushido is calibrated to meet the expectations of the Western audience. Tessa Morris-Suzuki characterizes his vision of the samurai as 'a mildly exoticized version of the British public school ethos' (Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation, London: M. E. Sharpe, 1998, p. 68; quoted, George M. Oshiro, 'Nitobe Inazô and the Sapporo Band', Japan Journal of Religious Studies 34, 2007, pp. 99-106; p. 109). Yet when we notice that Nitobe’s Christian idealism is not as simple as it seems, but masks a diplomatic harmonization between conflicting loyalties, Nitobe become more interesting to read. His book is an attempt to negotiate a profound contradiction, for Nitobe is a pacifist Quaker who advocates the way of the sword as the summit of civilization. At the end of the first chapter he sells the pass to militarism, quoting Ruskin: ‘War is the foundation of all the arts… of all the high virtues and faculties of men’ (39). This was before World War I had instructed us on ‘the pity of war, the pity war distilled’ (Wilfred Owen). In later years Nitobe was profoundly ill at ease with his country’s militaristic development. As one who worked for and was paid by the Japanese Government all his life, he could never speak out with total freedom. When in 1932 a newspaper reported his off the-record remark that the Japanese military were a worse threat to Japan than the Communists, several of his friends were murdered and he had to have police protection (see John F. Howes, ‘Japan’s New Internationalism and the Legacy of Nitobe Inazo’ (1993); http://www.capi.uvic.ca/pubs/oc_papers/HOWES.pdf). One wonders if he ever regretted penning a work that glorified a warrior ethics, in which he smoothed away so persuasively all the obvious objections against it.
Nitobe was not a jingoist, but a liberal, cosmopolitan voice, who sought to meld Japanese tradition and European enlightenment. As Professor Shinro Kato points out, Nitobe’s book shaped European and American understanding of Japan right down to Ruth Benedict’s study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), but it didn’t play any significant role in forming the Japanese mind. Rather, the reactions against the book in Japan produced a ‘Bushido boom’ that emphasized not the universal values of ‘chivalry’ set forth by Nitobe but a chauvinistic Yamatodamashii, in accord with the political tendency at the time of the Sino-Japanese and Sino-Russian wars. Traditional intellectuals took little account of Nitobe’s attempt at an ethical purification of the samurai heritage. (For contemporary responses see http://www.columbia.edu/~hds2/chushinguranew/Bushido/reinvention.htm.formos. For recent studies, see John F. Howes, ed. Nitobe Inazô: Japan’s Bridge Across the Pacific (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995). Many intellectuals wanted Japan to emulate Europe’s technology, but abhorred the European social customs and morals Nitobe did not follow this ideology of Wakon-Yôsai (Japanese Spirit and European Technique), which became the principle of education in the early Showa). The Europe that attracted Nitobe was not modern and progressive. He was a Romantic, finding in knightly virtues the shared inspiration of Japan and Europe, and paying scant attention to the facts of Europe’s violent history, or to those of Japan’s.
Nitobe’s role has similarities with that of D. T. Suzuki (only eight years his junior). Just as Suzuki caused people to identify Japan with Zen, which he presented as the source of all that is important in Japanese culture, so Nitobe projected an image of Japan as the country of Bushido, with a tendency to see all the other dimensions of Japanese culture and religion as merely auxiliaries serving to build up the Bushido spirit. Suzuki was also a great admirer of the way of the sword, and the enigma of how this is reconciled with Buddhism, with its prohibition on taking life, is one that he did not satisfactorily resolve. Suzuki’s book, Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton UP, 1959) has a wider and deeper outlook than Nitobe’s. While Nitobe is naively chauvinistic at times, the chauvinist undercurrent in Suzuki is very discreet. His thought centers not on Japanese uniqueness of Japanese excellence but on Buddhist wisdom. He is not concerned with Japanese ‘identity’ but with what is of permanent and universal value in Japanese tradition. The solidity of Suzuki’s scholarship and spiritual culture shows up Nitobe’s rhetoric as diplomatic fluff, a packaging of Japanese tradition for apologetic purposes.
The recent Nitobe boom was a rather puzzling event. Burritt Sabin, writing in Japan Inc Newsletter 397 (December 16, 2006) notes that Bunmei Ibuki, the Minister of Education, defending the revision of the Basic Education Law, made the following remark on Nov. 22: "The book Bushido formed the normative consciousness of the Japanese. By emphasizing such things I would like to supplement the Koizumi economic reforms." Meanwhile faculty members at Tokyo Woman's Christian University, of which Nitobe was the first president, issued a statement claiming that the present Basic Law upholds the ‘freedom of the spirit’ and ‘equal esteem for the value of all individuals’ that Nitobe stressed. The president of the university, Akiko Minato notes: ‘In the first clause of the revised law “reverence for the value of the individual” is deleted…Nitobe thought that first the “individual”, the “I”, is established , and next the cooperative body we call “the public”’. Professor Tsuyoshi Kojima, reviewing former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui's Bushido: An Analysis (2003) wrote: ‘Bushido has been romanticized as something that can be connected to the modern age. One learned individual made the nuanced comment that unlike [Yukio] Mishima's militarist book [on the Hagakure], [Nitobe's] book truly reflects bushido. Bushido, which was banned by the Occupation, is now functioning after undergoing a reevaluation’. Kojima claims that Bushido is not a historical book, but rather a reconfiguration by Nitobe, a Quaker, that turned Bushido into a pure, correct philosophy through eliminating its barbaric elements. Sabin concludes: ‘The usefulness of Nitobe's Bushido as a guide for revamping education in public schools is atavistic rather than forward looking. I question whether it is the sort of model Japan requires as the balance of power shifts in Asia and preserving the technological edge for adding value to exports at the core of the Japanese economy becomes an ever greater challenge. Nitobe was a samurai's scion who embraced Quakerism, which helps explain why Bushido can appeal to a conservative politician like Bunmei Ibuki and also to a liberal educator like Akiko Minato’.
Japanese surely have access to richer presentations of their culture than what Nitobe offers. Perhaps it is that their culture is so rich that it is difficult to assimilate it and a simplified popular presentation like Nitobe’s is more digestible. Or perhaps it is that in a time of moral crisis many people are ready to clutch at simplistic remedies, as in the triumph of new religions and cults, or the appeal of right wing ideologues. Nitobe is more benign than these latter, but it would I think be rash to presume that his influence must be entirely benign. The misgivings I shall voice here are only a first impression. I am far from having a full picture of where Nitobe is coming from or of the dynamics of his past and present reception. The Christian elements in the picture are one of the fuzzy areas. I shall focus on the theological aspect of his writing, in the hope of bringing things into clearer perspective.
The Inner Light
Nitobe became a Quaker in 1886, when he was 24 years old. His full conversion was long delayed. Uchimura Kanzô recalls that, 'He could doubt all things, could manufacture new doubts, and must text and prove eerything before he could accept it (How I Became a Christian, Tokyo: Kyôbunsha, 1971, p. 36; quoted, Oshiro, p. 110); the epigraph in Bushido from Browning's 'Bishop Blougram's Apology' reflects his struggles with doubt.
Nitobe should have been less impressed by the accoutrements of war and seen the squalor beneath the glamor. But I suspect that, ironically, it was his Quaker faith that led him to adopt such bland idealizations. His way of talking about religion prepares for his way of talking about society and history. Christianity, for Nitobe, is an inner essence, deeper than the surface of church structures and dogmas. He speaks sympathetically of the Neo-Confucian Wang Yangming (1472-1529), finding parallels between his doctrine of the ‘luminous mind’ and the New Testament (53). Shinto, too, becomes an emanation of the Japanese soul: ‘This religion – or, is it not more correct to say, the race emotions which this religion expressed? – thoroughly imbued Bushido with loyalty to the sovereign and love of country’ (49).
For Nitobe the surface constructions of religion, its institutions and doctrines, are mere ‘skillful means’, of secondary importance compared with the religion of the heart. This sounds modern, and it is, since it derives from the quite modern Quaker idea of the ‘Inner Light’ (originally the ‘Inward Light’). This is something of which non-Quakers usually have only a vague notion, so that it is hard for us to discern what personal modifications Nitobe brought to the idea. If the Inward Light refers to the immediacy of contemplative (pneumatic) experience, no doubt is has an important place in Christianity, and some equivalent of it may be found in other religions. But the specific cultural embodiment of this idea and the nuances of its development in the quite complex history of the Society of Friends would demand detailed research.
Older Quakerism sought to balance the Inward Light of Christ against the outward realities of Scripture and doctrine. The phrase ‘Inner Light’ came into use in connection with Elias Hicks (1748-1830), who stressed the autonomy of this interior revelation at the expense of Scripture and of the objective reality of Christ’s saving death. This caused a schism among American Quakers in 1828. The main opponents of Hicks were the Evangelical Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847) and the more quietistic John Wilbur (1774-1856). However, Wilbur rejected an over-reaction to Hicks that led to ‘overemphasis on the outward and historical forms and a weakening of the experience of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit’ (Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, The Quakers [New York: Greenwood, 1988], p. 377). The orthodox camp later split between Gurneyites and Wilburites. The evangelical influence tended to make Quakerism indistinguishible from other Protestant denominations, and the quietist, mystical emphasis was in a weak, defensive position throughout the nineteenth century.
The evangelical Isaac Crewdson (1780-1844), a close friend of Gurney, in his attack on the Unitarian tendencies of the Hicksites, A Beacon to the Society of Friends (1835), denounced as well the error of Robert Barclay (1648-1690) in ‘presenting the Inward Light as independent of and superior to Scripture’ (Thomas C. Kennedy, British Quakerism 1860-1920, Oxford UP, 2001, p. 26). Similarly, Robert Charlton (1809-1872) accFused Barclay of representing Christ not with reference to his propitiatory sacrifice but ‘as an internal principle of light common to all men’ (38). Some argued that even in George Fox (1624-1691) the founder of Quakerism, the Inward Light is in tension with more orthodox Christianity. Joseph Bevan Braithwaite (1818-1895) wrote of the founders of Quakerism: ‘We clung to them as long as possible, but experience has convinced us that one thing they lacked – faith. With them everything was inward. Their hope was inward – their righteousness was inward – the blood by which they were cleansed was within – the water by which they were washed was within – their Christ was within – and George Fox even declares their heaven was within’ (31).
In Britain liberal Quakerism emerged as a massive force at the 1895 Manchester Conference, winning over the bulk of the evangelicals and putting evangelical Quakerism on the defensive thereafter. It is to this liberal Quakerism that Nitobe belongs. The Quaker Renaissance set off at Manchester was spear-headed by the magnetic John Wilhelm Rowntree (1868-1905). It was based on ‘the revival of the Inward Light as the “great and Fundamental Truth of a living and present Saviour underlying all that early Friends taught” [William Pollard]’ along with ‘the restoration of the Bible in its proper relationship with the Light’ (Kennedy, 164). Rowntree’s spiritual heir Rufus M. Jones (1863-1948), a student of the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916), was the chief intellectual of Quaker modernism. ‘Royce’s neo-Hegelian thought was closely akin to that of the Oxford idealist T. H. Green, whose ideas had inspired leaders of the British Quaker Renaissance’ (160). He was also influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s stress on experience as the foundation of religious truth. Emerson had read Penn, Barclay, and Thomas Clarkson (Portraiture of Quakerism, 1806) and had Quaker friends; he regarded the Inner Light as ‘virtually the same as what had been suggested by many sages and powers, such as Zoroaster, Confucius, Orpheus, Numa, and others, Christian or pagan’ (Yukio Irie, Emerson and Quakerism [Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1967], 36).. The idealist, transcendentalist background has been absorbed by Nitobe.
Jones ‘traced the ideas of George Fox and other early Friends more or less directly to a brand of Christian mysticism imported to England from the continent at various stages of the Reformation’ (Kennedy, 161), especially that of Jacob Boehme (1575-1624). Jones celebrated the mysticism of the Inward Light as overthrowing Calvinist ideas of absolute human depravity and predestination and revealing ‘the innate goodness of human nature as well as the infinite capacity of reason, properly understood and applied, to life humankind on to the higher spiritual level in concert with the exalted physical state toward which the laws of nature, expanded and clarified by Darwinian science, seemed to be taking the human race’ (Ibid.).. American Quakerism after 1907 ‘had become a microcosm of American Protestantism. It had a primitivist faction, desperately attempting to preserve the old ways, the Wilburites. It had one liberal faction that had grown out of the Unitarian-Universalist liberalism of the 1820s, the Hicksites. It had another liberal faction, symbolized by Jones, that had grown from evangelicalism into modernism. And finally a faction calling itself evangelical, the product of the holiness revival movement of the 1870s, was rapidly hardening into fundamentalism’ (Thomas D. Hamm, The Transformation of American Quakerism [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988], 172).
Nitobe on Religion
It is hard to say how thoroughly Nitobe was steeped in these modernist ideas, but it is certain that his religion is not a straight-laced biblical Christianity. One may even find that he takes as rather casual and aestheticizing attitude to biblical texts, putting them on the same level as wise utterances from Chinese and Japanese tradition. His biblical quotations are odd and sometimes irreverent. Of the samurai teenager he says: ‘He beareth not the sword in vain’ (217 = Rom. 13:4). He quotes a seventeenth century priest: ‘“Him who once has died in the bottom of his breast, no spears of Sanada nor all the arrows of Tametomo can pierce”. How near we come to the portals of the temple whose Builder taught “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it”’ (207). This is in bad taste. When he quotes Mencius, ‘When men’s fowls and dogs are lost, they know to seek for them again, but they lose their mind and do not know to seek for it’ and equates this with ‘a parable propounded three hundred years later in another clime and by a greater Teacher, Who called Himself the Way of righteousness’ (61), I have the feeling that there is a certain tone-deafness to all that separates the two ‘climes’. Nitobe is content to merely glance at the proposed identity, for he immediately continues: ‘But I stray from my point’. Then he rephrases Mencius in Gospel language in a way that is untrue to both: ‘Righteousness, according to Mencius, is a straight and narrow path which a man ought to take to regain the lost paradise’. This tendency to equate very different religious or ethical visions militates against sensitivity to religious pluralism and against the perception of the other as other.
His open-minded religious pluralism is in reality a kind of inclusivism – all the virtues and traditions he lauds are seen a vehicles of the unitary ethical enlightenment he is advocating. Religions are constructed over centuries of practice accompanied by intensive rational reflection. The kind of truth that is formulated in these constructions is what the Mâdhyamika philosophers call samvrti-satya (conventional, world-ensconced, screening truth) as opposed to ultimate truth or paramartha-satya, which cannot be pinned down in words. Religions can function as conventional vehicles of ultimacy, and experiences of contemplative illumination are a kind of confirmation that the religious conventions are doing their job. However, to pit religious experience against doctrine as if the former were ultimate and the latter merely conventional is a dangerous simplification, and one to which Quakerism is particularly prone. Religious experience itself is inscribed in history and cannot be distilled in a pure state from its doctrinal or ritual vehicles. Thus most Christians place much more value on creed and dogma than the Inward Light tradition does. While the sense of the relativity, historicity, conventionality, culture-boundedness of doctrinal language is seeping into Christian theological awareness today, theologians rightly remain anxious to somehow reconcile this emphasis with a retrieval of dogma in a more critical key.
Nitobe writes in ‘A Japanese View of Quakers’: ‘The starting point of Quaker teaching is the belief in the existence of the Inner Light… Whatever the name, it means the presence of a Power not our own, the indwelling of a Personality, other than human, in each one of us. Such a doctrine is... as old as the oldest form of mysticism. Buddhism is full of references to it... The Zen Sect of Buddhism makes it its aim to comprehend it’ (http://www2.gol.com/users/quakers/nitobe.htm). The sweeping manner in which Nitobe courses freely through the various religious traditions of his homeland and of the West stems from this conviction of having access to the very essence of all religions.
Nitobe believes in a universal revelation which underpins the specific revelation of Christianity, and he finds this universal revelation in Classical antiquity and in Japanese culture. This inclusivism is not fascinated by the historical interplay of religions, but finds the same spiritual bedrock in all. He unites the ethics of traditional Japan are united under a single rubric, Bushido, and the extreme pluralism of Japanese religious history is elided. Buddhism and Shinto are reduced to schools for Bushido virtues. Shinto inculcates loyalty to sovereign, ancestors, parents, and reveals in the pure human heart the image of Deity. The mirror in Shinto shrines is supposed to be the mirror of self-knowledge, associated with the Delphic ‘Know Thyself’ (45) and ‘the introspection of our moral nature’ (47). Here again is a tendency to reread Japanese religion in terms of classical models, both modernized in a rather stereotyped way. The Delphic motto had less to do with introspection than with recognizing the limitedness and fragility of mere mortals. The Shinto mirror has nothing to do with self-inspection. Of course Nitobe has as much right as anyone else to read a symbolic interpretation into the mirror. A 14th century author, Kitabatake Chikafusa, writes: ‘The mirror does not possess anything of its own, but without selfish desires reflects all things, showing their true qualities. Its virtue lies in its responses to those qualities, and as such represents the sources of all honesty’ (quoted, Jean Hebert, Shinto [London, 1967], 154). ‘The average Shintoist, and even the average priest, is practically unaware of the existence of any symbolism in his religion’ (Hebert, 155). ‘The tenets of Shintoism cover the two predominating features of the emotional life of our race – Patriotism and Loyalty’. Again this is an ethical reduction, perhaps akin to the politicizing of Shinto in the Meiji to Showa periods. The fundamental religious dimensions of Shinto are elided. To call it ‘a frame work of national instinct and race feelings’ is to recuperate it for ideological purposes. The pluralistic texture of Shinto cults is ignored. Nitobe also puts the ethical systems of ancient Judaism, classical Greece and Rome, and traditional Japan on the same level, finding them to be profoundly similar. The common core of these older ethical/religious cultures is assimilated to Christian ethics. The Inner Light tends to become identified with a mystically tinged Neo-Confucian ethics which Nitobe sees as universal.
Nitobe makes some acute criticisms of the mission effort in Japan, with a hint that it is a form of cultural oppression or imperialism. But when he suggests that the Spirit is renewing the face of Japan through Bushido, not though the missions, I again see a tendency to reduce the complexity and pluralism of Japanese culture to a single model, in a manner that discourages real encounter between Japan and the world. Nitobe denies the missionaries the major role in the making of the new Japan. They ‘are doing great things for Japan – in the domain of education, and especially of moral education; – only, the mysterious though not the less certain working of the Spirit is still hidden in divine secrecy. Whatever they do is still of indirect effect. No, as yet Christian missions have effected but little visible in moulding the character of New Japan. No, it was Bushido, pure and simple, that urged us on for weal or woe’ (172-3).
‘One cause of the failure of mission work is that most of the missionaries are entirely ignorant of our history – “What do we care for heathen records?” some say – and consequently estrange their religion from the habits of thought we and our forefathers have been accustomed to for centuries past’ (179). It still seems to be true that Christian culture in Japan lacks a vital relationship to Japanese traditions. Christianity flourishes in the neutral space, the vacuum, created by the Americanization of Japan or by a modern secular fatigue with the indigenous religions. To Nitobe, the packaged Christianity brought by missionaries was artificial, synthetic, an imitation, a pastiche, sterilized and sterile. ‘Christianity in its American or English form – with more of Anglo-Saxon freaks and fancies than grace and purity of its Founder – is a poor scion to graft on Bushido stock’ (281). Instead of drawing out the living religious and moral elements within Japanese tradition, missionaries have imposed a book-religion on their hearers. Nitobe is anxious to redraft Christianity radically to bring it into accord with Japanese ideals. But he does not face the reality of the fully constituted religions that already occupy the ground in Japan, namely Buddhism and Shinto. He focuses instead on the ethical, Confucian qualities of Japanese culture, which, presented in the general and idealizing form that he gives them, seem to provide an unproblematic point of entry for the Gospel.
A Declaration of 1661 identifies Quakerism with pacificism, but this document was forgotten until twentieth-century pacifists plucked it from obscurity; it ‘appeared as an official Quaker document only in the 1911 edition of Friends’ Christian Discipline’ (Kennedy, 238). ‘Most Friends lived out their devotion to non-violence and non-resistance during the two and a half centuries between the Restoration and the Great War’ (240). Around 1900 some Quakers were imperfectly committed to pacificism, notably Caroline Stephen and John Bellows, vociferous defenders of the Boer War. ‘Still, for every example of Quaker support for the potentialities or results of British imperialism, two others might be found that questioned or protested against imperial adventures’ (263). Liberal Quakerism was pacifist and offered vocal opposition to the Boer War of 1899-1902, whereas the Evangelicals were pro-war. The Peace Testimony was institutionalized for the first time when a document ‘Our Testimony for Peace’ was accepted at the 1912 Yearly Meeting in Manchester: ‘the first official document in the history of Quakerism to state explicitly that the peace testimony “follows necessarily from the foundation principle on which the Society... is built... our belief in and experience of the Light Within”’ (309). Though many Quakers served in World War I, ‘the great majority of British Quakers refused to give open support to the British war effort (323), though there was much confusion and lack of consensus. More than two hundred Quakers were jailed as conscientious objectors. ‘The extraordinary Adjourned Yearly Meeting of late January 1916 decided upon an official policy of resistance to conscription and non-co-operation with the war effort’ (372). The historic All-Friends Conference of 1920 affirmed that ‘the peace testimony was “the fundamental basis of Quaker Christian truth, that man must not kill his fellow man, and that this shall take pre-eminence over the claims of any other order of any other group of people”’ (413).
Nitobe seems to have identified as much as he could with this dimension of his creed. Gilbert Bowles (1869-1960) ‘influenced and became close friends with leading Japanese Christian peacemaking diplomats Nitobe Inazo and Sawada Setzuko; with them and other statesmen he founded the Japan Peace Society and tried to halt the militarization of Japan in the 1930s’ (Barbour/Frost, 295). Bowles was close to the liberal Gurneyites Clarence Evan Pickett (1884-1965) and Alexander C. Purdy (1890-1976). Purdy replaced liberal theologian Elbert Russell (1871-1951) at Earlham College from 1916 to 1923; he left as a result of tensions aroused by his liberal theology. Russell, later dean of the Duke University Divinity School from 1928-1951, aimed to form an estimate of Jesus Christ as ‘a force in history in the same spirit and by the same methods by which we would attempt to estimate the significance of any other historical personage, such as Napoleon or Hannibal, Buddha or Mohammed’ (quoted, Hamm, 152), though he ultimately confirmed the uniqueness and divinity of Christ..
On his ill-fated American tour at the end of his life, Nitobe was set at odds with his pacifist co-religionists. ‘As far as Philadelphia is concerned, Nitobe next appeared when Japan was invading Manchuria, and the Emperor had sent him on a tour of America to explain things. At the meetinghouse on Twelfth Street, Nitobe took the line that Japan was bringing peace and order to a chaotic barbarian situation, saving many lives and restoring quiet. After a minute of silence, Rufus Jones rose from his seat. He was having none of it. And that was that for Nitobe in Philadelphia’ (http://gfisher.blogspot.com/2005/03/inazo-nitobe-quaker-samurai.html).
Nitobe is critical of giri – ‘as a motive it is ‘infinitely inferior to the doctrine of Christian love, which should be the law’ (64-5) and has led to ‘every sort of sophistry and hypocrisy’ (65), but he has no wider conception of rectitude or justice to advance; he has nothing to say about social justice. Instead he illustrates ‘courage, the spirit of daring and bearing’, with various anecdotes, but without probing ethical reflection. Then he idealizes princely ‘benevolence’: ‘not only is a free exercise of monarchical power not felt as heavily by us as in Europe, but it is generally moderated by paternal consideration for the feelings of the people’ (85). This could be seen as laying the ground for the Showa Emperor-cult and even the political passivity of postwar Japanese. Another form of this virtue is warrior’s ‘benevolence to the weak, the down-trodden or the vanquished’ (89), illustrated by a stirring anecdote about Kumagaye (‘In an instant the sword flashes in the air, and when it falls it is red with adolescent blood’, 91) which shows that ‘Tenderness, Pity, and Love were traits which adorned the most sanguinary exploits of a samurai’ (91-3). To identify these idealized historical forms of benevolence as ‘the soul of Japan’ could distract from cultivating the modern forms of the virtue so needed and so missing in the twentieth century. Similarly backward-looking are the discussions of politeness and veracity – which is not taken to mean freedom of speech and courage in criticizing abuses even at the cost of one’s own career; instead the focus is on defending Japan against the accusation of shabby trade practices. The chapter on honor has to do with the quest for fame and the dread of shame, again illustrated by anecdotes of feudal times. The chapter on loyalty focuses on apparent clashes between Christians’ loyalty to Christ and to Japan, Socrates’ loyalty to his daimon and to Athens. These sketches of Bushido virtues are rather loosely strung together, and do not constitute a comprehensive study of the Bushido ethic in its historical form. They are exercises in diplomacy, presenting sterling features of Japanese character that were then unknown in the West and correcting unfavorable perceptions of Japan.
Bushido language about ‘to die when it is right to die, to strike when to strike is right’ (59) leads Nitobe to magnify suicide and revenge in a manner incompatible with Christian ethics. ‘I do not wish to be understood as asserting religious or even moral justification of suicide’ (191) is a weak disclaimer. Maurice Pinguet La mort volontaire au Japon [Paris: Gallimard, 1984]) boldly glorifies the Japanese tradition of suicide and William R. LaFleur (Liquid Life : Abortion and Buddhism in Japan [Princeton UP, 1992] does the same for Japanese practices of abortion and infanticide. Nitobe also makes us feel the seduction of this moral relativism (or rather, this proclamation of the superiority of pagan to Christian ethics), but he is not as up-front about it. He casts a classical glow over institutions of suicide by appealing to Roman honor and to the examples of Socrates and Brutus: ‘I dare say that many good Christians, if only they are honest enough, will confess the fascination of, if not positive admiration for, the sublime composure with which Cato, Brutus, Petronius, and a host of other ancient worthies terminated their own earthly existence’ (193). Nitobe is keen on closing the gap between pagan antiquity and the Christian world: ‘the moral identity of the human species, notwithstanding an attempt so assiduously made to render the distinction between Christian and Pagan as great as possible’ (207). He does not hold back from equating the samurai ethic with the Gospel.
His discussion of suicide proceeds with no reference to God as the giver of life (except for a jocular reference to Dante’s Inferno) and his discussion of revenge makes no reference to the central Christian doctrine of the forgiveness of sins. He talks of Judaism leaving a jealous God to effect vengeance, mentioning the Greek Nemesis in the same breath – a rather shallow and extrinsic view. His apologia for revenge is incompatible with either Christianity or Buddhism: ‘Our sense of revenge is as exact as our mathematical faculty, and until both terms of the equation are satisfied we cannot get over the sense of something left undone’ (209). Kataki-uchi he sees as a rational institution, hence easily replaced by ‘a few paragraphs in the Criminal Code’ (211). He casually invokes ‘duelling and lynching’ (209) as Western equivalents of the noble oriental conceptions of redress, thus blithely blessing one of the most obscene evils of American life.
Imperialism and racial superiority
In Nitobe’s lifetime, the Western powers drooled over Japan as the force of modernity and enlightenment nation in the East, blessing its colonial enterprises in Korea and Taiwan as advances of civilization. Nitobe made his own the discourse of British colonialism. In 1919 he wrote as follows:
‘I count myself among the best and truest friends of Koreans. I like them… I think they are a capable people who can be trained to a large measure of self-government, for which the present is a period of tutelage. Let them study what we are doing in Korea, and this I say not to justify the many mistakes committed by our militaristic administration… In all humility, but with a firm conviction that Japan is a steward on whom devolves the gigantic task of the uplifting of the Far East, I cannot think that the young Korea is yet capable of governing itself’ (Quoted, Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun [New York: Norton, 2005], 157).
Nitobe’s outlook is a kind of nihonjinron – a celebration of Japanese uniqueness. He is at pains to distinguish this from racialist theories: the character instilled by Bushido discipline is not ‘an irreducible element of species’ ‘transmitted only by heredity’ (267, 269). He defines national identity as ‘the aggregate of psychological elements which constitute a national character’ (265). His stress on the nation’s soul is typical of nationalist discourse of the time. Bushido is ‘an unconscious and irresistible power’, ‘the motor force of our country’ (p. 269)
‘While in India and even in China men seem to differ chiefly in degree of energy or intelligence, in Japan they differ by originality of character as well. Now, individuality is the sign of superior races and of civilisations already developed’ (57). Here is banal stereotyping – the common man’s perception that ‘we’ are all unique individuals, whereas ‘foreigners’ are all the same, ‘you can’t tell one from another’. This is the kind of thinking that oiled the machinery of British imperialism. ‘In Asia to speak of humanity is to speak of its plains; in Japan as in Europe, one represents it above all by its mountains’ (57). The implication is that Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, are somehow less fully human than Japanese. (Ironically, it is in Japan that one hears so often that ‘the nail that sticks out will be hammered into place’, and it is a regular experience of teachers in Japan that students from other Asian countries show more originality of thought and capacity to express disagreement, which the Japanese educational system serves rather to repress.) Yet, though Nitobe alludes to Nietzsche here, it should be noted that his ideas were in the main current of thinking of the time. Even the Quaker document, ‘Our Testimony for Peace’ accepted ‘the positive Social Darwinist argument that the “fittest races and nations” were those who “care most for human personality”’ (309).
Nitobe’s combines whiggish liberalism and optimism with a hankering for an idealized feudal past. Something similar can be found in European thinkers who find in feudal society a socialist moder for today (I think vaguely of Carlyle, William Morris, Chesterton’s distributivism). His actualization of Bushido also fits Masao Maruyama’s account of the ahistorical actualizations frequent in Japan (see Hans Peter Liederbach, Martin Heidegger im Denken Watsuji Tetsuros [Munich, 2001]). These anachronistic actualizations seek to simplify the tradition by taking one element from the past and presenting it as the essence of Japanese identity (just as in Christianity many efforts were made to reduce the tradition to a single ‘essence of Christianity’).
‘Thinking that comes from outside Japan is not perceived as such, and consequently no real confrontation with it takes place and its appropriation does not last long; the foreign element can put down no roots, but is pushed out by the next foreign element, not however put aside or synthesized, so that later it can suddenly and unmediatedly emerge again in an appropriate constellation. Thoughts that though they have long had a place in Japan have no real relationship to the present, and seem historically cut off from it so to speak, suddenly pop up unmediately in the present’ (Liederbach, 37). ‘That thought does not accumulate into a tradition and that the “traditional” thought re-enters in a scarcely graspable and unsystematic way, are at bottom two sides of the same thing. There is a tendency, faced with the ideas that came to Japan in a determined temporal sequence, to rearrange them merely spatially in the individual’s interior and let them co-exist timelessly so to speak, whereby they lose their historical structuredness’ (Masao Maruyama, Denken in Japan,\[Frankfurt 1988], 29; quoted, Liederbach, 37). ‘The Japanese likes to interpret as benevolent broad-mindedness his readiness to appropriate the best from whatever quarter. Yet despite the modesty that distinguishes the Japanese in civil life, this attitude is not free from vanity and even arrogance’ (Karl Löwith, quoted, Liederbach, 49). Nitobe’s willingness to recognize the best in Europe is what Maruyama calls a ‘selective reception’. The selected European best (chivalry and imperialism) boosts the selected Japanese best (bushido), short-circuiting a true pluralistic and dialectical encounter of cultures. Maruyama gives an example of what he means, from Inoue Tetsujiro, who claimed that the ethics of German Idealism, ‘though people have seen it as a novel foreign teaching, is close to what the school of Zhu Xi [Chu Hsi 1130-1200] have taught from of old’ (Liederbach, 48). Nitobe’s book would provide Maruyama with many more examples of the same hermeneutical vice of ‘dehistoricizing, i.e. decontextualizing the foreign element’ (48) in order to assimilate it to something already present in Japanese tradition.
Joseph S. O'Leary