Nitobe Inazō (1862-1933)

Nitobe Inazo

Missions and education

During the Meiji period, while Japan was learning everything it could from the industrialized world and was rapidly modernizing, Japanese scholars travelled to Western countries to study, and Western missionaries and educators established schools in Japan to bring modern learning to the country as it was opening to the world.

One of the latter was William Smith Clark, a professor of chemistry at Amherst College (where Niijima Jō was one of his students) and the third president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts Amherst).

Clark was invited to Japan to help organize the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University). He is still remembered today for his inspirational leadership and contributions to Japanese scientific and economic development. What is less remembered is that he was a strong Christian, and that his faith left a mark at the school even though he only taught there for eight months.


Nitobe Inazō came from a samurai family. His family had developed an area of wasteland in the north of his district. The emperor had noticed this, and expressed a hope that the family would continue to work on improvements to agricultural development. As a result, Nitobe joined the second class at Sapporo Agricultural College. Though Clark had left the school by this point, a number of the students in the class accepted Christianity under his continuing influence at the school, including Nitobe.

In 1883, Nitobe enrolled at Tokyo Imperial University to study English literature and economics, but was dissatisfied with the level of scholarship he found there. The following year, he left Japan to study in America. He spent three years at Johns Hopkins, studying economics and political science. During this period, he became a Quaker.

While at Johns Hopkins, he was offered a position at the Sapporo Agricultural College, on condition that he complete a doctorate in Germany. Accordingly, he enrolled in Halle University. Three years later, having received the first of his five doctorates, he returned briefly to the United States to marry Mary Patterson Elkinton, a Quaker whom he had met in a meeting in Philadelphia, and then returned to Japan to take up his professorship. By this time, he had already published books in both English and German.

Teaching and writing

Nitobe taught at Sapporo Agricultural College from 1891 to 1897. He then took an extended leave of absence to write. During this time he wrote his best known book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1905). This book, which was written in English, is an exploration of the ethos of traditional Japanese society at a time when that society was going through enormous changes. He focused on bushido, the way of the warrior, as a window into the Japanese soul. The book also discusses the influence of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shinto on Japan culture. Nitobe’s knowledge of Western culture was sophisticated enough that he was able to draw comparisons with medieval chivalry, the Roman military, Biblical values, and even the ethos of the Greek warriors of the Iliad. The book was enormously influential and may have helped inspire the founding of the boy Scouts by Robert Baden-Powell. It was soon translated into Japanese and dozens of other languages and has been a best seller ever since the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

Education and Christian faith

In 1901, Nitobe was appointed as an advisor to the colonial government of Taiwan, heading up the sugar bureau. He then became a professor of law at Kyoto Imperial University in 1904, lecturing on colonial studies. He became the headmaster of the First Higher School (a prep school for Tokyo Imperial University) in 1906. In 1911, he was selected by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to participate in the first professorial exchange between Japan and the United States, and in 1913 was named Professor of Law at Tokyo Imperial University.

Nitobe taught agricultural economics and colonial theory, and in keeping with his Christian Quaker convictions, he emphasized humanitarian issues, pacifism, and indigenous self-determination in his approach to colonialism.

As a Quaker, Nitobe believed very strongly that women should have the opportunity to pursue higher education, and so he worked with A. K. Reischauer and Tetsu Yasui to found Tokyo Christian Women’s University (Tokyo Joshi Daigaku, often abbreviated to Tonjo or TCWU) in 1916. While continuing on as a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, he became the first president of TCWU.

After World War I, Nitobe began a new career in diplomacy and international relations. When the League of Nations was founded in 1920, he became one of the Under-Secretaries General of the organization and moved to Geneva. He was named director of the League’s International Committee on International Cooperation (the forerunner of UNESCO) and was actively involved in diplomacy to avert potential armed conflict. In particular, he was largely responsible for a treaty that cooled tensions between Sweden and Finland over the Aland Islands.

League of Nations

In 1921, Nitobe was the League of Nation’s official delegate to the thirteenth World Congress of Esperanto in Prague. He wrote the first objective report on Esperanto for the League, and backed a proposal to make it the League’s working language. Although the proposal had the support of ten of the delegates, it was vetoed by the French.

Together with his work with the League, Nitobe and other reform-minded Japanese joined the Institute of Pacific Relations in 1925. This Institute was established to discuss problems in the relations between Pacific Rim countries. The intention was to promote democracy, liberal government, and capitalism, as well as recognizing the post-World War role of America as a great power.

When he retired from the League, Nitobe served for a short time in the House of Peers in the Japanese parliament. He was very critical of the increasing militarism of Japan in the late-1920s and early-1930s, and was devastated when Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933 over the Lytton Report, which blamed Japan for the Manchurian Crisis which had been used by Japan as an excuse to invade and annex Manchuria (i.e. northern China).

Nitobe was still hoping to do something to slow Japanese militarism and to promote peace, so in October, 1933, he travelled to Banff, Alberta, Canada to meet with the Institute for Pacific Relations. While there, he contracted pneumonia. He made it as far as British Columbia, where his pneumonia took a turn for the worse; he underwent surgery, but died shortly thereafter.

His wife continued to live in Japan, compiling her husband’s writings, until her death in 1938. They are currently available in a 25 volume set; his writings in western languages are available in a five volume collection.

An all-informing faith

Nitobe’s faith informed everything he did professionally, from his interest in promoting better agriculture, to his humanitarianism and concern for the rights of the indigenous population in the colonies, to his work in education and particularly education of women, to his opposition to militarism and his constant efforts to promote peace between nations. Even his book on bushido reflected an interest in ethics, personal development, and virtue that has intentional resonances with the Bible. His appreciation and appropriation of his cultural heritage, devotion to country, and commitment to the Gospel led him to work to integrate Christian truth into Japanese society in a way that would make it a better country and to play a more positive role in the world.

Next Steps

In what ways does your faith inform your professional life? Talk with some Christian friends about this question.

If you have not yet read Glenn’s book,
Portals, you can order it from our online store. In it Glenn helps us understand how to engage contemporary worldviews from the perspective of our Christian faith.

You must be logged in to comment on Christian Worldview Journal articles.