Nitobe Inazo was a Japanese Quaker who became the first Under Secretary General for the League of Nations.
“Let it be far from me to turn Quakerism into Oriental mysticism. Quakerism stays within the family of Christianity. ... Unlike Orientals, George Fox and his followers conceived ... of light as a person, but by making their person eternal and existent before the world was, Quakerism came to much the same conclusion as the old mystics.”
A Japanese View of Quakerism, Nitobe Inazo, lecture given at the University of Geneva, 1926.
Nitobe was born into a samurai family on Honshu, the main island of Japan. He first became a Christian while attending Sapparo Agricultural College on Hokkaido. Asked why he wished to study English as well as agriculture, he replied that he wanted to be ‘a bridge across the Pacific’.
He attended Tokyo University for a time but, dissatisfied with the teaching, he persuaded his uncle to fund post-graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, a university which had a Quaker foundation. There he began attending Quaker meetings, telling friends, “I very much like their simplicity and earnestness.”
In 1885, he and a fellow Japanese student were invited to Philadelphia by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Association of Friends to advise them on establishing a Quaker mission in Japan. This visit was to lead to the establishment of the Friends Girls School in Tokyo, as well as agricultural missions in Iberaki Province. It also led to his meeting his future wife, Mary Elkinton. He formally became a Quaker in 1886.
Having obtained his PhD at Halle University in Germany, he returned to Philadelphia in 1891 to marry Mary, and then took up a teaching post at Sapporo College. He set up a secondary school in Hokkaido and became its headmaster, and he and Mary (known in Japan as Mariko) also established a night school for poor working youth, known as the Distant Friend Night School.
In 1900, while on a stay in California, he wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan, a series of essays that attempted to explain Japanese values to Westerners.
In 1911, he was appointed Professor of Colonialism at the Tokyo Law Faculty. He saw no intrinsic evil in colonialism but taught that, “the final objective… is to be beneficial to the aboriginal people of that land,” through the provision of hospitals, schools, railways.
He was a champion of women’s rights in Japan, and supported several women’s colleges. In 1918, he became the first president of the Tokyo Women’s Christian College. “Perfect equal opportunity, if given, will develop [woman’s] hidden and unsuspected power of intellect,” he wrote.
In 1920, he was appointed the first Under-Secretary General of the League of Nations, under Sir Eric Drummond. He became a favoured spokesman for the League. Drummond said of him, “he gives his audience a deep and lasting impression.”
Hostility to Japanese immigrants in California was growing, and in 1924 the US Congress passed the Oriental Exclusion Act, which forbade further immigration. Nitobe was appalled, and spent much of the rest of his life trying to build understanding in the international community of Japanese issues.
He retired from the League of Nations in 1927 and was appointed to the House of Peers, Japan’s Upper House. He supported the growth of unions and played an important role in establishing Japan’s universal medical care system.
Nitobe resigned from the cabinet in 1929 over Japan’s growing militarism, declaring that “preparedness in foreign relations should be cooperation, not armament.” In 1931, he openly condemned Japan’s bombing of the South Manchuria Railroad. Nevertheless, he felt that the West’s attitude to Japanese actions was hypocritical. Later that year, he toured North America defending Japan’s role in Manchuria, clashing with many former friends who feared he was abandoning his former liberalism.
On his final trip to North America in 1933, he collapsed and died in Victoria, Canada, where there is now a Nitobe Memorial Garden. Mariko took his ashes back to Tokyo where a Quaker memorial service was held, attended by 3000 people. Japan Yearly Meeting later established the annual Nitobe Inazo Memorial Lecture. Today, his face can be seen on the 5000 yen note.