Nitobe Inazo and the Sapporo Band: Reflections on the Dawn of Protestant Christianity in Early Meiji Japan

By Oshiro, George M. | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Nitobe Inazo and the Sapporo Band: Reflections on the Dawn of Protestant Christianity in Early Meiji Japan


Oshiro, George M., Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


This paper focuses on the famous prewar internationalist Nitobe Inazo, and inquires into the origins of his Christian faith. Born in 1862 in Morioka in the last years of the Tokugawa period, he imbibed Christianity while attending the Sapporo Agricultural College. That institution's unique historical environment, and the spiritual legacy implanted there by its charismatic founding president, William S. Clark, is described, and it is demonstrated how Inazo and his classmates were profoundly influenced by New England puritan values in their early exposure to Protestant Christianity. It follows Inazo on his six-and-a-half years of study abroad, and traces his inward struggles to attain a genuine Christian faith free from the taint of foreign culture. His academic studies in the United States and Germany is described in detail. Special attention is paid to his Quaker religious experiences, since these left indelible marks upon his later life and career. Peculiar tenets of his faith and mentioned, and one in particular-the doctrine of pacifism-is highlighted; one which many people who have studied Nitobe's career feel he failed to resolve adequately. Finally, there are some remarks about the legacy of the Sapporo Band, of whom Sato Shosuke, Oshima Masatake, Uchimura Kanzo, Miyabe Kingo, and Nitobe stand out most notably today.

KEYWORDS: Nitobe Inazo - Meiji Protestant Christianity - Uchimura Kanzo - Sapporo Agricultural School - Japanese Quakers

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Nitobe Inazo ... (1862-1933) has been the subject of much attention in Japan over the last two decades. Though one of the best internationally known Japanese in his day, he had been largely forgotten in the years after his death. This dramatically changed in the 1980s when Nitobe was "rediscovered." The renewed interest in Nitobe resulted mainly from his portrait appearing on the five thousand yen bill from 1984 until the end of 2005, when it was replaced by a new bill that featured the Meiji novelist Higuchi Ichiyo. Two years ago, symposiums were held in Tokyo (at the United Nations University) and in Hokkaido, to ensure that Nitobe's legacy not be forgotten.1

Nitobe is remembered today as the author of Bushido, the Soul of Japan, which has been a long-seller since its publication in 1900. Two years ago, Bushido made the bestseller, top-ten list at a Tokyo bookstore, thanks in large part to the Hollywood movie, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise. The movie was but one factor that contributed to the resurgence of Bushido. The moral lessons embedded in the concept of bushido continue to fascinate people today. Perhaps because this conception is an intrinsic part of-indeed many feel that it is what gives backbone to-a unique Japanese identity; an identity which some feel is increasingly threatened by globalization. Thus, nostalgia and romanticism go far to explain the lingering popularity of Bushido images in contemporary Japan.2

Perceptive readers of Bushido quickly realize that Nitobe's depiction of the bushi mentality and lifestyle are uniquely his own. Since the appearance of the book over a hundred years ago, many critics have attacked his portrait of the samurai as being overly idealistic and too tinged with Christian virtues. Tessa Morris-Suzuki has remarked that "In his writings, the samurai...is above all a gentleman, and Bushido itself is not so much an esoteric philosophy as a mildly exoticised version of the British public school ethos" (Morris-Suzuki 1998, 68).3 Indeed, in perusing the book, one immediately senses that Nitobe's intended audience were educated readers in the West. It was his aim to show "in a comparative light" the commonalities that traditional Japanese culture possessed with occidental cultures. Nitobe's Christian biases are plainly evident in the book, for which he did not apologize. The aim of this paper is to explore the roots and development of Nitobe's Christian faith, beginning with his early experiences in Sapporo, followed by a consideration of how it was shaped through study overseas in the United States and Europe. …

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