The International Nationalist

“The International Nationalist: Nitobe Inazō’s Lifelong Quest to ‘Bridge the Pacific’”
Alex Bennett (Kansai University)

The year is 1867. Excitement pervades the Nitobe household in the Morioka domain. Relatives and other guests gather in the banquet room to celebrate the Hakama ceremony for five-year-old Nitobe Inanosuke (Inazō) (1862−1933). It signified initiation into the samurai community of honor and the commencement of the roles and responsibilities that came with this status. After seven centuries of hegemony, however, the samurai’s mantle of authority was dismantled in several stages following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Inazō’s career as a samurai was thus short-lived, but traditional warrior mores instilled in him from an early age were to serve him and his country well with Japan’s entry onto the world stage. Nitobe was destined to become one of the most internationally well-known Japanese nationals of is era.

Nitobe’s career as an educator was long and illustrious, but his life as a diplomat was unprecedented in importance when he was appointed Under-Secretary-General of the League of Nations in 1920. This distinguished position took him to the League’s headquarters in Geneva for seven years, where his affable nature and skill in the art of diplomacy earned him the moniker “Star of Geneva.” Nitobe was also responsible for directing the International Bureau and served as a founding member of the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC, later to become UNESCO).

Nitobe’s connection with Philadelphia was also deep. He converted to Quakerism when studying at Johns Hopkins University, and eventually married Mary Elkinton, member of a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family. Nitobe is mostly remembered now for a book he penned in English in 1899, Bushido: The Soul of Japan. First published by Leeds & Biddle, a small Quaker publishing house in Philadelphia, this little volume is still found on the shelves of bookstores, big and small, throughout Japan and indeed the world, and is influential in contemporary understanding of samurai ethics and the Japanese mind. This was, however, only a small part of a remarkable cross-cultural legacy that Nitobe forged before his death in October 15, 1933.

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