Journal Entries on Essays in Nitobe Inazo: Japan's bridge across the Pacific


Miwa Kimitada "Colonial Theories and Practices in Prewar Japan"

Kimitada's article deals with several issues, structured around Nitobe's involvement in the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido, Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria.

When reading illustrations of Nitobe's apparent blindness towards the Ainu during his studies at Sapporo, and his ignorant views of Ainu culture and ways to deal with them colonially, I couldn't help but have a strong negative reaction to him. Countless times in class and in the text the idea of evaluating Nitobe in a historical context has been raised. Looking at his ideas in this manner, the situation becomes more excusable. Kimitada himself only brings up three examples of contemporary literati who felt sympathetic towards the Ainu, and insinuates that there probably were not many more. Himself not a social scientist, and only privy to the views and opinions available to him popularly, Nitobe can't be blamed for not being champion of Ainu values and land rights. However, looking at history through my eyes and with my values and opinions, I look for historical figures with such credits as having championed the causes which I feel strongly about, made scientific advances which have helped mankind, or, generally, produced works which have brought humans to a greater understanding of themselves, their universe, and their place in that universe. I can't think about drawbacks of historical figures and say "but he couldnft have known better!" and just write them off. This doesn't mean, however, that I can't recognize strong points in Nitobe or other such flawed historical figures. The whole point of studying history or any subject is to come to an understanding of the lessons that need to be learned: what is good and should be built upon, what is wrong and should be rejected or reevaluated. The problem with looking at history is that there are events, countries, individuals, and other factors which contribute to a greater right or wrong while being right or wrong themselves, and those factors, if taken singly and divided into their own component parts, can be looked at as right or wrong. So saying "Japan is a good country" is ignoring all of the negative components of Japan. Likewise, saying, "Nitobe Inazo was a good person ignores his negative components; taking an opposing stance will ignore his good characteristics or accomplishments.

In his treatment of Nitobe with relation to the colonization of Taiwan, Kimitada shows how Nitobe felt sympathetic towards the Japanese-brought hardships of the Taiwanese Tribal people. However, here too I see awkwardness to his feelings. From the way that Kimitada paints the picture, it seems that Nitobe's questioning of Japanese policy comes only after it has been condemned by Western scholars, bringing to mind a question of why Nitobe did not notice these problems while he served as colonial civil administrator for three years. Did Nitobe simply not notice the happenings, feeling even more regretful when they were finally pointed out to him? Or was it the fact that a Westerner was questioning Japan that made it important? If the same fact had been pointed out by a scholarly Chinese or Taiwanese, would he have paid attention?

Professor's notes:


Sato Masahiro "Journalism: The Last Bridge"

Sato's article makes it difficult to not have great respect for Nitobe, in spite of flaws that continue to be evident in his writings.

Nitobe, during his last few years, seems to have become a writing machine. 827 columns in four and a half years, while busy giving speeches and serving in various private and public international organizations. I can't imagine writing on that many different topics; I would run out of things to say at some point. And, as Sato points out, Nitobe touched upon every social evil, injustice, and means of reaching peace imaginable. He obviously spent long hours thinking about these subjects and more.

The truly unfortunate area, and probably the one for which he is most remembered, is his treatment of the situation in China. In looking at the selections presented by Sato, it appears that Nitobe's view of China gradually shifted as conflict between the two countries arose. In 1929, in his editorial "Are we ready?h he states that Japan must embrace the concept of peace completely, and among the flaws in the current national mentality he listed a "pernicious superiority complex in our negotiations with China." His response to the Manchurian Incident, however, shows him with a changed attitude, rejoicing over the Japanese victory and the Japanese procurement of needed raw materials and land. At this point, his view of the situation with China had swung 180 degrees, so that he now looked on China very negatively, and he could continue to blame them for problems in Manchuria. What happened to Nitobe after 1929? At first completely for peace and seeming to feel that no thought of war was good, he now took a seemingly situational view of peace - of course peace was the ultimate goal of Japan, but the situation would not allow her to avoid war, making it excusable. I don't think Nitobe came up with this idea himself, it was probably held by many men of his day; Japan was in a hard situation, and it couldn't back down. However, this view has survived until the present day, and is the reason why Japan won't, why Japan can't apologize for WWII. It's this view of 'how can we apologize when it was our only choice?'

Of course, the real problem with Nitobe's writings is that he was not a fortuneteller, and couldn't read the future. He, on countless occasions, spoke ill of the Japanese military, Japanese government, pointing out hat militaristic training in schools, military men holding political offices, inexcusable military action in the Shanghai Incident, and rampant bureaucratic corruption. This condemnation of the military is almost unwavering in his English writings, though he was forced to become more careful with his words in Japanese after the Kainan Newspaper incident. That is, assuming we look at his opinions in this way: the actions of Japan up to and including the Manchurian Incident were justified, and Japan would of course not continue expansion after that. I think he did not expect the military to usurp power, or for Japan to move beyond Manchuria, as we can see in his questioning of the Shanghai Incident. Taiwan was a territory rightfully awarded to Japan. Korea and Manchuria were more or less open land; the powers holding them would not hold them for long, and if Japan didn't take them, some other country would. Or so went Nitobe's reasoning, evidently.

Professor's comments:
In a way, yes. But not completely. Nitobe, I think, was closer in views to people in the Foreign Ministry like Shidehama Kijuio [??]. Emphasis on Economic trade and diplomacy rather than use of force.


Yuzo Ota "Mediation Between Cultures"

Yuzo, in his Bushido-centered evaluation of the effectiveness and affects of Nitobe's writings, finds mistaken facts, overly broad generalizations, and self-defeating ideology. However, in his treatise he makes the opposite mistake that many pro-Nitobe scholars seem to make: he finds only negative aspects of Nitobe, while ignoring the positive. He also places blame on Nitobe for teaching inaccuracies, which may not be deserved.

First of all, I think that Yuzo touches on an important concept when he says that Nitobe had been trying "to 'sell' an idealized image of Japan and things Japanese" to Western readers. Yuzo presents this concept negatively, with the view that by presenting his works in this way, Nitobe was doing an injustice to Japan and Japanese things, cheapening them. This is, in my opinion, true. However, you have to consider why he was doing it; for what purpose was he even writing, and under what motivation was he 'cheapening' Japan? He was writing because he saw himself filling a role which was desperately needed in that age, a bridge between Japan and the West. He wrote these overly-praising, often embellished books, which were based on ideals so concrete as to sometimes seem dream-like, to fulfill the desires of the populace of the West who if they had a view at all probably viewed the Japanese as exotic, strange people of the Orient completely unlike themselves. A book accurately describing Japan, Japanese culture, and Japanese history may prove accurate for researchers and students, but it would not be purchased popularly for leisurely reading. One must consider this question: did Nitobe write these Gulliver's Travels-like descriptions of Japan intentionally, or not? There were many other experts of the time, many of whom were much more accurate than Nitobe, but few had as much, or as lasting an influence on Western views of Japan as Nitobe has had.

When I was 17, I happened upon a 1914 printing of Bushido in a used bookstore, and purchased it since I had a growing interest in Japan. Before Bushido, I had only had a vague overview of Japanese history and culture in high school. So as I read Bushido, these ideas that Nitobe presented became fundamental views for me; in essence, I had received the same education as an American of the early 1900's must have had. Of course, I had 'common knowledge' education of Japan from the media as well:

These views all contained some truth, but the sensational way in which they were presented instilled false views in me. One reason for this is because the programs had the added intent of entertaining and retaining viewers. So in the interest of keeping people's attention, the facts were added to or slightly discolored. Can Nitobe really be blamed so thoroughly when such information-giving practices are still in use? And if his work was so obviously incorrect, why wasn't it utterly dismissed when released?

When I read Bushido, I read it with the belief that what it was telling me had been true in the past, but was no longer completely true. And what I learned form other sources did not displace this belief. I heard, over and over, what I call the Great Truths About Japanese: they are very shy, they always think about the person and situation before replying, they have a strong sense of duty and responsibilities. These Great Truths have been told countless times, and I think he vast majority of Western people still believe them. First, assuming these views came form Bushido, where they can be found prevalently, why haven't they been corrected by the countless good, thorough works on Japan since his time? Well, I think there are two answers. One I have already supplied: most scholarly works are intended for scholars and libraries, not the populace. The other is that quick, easy generalizations stick. Once an easily remembered generalization is supplied, most people cannot forget them, even if they learn that it is untrue, because the generalization is still more easily remembered than the fact that it is wrong. For example, many Japanese hold the view that Americans are fat because of their diet: mil, meat, sugar, etc; and that Japanese are slim because they eat fish and rice. Telling them that most Japanese don't live on such a healthy diet, that many young people eat hamburgers and ramen more than rice, or that obesity has been scientifically tied to genetics, they may acknowledge this at the time, but they will more than likely continue to hold their previous views, because it's just easier to remember. "Americans are fat because they eat American food." Likewise, Japanese with such views (or Americans, for that matter) will probably have a much more interested conversation with someone with the same view, and be more interested in a TV program or magazine article that reinforces their views. And people with the opposite views will do the same with conversation that confirm their views, because they push soft, comfortable buttons inside them.

Can Nitobe really be blamed for human shortcomings? If his book influenced political leaders and scholars as much as it did the regular people it was intended for, then that can be seen as a sign of the flaws in politicians and scholars. They should be above the easy sway of trends in international matters.

However, it is with mixed feelings that I think on the fact that my first real views of Japan were formed by such a volume of misinformation. I feel negatively because I have had to relearn all of my knowledge and views on Japanese people and culture and society. I feel negatively because when I first met Japanese people, while working as an advisor for an exchange program, I was shocked to discover they were actually very similar to me, not the strange oddities that I had been led to believe. But this is also a reason that I feel positive about having read it: I was shocked into the realization that Japanese people are fundamentally like everyone else. It took my arrival in Narita airport to really drive the lesson home, though, when I realized it was for all intents the same as Sea-Tac airport. It's unfortunate that Nitobe didn't undergo the same revelations; maybe he would have if he had lived a hundred years later. Nitobe, like many people of his day, and of the present day as well, failed to realize that generalizations are generally, but not always, true.

Perhaps his mistake was just in not understanding how his writing would be interpreted, what the reader would retain. I can't believe that, when writing Bushido, he was thinking "I want people to see that Japan is a weird and strange land, with vast differences from their own"; however, I think this is the strongest message of the book. Along the same lines, I don't think he intended for the military to draw generalizations from his book to reinforce their rule and keep the populace in line behind them.

Professor's comments: