Nitobe was born in Morioka, Mutsu Province (present-day Iwate Prefecture). His father was a retainer to the local daimyō of the Nambu clan. His infant name was Inanosuke. Nitobe left Morioka for Tokyo in 1871 to become the heir to his uncle, Ota Tokitoshi, and adopted the name Ota Inazō. He later reverted to Nitobe when his brothers died.
Nitobe was in the second class of the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University). He was converted to Christianity under the strong legacy left by Dr. William S. Clark, the first Vice-Principal of the College, who had taught in Sapporo for eight months before Nitobe's class arrived in the second year after the opening of the college; thus they never personally crossed paths. Nitobe's classmates who converted to Christianity at the same time included Uchimura Kanzō. Nitobe and his friends were baptized by an American Methodist Episcopal missionary Bishop M.C. Harris. Nitobe's decision to study agriculture was due to a hope expressed by Emperor Meiji that the Nitobe family would continue to advance the field of agricultural development (Nitobe's father developed former waste land in the north of the Nambu domain near present-day Towada, now part of Iwate Prefecture, into productive farmland).
In 1883, Nitobe entered Tokyo Imperial University for further studies in English literature and in economics. Disappointed by the level of research in Tokyo, he quit the university and sought study opportunities in the United States.
In 1884, Nitobe traveled to the United States where he stayed for three years, and studied economics and political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. While in Baltimore he became a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). It was through a Quaker community in Philadelphia that he met Mary Patterson Elkinton, whom he eventually married. He also influenced the establishment of the Friends School in Tokyo.
While at Johns Hopkins, he was granted an assistant professorship at the Sapporo Agricultural College, but was ordered to first obtain doctorate in agricultural economics in Germany. He completed his degree after three years in Halle University and returned briefly to the United States to marry Mary Elkinton in Philadelphia before he assumed his teaching position in Sapporo in 1891. By the time he returned to Japan, he had published books in English and in German, and had received the first of his five doctorate degrees.
Meiji bureaucrat & educator
Nitobe was appointed a full professor of law at the Kyoto Imperial University in 1904 and lectured on colonial studies. He became the Headmaster of the First Higher School (then the preparatory division for the Tokyo Imperial University) in 1906 and continued this position until he accepted the full-time professorship at the Law Faculty of Tokyo Imperial University in 1913. He taught agricultural economics and colonial policy and emphasized humanitarian aspect of colonial administration、and was cross-appointed the founding president of Tokyo Woman's Christian University (Tokyo Joshi Dai). His students at Tokyo Imperial University included Tadao Yanaihara, Shigeru Nanbara, Yasaka Takagi, and Tamon Maeda. (Yanaihara later continued Nitobe's chair in colonial studies at Tokyo University; but Yanaihara's pacifist views and emphasis on indigenous self-determination, which he partly inherited from Nitobe, came into a full conflict with Japan's wartime government during the World War II, resulted in barring him from teaching until after the war).
Diplomat & Statesman
When the League of Nations was established in 1920, Nitobe became one of the Under-Secretaries General of the League, and moved to Geneva, Switzerland. He became a founding director of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (which later became UNESCO under the United Nations' mandate). His legacy in this period includes the settlement of territorial dispute between Sweden and Finland over the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands. In its resolution, the Islands remained under the Finnish control, but adopted complete disarmament (i.e., no military presence on the islands) and granted autonomy, averting a possible armed conflict (See also Åland crisis).
In August 1921, Nitobe took part in the 13th World Congress of Esperanto in Prague, as the official delegate of the League of Nations. His report to the General Assembly of the League was the first objective report on Esperanto by a high-ranking official representative of an intergovernmental organization. Although the proposal for the League to accept Esperanto as their working language was accepted by ten delegates, the French delegate used his veto power to block the issue.
After his retirement from the League of Nations, Nitobe briefly served in the House of Peers in the Japanese Imperial Parliament; and he delivered a speech against militaristic prime minister Giichi Tanaka in the aftermath of the Huanggutun Incident (1928). He held critical views on increasing militarism in Japan in the early 1930s, and was devastated by Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 over the Manchurian Crisis and the Lytton Report.
In October 1933, Nitobe attended an conference in Banff, Alberta of the Institute of Pacific Relations, where the background and research papers from the Japanese delegation largely defended Japanese expansionist policies. On his way home from the conference, Nitobe's pneumonia took a turn for the worst and was rushed to the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Following an operation he died on 15 October 1933. Morioka, Nitobe's birth place, and Victoria have been sister cities since 1985. Mary Elkinton Nitobe lived in Japan until her death in 1938. Mary compiled and edited many of Nitobe's unpublished manuscripts, including his memoirs of early childhood, and contributed greatly to the preservation of his writings.
Nitobe was a prolific writer. He published many scholarly books as well as books for general readers (see below). He also contributed hundreds of articles to popular magazines and newspapers. Nitobe, however, is perhaps most famous in the west for his work Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900), which was one of the first major works on samurai ethics and Japanese culture written originally in English for Western readers (The book was subsequently translated into Japanese and many other languages). Although sometimes criticized as portraying the samurai in terms so Western as to take away some of their actual meaning, this book nonetheless was a pioneering work of its kind.
Nitobe's writings are now available in Nitobe Inazo Zenshu (the Complete Works of Inazo Nitobe), a 25 volume set from Kyobunkan, 1969-2001. His English and other western language work are collected in the 5 volume Works of Inazo Nitobe, The University of Tokyo Press, 1972.
Major critical essays on Nitobe's life and thought were collected in John F. Howes, ed. Nitobe Inazo: Japan's Bridge Across the Pacific (Westview, 1995). Full biography in English is: George M. Oshiro, Internationalist in Pre-War Japan: Nitobe Inazo, 1862-1933 (UBC PhD. Thesis, 1986); and in Japanese by the same author: Nitobe Inazo, Kokusai-shugi no Kaitakusha (Chūō Daigaku Shuppanbu, 1992). The most detailed account of Nitobe's life after his tenure in the League of Nations, available in English, is: Nitobe Inazo, The Twilight Years, by Uchikawa Eiichiro (Kyobunkwan, 1985).
His portrait was featured on the Series D of ¥5000 banknote, printed from 1984 to 2004.
- "What is important is to try to develop insights and wisdom rather than mere knowledge, respect someone's character rather than his learning, and nurture men of character rather than mere talents."
- "If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful."
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- Works by Inazo Nitobe at Project Gutenberg
- Nitobe Memorial Garden biography of Inazo Nitobe
- Nitobe Memorial Museum, Towada city, Iwate
- Nitobe, Inazo | Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures (National Diet Library)
- For a concise full biography of Nitobe in Quaker pamphlet, see Bridge across the Pacific : the life of Inazo Nitobe, Friend of justice and peace by Tadanobu Suzuki; Argenta, B.C. : Argenta Friends Press, 1994. (Canadian Quaker pamphlets ; 41) ISBN 0920367364.
- Tomoko Akami, Internationalizing the Pacific: The United States, Japan, and the Institute of Pacific Relations in War and Peace, 1919-45 (London; New York: Routledge, 2002): 82-85
- "Esperanto and the Language Question at the League of Nations"
- Akami, Internationalizing the Pacific: 193-94.