Lit Lite

Nitobe Inazo, born in 1862, was not only a notable agricultural scientist, botanist, economist, author, educator, diplomat, and politician. He was well versed in Confucian philosophy, Japanese and Chinese history, Latin literature and Christian Scriptures. He wrote highly literate books in English, German and Japanese. Here is a random paragraph sampled from his most famous book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan.

“Again, in Japan as in Europe, when feudalism was formally inaugurated, the professional class of warriors naturally came into prominence. These were known as samurai, meaning literally, like the old English cniht (knecht, knight), guards or attendants—resembling in character the soldurii whom Caesar mentioned as existing in Aquitania, or the comitati, who, according to Tacitus, followed Germanic chiefs in his time; or, to take a still later parallel, the milites medii that one reads about in the history of Mediaeval Europe. A Sinico-Japanese word Bu-ké or Bu-shi (Fighting Knights) was also adopted in common use. They were a privileged class, and must originally have been a rough breed who made fighting their vocation. This class was naturally recruited, in a long period of constant warfare, from the manliest and the most adventurous, and all the while the process of elimination went on, the timid and the feeble being sorted out, and only ‘a rude race, all masculine, with brutish strength,’ to borrow Emerson’s phrase, surviving to form families and the ranks of the samurai.”

This book was written in English by Nitobe in 1900. The extent of his multi-cultural learning more than a century ago is obvious. In a span of a few sentences, he makes references to old English, Roman history, Medieval history, Sino-Japanese etiology and Emerson. If you read on, you will find that his book is loaded with more amazing examples of learning. This was in an era in which Japanese scholars used, not the modern 2,500 ideograms in current usage, but the full breadth of the over 8000 ideograms and their combinations just to read and write their own native language. On top of that, they had intimate knowledge of, and as likely as not memorized, the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucian Canon, which was read in Japanese straight off of the original Chinese text. It was only after this education, which in Nitobe’s generation was completed by about the age of ten, that they were allowed to start learning the sciences and foreign languages such as English, German, French, Latin, and Russian, all of which Nitobe studied extensively. He eventually earned five doctorate degrees from universities of North America, Europe, and Japan. He was one of the early proponents of Esperanto, converted to become a Quaker, and even married a Caucasian woman named Mary P. Elkinton in 1891. He was the original multi-cultural scholar.

The volume of his learning stand in stark contrast to the so-called multi-culturalism of the 21st century, in which watching foreign movies with English subtitles passes for a multi-cultural experience. Most professors of our generation would have been rejected as students in Nitobe’s time.

Nitobe was not the only polyglot-polymath of his time. In fact, his level of learning was pretty much the standard. Mori Rintaro, who took on the nom de plume Mori Ogai later in life, rose to the position of the Surgeon General of the Japanese Army before he became immortal as a poet and novelist. He was one of the primary investigators into the cause of beri beri, which was later proven to be a vitamin deficiency. On top of the mandatory Asian Canon, he was versed in several European languages, most notably German. He studied microbiology, one of the cutting edge sciences of his time, on top of learning clinical medicine.

It should not come as a surprise that this level of learning was not limited to scholars of Japan. Academics from China, India, and the Ottoman Empire all studied their cultures extensively before they embarked on studying the arts of Western Europe. And once they started studying the foreign cultures, they did not stop with the humanities but went on to study the religions and sciences as well.

There has been a considerable amount of protestations about the lack of ethnic and cultural diversity in North American academia and publishing, but the entire concept is deplorably Anglo-centric. People are not so much upset that African, Asian, or otherwise Aboriginal perspectives are not being published, but rather that they are not being published in English. Multi-culturalism, as promoted in modern North America, does not involve Americans learning Swahili, but insists on Swahili texts presented to Americans  on a silver platter in English translations. Nobody ever complained about the lack of written texts in Bantu (although that is a significant problem). And nobody seems to see the irony in the fact that the frequently bemoaned lack of cultural diversity is not about too few English speakers writing their works in non-English languages, or about the dearth of North Americans who have studied the Confucian Canon or Buddhist Scriptures in their original languages. It is always about a Puerto-Rican writer, say, not having her perspectives published in English by a North American publisher.

Americans have this weird mind-set in which they think they are complimenting a foreigner when they say “You should immigrate to America”, but believe they are being insulted when they are told to immigrate in the reverse direction. It also, more or less, extend to their ideas about culture. Frankly, this is getting old. True multi-culturalism is not about watching foreign movies with English subtitles. It is not about reading tragic African narratives in the English language. It is not about sitting in the comfortable cocoons of America-centric hypocrisy bemoaning Eurocentric culture while you wait for foreign perspectives to be delivered to you in your native language.

Nitobe Inazo studied his own culture extensively. Then he studied foreign languages and foreign cultures. Then he expressed his ideas in his own language and his adopted languages. That is what a true multi-cultural scholar does. Anything less is multi-culture Lite. Or perhaps even “Literacy Lite”. So snap out of it, step up to the plate, and swing for the benches. Be this guy. Be Nitobe Inazo.

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