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  • Nitobe and Royce: Bushidō and the Philosophy of Loyalty
  • Mathew A. Foust (bio)

In recent years, scholars have increasingly paid attention to the philosophy of Josiah Royce (1855–1916). Long lost in the shadow of fellow classical American figures (e.g., Emerson, Peirce, James, and Dewey), Royce’s philosophy has enjoyed a renascence, with a spate of publications in a variety of venues studying and applying his thought.1 Like his philosophical brethren, Royce wrote on a wide variety of subjects, his discussions underpinned by a smattering of influences. Much has been remarked of the various Western sources that made an impression on Royce’s thought, but comparatively little has been said of his indebtedness to Eastern sources. Kurt Leidecker’s Josiah Royce and Indian Thought2 and Frank M. Oppenheim’s “Royce’s Windows to the East”3 stand as notable exceptions, with Oppenheim’s more recent treatment offering a more comprehensive “chronological survey of Royce’s increasing interest in things Asian.”4 Still, Oppenheim gives only passing attention to the influence of Japanese thought on Royce’s philosophy.5 Here, I would like to extend the literature on Eastern influences on Royce’s thought by focusing on what is arguably the most distinctive facet of Royce’s thought: his ethical theory, centered on the virtue of loyalty. In particular, I would like to add detail to what is at present a very sketchy account of the interest that Royce took in Bushidō 武士道 (“the way of the warrior”). Oppenheim casts Royce’s interest in Bushidō in these terms:

After 1904–1905, when the Japanese shocked the world with their amazing victory over the Russians, many Americans turned eagerly to learn more about these “little people.” Not surprisingly, then, in his most popular work, The Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), Royce showed he had gained some familiarity with Japanese thought. He was fascinated by the vigorous ethical life of the Samurai who lived by “that old moral code Bushido which [Inazo] Nitobe has called ‘the soul of Japan.’”6

Nitobe’s book Bushido: The Soul of Japan was originally published in 1900, more directly on the heels of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). The surprising events and outcome of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), however, undoubtedly played a role in the book’s reaching its tenth English-language pressing in 1905. Indeed, in his first allusion to Bushidō in The Philosophy of Loyalty, Royce indicates that some interest has recently been turned toward “things Japanese,” resulting from admiration of the “absolute loyalty” of the Japanese to their national cause in the midst of “their late war.”7 [End Page 1174]

While a good deal of attention has been paid to the interest in Bushidō in England8 and China,9 less attention has been paid to American interest. Royce’s attraction to the subject of Bushidō is characteristic of the interest in Japan taken by New Englanders of his time. As Christopher Benfey observes, “Old Japan”—“Japan as New Englanders imagined it before it was ‘opened’ to Western visitors and trade in 1854”—gained appeal among New Englanders due to “a longing for a more rooted connection to the soil, and for the aesthetic and spiritual satisfactions of a simpler life.”10 In the wake of the devastation of the American Civil War, and in the midst of rapid industrialization, New Englanders saw in the traditions of Old Japan an admirably austere and aesthetically cultivated lifestyle. At the same time, the unexpected military prowess of the Japanese provoked dual sentiments of awe and trepidation. The Japanese were an unknown commodity, and for various reasons Americans wanted a clearer understanding of them.

By and large, accounts of Japan had come to the West from fellow Westerners who had occasion to visit that country. Almost inevitably, their accounts treated Japan as an exotic entity. Nitobe, on the other hand, was an insider, a Japanese interpreting his culture to the West. His fluency in English and agility with Western texts and ideas facilitated his acting as a bridge across the Pacific. Any New England intellectual interested in Japan would have been drawn to Nitobe’s book. As for Royce, it is not...