Rereading “Shūyō” by Nitobe Inazō

Society Culture

After discovering that Central Compilation and Translation Press in Beijing had published a Chinese translation of Shūyō (Cultivating the Mind) by Nitobe Inazō (1862–1933), I decided to reread that book. I was keen to see how the translators, Wang Cheng and Chen Yu, had rendered it into modern Chinese.

Not Your Average “Success Story”

On the sleeve of the book, which was published in May 2009, there is a promotional blurb that says: “A book that will inspire you.” This did not leave me with a good impression, I must admit, because I’ve encountered countless books in China making a similar claim, Most of those books are “success stories”—where the criterion for success is nothing more than becoming a celebrity. 

I felt some relief, though, when I read the next sentence of the blurb: “This book is unlike other books offering tips for business success. Instead, it offers advice on how to have a successful personality.” I think this sentence is apt. Passages throughout Shūyō deal with the issue of how to determine your aims in life, and the second chapter is dedicated to this topic. The book’s subject matter is not exclusively about business success; the author says explicitly that fame and prestige should not be the aim self-improvement. Nitobe repeatedly emphasizes that fame and fortune can eat away at a person’s mind and body. His philosophy is that moral training is all about self-control. In some ways, his book is the opposite of the typical books on achieving business success.

Self-Control at the Heart of Nitobe’s Philosophy

Nitobe seems to have realized how difficult it is to actually exercise self-control, and that it is an ability that can’t be gained on your own. He frequently referred to, and drew inspiration from, the story of the suffering of Christ. Nitobe believed in the need for outside help, and that faith provided people with a power that could exceed their normal capabilities. According to Nitobe, life is not only about personal interaction; there is also a relationship with a higher being. An awareness of this higher being, and preserving that relationship, allow a person to overcome the desire for fame and worldliness, thereby avoiding the pendulum swing between exultation one moment and shame the next. The more insults and pain you endure, the more you will be filled with courage and faith, Nitobe argued.

It is certainly true that Nitobe’s way of thinking was greatly influenced by his Christian faith. But his reference to a higher being is not limited to the God of Christianity; it could also refer to the Amitabha Buddha or Shinto gods. He believed in transcendental religious and spiritual existence.  

Shūyō fits into the ideological lineage Japan’s pursuit of modernization, with Nitobe emphasizing ”self-control” as a pious, solemn devotion to truth. Shūyō takes on fresh meaning for readers today, living as we do in an age where individualism reigns.

(Originally written in Chinese on June 26, 2012.)

literature translation Nitobe Inazō Chinese Wang Shuyo Christianity philosophy self-improvement Zhongchen