Masonry vs the Japanese Government

The Gentleman’s Agreement

Saburo Katagiri PGM, Grand Lodge of Japan

In 1885, a Scottish lodge was founded in Nagasaki,[1] bringing the number of Masonic lodges in Japan to seven.[2] In 1887 (or the 20th year of the Meiji Era), the Japanese Government passed legislation to deal with the political confusion of the time, purging several influential politicians from the Tokyo area.[3] Among those ordered to quit the capital were Yukio Ozaki and Tohru Hoshi. They were opposed to the rapid introduction of Western ideas into Japan; a policy which, they claimed, would adversely affect traditional Japanese culture. The legislation also required police approval for all public meetings, both indoors and outdoors.

The legislation was eventually rescinded in 1898, and was no more than a minor episode in the turbulent political history of the Meiji Era. It was, however, to have a major effect upon the future of Masonry in Japan.

When the new law came in effect, foreign Masons in Japan were, for the most part, unconcerned. Under international treaty, Japanese law did not apply to foreigners, and all criminal incidents involving foreigners came under the jurisdiction of a “Consuls’ Court” formed by a committee of consuls residing in Japan.

In 1894, however, the United Kingdom and Japan signed a Treaty of Commerce and Navigation which, among other things, granted the citizens of each country full access, and hence full accountability, to the legal system of the other nation.[4] With other countries expected to follow the United Kingdom's lead, the members of Masonic bodies in Japan began to feel concern for the privacy of their meetings.

They asked Bro. W. H. Stone, District Grand Master (DGM) for the United Grand Lodge of England, to talk to the Foreign Minister of the Japanese Government, with the aim of obtaining permission to hold Masonic meetings without police supervision. Bro. Stone succeeded in obtaining this permission, but in return had to promise that the Masonic bodies would not admit Japanese citizens, nor would they have any contact with the Japanese community at large. The agreement was on an oral basis.

Although no relevant records have, as yet, been discovered in the archives of the Japanese Government, some written evidence remains on the Masonic side:


The DGM (Unite) quoted an interesting part of the 29 December 1898 Address of a previous DGM, Bro. Stone: “As during the course of the coming year, in accordance with the revised Treaties concluded between this Empire and all other civilized countries, we shall come under the laws of the country in which we live, I think it well to recall to your minds what I mentioned in an address some years ago: 'That, at a specially asked for interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, I had been assured that the Government, from all it had heard on the subject, knew nothing but good of Freemasonry, and looked upon it with friendly eyes.' Some few years later I was given the same assurance. These, to my mind, were perfectly satisfactory.”

A year later, on 29 December 1899, Bro. Stone remarked: “We have now come fully under the laws of the Empire and, whilst there has been nothing whatever to mark the change to us as Mason, I considered it advisable to direct that all public advertisements of meetings etc. should be stopped. Under the general acceptance of the term, an advertised meeting is, to a certain extent, a public meeting, and that is not our aim. We desire to carry on our work quietly and without ostentation and for this reason I am not disposed to encourage or sanction any public display of the Masonic Body.”

(Grand Lodge of Japan. Masonry in Japan: The First 100 Years—1866–1966)

These remarks leave two questions unanswered: who was the Foreign Minister who accepted the request of the Masonic bodies and in what year did it happen? The interview with the Minister must have been before 1898, most likely a few years before, but definitely after 1887. There were only two Foreign Ministers appointed during that period: Shigenobu Okuma and Munemitsu Mutsu. It is also possible that Bro. Tadasu Hayashi could have been party to the interview as he was the Assistant Foreign Minister during this period and was fluent in English. Although he was not a Mason at that time, it is possible that the negotiations might have been a trigger for him to become a Mason in later days.

The “Gentleman’s Agreement” continued till 1941 when the Pacific War commenced.

January 2005

(To be continued)


[1] Nagasaki Lodge No. 710. With the movement of foreign merchants to Kobe, the lodge was unable to sustain regular activities and closed in 1911.

[2] For a list of these seven lodges, follow this link.

[3Hoan-jorei in Japanese.

[4] The Treaty came into force in 1899. (English text)