First Japanese Freemason?

Tsune Teddy Yamada, PGM

Who was the first Japanese to become a Mason? This is a very interesting question for us Masons. The Japanese Masons are naturally very much interested to find out who was the first Japanese Mason. It is not just a matter of interest to Masonic historians. It is a matter of far greater importance to the Japanese Masons and to the Japanese in general. By finding out the first Japanese Mason or Masons we can trace the lineage of our Masonic forefathers. Who was the first Japanese Mason? And who followed him? Who were they? If those Japanese Masonic forefathers by their thoughts and actions had left their influence upon the thoughts of the Japanese people and upon the course of our nation, it would be a great discovery.

But to find out who was the first Japanese Mason is not so easy. To find out that a man of the past was a Mason, at first we need some leads. The typical leads are:

  1. We receive information that a person said or wrote, in his life time, the he was a Mason.
  2. We receive information that a person’s relatives and friends said or wrote that he was a Mason.
  3. By studying the thoughts and actions of a historical person, sometimes we get the impression that the person might have been a Mason.

In the past in Europe and in the United States, we have had cases of individuals who claimed themselves to be Masons—but actually they were not. They were impostors. And there have been cases that the relatives and friends of an individual thought he was a Mason but in fact he was not.

Wolfgang von Goethe was a Mason. People believed his closest friend — Friedrich von Schiller (another great writer of that time and who wrote the hymn of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, “Alle Menschen werden Bruder” [all men will become brothers]) — was a Mason. So far we can not prove that Schiller was a Mason.

To prove that a person was a Mason, we need evidence. And the evidence comes only from the records of the Lodge he belonged to.

In Japan until the end of World War II, there was no Lodge that accepted a Japanese member. So the first Japanese Mason must have been initiated in some Lodge overseas. And until Commodore Perry came to Japan, Japan was a closed country to foreigners, except the Dutch who were allowed to trade at the port of Nagasaki. Some of them were allowed to live on a small island in the port area of Nagasaki.

At that time the Japanese people were not allowed to go out of the country. Famous Shoin Yoshida was punished to death, because he tried to go out of the country. He tried to get on board a ship of the fleet of Commodore Perry and wanted to go to the States to study. He was handed over to the officials of the Shogun’s government and then executed. After the visit of Commodore Perry, the Shogun's government allowed some officials to go abroad on some missions. They were on official business of the government of the Shogun; however, they were exceptions and the people were prohibited to leave the country.

In the modern history of the world, American Independence was a great event. So was the Meiji Restoration of Japan. One hundred and ten years ago (1868) we had the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Before that time Japan was ruled by a Shogun. But there were many states (provinces) or Han ruled by feudal Samurai lords. These states or Han’s were more or less kingdoms within an empire. With the decline of the power of the Shogun, the Samurais of Choshu and Satsuma rebeled against the Shogun. The Samurais of these two Han's fought, under the banner of the Emperor, against the Samurais of the Shogun; and defeated them. The office of Shogun was abolished and the rule of the Shogun was ended. A new Government was formed, the Samurais of Choshu and Satsuma had the key positions in the new government, and there were others who cooperated with them. Soon the feudal Han states were abolished. Japan was divided into many Ken or prefectures and the Government appointed a governor in each Ken or prefecture. Japan made a great step to modernize the country.

We know that among the leaders of the American Independence there were many, many Masons. I think that among the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, and the subsequent Meiji era, there must have been some Japanese who were Masons — because new ideas and new concepts were introduced to Japan to modernize the country. It was the day of great enlightenment. In the famous words of Yukichi Fukuzawa “Heaven did not create men to be put over other men and the Heaven did not create men to be put under other men” — I sensed some influence of the Masonic thought. Fukuzawa was one of the leaders of the enlightenment movement of Meiji and was the founder of Keio University.

So far the first known Japanese Mason was Count Hayashi, who was the Ambassador of Japan to the United Kingdom. He was made a Mason while he was in England. I thought there must have been some Japanese who, at the end of the days of the Shogun’s rule or at the beginning of the Meiji, were sent to Europe or to the United States and were made Masons over there. But this was only my guess.

July 28, 1978 will remain a very memorable day for me. I was invited by RWB Lassleben to a lunch party in honor of the visiting WB C. Dulfer. WB Dulfer is a current reigning Worshipful Master of a Lodge in the Hague. He was a Master of an English Lodge in Kobe. I used to know him.

At the luncheon WB Dulfer told me that a Japanese was made Mason in 1864 in a Lodge in Leyden and another Japanese was made a Mason in the following year in the same Lodge. I was astounded! He showed me a copy of the record of that Lodge. In the record it was written that a Japanese name Shusuke Nishi was initiated in 1864 and there was the signature of Shusuke Nishi in Chinese characters. I was thrilled in seeing the signature. He was no other person than that of the very famous jurist and philosopher who at the end of the days of the Shogun and in the era of Meiji greatly contributed to the modernization of Japan and has left great influence on the thoughts of the Japanese people — Mr. Amane Nishi.

Shusuke was the child name of Mr. Amane Nishi. At that time it was customary to change one’s name when they came to a certain age. Mr. Nishi dropped the suffix of his child name, retained the first Chinese character of his child name ‘Shu’ but pronounced it as Amane. He was born in 1829 and died in 1897. He was born in a family of a medical doctor. He studied Chinese classics since childhood. In 1853 he was sent to Edo, former name of Tokyo, to study the Dutch language, by the order of the Lord of his native province or Han, Tsuwano. The following year, to study the English language, he severed his tie with his native province and became a free man in Edo. At that time it was a very bold step to cut the tie of one’s own province.

He was appointed by the government of the Shogun as a researcher in the School of Study of Foreign Books. In 1862 he was sent to Holland by the Shogun to study jurisprudence and economics. He came back to Japan in 1865 and was appointed as Professor of International Law at Kaiseisho which later became the Department of Jurisprudence of the Tokyo Imperial University. I myself studied at the department of the Tokyo Imperial University and majored in International Law. I saw his portrait displayed at our school as the first Professor of International Law.

Mr. Amane Nishi was one of the foremost leaders of the enlightenment movement of Meiji. He was a philosopher too, and coined almost all the words of philosophy in the Japanese language which are used today.

Source: Masonic Shimbun, Tokyo. December 1978. Page 3.