The First Japanese Freemason

M.W.B. James L. Johnston

March 17, 1997 marked the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Japan, a significant milestone of viability for this occidental Fraternity within the uniquely insular and homogeneous Japanese society. To commemorate this event, it might be worthwhile to consider who was "The First Japanese Freemason."

If we go back to the Post-World II era, we find that Tamotsu Murayama became a Master Mason on April 6. 1950 in Tokyo Masonic Lodge No. 125, when most of the Lodges in Japan were under the Grand Lodge of the Philippine Islands.[1] Thus Murayama had the distinction of being the first Japanese to become a Mason in Japan.

Fajardo and Mojica reported that in the Philippines prior to World War II, at least eight Japanese became Masons.[2]

Juzo Seo, the first affiliated Japanese member of Far East Lodge No. 124 in Yokohama in 1949, had been a member of a Lodge in New York City for many years.[3]

If we go further back in time, we find that Viscount Tadasu Haysahi, the first Japanese Ambassador to England, received the Third Degree of Freemasonry on May 29, 1903, in London's Empire Lodge No. 2108.[4] For many years Hayashi was considered to be first Japanese Mason.

Several years ago, the late Cornelius Dulfer, a Past Master of Lodge Hiogo and Osaka No. 498 in Kobe, discovered that two Japanese had become Masons in 1864! Tsune T. Yamada,[5] Christopher Haffner and Frank van Ginket[6] recorded this event in publications not generally available to the average reader, and since additional details on this subject have recently become available, I would like to share the story with you. The two Japanese were Nishi (Shusuke) Amane and Tsuda (Shinichiro) Mamitsu, and due so space restrictions, only Nishi, who became a famous educator, jurist and philosopher, will be considered.

Nishi was born in 1829, the son of a samurai physician who practiced Chinese medicine. This was the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate and Japan's enforced isolation from the rest of the world for over two hundred years, except for a small group of Dutch traders at Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor. In 1853, the same year when Matthew C. Perry, a member of a Masonic Lodge in New York City, made his first trip to Japan, Nishi was sent to Edo to become a rangakusha, an elite group who served as interpreters for conducting business with the outside world via Dejima and translating Dutch books.

In 1854 Nishi relinquished his samurai status (a rather bold move in those days) and received an appointment by the Tokugawa Shogunate to be a Yogakusha.

In 1962 the Shogunate decided to send two Japanese to the Netherlands to be educated in western political science, constitutional law, and political economics. Nishi and Tsuda were selected, and departed in 1863 with Dr. Pompe van Meedervort, a Dutch physician who had established the first teaching hospital for western medicine in Nagasaki. It was decided that the two Japanese would study under Professor Simon Vissering, who taught Political Economy, Statistics and Diplomatic History at the University of Leyden. Vissering's son published his father's diary and correspondence, so there is a full account of the Professor and his two Japanese students.[7] From an initial coolness on the part of Vissering and the students' traditional oriental formality, their association developed into a genuine friendship. Vissering was aware of the long-standing amity between Japan and the Netherlands via Dejima,the students' desire for knowledge, and their likely future participation in Japan's modernization. Vissering finally decided to extend to the Japanese his most significant tribute of esteem—that of Masonic Brotherhood. The Professor was a member of La Vertu Lodge No, 7 of Leyden which dates back to 1757; its members consisted mainly of the teaching staff and students at the University of Leyden. The Lodge's records have remained intact over the years, and the Secretary's minute book for October 20, 1864 indicates that: "In this Lodge has been accepted as E.A.F.M. Shusuke (Amane) Nishi, born in Tsuwano, age 35 ... Mr. Nishi, having signed the required declaration, was brought within the Lodge and made a Mason according to ancient custom; having shown sufficient proof of his constancy, the Brethren decided that he be permitted to see the Light." A similar entry was made one month later for Tsuda. European Masonry considers the initiation which makes the Mason as contrasted to the United States and Japan stressing the Third Degree. it is interesting that the Japanese candidates signed their names twice; first, in widely-spaced script, and then below the script in kanji written horizontally.

The Japanese students continued their studies under Vissering until the end of 1865 when they returned to Japan. After the trip home, Nishi sent Vissering a letter in which he wrote, "... May I, through you, present my compliments to ... your Brother ... I beg to remain, your obedient pupil..." In this sentence there is perhaps a veiled reference to Freemasonry when we consider "Your Brother." The endings of plurals do not exist in the Japanese language and generally give Japanese problems when communicating in western languages, so there is a possibility that Nishi was mentioning the Lodge Brethren when he wrote "Your Brother."

Unfortunately, Nishi and Tsuda had no opportunity to practice Masonry actively after their return to Japan, despite the presence of a Lodge in Yokohama since the summer of 1864. Sphinx Lodge No. 263, an Irish Military Lodge attached to the 20th Regiment of Fort (Lancashire Fusiliers) had been stationed in the Kyoryuchi where it held over thirty meetings from January 1865 to March 1866. My review of the Lodge's minutes did not indicate any Japanese attending the meetings, possibly because entry into the foreign settlement was restricted.

Tsune T. Yamada, wrote, "I think among the leaders ofthe Meiji Restoration and the Meiji Era there must have been some Japanese who were Masons because new ideas and concepts modernized the country ... I sensed some influence of Masonic philosophy ... I thought that at the beginning of the Meiji period there must have been some Japanese who were sent to Europe or the United States and became Masons over there..."

A brief review of Nishi's major achievements reflects that he became the first Professor of International Law at the Kaiseijo which was to become the Department of Jurisprudence at Tokyo University. In 1867 he assisted in restoring the Government of Emperor Meiji. In 1879 he became the head of the Tokyo Academy. In 1882 he was a member of the Genroin and in 1890 a member of the upper house of Congress. Nishi was one of the first Japanese to assert that Western civilization should be the role model for Japan's modernization. He adopted European positiveness through the Meirokusha. He was a leading figure in the Bunmei-Kaika movement to enlighten the nation, and advocated John Mills' inductive logic as the best approach to learning as opposed to the deductive method used by Confucian scholars. In this Hyakuichi-Shinron he urged all Japanese to seek the goals of health, knowledge and wealth without losing the Japanese character, and saw social happiness in men by choosing for themselves as active elements in creating a better society. He coined most of the philosophical words used today in the Japanese language, and is considered the father of Western philosophy in Japan.[8]

How do Nishi's accomplishment interface with the teachings of Freemasonry? Let's review some points of the Grand Lodge of Japan's Declaration of Principles: "Freemasonry is charitable in that it is devoted to the promotion of the welfare and happiness of mankind ... it is benevolent in that it teaches altruism as a duty ... through the strengthening of character it seeks to improve the community ... it teaches philanthropy, enlightenment and orderly liberty ... the true Freemason will act in civil life according to his individual judgement and the dictates of his conscience ..."

I submit that it was serendipitous that Nishi became associated with an individual of Professor Vissering's caliber. Nishi not only received the essentials that were to become the foundation for Japan's modernization, but on a higher plateau, he was the recipient of Freemasonry's moral principles which became a positive and ongoing influence for ethical enlightenment. Despite Japan's previous colonial and militaristic endeavors, during the postwar period Nishi's concepts and Freemasonry received increased emphasis, resulting in "The Japanese gradually seeing Masonry as the continuation of the process of building good citizenship."[9]

From the 1949 to 1952 eighteen commemorative postage stamps were issued featuring Japan's Cultural Leaders. It was most appropriate that Nishi was included in the series.

The Masonic Fraternity in Japan has fittingly recognized Nishi and Tsuda as "The Japanese Pioneers of Freemasonry" by placing their names on the Honor Roll at the Tokyo Masonic Center in Shibakoen.

Nishi's dedication and contributions to his country clearly place him on a level with other Freemasons such as Washington, Franklin and MacArthur of the United States, O'Higgins of Chile, Churchill of England, Rizal and Aguinaldo of the Philippines, Parez of Venezuela, Jaruez of Mexico, Mazzins of Italy, LaFayette of France, Leopold of Belgium and many other Brethren who strived to uplift mankind.


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[1] Peck, Nohea O.A., "Masonry in Japan," (Tokyo, 1966) p.81.

[2] The Cabletow, G.L. of the Philippines, October (Manila, 1984) p.17.

[3] Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Far East Lodge No. 1, (Yokohama, 1973) p.57.

[4] Johnston, James L., "Tadasu Hayashi, The Japanese Diplomat Who Became An English Freemason," The New Age, September (Washington, D.C., 1986) pp.47–50.

[5] Yamada, Tsune, Annual Proceedings, G.L. of Japan, (Tokyo, 1979) pp.29–31; Haffner, Christopher & Van Ginkel, Frank, "The First Japanese Freemasons," Chater-Cosmo Transactions, (Hong Kong, 1980) pp.64–73.

[6] Yamada, Tsune, "First Japanese Freemason?," Masonic Shinbun, Vol. 3, No. 3., (Tokyo 1978) p.4.

[7] Vissering, G., "De Troonsbestijging van den Keizer van Japan: De Relation in outden tijd Holland tot Japan," De Indische Mercuur, (Amsterdam, 1928).

[8] Encyclopedia of Japan, Kodansha, Vol. 6 (Tokyo, 1983) p.14.

[9] Haffner, Christopher, "The Craft in the East." (Hong Kong, 1977) p.305.