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Whatchamacallit 162: Boys, Be Ambitious

Boys, Be ambitious

My last big, fun, international trip was to Japan, which I mentioned in Whatchamacallit 85: Japanese Vase – there I talked about Okinawa, which was pleasantly warm and sunny.

At the other end of Japan I visited the Sapporo Snow Festival – where temperatures were decided cold, with weather ranging from sunny and extra cold to snow so dense it was hard to see more than a 20-30 meters in front.

It was there I learned about “Boys, Be ambitious” – on the folder it is attributed to Nitobe Inazō, but now I steal from the Hokkaido University Library’s website on the phrase:

“Boys, be ambitious! Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that a man ought to be.”

These words seem to have spread from an edition of the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” column from March 16, 1964. The column referenced a book, Research on Educational Thought in the Early Meiji Period (1944) by Eijiro Inatomi, and introduced its translation of Dr. Clark’s words; “Boys, be ambitious. Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that a man ought to be.”

In the column, the concept of ambition was described as an ethical question that denies wealth and honor in favor of internal virtue. These ideas relate to one interpretation by people who emphasized their orientation to God and said, “Boys, be ambitious in God.”

However, there seem to be several points that suggest it is unreasonable to attribute these words in full to Dr. Clark. First, “Boys, be ambitious!” is said to be the parting utterance of Dr. Clark, who was on horseback at the time, to students seeing him off in Shimamatsu on his departure for home (as described in books written by Masatake Oshima, a student who entered Sapporo Agricultural College in its first year).

Oddly, nowhere on that page does Nitobe Inazō’s name appear – so why is it on this folder?

Who knows?

I do, however, like the sentiment, even if it is (historically speaking) sexist – a better version would be “Hey y’all – be ambitious.”

Or maybe, “Be excellent to each other.”

But that lacks ambition.

For now, the folder remains, so far, a not yet used artifact of my vacation in Sapporo.


During the Covid-19 crisis, I am going to try and make a point of writing a blog post about an object in my home.

We’ll see how long this lasts.

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