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Kakuzo, Okakura

Category: Genius

Okakura Kakuzō (岡倉 覚三  February 14, 1862 – September 2, 1913) (also known as 岡倉 天心 Okakura Tenshin) was a Japanese scholar who, according to Wikipedia ‘contributed to the development of arts in Japan’. Outside of Japan, he is chiefly remembered today as the author of The Book of Tea.

This is obviously correct, but does not quite capture what Okakura was attempting to achieve.  Okakura was exposed to western culture from an early age.  Born in Yokohama to parents originally from Fukui, Okakura learned English while attending a school operated by Christian missionary, Dr. Curtis Hepburn; and at 15, entered Tokyo Imperial University, where he studied under Harvard-educated professor Ernest Fenollosa.  He was invited by William Sturgis Bigelow to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1904 and became the first head of the Asian art division in 1910.  Okakura also researched Japan's traditional art and traveled to Europe, the United States, China and India.

And what he saw was a threat and a threat of enormous proportions on the spiritual cohesion and unity of the East – the threat being the West. 

The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will see in the tea ceremony but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him. He was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilised since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields. Much comment has been given lately to the Code of the Samurai, --the Art of Death which makes our soldiers exult in self- sacrifice; but scarcely any attention has been drawn to Teaism, which represents so much of our Art of Life. Fain would we remain barbarians, if our claim to civilisation were to be based on the gruesome glory of war. Fain would we await the time when due respect shall be paid to our art and ideals.

If you read the section on Shinto, you will see that before the influence of, principally, American culture upon Japan, Japan had a spiritual system that was probably unequalled in its richness and cohesion.  Both India and China rivalled it, but the systems were more fragmented, being older and being the product of much larger countries and populations.  Japan was unique, and Japan was about to lose the pinnacle of its arts, culture and spiritual heritage.

His book on Asian artistic and cultural history, "The Ideals of the East with special reference to the Art of Japan (1903)" , published on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War, is famous for its opening paragraph in which he sees a spiritual unity throughout Asia, which distinguished it from the West:

Asia is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life.


The arrival of the Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry and the forcible opening of Japan to Western trade in the mid 1860s was effectively destroying the culture of Japan. When the United States Navy ended Japan's sakoku policy, it also ended its isolation, and Japan found itself defenseless against military pressures and economic exploitation by the Western powers.  From this time – called the Meiji period which extended from September 1868 through July 1912 – Japanese spiritual culture collapsed.  And Okakura was a witness to that collapse.  He was born at the start of the decline and lived until the religion became a state apparatus – a mechanism of attaining and retaining power - and all the rich cultural heritage of the nation had crumbled.

There is little one man can do against the onslaught of determined aggressive nations and a political system that sees the advantage of a new order [the Emperor had never had the power he had under the new regime before.  The shoguns had been the principle source of power].  But Okakura did his best and became the thorn in the side of the new administration.

 In 1889, Okakura co-founded the periodical Kokka. In 1887 he was one of the principal founders of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (東京美術学校 Tōkyō Bijutsu Gakkō), and a year later became its head.  Later he was ousted from the school in a political struggle. Then he founded the Japan Art Institute with Hashimoto Gahō and Yokoyama Taikan.  When one institution was taken over, he simply founded another.

Okakura was also astute enough to realise that not all westerners were happy with the lack of spirituality and imperialistic ambitions of its political leaders.  He used his command of English to try to influence the West.  He tried to show in simple terms [thus reaching the largest audience] how important Asian culture was and how it was relevant to the world at the time.  He used art and literature to do this.  The art of Japan is full of spiritual richness, as such by using art as his example, he was exposing the West to both the beauty of the East’s art and the spirituality it embodied.

In his book "The Awakening of Japan", published in 1905 (after Japan's success in the Russo-Japanese war) he argued that "the glory of the West is the humiliation of Asia….we have become so eager to identify ourselves with European civilization instead of Asiatic that our continental neighbours regard us as renegades—nay, even as an embodiment of the White Disaster itself."

In some respects, Okakura failed.  Although Okakura is credited with "saving" Nihonga - painting using traditional Japanese techniques, few Japanese painters use this style today.  But he may have achieved a different form of success.  Japanese paintings of the age of spirituality are now widely known and sought after by western collectors; and people like me have immersed themselves in the beauty of the spiritual culture that was Japan and revelled in it – not just the art, the poetry, gardens, clothes – everything.

And a new style of spiritual art has emerged in Japan in the form of artists like Yayoi Kusama.

So he did not halt the decline, but he opened people’s eyes to the possibilities and here he succeeded.

The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

When will the West understand, or try to understand, the East? Why not amuse yourselves at our expense? Asia returns the compliment. … Our writers in the past--the wise men who knew--informed us that you had bushy tails somewhere hidden in your garments, and often dined off a fricassee of newborn babes! Nay, we had something worse against you: we used to think you the most impracticable people on the earth, for you were said to preach what you never practiced.....
Unfortunately the Western attitude is unfavourable to the understanding of the East. The Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive. Your information is based on the meagre translations of our immense literature, if not on the unreliable anecdotes of passing travellers. It is rarely that the chivalrous pen of a Lafcadio Hearn or that of the author of "The Web of Indian Life" enlivens the Oriental darkness with the torch of our own sentiments. …..
What dire consequences to humanity lie in the contemptuous ignoring of Eastern problems! European imperialism, which does not disdain to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realise that Asia may also awaken to the cruel sense of the White Disaster. You may laugh at us for having "too much tea," but may we not suspect that you of the West have "no tea" in your constitution?.....

We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.

 Tea and Teaism [in this context] = Spiritual understanding, plus a bit more

The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

Charles Lamb, a professed devotee, sounded the true note of Teaism when he wrote that the greatest pleasure he knew was to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident. For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal.
It is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humour itself,--the smile of philosophy.
All genuine humourists may in this sense be called tea-philosophers,--Thackeray, for instance, and of course, Shakespeare. The poets of the Decadence (when was not the world in decadence?), in their protests against materialism, have, to a certain extent, also opened the way to Teaism.

Was he a genius or was he a mystic?  We will never know.

References


  • The Ideals of the East (London: J. Murray, 1903)
  • The Awakening of Japan (New York: Century, 1904)
  • The Book of Tea (New York: Putnam's, 1906):

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