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Tea with Okakura

Okakura Tenshin and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston October 23, 1999-March 26, 2000.

an exhibition at Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Nagoya, Japan,, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Saeko Yamawaki, by Nobuko Sakamoto, by Makiko Yamada, by Hitomi Sato
Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 238 pp., $29.95 (paper)

The Book of Tea

by Kakuzo Okakura
Kodansha International, 160 pp., $10.00 (paper)

Commodore Matthew Perry’s historic “opening” of Japan in 1854 did not open up very much. Many American ships had run short of supplies or foundered near Japan’s xenophobic shores, which had been closed to foreigners since the Shogun’s declaration in 1639 that Christians were a menace to Japan. Perry’s sailors put on a minstrel show, the Japanese countered with a sumo match, and a treaty was signed—at gunpoint, more or less. But hospitality was slow in coming to what Melville in Moby-Dick called “that double-bolted land, Japan.”

Even after the restoration of the Emperor Meiji in 1868, and the subsequent efforts to modernize along Western lines, Japan controlled its image in the West. Visitors who wished to venture beyond the “treaty ports” of Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki had to follow carefully laid out routes, and stay in the same few Western-style hotels. The journey by rail and rickshaw from the burial shrines of Nikko, past the views of Fuji in Hakone, and on to the temples of Kyoto became as familiarly exotic as the journey up the Nile. A few foreigners, hired to teach their expertise to the Japanese, acquired a more sophisticated sense of Japan than a couple of weeks and a guidebook allowed. But for most Westerners, Japan remained a secretive island with strange customs and impeccable taste.

World’s fairs and art museums gave Japan further opportunities to stage its reputation abroad. Such achievements as the high rate of literacy in Meiji Japan could be publicized in exhibits, but the Japanese quickly learned that it was their excellence in art that most impressed foreign audiences—and foreign buyers. Millions of Americans first became aware of Japanese arts and crafts at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The well-to-do Bostonian Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow reported to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, “This exposition does not amount to much—Outside the Jap. dept. I have not seen a thing so far…that I ever want to see again.”

Bigelow, a shy homosexual with a penchant for behind-the-scenes intrigue, stopped practicing medicine six years later and moved to Japan, where he stayed eight years,1 amassing a huge collection—more than 15,000 Japanese paintings and objects—which he bequeathed to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1890. Bigelow helped to inspire a remarkable group of New Englanders and their Japanese associates, including, most importantly, Ernest Fenollosa and his disciple Kakuzo Okakura, who made Boston the center of the late-nineteenth-century vogue in the United States for Japanese things.

Last May, as if to underscore the longstanding relationship between New England and Japan, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts opened an outpost in Nagoya, a historically important but charmless industrial city between Tokyo and Osaka. With spectacular holdings in Asian and nineteenth-century French art (especially Monet and Millet, those passions of the Japanese), the MFA had much to offer a Japanese city. In exchange for extended loans of art works and curatorial advice, Nagoya built a new museum—a handsome civic building with subtle allusions to Boston—to display them.

The first exhibition at Nagoya on a Japanese subject was devoted to Kakuzo Okakura (1862-1913), a leading Meiji-era cultural figure who had distinguished careers in both Japan and Boston. A cosmopolitan traveler, equally at home in China, India, and Europe, and blessed with an extraordinary gift for languages, “Tenshin” (or “heart of heaven,” the honorific name by which Okakura is known to the Japanese) was a perfect cultural ambassador for an insecure Japan. He was a connoisseur, an art historian, a spiritual guru, and author of the cult classic The Book of Tea. The Nagoya exhibition clarifies one significant period in Okakura’s life, from 1904 to 1913, when he headed the MFA’s Japanese section, then (and now) the greatest and most comprehensive repository of Japanese art outside Japan. It was during this period that Okakura emerged as a celebrity, the very embodiment of Japan in dress and deportment, in the Boston of his most enthusiastic patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner. The show did little to explain Okakura’s earlier life and apprenticeship, however, or how this restless curator became a significant influence on a surprising group of artists and writers, including John La Farge, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Heidegger.


Okakura was born in 1862 in Yokohama, the port city of Tokyo. He learned English as a child at a local Christian mission school while studying classical Chinese at a Buddhist temple. In 1873, Okakura’s father, a silk merchant and former samurai, moved the family to Tokyo. At the age of fifteen, Okakura enrolled in the Faculty of Letters at the newly founded Tokyo Imperial University, where he studied under Ernest Fenollosa, the decisive intellectual influence of his life. A native of Salem, Massachusetts, and a recent graduate of Harvard, Fenollosa had been invited to Japan to teach philosophy. He dutifully taught Emerson and Hegel to Okakura and the rest of his students, but he soon became more interested in the traditions of Japanese culture than in his own. Fenollosa didn’t go native to the same degree as his good friend Lafcadio Hearn, who adopted Japanese dress and a Japanese name, married a Japanese, and became a Japanese citizen. But by the early 1880s Fenollosa had become convinced that Asian art was as valuable and as continuously evolving as Western art.

He became acquainted with government circles in Japan, converted to Buddhism, and pleaded for the preservation of Japanese art and artistic methods at a time when, in the craze for Western things, the use of the traditional brush and ink was prohibited in the schools.2 Inspired by Fenollosa, Okakura published in 1882 (when he was twenty) a passionate defense of calligraphy as a fine art; this carried the day with Meiji officials, who had previously excluded calligraphy (since it had no Western counterpart) from government-sponsored art exhibitions.

During the summer of 1884, Fenollosa and Okakura made an extensive survey of the art collections of Buddhist temples. An imposing man with a Vandyke beard, Fenollosa cast himself in the heroic role of the discoverer of ancient cultures, bullying priests into uncovering treasures that had been under lock and key for hundreds of years. His discovery of an eighth-century gilded statue of Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy, in the temple of Horyu-ji outside of Nara, has become legendary. In Okakura’s words:

The priests said that opening the gates would certainly produce a clap of thunder…. And when we began to open the gates they were so afraid that they fled. When we opened the shrine gates, the stench of almost one thousand years assailed our nostrils. Brushing aside the cobwebs, we saw a low table…. When we cleared this aside, there, directly before us was the sacred statue which measured some eight or nine feet in height. The statue was wrapped in many layers of cloth. Surprised by the presence of human beings, snakes and mice suddenly scampered, frightening us. We approached the statue, and when we removed the cloth wrappings there was underneath a covering of white paper…. We saw behind the white paper the serene face of the statue. This was truly one of the greatest pleasures of a lifetime.

Fenollosa (who in his own narrative referred to Okakura only as “a Japanese colleague”) thought the “almost negroid lips” of the androgynous statue formed a smile “not unlike Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa’s.”

In 1886 the two men were appointed to the Imperial Fine Arts Commission to study methods of art education in Europe and the United States with a view toward establishing a national art academy in Japan. A photograph from this period shows Okakura in a smart European suit, with a fashionable mustache—the cosmopolitan at home in the modern world. Fenollosa and Okakura worked well together during their Japanese and European travels, but their ultimate aims were different, even to some extent at cross-purposes.

Fenollosa wished to preserve Japanese art for the edification of the West. “I must remember,” he wrote in his notebook, “that, however much I may sympathize with the past civilizations of the East, I am in this incarnation [note the Buddhist touch] a man of Western race, and bound to do my part toward the development of Western civilization.” Even as he and Okakura were lobbying in Japan for laws protecting “National Treasures,” Fenollosa was secretly putting together a collection of Japanese paintings destined for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—precisely the activity that the legislation was designed to prevent. It was entirely appropriate that Ezra Pound, Fenollosa’s literary executor, drew on Fenollosa’s writings on Asian literature in order to regenerate American poetic language, most famously in the Fenollosa-inspired poems of Cathay.

For Okakura, by contrast, Japanese art was a vital national tradition, where roots needed cultivating in order to keep the living tree healthy. After he returned in 1887 from his year-long survey of Europe and the United States, Okakura delivered a series of lectures on his findings and their implications for Japanese art. The West was not a monolithic whole, Okakura insisted:

All these countries have different systems; what is right in one country is wrong in the next; religion, customs, morals, there is no common agreement on any of these. Europe is discussed in a general way, and this sounds splendid; the question remains, where in reality does what is called Europe exist!

This stress on national particularity as a challenge to the wholesale adoption of “European” methods and ideas remained central to Okakura’s thought. At the same time he rejected a narrow commitment to merely preserving Japanese national traditions in art. “Conformity is the domicile of bad habits,” he told his audience, echoing Emerson. “Art is a product of past history combined with present conditions. It develops from this fusion of past and present.” Even adopting European techniques (such as oil painting) was acceptable as long as this was consistent with what Okakura called the “natural development” of Japanese art.


During the summer of 1886, as Okakura and Fenollosa were preparing for their fact-gathering journey to the West, the historian Henry Adams and the painter John La Farge arrived in Japan together for an extended visit. Their hosts in Japan were Fenollosa, Okakura, and Bigelow (a favorite cousin of Adams’s wife). Henry Adams had come to Japan, he explained, to buy the hanging scrolls called kakemonos “for my gaunt walls.” The empty house that the architect H.H. Richardson had just built for Adams on Lafayette Square in Washington was waiting, and Japanese scrolls would go well with the Chinese bronzes and Japanese porcelains that Adams, an enthusiastic collector of Asian art, had already assembled. Adams would be alone in the new house. The previous December his wife of thirteen years, Clover Hooper Adams, depressed at the recent death of her father and complaining of not feeling “real,” had swallowed a lethal dose of potassium cyanide, a chemical fixative she had used in her photographic work.

  1. 1

    Bigelow traveled to Japan with the zoologist and collector of Japanese pottery Edward Sylvester Morse, whose lectures on Japan inspired several prominent Bostonians, including the astronomer Percival Lowell, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Bigelow himself, to travel to Japan. Morse taught at Tokyo Imperial University and was director of the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem. An exhibition called “Worlds Revealed: The Dawn of Japanese and American Exchange,” organized by the Peabody and currently on view at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Tokyo, has a good deal of information on Morse, as well as on whaling and the export trade with Asia.

  2. 2

    Van Wyck Brooks, Fenollosa and His Circle (Dutton, 1962); Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa: The Far East and American Culture (Yale University Press, 1963).

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