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.

After their arrival in Yokohama, where there was a cholera scare, Adams and La Farge quickly made their way to the safer mountain resort of Nikko, north of Tokyo, where they took rooms near Fenollosa’s summer house. Adams found Fenollosa’s rigid opinions on Japanese culture—his dismissal of Japanese prints, for example, and hushed veneration of Buddhist art—hard to take. Adams complained of Fenollosa to his friend John Hay: “I wish you were here to help us trample on him. He has joined a Buddhist sect; I was myself a Buddhist when I left America, but he has converted me to Calvinism with leanings towards the Methodists.”

Impressed by the ancient monuments of Nikko (“a sort of Egypt in lacquer and greenth”) and the great Buddha at Kamakura, Adams was put off by much of contemporary Japan, and had particular contempt for its “wooden, jerky, and mechanical” geishas and the pervasive smell of night soil. Okakura, who served Fenollosa and his friends as guide and interpreter, made little impression on Adams. His name is not mentioned in Adams’s dozen letters from Japan, and in The Education of Henry Adams he is referred to as La Farge’s friend. But La Farge, one of the first Western artists to take an interest in Japanese art, was particularly susceptible to Okakura’s charms. Okakura is everywhere in La Farge’s An Artist’s Letters from Japan, including the dedication: “And you too, Okakura San…because the memories of your talks are connected with my liking of your country…and because for a time you were Japan to me.”

In October of 1886, after six months together, all four companions—Fenollosa, La Farge, Adams, and Okakura—boarded a steamer in Yokohama bound for San Francisco. La Farge quickly established Okakura in his New York studio (the first of a series of attractive Asian men who would stay with him), and from it Okakura dispensed advice on incorporating Asian themes in American works of art. Under Okakura’s tutelage, La Farge, who was having trouble completing a large mural for the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street, sketched the inverted fan of Mount Fuji behind the ascending figures of Christ and the apostles. When La Farge struggled with the positioning of the angels, Okakura suggested he draw on the hovering figures of traditional Buddhist painting. When the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens tried to follow Henry Adams’s contradictory demands for a memorial to his wife, Okakura convinced him to base the monument, in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery, on Kannon—the Buddhist deity whose statue in Horyu-ji Okakura had uncovered with Fenollosa so many years earlier.3

On his journey back from the West the following year, Okakura stopped in Washington to visit his former associate in preservationist circles, Kuki Ryuichi.4 The Japanese ambassador to the US and a close friend of Henry Adams (who called him “Cookie”), Baron Kuki asked Okakura to accompany Hatsu, his ailing and unhappy wife, back to Japan. Mrs. Kuki was rumored to be a former geisha from the Kyoto entertainment district of Gion. She was the sort of “traditional” Japanese woman most appealing to Okakura, the samurai’s son. During their month-long journey they had a passionate affair. Roughly nine months after their romantic Pacific crossing, Hatsu gave birth to a son. The liaison with Mrs. Kuki continued during Okakura’s rapid rise in the Japanese arts establishment. In 1890, at the age of twenty-eight, he was named director of the new Tokyo Fine Arts School. He was also appointed curator of art at the Imperial Museum in Tokyo, founded the leading art magazine, Kokka, and helped design the interior of the Japanese pavilion for the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago.

Then, around 1898, Okakura’s prodigious career ran into trouble. This was partly the result of envy, compounded by Okakura’s high-handed and flamboyant personal style. He rode a stallion to the art school, and designed for himself and his students a theatrical school uniform modeled on the flowing robes of eighth-century Japan. The scandal with Mrs. Kuki strengthened the hand of Okakura’s enemies, and he was forced to resign from the School of Fine Arts. Many of his teachers resigned in protest, and joined him in the founding of a new art school, the Japan Art Institute, in which there were no formal classes, and the emphasis in teaching was on encouraging originality. Several of Japan’s leading modern painters—including Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso—emerged from this school, and remained fiercely loyal to Okakura.

Despite generous contributions from Bigelow, the Japan Art Institute had shaky financial support, and Okakura was an indifferent administrator. Wishing to escape the viper’s nest that Japan was becoming for him, and devastated by the punitive treatment of Hatsu by Kuki’s family, Okakura traveled to India in 1901 and spent a year there. This was the beginning of a new phase of his career: twelve years of nomadic wandering as an international celebrity and writer of books for the English-speaking public. Demonstrating his uncanny instinct for cultivating the most influential and interesting people, Okakura lived in Calcutta with the Tagore family, and became a close friend of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.

The two men were a year apart in age—Okakura was thirty-nine, Tagore forty—and they had many things in common. Both were deeply involved with their national traditions and wary of European influences. Both had founded experimental schools on this basis; Tagore’s famous school at Santiniketan opened the year of Okakura’s arrival. Both subscribed to a conventional dualism of the time: Asia as a spiritual and feminine counterbalance to the male materialism of the West. At the same time, they accepted the idea that Western culture might have certain ideas and techniques worth grafting onto their own.5 Isaiah Berlin’s summary of Tagore’s convictions could as easily be applied to Okakura: “Nor is an ancient culture sufficient to keep a modern people going. The new must be grafted onto the old; that is the only alternative to petrification, or the miserable aping of some ill-understood foreign original.”

At the Tagore household, Okakura drafted his first book in English, The Ideals of the East (1903), which opens with the famous line: “Asia is one.” The beginning section and the closing pages hold to this pan-Asian idea (the reverse side of Okakura’s claim that Europe is fragmented), but the middle of the book is given over to a history of Japanese art. Okakura argued that “it is in Japan alone that the historic wealth of Asiatic culture can be consecutively studied through its treasured specimens.” The Ideals of the East had a profound influence in India and Japan, but Okakura was on the move again. Bigelow, aware of Okakura’s troubles in Japan, saw a way for Okakura to work for an American institution where Asiatic culture could indeed be “consecutively studied.”


By the turn of the century, Japan had, for thirty years, been a fantasy world for American aesthetes, and Bostonians in particular regarded it as a sort of exotic suburb of the Hub. Historically connected with Japan by the clipper trade, Boston and Salem had grown accustomed to Japanese porcelain and other decorative objects, and two generations of Bostonians, stretching back to Emerson and Thoreau, had found spiritual sustenance in their image of the East. But Japan had grown up in the meantime. Just as the United States was sending troops into Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, Japan was emerging as an imperial power, with special interests in Korea and Manchuria. It had shown in its successful war with China in 1895 that it would not be pushed around in Asia. Then, on February 10, 1904, after failed negotiations over their respective “spheres of influence,” Japan entered into war with Russia, a war that hardly anyone expected the Japanese to win. On that very day, Okakura boarded a ship in Yokohama bound for the United States.

Okakura immediately made good use of his American contacts. In New York, John La Farge organized at the Century Club an exhibition of the work of the two artists, Taikan and Shunso, that Okakura had brought with him.6 One day Okakura and his companions in their traditional Japanese dress were stopped in the street by a wag who asked: “What sort of ‘nese are you people? Are you Chinese, or Japanese, or Javanese?” Okakura responded, “We are Japanese gentlemen. But what sort of ‘key are you? Are you a Yankee, or a donkey, or a monkey?” La Farge wrote a letter of introduction for Okakura to Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner, now in her sixties, who had opened her private art museum on the Fenway in Boston the previous year. La Farge told Gardner that Okakura was “the most intelligent critic of art, and I might also say of everything, that I know of.” On March 27, Okakura first came to Fenway Court, and whenever he came to Boston after that he and Gardner, her biographer reports, “were much together.”

Okakura’s relationship with Isabella Gardner stoked the rumor mill in Boston high society for many years, though the exact nature of their intimacy is unclear; to her friend and agent Bernard Berenson she described him as “so interesting, so deep, so spiritual, so feminine.” Okakura evidently teased her out of her imperious ways, addressing her as “the Presence of Fenway Court,” and enclosing letters to her cat (“My breast has missed your nightly tread, the table was suddenly large without your prowling presence”). Mary Berenson later reported Gardner as saying after Okakura’s death that he was “the first person…who showed her how hateful she was, and from him she learnt her first lesson of seeking to love instead of to be loved.” Gardner, who had Okakura as her guest, seems to have made no use of his expertise for her museum. The co-curator of the Nagoya exhibition, Anne Nishimura Morse, writes that “Mrs. Gardner appears to have been more captivated by Okakura, the Japanese man, than by Japanese art.”

In March of 1904, less than a month into his stay in Boston, Okakura was appointed adviser on Chinese and Japanese art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Ironically, while Okakura’s relationship with Mrs. Kuki had caused him to lose his job in Japan, a job opened for him in Boston because Fenollosa resigned after an affair with an assistant. Fenollosa, who had established the Japanese department at the MFA in 1890, had left much of the collection undocumented. Okakura, armed with an enthusiastic letter of introduction from Bigelow, went to work in his place. “Okakura is busy at the Museum,” Gardner reported to Berenson, “cataloguing the Japanese things that have been huddled there since Fenollosa’s time, and finds forgeries and forgeries!!! And has great contempt for Fenollosa.”

The Nagoya exhibition, largely made up of objects acquired during Okakura’s tenure at the MFA, makes clear that he was a perceptive and ambitious collector. During his first ten months at the museum, according to Morse, Okakura examined over five thousand paintings, making decisions about their authenticity and date, and identifying “gaps” in the collection that he thought might be filled by further acquisitions. He recognized that the market for Japanese art, increasingly dominated by rich industrialists like Charles Freer in the US and Nezu in Japan, had changed, and that the best finds were not in dealers’ shops but in temples in Japan and China. Buying trips to Japan yielded works of extraordinary quality, including the sculptor Kaikei’s graceful and naturalistic Miroku, the Bodhisattva of the Future (dated 1189), acquired through Okakura’s contacts with monks in Nara and Kyoto, at a time when Buddhist temples were deprived of government support.

By 1909, Okakura was convinced that China, in political turmoil, offered the best opportunities for acquiring masterpieces of Asian art. In collecting ancient ritual jade implements and Taoist sculptures and paintings—including the wry fifteenth-century scroll Three Daoist Transcendents with Toad—Okakura went far beyond his contemporaries’ taste for export porcelain and showed he had witty and idiosyncratic preferences of his own. Not all of Okakura’s identifications withstand current scrutiny, but the number and quality of the acquisitions made during his tenure are impressive.


In November 1904, Okakura published his second book in English, The Awakening of Japan. Nationalistic in tone and argument, the book celebrates Japanese prowess on the battlefield. Gone are the fantasies of pan-Asian spirituality as a counterbalance to Western technology, which had permeated The Ideals of the East. The synthesis of spirit and matter that was to be a worldwide affair, uniting Asia and Europe, had now occurred, Okakura argued, within Japan itself: “the result of a brilliant effort to mirror the whole of Asiatic consciousness.” These themes recur, with more grace but no less intensity, in The Book of Tea (1906), Okakura’s third and most appealing book in English.

Many Western visitors to Japan had commented on the ritual of the tea ceremony, with reverence or ridicule. “I dislike sitting on my heels…,” Henry Adams wrote. “I cannot gracefully touch the ground with my forehead, or suck my breath; or follow the formalities of the Cha-no-yu, or five-o’clock tea, which is the only serious labor of Japanese life.” Isabella Gardner, by contrast, wrote breathlessly to Berenson: “I am still full of the sentiment and flower of the great Tea Ceremony, the ‘Cha-no-yu,’ which was performed here yesterday at 5 PM (candlelight) by Okakura.”

In The Book of Tea, Okakura says little about the step-by-step performance of the ritual: the boiling of water, the greeting of the guests, the minutes of silence, the stirring of the tea with the bamboo whisk, the inspection of the handcrafted tea bowls. He concentrates instead on the meaning of what he calls the “tea cult,” including a fine evocation of the tearoom in which the ceremony is performed. “To European architects brought up on the traditions of stone and brick construction, our Japanese method of building with wood and bamboo seems scarcely worthy to be ranked as architecture.” 7

Okakura’s aesthetic of the imperfect—Teaism, he wrote in his first paragraph, is “a worship of the Imperfect”—and his sustained attack on “uniformity of design” are aspects of what the Japanese call the wabi aesthetic of rustic poverty. Wabi is closely associated with the great sixteenth-century re-interpreter of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu. The wabi tea master preferred flawed and mended objects, and a rough-hewn setting.8 The wabi taste for thatched roofs and unfinished beams was entirely congruent with the American Arts and Crafts aesthetic, so popular in Boston—what Thorstein Veblen snidely called “the exaltation of the defective.”

It is easy to read The Book of Tea as a mere aesthetic treatise, a Ruskinian plea for traditional sensibility in the vulgar and industrialized modern world. But this leaves out the nationalist underpinnings of the book. Early on, Okakura links Western incomprehension of the tea ceremony to the recently completed Russo-Japanese War:

The average Westerner…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 civilized since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields.

Tea, according to Okakura, has a special and parallel meaning for the two young imperial powers, Japan and the United States. “Colonial America,” he remarks, “resigned herself to oppression until human endurance gave way before the heavy duties laid on Tea.” The tea ceremony for Okakura is also a rite of national resistance. Okakura traces the origins of the ceremony to twelfth-century China, when Taoist and early Zen influences raised Song Dynasty culture to a level never achieved again and Song Dynasty practices made their way to Japan with the spread of Buddhism. The Mongol invasion of China, he argued, put an end to the glories of Song culture, but Japan resisted the Mongol invasion, thus preserving the aesthetic superiority lost to China. “It is in the Japanese tea ceremony that we see the culmination of tea-ideals,” Okakura argues. “Our successful resistance of the Mongol invasion in 1281 had enabled us to carry on the Sung movement so disastrously cut off in China itself.”

The Book of Tea suggested to Boston audiences that aestheticism and militarism might be creatively combined. This was a message that Bostonians were eager to hear. In the United States, the artisan and the soldier had often been seen in opposition.9 Okakura suggested a way to reconcile soldier and craftsman. “In the thoroughness and minutiae of our preparations for war,” wrote Okakura, people “will recognize the same hands whose untiring patience gave its exquisite finish to our lacquer.” President Eliot of Harvard, who gave Okakura an honorary degree in 1911, praised the “extraordinary artistic qualities of the Japanese as a race, qualities they exhibit in conjunction with…an unparalleled energy and devotion in war.” “We ought never to have imagined,” he added, “that the sense of beauty harmonized only with softness, fineness, or frailty in the human being.”

Such notions of beauty coexisting in harmony with toughness have a wide appeal. Okakura’s chapter on the ornament-free architecture of the tearoom caught the attention of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had seen Okakura’s interior of the Japanese pavilion in Chicago in 1893. Wright admitted to being “bored to extinction” by the tea ceremony, but on several occasions he said that it was in Okakura’s book that he first came across the idea of interior space that inspired his own “architecture of the within.” “I received a little book by Okakura Kakuzo, entitled The Book of Tea, sent to me by the ambassador from Japan to the United States,” Wright remembered. “Reading it, I came across this sentence: ‘The reality of a room was to be found in the space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and walls themselves.”‘ In a recent book on Wright and Japan, the architectural historian Kevin Nute has argued that Okakura had a lasting influence on Wright.10 For Wright and other American architects in search of a national style, Japan provided a model for stripping architecture down to its essentials—“the elimination of the insignificant,” in Wright’s phrase. Okakura’s description of the streamlined teahouse, with no permanent décor, gave a clear idea of what a new American architecture might look like. “Japan has now done,” Wright remarked, “in her own perfect way, what now lies for study before us.”

Martin Heidegger, in his own rustic wabi world in the Black Forest, also read The Book of Tea. Graham Parkes has recently argued that several of Heidegger’s fundamental concepts are drawn from the German translations of Okakura’s works. A Japanese scholar pointed out that Heidegger’s key term from Being and Timein-der-Welt-sein or “being in the world”—first appeared in the German translation of The Book of Tea. But Heidegger’s ties to Okakura were more intimate still. Okakura may or may not have been the father of Mrs. Kuki’s son, Kuki Shujo—the matter is still disputed—but Kuki, author of an influential aesthetic treatise on eighteenth-century Japanese taste, and an admirer of Okakura, made his way to Germany during the 1920s and worked closely with Heidegger. A major text of Heidegger’s late phase, the “Dialogue on Language,” is in the form of a thinly disguised conversation with Kuki concerning the ethnic and national bases of linguistic expression.11

Martin Heidegger and Ezra Pound, Fenollosa’s follower and literary executor—the names, linked as they are with the rise of fascism and Nazism, raise disturbing questions.12 A wounded and marginalized people cannot be faulted simply for seeking national pride in its own ethnic traditions; but Japan’s transformation from a little country in need of respect to a dominant world power was so rapid that even its Asian admirers, such as Tagore, had to rethink their ideas about the meaning of Japan. By the 1930s, Okakura’s disciple Taikan was delivering enthusiastic speeches to the Hitler Youth and denouncing cosmopolitan tendencies in Japanese art.

Tagore visited Okakura at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in February 1913, the year Tagore won the Nobel Prize. Tagore had admired Japan’s victory over Russia, but was far less enthusiastic about Japan’s imperialist invasions of Korea and Manchuria. (Was this, he may have wondered, what “Asia is one” was meant to entail?) After Tagore left, Okakura felt, as he put it, “a sudden loneliness.” The man who had allowed himself to embody Japan for so many Americans—for Bigelow and Fenollosa and La Farge and Gardner—ended his career isolated and alone, wondering who his true friends were.

The tinge of melancholy never far from Okakura’s prose darkens into gloom in his final letters. Speaking of his remaining connections with Japan, he had once told Isabella Gardner, “I seem to go back to things that do not belong to me.” It was as though in shuttling between East and West he had lost the thread of his identity. His final months were spent tinkering with an opera libretto called “The White Fox,” about a vixen who takes human form to impersonate the woman who was the lost love of her benefactor. At the end, forced to renounce her love, the vixen writes a final note to her beloved. “Her hands turn to paws, and she must take the pen in her mouth to complete the writing.” In the last months of 1913, trying to finish his libretto, Okakura took refuge in a remote coastal village in Japan and soon died of kidney failure. Only fifty years old, he was spared the nationalist debacle of World War I.

This Issue

May 25, 2000