Kakuzo Okakura was born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1862. He was an important figure in the movement against the Westernization of Japan towards the end of the 19th century, and became also one of the driving forces behind the recording and cataloguing of Japanese art and culture, and of its export to places like the USA. Okakura studied at the newly-founded Tokyo Imperial University under Ernest Fenollosa, an American who had come to Japan to lecture on philosophy and politics, and found himself falling in love with Japanese culture. Fenollosa had become the most prominent opponent of Westernization in Japan; Okakura worked as his interpreter while he travelled the country lecturing and documenting the Japanese art that had become so devalued at that time in the drive towards Westernization.

Later the two men drifted apart, and Fenollosa returned to America to be curator of Oriental art at the Boston Museum of Fine Art while Okakura struck out on his own as principal of the Tokyo Art School and then founded his own Japanese Art Institution, concerned with conserving and promoting art from throughout Asia. It was a trip to raise funds for this institution that saw Okakura leaving for Boston with a load of Japanese art to sell on the booming markets of the United States. Unexpectedly, he ended up staying in Boston throughout most of the rest of his life; he became there a renowned art critic and lecturer on Asian arts. He produced four books in his time - The Ideals of the East, The Awakening of Japan, The Book of Tea and the posthumously-published The Heart of Heaven.

Okakura was a brilliant historian, and his knowledge of Oriental art was unparalleled in its day. He approached the task of learning and teaching about the art of his continent with a missionary zeal. For all the patience implicit in the tea ceremony that he wrote about with such passion, he could be deeply impatient in his dealings with people. Many found themselves at the sharp end of his razor tongue, and as a teacher he enforced his way of doing things with an iron fist. However, there was also a tender sentimentality about him which comes out in the poetic nature of his work, and his love of the folk tales and minutiae of his own culture and those of the rest of Asia.

During his yearly visit to see his wife and family in Tokyo in 1913, Kakuzo Okakura died of influenza. His passing was mourned on both sides of the Pacific. He is best remembered for The Book of Tea (which I review and reproduce here), a classic work on Japanese aesthetics and tea which tackles its subjects with a rare warmth and clarity.


The information in this writeup is almost all gleaned from Everett F. Bleiler's excellent introduction to the Dover edition of The Book of Tea.

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