If you’re into books about tea, you’ve probably at least heard of The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzō (岡倉覚三), from 1906.
Nowadays he is mainly known in the West because of that book.
But few people realize his important contribution to the arts of Japan.
The Japanese usually refer to him as Okakura Tenshin (岡倉天心), which is his artistic name.
The father of modern Japanese art
Okakura Kakuzō was born in Yokohama in 1863.
His father, Okakura Kakuemon, was a merchant of raw silk.
Since Yokohama was an important port for international trade, Kakuzō is said to have been exposed to foreign languages at an early age.
He first studied the English language at a school opened by Christian missionary Curtis Hepburn. Kakuzō was 6 years old at the time.
As a side note, this was the Meiji era of Japan (1868 – 1912).
The country was becoming industrialized and many things were changing quickly.
For example, many temples became impoverished because they had been funded by feudal lords in the past, but now the new government had other priorities.
Thus, the temples that were still standing had to cheaply sell many of the valued works of art that they had.
Kakuzō entered the Tokyo Kaiseijo (which is now the University of Tokyo) in 1874, and studied political science and finance.
There he met Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor of philosophy and political science.
Although Fenollosa didn’t have an art degree, he liked to paint and collect works of art as a hobby.
During those days, there was a growing market for Japanese art, so Fenollosa bought whatever he could even though he couldn’t tell if he was buying original paintings or not.
One big problem tha Fenollosa had was that although he could speak Japanese, he was unable to read it.
Since Kakuzō’s English was so good, he ended up becoming Fenollosa’s asistant. That’s how Kakuzō started to evaluate works of art.
At 16 years old, he married Ooka Noriko.
He graduated in 1880 and was hired in the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. Fenollosa also joined, so they both continued to work together.
During those days, Japan didn’t have a single art museum, nor a formal art institution as in the West. Besides that, Japanese works of art had little domestic demand and were being sold cheaply overseas.
Essentially, Japanese arts were in a state of decay while Western arts were being highly prized in Japan.
In 1884 Kakuzō and Fenollosa were dispatched to survey ancient art in Nara, since the country was taking its first steps in protecting its cultural assets.
More than 100,000 items had to be evaluated, mainly at temples. Many of these would be later designated as national treasures.
One of their most important discoveries was the Kuse Kannon, a wooden statue from around 1,400 years ago that had been wrapped in cloth and locked down in a room of Horyu temple since the 13th century.
Two years later, Kakuzō and Fenollosa were sent to Europe and the United States in order to learn about how to establish an art school.
Finally, in1889 Kakuzō became one of the main founders of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (東京美術学校).
He was named the school principal the following year. Fenollosa became the vice principal.
Kakuzō had radical ideas regarding what steps Japanese art should take, for example how to differentiate itself from Western influences instead of embracing them, while at the same time striving for creativity as opposed to copying what has worked in the past.
Needless to say, not everyone agreed with him, so a power struggle started to take form in the school.
Becoming an international personality
In 1883 he spend a year in China, since that country has a longer history than Japan and much of the arts of Japan had originally come from there.
However, he felt that China had been heavily influenced by Western art, while Eastern art wasn’t having as much impact outside Asia.
He also learned that China was under colonialism from Europe.
Kakuzō felt sadness for his fellow Asians that were being mistreated around the world.
The internal problems at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts had made two parties, people who were loyal to Kakuzō and those who wanted him to leave.
So he quit in 1898 and created the Japan Art Institute (日本美術院).
Unfortunately, the new style of painting that Kakuzō was promoting proved to have very little demand in Japan.
As time went by, the institute entered into a financial crisis.
Oddly enough, Kakuzō decided to travel to India at such a critical time.
He thought that since Buddhism came to China from India, then Indian art must be the origin of it all.
His trip lasted from 1901 to 1902.
As with his trip to China, he felt that it was unfair that India had been colonized by the West.
He published his first book, The Ideals of The East, in 1903. It was written in English.
It was one of the first books to introduce Asian art to the West.
In 1904 he traveled to the United States.
First he went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The museum had a large collection of Japanese art that needed to be organized. For example, many of the artists and dates were unknown.
So Kakuzō managed to complete that task thanks to his great understanding of Japanese art.
This brought him much fame in the West.
He met many influential people and did some Japanese art exhibitions, as well as lectures on the subject.
Many of the paintings from his students sold in the US for about 20 times their market price in Japan.
His next book, The Awakening of Japan, was published in New York that year.
It was an attempt to introduce Japan to the West, at a time where xenophobia was common, and many people thought that the “yellow” race (Asians) were a threat to world order.
Kakuzō reasoned that since people knew very little about Japan, their ignorance quickly turned into fear.
So by explaining the history of Japan and the like, he could perhaps start to turn around that negative perception.
His next book, also written in English, was the most famous: The Book of Tea (1906). It was published in New York.
Through Sadō (the tea ceremony), Kakuzō explains the Japanese culture and ideals of beauty.
Even today, this book remains relevant and continues to be read.
When Kakuzō returned to Japan, the Japan Art Institute was in a deplorable state.
As part of the institute’s revival effort, it was moved from Tokyo to Izura in Ibaraki prefecture.
In 1910 he became the curator of the Department of Chinese and Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Then he would travel to Europe and India again.
In 1913, at 50 years old, he felt sick and returned to Japan. He passed away in September 2.
After his death
Okakura Tenshin Memorial Park was opened in Taitō city, Tokyo,1967.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, made a Japanese garden in 1988 named Tenshin-en.
In 1997, the Tenshin Memorial Museum of art was inaugurated in Kitaibaraki, Ibaraki prefecture.