Okakura Kakuzō

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Okakura Tenshin
Okakura Kakuzō in 1898
Born(1863-02-14)February 14, 1863
DiedSeptember 2, 1913(1913-09-02) (aged 50)
Other namesOkakura Kakuzō

Okakura Kakuzō (岡倉 覚三, February 14, 1863 – September 2, 1913) (also known as 岡倉 天心 Okakura Tenshin) was a Japanese scholar who contributed to the development of arts in Japan. Outside Japan, he is chiefly remembered today as the author of The Book of Tea.[1]


The second son of Okakura Kan'emon, a former Fukui Domain treasurer turned silk merchant, and Kan'emon's second wife, Kakuzō was named for the corner warehouse (角蔵) in which he was born, but later changed the spelling of his name to different Kanji meaning "awakened boy" (覚三).[2]

Okakura learned English while attending a school operated by a Christian missionary, Dr. James Curtis Hepburn, of the Hepburn romanization system. At 15, he entered the newly renamed Tokyo Imperial University, where he first met and studied under Harvard-educated professor Ernest Fenollosa.

In 1889, Okakura co-founded the periodical Kokka.[3] In 1887[4] 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, although he was later ousted from the school in an administrative struggle. Later, he also founded the Japan Art Institute with Hashimoto Gahō and Yokoyama Taikan. 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 was a high-profile urbanite who had an international sense of self. In the Meiji period he was the first dean of the Tokyo Fine Arts School (later merged with the Tokyo Music School to form the current Tokyo University of the Arts). He wrote all of his main works in English. Okakura researched Japan's traditional art and traveled to Europe, the United States, China and India. He emphasised the importance to the modern world of Asian culture, attempting to bring its influence to realms of art and literature that, in his day, were largely dominated by Western culture.[5]

Okakura Kakuzō

His 1903 book on Asian artistic and cultural history, The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan, 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 distinguishes 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.[6]

In his subsequent book, The Awakening of Japan, published in 1904, he argued that "the glory of the West is the humiliation of Asia."[7]: 107  This was an early expression of Pan-Asianism. In this book Okakura also noted that Japan's rapid modernization was not universally applauded in Asia: ″We have become so eager to identify ourselves with European civilization instead of Asiatic that our continental neighbors regard us as renegades—nay, even as an embodiment of the White Disaster itself."[7]: 101 

The Book of Tea

In his The Book of Tea, which was written in English in 1906, he states:

It (Teaism) insulates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

Okakura's health deteriorated in his later years. "My ailment the doctors say is the usual complaint of the twentieth century—Bright's disease," he wrote a friend in June 1913. "I have eaten things in various parts of the globe—too varied for the hereditary notions of my stomach and kidneys. However I am getting well again and I am thinking of going to China in September."[8] In August, 1913, "Kakuzo insisted on going to his mountain villa in Akakura, and finally his wife, daughter and his sister took him there by train. For a week or so, Kakuzo felt a little better and was able to talk with people, but on August 25, he had a heart attack and spent several days in great pain. Surrounded by his family, relatives and his disciples, he passed away on September 2."[9]


In Japan, Okakura, along with Fenollosa, is credited with "saving" Nihonga, or painting done with traditional Japanese technique, as it was threatened with replacement by Western-style painting, or "Yōga", whose chief advocate was artist Kuroda Seiki. In fact this role, most assiduously pressed after Okakura's death by his followers, is not taken seriously by art scholars today, nor is the idea that oil painting posed any serious "threat" to traditional Japanese painting. Yet Okakura was certainly instrumental in modernizing Japanese aesthetics, having recognized the need to preserve Japan's cultural heritage, and thus was one of the major reformers during Japan's period of modernization beginning with the Meiji Restoration.

Outside Japan, Okakura influenced a number of important figures, directly or indirectly, who include Swami Vivekananda, philosopher Martin Heidegger, poet Ezra Pound, and especially poet Rabindranath Tagore and heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner, who were close personal friends of his.[10] He was also one of a trio of Japanese artists who introduced the wash technique to Abanindranath Tagore, the father of modern Indian watercolor. [11]


  • 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)

See also[edit]

Translation of work in Esperanto.


  1. ^ 'Ambassador of Tea Culture to the West' (biography of Okakura), Andrew Forbes and David Henley, The Illustrated Book of Tea (Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books, 2012).
  2. ^ Horioka Yasuko, The Life of Kakuzo (Tokyo: Hokuseidō Press, 1963), 3.
  3. ^ Gosling, Andrew (2011). Asian Treasures: Gems of the Written Word. National Library of Australia. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-642-27722-0.
  4. ^ founding of Tokyo University of the Arts
  5. ^ Rupert Richard Arrowsmith, "The Transcultural Roots of Modernism: Imagist Poetry, Japanese Visual Culture, and the Western Museum System", Modernism/modernity Volume 18, Number 1, January 2011, 27-42. ISSN 1071-6068.
  6. ^ Okakura, Kakuzō (1903). The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan. London: J. Murray. p. 1.
  7. ^ a b Okakura, Kakuzō (1904). The Awakening of Japan. New York: The Century Co.
  8. ^ Okakura to Priyambada Devi Banerjee, 28 June 1913, in Okakura Kakuzo: Collected English Writings, vol. 3, p. 207.
  9. ^ Horioka Yasuko, The Life of Kakuzo (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963), 90.
  10. ^ Video of a Lecture discussing the importance of Japanese culture to the Imagists, London University School of Advanced Study, March 2012.
  11. ^ THE FIRST WATERCOLORIST OF MODERN INDIA Sagnik Biswas in Watercolour Artist, June 2021

Additional sources[edit]

  • Bharucha, Rustom. Another Asia: Rabindranath Tagore and Okakura Tenshin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-19-568285-8.
  • "We Must Do a Better Job of Explaining Japan to the World". Asahi Shimbun, August 12, 2005.
  • Benfey, Christopher. The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan. New York: Random House, 2003. ISBN 0-375-50327-7.
  • Okakura Kakuzo, The Illustrated Book of Tea. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books. 2012. ASIN: B009033C6M
  • Westin, Victoria. Japanese Painting and National Identity: Okakura Tenshin and His Circle. Center for Japanese Studies University of Michigan (2003). ISBN 1-929280-17-3

External links[edit]