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Okakura Kakuzō

Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) was a Japanese scholar. He contributed to the development of arts in Japan. Outside Japan, he is mainly remembered as the author of The Book of Tea (1906).

His parents were originally from Fukui. Okakura learned English at a school operated by Christian missionary, Dr. Curtis Hepburn. At age fifteen, he entered Tokyo Imperial University. There, he studied under Ernest Fenollosa (1853 – 1908).

In 1889, Okakura co-founded the periodical, Kokka. In 1887, he founded the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (東京美術学校). A year later, he became its head. He later left the school due to an administrative struggle.

Okakura also founded the Japan Art Institute, together with Hashimoto Gahō and Yokoyama Taikan. He was invited by William Sturgis Bigelow to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1904. There, Okakura became the first head of the Asian Art Division.

Okakura had an international self-identity. He wrote all of his main works in English. Okakura researched Japan’s traditional art. He traveled to Europe, the United States, China and India. He emphasized the importance of Asian culture to the modern world. Through Okakura, Japanese culture influenced the world of art and literature, which were largely dominated by Western culture at that time.

He wrote a book titled, The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan. It was about Asian artistic and cultural history. It was published on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War (8 February 1904 – 5 September 1905) . It is famous for its opening paragraph in which he describes a spiritual unity across Asia. This unifying spirit distinguishes Asia from the West:

“Asia is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilizations, 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.”

His next book, The Awakening of Japan, was published in 1904. In it, he argued that “the glory of the West is the humiliation of Asia.” Okakura also explained that Japan’s rapid modernization was not appreciated everywhere 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.”

In Japan, Okakura is credited with saving Nihonga from being replaced by Yōga. (Nihonga are traditional Japanese paintings, and Yōga are Western-style paintings.) He supported the preservation of Japan’s cultural heritage. He fought to protect Japan’s traditional art forms from the westernization and modernization of the Meiji Restoration.

Outside Japan, Okakura had an impact on many important figures, both directly and indirectly. These people included Swami Vivekananda, philosopher Martin Heidegger, and poet Ezra Pound. He had especially great influence on poet Rabindranath Tagore, and heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner, who were close friends of his.

Please view from 0:12:25 to 1:08:22 of the following video for the relationship of Okakura with Tagore.

Supplementary readings:



 Okakura (Japanese) and Rabindranath

On 16th April 1902, Rabindranath wrote to Jagadish Chandra Bose that Nivedita had introduced him to a Japanese scholar, Okakura Kakuzo.  He had thus gained a friend. He came of a renowned family, namely Samurai. From his very child he had deep interest in art and culture.As a member of Imperial Art Commission of Japan, he visited Europe and America in 1886. He was made Pricipal in New Art School in Tokyo when he came back from his tour. Due to some presure to follow the European style in that school, he resigned and founded a new Institution, ‘Hall of Fine Arts’ (Bijitsu-in) in 1897, with some of his students. He had enormous influence as a member of the Head of Imperial Archeological Commission. Okakura met Miss Maclaud, one of the follower of Swami Vevekananda, who published the famous book of Okakura, namely Ideals of the East. The main subject of this book was to expand the influence of India in describing Eastern Culture to the whole world.
Many important persons of Japan were eager to bring Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu Monk,  to Japan since he fostered the prestige of Asia in Europe and America. As a token conveyance fare he sent Rs. 300 for bringing Swamiji to Japan in June 1901. But it was not possible for him to go due to his broken health and the immediate responsibilities of the Math.  Along with the young devotee, Harisun and Miss Maclaud, Okakura after a long tour of different places came to see Swami Vivekananda at Belur Math on 6 January 1902. Okakura was introduced to Nivedita some time in March 1902.
Mrs. Oli Bul arranged a party at American Consulate in honour of Okakura. In this party, at the initiative of Nivedita, Surendranath Thakur got acquianted with Okakura and became his follower. After a long time, in August 1936, Surendranath described this incident in journal, The Viswabharati Quarterly. But due to political reason he suppressed many facts there. As a result, the story of Rabindranath and Okakura remained unpublished. This incident was unearthed by Abanindranath subsequently.
Rabindranath invited Okakura to Shantiniketan and he also accepted the invitation. The friendship between Rabindranath and Okakura was deep and lasting. At the request of Srish Chandra Majumdar, Rabindranath acquisitioned a piece of land in Bodhgaya for Okakura and met him in Boston, USA, in 1913.  He stayed in Okakura’s house when he went to Japan. Rabindranath offered flowers to the memory of Okakura in Japan.




The awakening of Japan (1904)

The Ideals of the East (1903)




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