Who Was Okakura Kakuzo (The Book of Tea Guy)?

Tea is a work of art and needs a master hand to bring out its noblest qualities. We have good and bad tea, as we have good and bad paintings–generally the latter. There is no single recipe for making the perfect tea, as there are no rules for producing a Titian or a Sesson. (Okakura Kakuzo)

Okakura Kakuzō in 1898 (Wikipedia image)
Okakura Kakuzō in 1898 (Wikipedia image)

As noted in my recent article on The Book of Tea – which looked at its many editions – it’s hard to think of a tea book that’s been more influential than this 1906 work. But can you name another book by Kakuzo? Or (without using Google) name one fact about the author that’s not directly related to this volume?

Who was Okakura Kakuzo and what did he do with himself, given that it probably didn’t take a lifetime to write this slim book? The Book of Tea and the other two volumes Kakuzo wrote were published near the end of his relatively short life. Born in 1862, he died in 1913 at the age of 51. Seven years earlier he’d penned The Book of Tea and prior to that wrote his other two books – The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan (1903) and The Awakening of Japan (1904).

It’s safe to say that Kakuzo’s life was primarily devoted to art. He founded a prominent Japanese arts academy and was affiliated with others, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. It’s been a while since I’ve read the author’s best-known book, but based on my recall and a quick re-read recently, it seemed to me was that he wasn’t all that interested in tea. Which sounds odd, given the title of the book. Perhaps I should say that he didn’t seem interested so much in tea as a beverage. Or, as one commentator put it, The Book of Tea “finds its proper place within the series of attempts Okakura made to describe a history of art.”

What Kakuzo seem more interested in was tea as a cultural artifact and as an art form. None of which should be surprising, given his expertise in that field, particularly when it came to Japanese art. In the book, the author makes a number of statement about tea and art, including “like Art, Tea has its periods and its schools” and “thus the tea-master strove to be something more than the artist,–art itself.”

But perhaps the most telling comment about the author’s thoughts comes in his opening statement, “Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism–Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.”

For more on Kakuzo’s thoughts about art, refer to this lecture he gave at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in the 1890s. For more on Kakuzo, check out this article.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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One thought on “Who Was Okakura Kakuzo (The Book of Tea Guy)?

  1. Pingback: The Best of the English Tea Store Tea Blog in 2013 | Tea Blog

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