THE IDEALS OF THE EAST, by Okakura Kakuzo. Tokyo: ICG Muse Inc., 2000, 250 pp., 1,300 yen.
This is a meticulous reprint of the 1904 American edition of one of the first important works on Japanese aesthetics in English. It was the initial book from its writer, later famous for “The Book of Tea,” and it had a wide influence, both artistic and political, on the appreciation of Asian arts.
Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913) was very much a product of the Meiji Era that he so revolted against. No slogans about progress and enlightenment for him. He thought that Japan was already enlightened — and by the East, not by the West.
“Asia is one,” is the famous first sentence of this book and in the introduction this continent is described “not as congeries of geographical fragments . . . but as a united living organism, each part dependent on all the others, the whole breathing a single complex life.”
This led to the further conclusion that “the Asiatic races form a single mighty web,” and that a major strand is Japan itself. Okakura’s is the country that is “the real repository of the trust of Asiatic thought and culture.”
This is because a certain “tender simplicity,” a “romantic purity,” tempers Japanese art, “differentiating it at once from the leaning to monotonous breadth of the Chinese, and the tendency to the overburdened richness of Indian art.” Asia may be one, but this Japanese aesthete is already seeing signs of major differences.
Okakura was making this case for Japanese singularity because he needed to, living at a time when his countrymen were throwing Japanese culture overboard as they swam to overtake the West.
Inspired by his teacher, Ernest Fenollosa, a man who agreed with him about the importance of Japanese art, he later helped found the Tokyo National University of the Fine Arts, the first to include the arts of Japan in a Western-style curriculum. He was also appointed curator at the Imperial Museum, founded what became the leading art magazine, and later became director of the Oriental section of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he did so much to enlarge both the collection and foreign appreciation of the arts of Japan.
The first draft of this book was, fittingly, written in Calcutta, when Okakura was staying with Rabindranath Tagore. Fittingly, because the Japanese aesthete was at the time leading a somewhat nomadic existence, having experienced difficulties in Japan.
Not only had he been perceived as expounding an unpopular artistic cause, he was also high-handed in its application. He insisted on a school uniform modeled on medieval flowing robes, he arrogantly rode a horse to his art school, and he had an affair with (and a child by) the wife of the ambassador to the United States.
Ostracized in Japan, the expatriate Okakura put all of himself (and his country) in “The Ideals of the East.” Subtitled “With Special Reference to the Art of Japan,” it posits a privileged position for the ungrateful country. Japan was to prove itself a leader in pan-Asian spirituality and thus successfully counterbalance the demands of the materialistic West.
The author also accepted the conventional dualism of the time: Asia was feminine and spiritual; the West was male and material. And Asia, being one, was unfragmented, unlike Europe.
Nonetheless, singular as it was, Asia needed a guide. This was Japan’s privilege, nay, duty. It had already exhibited a “national mind” from earliest times. As early as the Heian Period, it had “completed the apprehension of the Indian ideal.”
Now, in Meiji, there was an opportunity to express it further. “That constant play of colour which distinguishes the religious and artistic life of the nation . . . returns to us here in all its glory, like the fresh verdure of a rain-swept summer.” (It is passages such as this that prompted the original publisher to include a note — here retained — politely pointing out that “this book is written in English by a native of Japan.”)
Despite the stylistic excesses, the hovering “national mind,” and the unexamined social assumptions, Okakura’s book makes a number of valid points. They all make artistic sense. At the same time, however, they all have political applications. Okakura himself indicated this in his next book, “The Awakening of Japan” (1904) — a volume that I very much doubt will ever be reprinted.
Here we can see the beginnings of what eventually became the Pacific War. The national mind turned from quiet pan-Asian thoughts to the thundering theme of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. No longer the painter’s brush, but the soldier’s gun.
How much Okakura perceived of what was occurring to his “ideals of the East” (they were turning into politically manipulated “Asian values”) is unknown. He seems to celebrate Japanese prowess on the battlefield in this second book, yet in his third, “The Book of Tea” (1906), he complains that the West regarded “Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace; but calls her civilized since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields.”
In any event, he himself played no social or political role. After Boston he returned to Japan and retired to a small village on the coast. He died when he was only 50 and thus never had to witness the political antecedents of the World War I debacle and the World War II disaster.
That his artistic ideas proved capable of political manipulation proves nothing about the ideas — any thought may be politically manipulated. At the same time, positing a leadership role involves some political risk. Among the interests of this welcome reprint is the insight it offers, however unknowingly, into the process.
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