I recently made a promise to myself that I would not buy any new books–excepting those that I might be required to buy for professional purposes–until I had read through at least one of the bookshelves on the wall in my office. A little bit less than a third of the way through the first bookshelf, I picked up Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea. Written in 1906, the book is a meditation on the significance of tea and the tea ceremony in Japanese culture. I bought my copy for $3 I-have-no-idea-where-or-how-long-ago because I thought it would be interesting to learn something about the history and cultural import of a beverage that I drink a lot; and when I read the foreword, written by Soshitsu Sen XV (for whose bio you will need to scroll down the page a bit), I was ready to immerse myself in an exploration of tea and the tea ceremony as metaphor:
Chado–literally the way of tea–or chanoyu–widely known as the “tea ceremony”–holds an aura of mystery for many people, but its governing impulse is simple: a small number of friends come together to spend several hours in partaking of a meal, drinking tea, and enjoying a brief respite from the busyness of daily concerns. The guests, passing through a small garden of trees and shrubbery, enter the quiet, intimate space of the tea room, which is shaded from any glaring light….In this tranquility, suggesting the atmosphere of an isolated hut, host and guests recollect themselves, and while carrying on the most ordinary activities of human life, seek to relate to each other and to all the elements of their environment with directness, immediacy, and profound appreciation. (11-12)
I was not prepared, however, for the very political and explicitly anti-racist framing that Okakura provides in his first chapter, which is all I have read so far:
Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others. The average Westerner, in his sleek complacency, will see in the tea-ceremony, but another instance of the thousand and one oddities which constitute the quaintness and childishness of the East to him. He was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while she indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilised since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on the Manchurian battlefields. Much comment has been given lately to the Code of the Samurai–the Art of Death which makes our solders exult in self-sacrifice; but scarcely any attention has been drawn to Teaism [Okakura’s neologism], which represents so much of our Art of Life. (31-32)
I am struck here by Okakura’s anger, which he continues to exhibit in the following paragraph:
We Asiatics are often appalled by the curious web of facts and fancies which has been woven concerning us. We are pictured as living on the perfume of the lotus, if not on mice and cockroaches. It is either impotent fanaticism or else abject voluptuousness. Indian spirituality has been derided as ignorance, Chinese sobriety as stupidity, Japanese patriotism as the result of fatalism. It has been said that we are less sensible to pain and wounds on account of our nervous organisation. (32)
Okakura goes on, however, to point out that this kind of thinking goes both ways. “Our [Japanese] writers in the past–the wise men who knew–informed us that you had bushy tails somewhere hidden in your garments, and often dined off a fricassee of newborn babies! (32-33)” Still, he goes on, “such misconceptions are fast vanishing amongst us. Commerce has forced the European tongues on many an Eastern port. Asiatic youths are flocking to Western colleges, [and while our] insight does not penetrate your culture deeply…at least we are willing to learn,” a quality that stands in stark contrast to “the Western attitude [which is unfortunately] unfavourable to the understanding of the East.”
The Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive. Your information is based on the meagre translations of our immense literature, if no on the unreliable anecdotes of passing travelers. It is rarely that the chivalrous pen of Lafcadio Hearn or that of the author of “The Web of Indian Life” enlivens the Oriental darkness with the torch of our own sentiments.”
Okakura framed The Book of Tea, in other words, as an explicit response to and partial remedy for the West’s, and particularly the English-speaking West’s, ignorance and racism when it came to the peoples and cultures of Asia. That his book is considered a minor classic is evidence that it succeeded, at least in part.
I am looking forward to reading the rest of this volume, but Okakura’s first chapter also reminds me that the attitudes he was confronting have not gone away, not so much because there is still anti-Asian racism–though that is obviously quite significant–but because the patterns of ignorance that he identified are like a template that gets transferred from one hatred to another. Today, in the United States, at least for me, the hatred that most resembles the one Okakura was confronting is that of Muslims, their cultures, histories, and religion. We may not “biologize” this hatred the way people did in the early 1900s, but just about every other aspect of the racism Okakura identifies against his own people is present in the hatred of Islam and Muslims that is all too common not just in our popular culture, but in our political and even intellectual discourse as well. I am in the middle of writing a post about this that will go up within the next week.
It’s amazing how insightful all his generalizations about Westerners are! Especially the ones about Christian missionaries! And how great and detailed his understanding of what our information is based on! *squee* I’m humbled to see how much progress the Japanese had made in understanding and respecting other cultures, decades before they demonstrated it in World War II!!!
But wait, is it the same Kakuzo Okakura who headed the Asian section of the Boston Museum of Fine arts? Whose monographs were taken off the shelves a decade or so ago, because some misguided Russians complained about his views on Slavs? The same guy whose Pan-Asianism writings were used in justifying Japanese imperialism?
Listen, Richard. He was a great Japanese. He loved his country and culture, and I have as much respect for him as I have for any patriot. But pushing him as an example for anti-racism… Seriously, dude.
Thanks for this. I’d be interested in learning more. An admittedly cursory Google search did not turn this information up.
As to the rest of your comment: I realize now that the title of the post is a little misleading, since I was less interested in holding Okakura up as an example of an anti-racist than I was in talking about the train of thought that reading the first chapter of The Book of Tea started in me.
And also, a couple of other things:
But what Okakura wrote, that “the Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive,” is accurate. Missionaries go to other countries to make Christians out of the people there; they do not go there to immerse themselves in a foreign culture for its own sake, nor do they go there to investigate for themselves the meaningfulness, viability, validity, profundity (or whatever) of the non-Christian religions that are already there. The missionaries already know what they think of those religions. I am not suggesting that there weren’t (or aren’t) missionaries who learn a real and great respect for the cultures and traditions of the people they have gone to convert, but the moment their purpose ceases to be to impart Christianity, they have ceased being missionaries.
Finally, the fact that he himself, and even the Japanese “in general” might have had a biased view of us, does not mean that his characterization of the anti-Asian racism that held sway in the West is inaccurate. The anti-Asian stereotypes he names are indeed stereotypes that still hold sway. More, while I am not an expert in the state of translation of Asian works into English during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–and if you are, or if you know of works I might read as reference, I would be very interested in knowing more–based on what I know of the translation of works from Persian into English during that time period, and the cultural attitudes that accompanied those translations, Okakura’s characterization seems to me more accurate than not.
No, I’m no expert. I was in Cambridge when I heard about the controversy from a Russian friend who knew the people who brought up his characterization of Slavs, and I read in the Tech that some Chinese students knew of him as one of authors the ‘Japanese butchers’ carried. And when I went looking after I read your piece, I found some of his writings before and after the war of 1904. He did not think much of Slavs, Chinese, Indians, Koreans, or Manchurians.
Sure, he resented the Western stereotypes. But you could also explain the idea of cultural imperialism with quotes from no one but him. You want national stereotypes? He got them (irrational Russians wallowing in false spirituality) You want the idea of a “supreme race” with “untainted and unbroken sovereignty” that has preserved the ideals trampled in the lands (India/China) that created them? He got that too. Historical imperative for Japan to take unite Asia? In spades.
He was a human, and humans are bastards. Speaking from experience, of course.
Were these pieces of writing online? Could you provide some links? Or titles? Thanks.
Here is one link I found decrying the nationalism found in Okakura’s book “The Awakening of Japan.” ( Forget Okakura
Here is a link to the The Awakening of Japan.
A quick perusal of the final chapter finds Okakura justifying Japan’s militaristic subjegation of Korea and China (as I read it, Okakura is saying “The West made us do it!” though I am probably overstating his case). What isn’t clear to me is where Okakura makes the statements Sebastian mentions.
It is quite possible those statements aren’t available in English.
Read the final chapters of Ideals of the East… I was translating from French, but you can find it for free in English as well. Do a search for “unbroken sovereignty” and you will get a nice explanation how India and China have betrayed the ideals that emerged there, and how Japan, which is a haven for all Asian ideals, has a duty to bring them back to the source.
As for the Russians, everything from the war of 1904, really. Not that the Russians did not screw things royally, but just look at his explanations for their failing. He was a racist and an imperialist. If you want to convince people that treating your neighbors is a bad thing, would you use Goebbels’ writings denouncing Poland’s behavior during the late thirties?
Jay & Sebastian:
Thanks for those references. I will take a look at them as soon as I can.
Thank you for the references. I, too, will take a look at them.
Richard Jeffrey Newman,
I pretty fundamentally disagree with you. We’re probably coming from very different perspectives here: I’m strongly opposed to multiculturalism, and I’m a partisan of European cultural superiority over the cultures of Asia, so to me it makes complete sense that Asians ought to pay more attention to Europe, and have more to learn from European civilization, than the other way round. Regarding Islam: I would draw a sharp distinction between opposition to Muslims as people, and opposition to Islam as a religion. I disapprove of Islam (as I disapprove of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and many other faiths). I think its tenets are mostly false (insofar as they disagree with Christianity), and I hope that Muslims would eventually convert to Christianity (I’d say precisely the same for Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, etc.). That said, in the civil sphere, Muslims deserve the same rights as anyone else.
Others have noted that the writer of this “Tea” book was apparently a racist himself. I’m not qualified to judge that, but I will say it’s interesting he mentions the ‘spirituality of India’. The dominant religion of India, of course, is burdened by apologias for the explicit racism of the caste system, to a degree unthinkable in Islam, Christianity, etc. (Yes, the caste hierarchy is based on race: Razib Khan’s blog is a great resource to look at how caste differences track varying degrees of racial admixture). There are certainly variants of popular Hinduism-as-practiced, particularly in the south, that take no account of caste, and it’s certainly possible to have a Hinduism free of caste. I would say though, that rather than focusing on the evils of the Christian West, Indian Hindus ought to focus on the unspeakable barbarities that go on in their home country, and should think about the civilizational advancements that were brought by Christian missionaries.
As an alternative to what?
Without speaking for you I am guessing that you aren’t using that generally, because there are few people who want to stand behind “the dark ages were WAY better than the Tang Dynasty.” Etc. What on earth do you even mean by that?
And just out of morbid curiosity, are you equivalently versed in the intimate details of all those Asian cultures that you’re discarding, so that you can make a reasonable comparison?
Well, Hector, as you have been so fond of reminding others on this list who have chosen to differ with you, your disagreement is irrelevant to me. You are, of course, entitled to it, but I see no reason to engage it since it is based, fundamentally, in faith (one, it seems to me, that is unaccompanied by any real humility), and is, therefore, not susceptible to reason or argument. I think the positions you take–whether against multiculturalism, in favor of Western superiority, and so on–are astonishingly and ignorantly arrogant, but they are your positions; they give your life meaning; as far as I can tell you are not interested in imposing them, violently or otherwise, on anyone else against their will; and so I will leave you to them and to the meaning and succor you find in them. I’m not going to tell you not to post in my threads, since there are others here who do engage you, but I don’t plan to after this comment.
Gin and Whiskey,
I’m more talking about European cultural superiority at the time of colonial encounters, which I think is the period about which this Tea fellow is writing.
The Asian civilization I’m most acquainted with is India, and I’d certainly say (particularly if you were a woman or on the lowest rungs of society) that medieval Christian Europe even at its worst, was a better place to be than Indiaat it’s best. the amount of sheer savagery that characterized precolonial India was unspeakable, and the experience of colonization certainly benefited India culturally, although it was disastrous economically (including severe famines).
Is there a reason you’re referring to the author as “this Tea fellow” and “the writer of this ‘Tea’ book, Hector_St_Clare, instead of by his name Kakuzo Okakura?
If multiculturalism means that we should acknowledge the multiple cultures that Americans’ ancestry originate from and teach people what they’re about, great. If that means that we should modify the American legal and cultural system to align it’s ideals and philosophies to accomodate them, then I’m dead against it.
If it means modifying the American legal system, I’m dead against it, too, RonF. I’m not even sure what “the American cultural system” is, though. Does that mean, for example, Hollywood voluntarily self-censoring itself so as not to offend delicate sensibilities? I’m generally against that, too, though I’m also often against it if those delicate sensibilities are American.
This kind of Japanese reaction to western imperialism was pretty widespread, and Japanese political and cultural leaders soon hit on a suitable antidote – for Japan to go off on its own imperialist rampage, but to administer its Empire from a pan-Asian, and therefore superior, perspective. Job done!
I think what is meant by ‘modifying the American system’ is the ceaseless propaganda that we are subjected to, to the effect that all cultures are equal.
Leda’s Mom, I’m being deliberately derisive.
If, for example, the Supreme Court were to cite foreign laws as justification for their rulings or as an example of what our laws should be; if legislators would cite foreign laws and practices as a reason to change our laws; or if a local judge would ameliorate a ruling or a sentencing because the culture that a defendant was brought up in was different than American culture.
If a school district would change practices because certain immigrants proclaim that they find it offensive.
That’s such a wide category, though. If a school district is doing something that is derogatory or hateful to someone else’s culture, why should they not change it? On the other hand, if it’s something fairly neutral, someone just coming in doesn’t have any real right to say, “But, but, but, you should do it our way.”
Though I’m curious what you mean when you say “certain” immigrants. Is that some sort of comment about where they’re from, or implying that some immigrants would have more right to object to something than others?
The answer becomes more clear if you take a step back:
Under what circumstances should a school district change its behavior because a person claims that it upsets them, offends them, or makes them feel bad?
The answer to the general question (whatever yours may be) should IMO be the same answer as when the person claims that they’re upset/offended as a result of “culture.” IOW, the fact that some particular offense stems from someone’s claim to culture/religion/etc. should have no particular bearing on whether or not we decide to change it.
Every immigrant (and citizen) has the same right to object. Some of them might usually lose.
I don’t claim to be an expert on worldwide culture. But obviously, if cultures are different then some of them will be more or less aligned with USian values. All opinions deserve equal consideration, but some opinions may end up on the losing side of the decision more often than not.
Your question does more than take “culture” out of the equation, though. My question was “If a school district is doing something that is derogatory or hateful to someone else’s culture, why should they not change it?” There’s a wide range of things that people might find offensive or unpleasant that aren’t in any way insulting toward their race, religion or culture.
Because sometimes the statements that are offensive to someone’s culture happen to be, uh, *true*. ‘Hindus used to burn people alive and throw rocks at people from the wrong caste who drank at there well’ happens to be true, however much it may hurt some people’s feelings to acknowledge it.
Well, hopefully they would have a good reason. For example, they would believe that teaching evolution as correct and creationism as wrong is correct, even if that is considered derogatory by someone whose culture supports creationism.
Perhaps I’m misreading KellyK’s comment regarding statements that are “derogatory or hateful to someone else’s culture,” but I took from it not that she thought saying “Hindu’s used to burn people alive” would be problematic (I don’t really know very much about Indian history so I guess I’ll assume that’s true for the moment), but that saying “Hindu’s used to burn people alive because they were less civilized, sophisticated, moral and more barbaric, savage, primitive, etc people and/or culture” would be a problem. Especially if the fact that Medieval Europeans loved to burn people at stakes as well wasn’t mentioned.
With all due respect, your comment epitomizes *exactly* the sort of multiculturalist, cultural egalitarianism I find so depressing and revolting.
What RonF actually wrote was this:
It’s interesting to me that the conversation is equating “practices” with “curriculum,” and I think it’s a mistake to do so. Curriculum changes as knowledge changes, and is and is not included in curriculum is always going to be contested territory, for both the ideological reasons that G&W hints at with his example about creationism versus evolution and reasons of inclusivity and cultural perspective as illustrated by the exchange between Hector and Dragon_Snap. I obviously have my own opinion about both those exchanges, but I think it is more interesting to ask a different kind of question about how far school’s should go in accommodating other cultures. So, for example, in a community where there is a large population of, say, observant Jews and/or Muslims, and the parents object to certain kinds of coeducational activities, should the school accommodate that.
Or–and I know this to be a true story–imagine a gym teacher who gets a note from a Korean student’s parent asking that the student be excused from wearing gym shorts because the student “received discipline” the previous evening and so had bruises on this legs. The family had been in the United States only a very short time, less than a year I believe, and the parent was trying to save the student the embarrassment. Should that teacher report the parent as he or she is , in most places that I know, required to do? (And just to be clear: I am not suggesting that the parent’s actions should be tolerated; clearly the parent needs to understand that such behavior is unacceptable here and that there are consequences for it. I am asking a question about how far you would be willing to stretch to accommodate the fact that the parent needs to be educated about our cultural practice.)
These, it seems to me, though I could be wrong, are the kinds of practices Ron was probably referring to.
As the child of public school teachers, I would like to observe that school districts change practices on the regular because “non-immigrants” proclaim that they find it offensive. See also: banning certain books, eliminating sex ed, continuing to enshrine Christian religious holidays in school celebrations, etc. etc. ad nauseum.
I am someone who continually and reliably fights against that kind of shit. I don’t think it’s OK just because the shitty stuff happens to be attached to a minority religion, culture, or individual. (And I’m not saying that you do, either. But there’s certainly a group on the liberal side who seems willing to treat those things differently.)
The answer is simply “no farther than they should go for any reason which doesn’t stem from culture.” And generally that is pretty limited: one crucial aspect of our schools is that the are “training grounds for a melting pot.”
to use a few examples, starting with the one you gave:
1) where there is a large population of, say, observant Jews and/or Muslims, and the parents object to certain kinds of coeducational activities, should the school accommodate that?
No, because that type of gender separation is antithetical to our morals and we would not generally allow it. Moreover, it has an effect on people other than the observant folks and is therefore doubly inappropriate.
2) where there is a large population of, say, observant Jews and/or Muslims, and the parents request that the school be closed for some of their major holidays, should the school accommodate that?
I wouldn’t say it “should,” but it’s inoffensive if it does. There’s no particular difference between one school day and another: if the administration expects half the school to be out on a certain day then it’s reasonable to schedule that as a holiday. There’s no real effect on anyone else, at least none which is distinguishable from giving a Jewish/Muslim kid a vacation on Xmas. This would require a clear policy with fixed numbers. It’s not “we close the school for all religious holidays,” but rather “we close the school on days where parents have informed us that greater than 1/3 of the enrolled student body will be absent.”
3) where there is a large population of, say, observant Jews and/or Muslims, and the parents request that the school offer hamburgers as well as cheeseburgers, and that it put the Italian sausage on the side rather than sticking it on top of the pasta.
Perfectly reasonable to do so, even though the request stems from religious beliefs and/or culture. Even though it’s reasonable, the school has no particular obligation to say yes: schools turn down reasonable requests all the time.
4) where there is a large population of, say, observant Jews and/or Muslims, and the parents request that the school forbid students from consuming pork products in the cafeteria.
Not OK, because it is intruding on the other students. My right to eat bacon is the same as your right not to be near it.
Re: 2) where there is a large population of, say, observant Jews and/or Muslims, and the parents request that the school be closed for some of their major holidays, should the school accommodate that?
For the record, I grew up in a town which was about 1/3 Jewish (probably more so in my section of it), and the public schools absolutely did close for Jewish holidays (At least in elementary school, I don’t recall in high school, but I could probably look it up if you’re really curious).
Re: Should that teacher report the parent as he or she is , in most places that I know, required to do?
Me either, FWIW. I just thought it was bizarre and kind of offensive that RonF’s comment seemed to be implying that only immigrants ask for their culture to be respected/included/accommodated/tiptoed around. And given Hector’s predilection for declaring his disdain for “multiculturalism,” I wanted to highlight that this is not a “special rights” kind of situation.