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.