OKAKURA KAKUZO : Distance Between East and West

It is a great pleasure for me to be given this opportunity to speak about Okakura Kakuzo and the problem of the distance between the East and West.

As you know well, Okakura lived here in Boston a century ago and visited this Gardner Museum very often. For ten years he lived here for a half year, working for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the other half of those years in Japan. Through his friendship with Mrs. Gardner, he must have had many opportunities to think over the meaning of beauty, the values of art, and the distance between the East and West.

Ten years is not a short period of time. His thought matured through his experiences in Boston that must have been outstandingly new. What he gained from his life in Boston must have been tremendously different from what he had experienced in his life before visiting Boston. Furthermore, what is particularly important and vital for us to realize is the fact that Okakura could not share many parts of his harvest from Boston with the people in Japan.

This point becomes clear when we closely examine and compare his various works written in Japan and in Boston.

We can see that there was a difference, or a distance, between the discourses of his last ten years when we compare those written in English with those in Japanese. It is clear that the people in Japan in that period could not understand what he, Okakura Kakuzo, had been thinking while in Boston.

The beginning of the custom of calling Okakura Kakuzo “Okakura Tenshin” arose from the consequences of this distance.

Of course, Okakura had used “Tenshin” as his pseudonym in letters written to intimate friends, members of his family, and as the signature on his poems. But he never used this pseudonym Tenshin in his papers for publication. Rather, he usually used the name Okakura Kakuzo.

In November 1913, the year he died, a big memorial ceremony was held at the Tokyo School of Fine Art 東京美術学校, which served as the National Fine Art Academy. On this occasion a monk gave him the posthumous Buddhist name “Shakutenshin,” 釈天心. Literally translated, shaku means “saint” in the Buddhist tradition. The name “Tenshin” literally means the “spirit of heaven”.

In April 1914, eight months after his death, a new organization, the Nihon Bijutuin, was established by his disciples, including Yokoyama Taikan, Shimomura Kanzan and others.

On that occasion, a shrine for Tenshin 天心霊社 was built in the court of the organization. Thus the basis for calling him Tenshin and the intention to worship him were prepared then.

From ancient times, Japan and the countries of East Asia had maintained a convention of giving a special name to the dead; a posthumous title. For example, Kukai, the monk who introduced mikyo 密教, an esoteric form of Buddhism, to Japan in the ninth century, was called Kobodaishi. Even now we call him Kobodaishi with some familiarity and respect.

Perhaps there was a similar feeling in the case of starting to use the name “Tenshin” when people wanted designate him as a founder and pioneer of modern Japanese painting. However, in the case of Tenshin, we can also see a political intention. By being called “Tenshin,” Okakura was set up on a national pedestal.

Ten years after his death, the political hegemony of Japan came to be controlled by the military authorities and its territorial ambitions toward the continent of Asia had grown. The phrase “The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere 大東亜共栄圏” was invented and was established as the slogan of the nation. In this context, Okakura Tenshin was placed in the limelight as a prophet and poet who declared the ideals of The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. This was done not so much from a political point of view as from a cultural sense, for since the early epoch of the modernization of Japan, known as the Meiji Era, the word “Meiji” has had a special meaning and feeling among the Japanese, in relation to history and the destiny of modern Japan. It is regarded as the epoch that established the starting base of the country’s modernity, giving breath to a new life of a new nation.

From the 1920s to 30s, Okakura Tenshin, who declared “Asia is One,” was regarded as a prophetic symbol; one who led to the destiny of Showa Era Japan.

In 1932 a large statue of Okakura was placed in the campus of 東京美術学校. It was created by Hiragushi Denchu, a disciple of Okakura. On the back wall of this statue the phrase “Asia is One” was engraved. It was placed, firstly of course, to commemorate the founder of this school, but at the same time to honor him as the prophet of Showa Japan who declared “Asia is One” to all the people in Japan.

The engraved words on the back wall are in English; as Okakura Kakuzo himself wrote in the original text. But in the English on the wall there was a change; a slight yet great change: the spelling of “one”, o-n-e, was the same; however, the O in “one” was capitalized.

Okakura never proposed or used this phrase except in his book The Ideals of the East. He never wrote or uttered this phrase in Japanese. In fact in 1913, when an editor proposed to publish a Japanese translation version of this book The Ideals of the East, Okakura rejected the plan because he felt that this book had been written in haste and he was not satisfied with the result. This rejection shows how the author felt about this book. In other words, it shows that he thought little of the value of this book, The Ideals of the East, in the larger context of his thought.

Nevertheless, the phrase “Asia is One” was praised by the people of Japan in the years of 1930s.

Moreover, in Japanese, what has been preserved is not the original language that Okakura uttered, but a version changed into the Japanese language; giving the false impression that Okakura himself wrote it. Consequently, people came to believe that he had prepared this phrase for the birth of the ideals of The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Ten years after the placing of this statue in 東京美術学校, in 1942, a large monument made of stone, created by Yokoyama Taikan, was erected in the garden of Okakura’s old house in Idura, a northern district of Tokyo. On this monument the phrase 「アジアは一なり」, a translation into classic Japanese of the phrase “Asia is One,” was inscribed.

Through the period of the World War Second, Yokoyama Taikan was a leading cultural figure. He spoke of the greatness of Okakura-Tenshin and of the splendor of his thought, as represented by the phrase “Asia is One.”

Among writers, critics, poets, and scholars, Yasuda Yojuro and Asano Ko in particular wrote many articles and essays that publicized the prophetic wisdom and greatness of Okakura Tenshin.

It was around that period that a notebook written by Okakura in India in 1902 was found in the closet of one of Okakura’s descendants. It contained a note of so-called agitation for the Indian people to resist and fight against the English colonial government. Okakura must have written it also in haste under the impulse of the necessity of resistance. It begins with “Brothers and Sisters of Asia!” and concludes, “The cowards shrink before the brilliant image of freedom. The cautious pause on the threshold of a great revolution. Do they prefer Death in Life to Life in Death? A crisis has now arrived in our history and the dread ordeal has to be faced.” This is a note of agitation that does not contain any deep meditation or thinking about beauty or art. Since Okakura even rejected the publication of a Japanese translation of his The Ideals of the East, we can easily imagine that he would not have agreed to allow the publication of this note.

But in the atmosphere of 1930’s in Japan, such a message of agitation was welcomed. So, as soon as it was found, it was translated into Japanese and published (in 1938). Furthermore, a title, “The Awakening of the East” was given to this note. This was a title that Okakura had never given it.

In 1904, in Boston, he had published a book whose title was The Awakening of Japan. When people found the note in 1938, they fictionalized a book that preceded The Awakening of Japan. Since then, the notion of a “Quartet of Okakura’s English Works” has prevailed. But this ”Quartet” is a falsification, and it does not realize Okakura’s thoughts and intentions. Okakura’s English works were just the three that he published while he lived; The Ideals of the East, The Awakening of Japan, and The book of Tea. The note which was titled The Awakening of the East should, if anything, be simply called an Unpublished Note Written in English.

In 1945, Japan accepted an unconditional surrender. At that time, the people who had praised and flattered Okakura Tenshin—as well as Okakura himself—were severely accused of being war criminals who had advocated the thought of The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. But in the end, neither Yokoyama Taikan, nor Yasuda Yojuro, nor Asano Ko were prosecuted.

Within three years after the surrender, Okakura Tenshin received a partial vindication. Although the political thought of Okakura was still regarded as ultra nationalistic, his contribution to modernization in the field of art was accepted as unparalleled. At first, the restoration of Okakura Tenshin was proposed by the members of the Inten 院展, a private art organization of the painters of Nihonga (Japanese style painting) that had been reorganized after Okakura’s death in 1913.

This vindication was done by separating the political and artistic aspects of Okakura. Owing to this separation, recognition of Okakura’s significance in the modern art world was revived, while the problem of his political role was not discussed. The problem of his political role in wartime was eliminated without any inspection. I think that at the time of the end of the war it would have been useful to have a discussion about why Okakura declared “Asia is One” in order to develop the modernization of Japanese Painting. This would have provided a good opportunity for clarifying the meaning of Okakura’s work and ideas. But this problem was not discussed, and a general opinion was settled on that Okakura Tenshin was used unfortunately under the circumstances of militarism. Such a treatise and the praise it received in the wartime do not reflect the real intentions of Okakura himself. Unintentionally, people believed that Okakura was innocent, and those who were accused were the military authorities who had used him.

Since that time these issues and doubts have never been revived. It is strange that none of the people discussing Okakura Tenshin, even now, have any doubt that the notion of “Asia is one” represents the core of Okakura’s thought at that moment. People who are interested in Okakura need to wrestle to understand the full meaning of using his phrase “Asia is one” as representing the central idea of Okakura’s thought.

This cultural phenomenon is very characteristic in the modern thought of Japan. Certain ways of thinking and ideas born in wartime have been passed on through the postwar period to the present along with intellectual activities, without any criticism.

In the case of Okakura, the idea that “Asia is one” represents the core of Okakura Tenshin’s thought was created in wartime, and was passed on to the postwar period while abandoning the practical and political sides of his wartime use as an ultranationalist.

The tradition of calling him “Tenshin” has been conserved in the same way. At first, the pseudonym of Tenshin must have been given as a posthumous name, as in the case of “Kobodaishi”, but in actuality this pseudonym has worked effectively to represent him as a person who preached the ideals of the Greater East Asian Co-Properity Sphere.

We can say that if you call Okakura Kakuzo “Okakura Tenshin”, you are permitting yourself to stand in a contemptible position similar to that of calling China “Shina 支那”. From the middle of the Meiji Era to the end of the Pacific War, Japanese had the custom of referring to China with contempt by calling it “Shina,” and similarly by referring to Korea as “Chosen 朝鮮” or “Hanto 半島”, also with feelings of contempt.

The conception that “Asia is one” represents Okakura’s core idea receives support through calling him Okakura “Tenshin”, or at least it can be supported by this manner.

As already mentioned, Okakura did not repeat the use of this phrase; he used it on only one occasion in English and never in Japanese. Furthermore, this English phrase was written in a special situation, relating to the conditions of colonial India.

Nonetheless, people have continued to believe without any doubt that “Asia is one” is the representative phrase of Okakura Tenshin’s ideas. Far from having any doubt, people concerned with Okakura’s existence have been struggling with the problem of what kind of meaning he added to the phrase “Asia is one.”

Still today we have not given a sufficient answer to questions about the real meaning of the phrase “Asia is one.” Almost all have considered it as an enigma because actually Asia cannot be one—at least as a political entity—however he may have wished it to be considered one in an artistic or spiritual sense. But people have continued to declare this to be Okakura’s ideal in order to suggest his greatness. Once we adopt the point of view that “Asia is one” represents the core notion of Okakura Tenshin, we can read every discourse by Okakura as a phrase to help solve the meaning of “Asia is One.”

For example, let us consider a passage from The Ideals of the East; “Thus Japan is a museum of Asiatic civilization; and yet more than a museum, because this singular genius of the race leads it to dwell on all phases of the ideals of the past, in that spirit of living Advaitism (non-dualism) which welcomed the new without losing the old.” This can work to explain the meaning of “Asia is One.” Or in a lecture he gave at Museum of Fine Art, Boston in 1912 (The Nature and Value of Eastern Connoisseurship), he asserted, “At this moment we are on the road to fundamentally important conclusions in the history of East Asiatic art. It is true our knowledge is yet in its infancy. But we are now able, without mistake, to sketch the history of art, as a whole, and not as isolated phenomena in India, China, and Japan. It was perhaps fortunate that the movement began in Japan, because Japan holds the key to all Asiatic art.” Almost all people have used these phrases to reinforce the notion of “Asia is one.”

The more we look for clues to verify his Asianist attitudes, the stronger becomes the position of the phrase “Asia is one” as representing his core thought. This has been the locus and the temporary result of studies on Okakura Tenshin since 1950.

Let us look at the views of Takeuchi Yoshimi, a critic who played an important role in the postwar left wing, for instance. He was the first critic to have proposed the meaning of Okakura Tenshin as an Asianist positively from the viewpoint of the left wing. Notwithstanding his severe criticism, he did not raise any doubts about why Okakura said that “Asia is one” only one time and never repeated it. On the contrary, Takeuchi started his discussion by saying that the fact that Okakura declared “Asia is One” makes him a unique Asianist in modern Japan.

In the field of studies on Okakura, even in the postwar time, people have succeeded in the legacy of the wartime by calling “Tenshin” as an Asianist. The simplistic equation that < Okakura Tenshin=Asianist > has become a kind of absolute premise. But why has this conception succeeded without any questioning? What kind of dynamics of thought lie in this transition? This is a most important problem we should think over now.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this question has not been debated can be found in the fact that persons of culture like Yokoyama Taikan and other artists and writers who had admired the prophecy of Okakura Tenshin in the wartime were not prosecuted. In the wartime, Yokoyama Taikan was active in propagating the ideals of the Greater East Asiatic Co-Prosperity Sphere, working as chairman of the association of patriotic artists 日本報国美術家協会. He made many paintings of Mt. Fuji, Sunrise on the Pacific Ocean and such patriotic themes. He even offered such paintings to the Imperial House and the Military Offices, to which he also donated the money he earned by selling his works.

The fact that those artists were not prosecuted as war criminals seems to have been a reason why the conception of “Asia is One” has survived in the way it has. Thus, the conception “Asia is One,” itself, is a living idea which has continued from the postwar time. And so some people still believe that the conception of “Asia is One” is the most important and representative idea of Okakura Tenshin.

Thus, after having wiped out the elements which might conflict with the postwar streams of thought, the image and conception of Okakura Tenshin that was created in the wartime has remained even in the situation of democracy. The thought created in wartime based on slogans such as〈鬼畜米英〉(“English and American are nothing but demons or beasts”) has continued in the post war time in the depth, in spite of the coinciding attempts to rebuild after the models of America and Europe.

Why was such a paradoxical misunderstanding—one which obscured the true conditions—possible in the case of Okakura? I think that the first reason to be pointed out lies in the thought of Okakura himself. It lies in the distance Okakura himself prepared; in the distance between the experiences that he actually had and the messages that he did not relay to the people in Japan.

Until quite recently, most Japanese believed that Okakura’s understanding of European culture was very poor. This misconception was also created in the years from the 1920 to 1930s. Many Japanese considered Okakura to be an ultranationalist, and that with such a heart he encouraged the national painting =日本画. There was a famous episode which has been used to argue, although I believe mistakenly, for his ultranationalist feelings; when he walked in his unique Japanese costume on the street of New York an American asked him, “which -nese are you? Japanese, or Chinese?” Then he quickly responded, “Which -kees are you, yankee or monkey?” Such an episode has typically been used to show his national feelings. The common understanding among most Japanese has been that while Okakura was skilled in speaking and writing English, he did not welcome the imperialist invasion of European Civilization.

Quite recently a professor wrote that he made a big discovery in finding Okakura’s rich knowledge of European culture and he declared that Okakura was not such a narrow-minded nationalist as generally believed. But actually, the very fact that the professor had to pronounce this as such a “discovery” shows further evidence that the mythology of Okakura Tenshin and the limited notion of “Asia is One” still survive.

I just used the word “mythology”. Yes, it is a myth. Calling Okakura Kauzo “Okakura Tenshin” and thinking the phrase “Asia is One” represents the core of the Okakura’s thought show manifestations of a myth which was created in the wartime. And as long as we maintain the custom of calling him Tenshin, the mythology of “Asia is One” will continue to live.

Thus, both the name “Tenshin” and the notion of “Asia is One” are lingering elements of a mythology created in the wartime. Our present task should be to make this phenomenon clear, to explain the causes, historically, and to build a new image of Okakura Kakuzo. Such a new image will be one that is liberated from conventional thoughts and custom of the false stories with political or economic intentions.

As already mentioned, one of the causes of the creation of the myth was derived from Okakura’s way of conveying his experiences and thoughts acquired in Boston to the people in Japan. In order to compare the differences between what he thought in Boston and what he related of it to people in Japan, we should make an intensive investigation into the thoughts and experiences that Okakura had in Boston, while severely separating and clarifying them from what he mentioned in Japan. Then we should verify the reason why he, Okakura Kakuzo, could not sufficiently transmit his experiences and thoughts to the young artists like Yokoyama Taikan, Shimomura Kanzan, and others.

This represents the task of Okakura study hereafter, and is a task still undeveloped. Until now, almost all researchers on Okakura, whether they refer to him as Okakura Kakuzo or Okakura Tenshin, have not been aware of the difference of meaning between his English and his Japanese writings. On the contrary, especially the researchers in Japan have studied mainly his discourses in the Japanese language. That means they have interpreted his English after it had been changed into the context of Japanese. It will be an important task for future researchers to read his texts in his original language, and to read it by understanding where and when he wrote it.

There are many discourses Okakura wrote only in English and never in Japanese. “Asia is one.” is one of them. Almost all of the talks Okakura delivered at Museum of Fine Art, Boston are also in the category. Some parts of the lecture he gave in St. Louis also were not conveyed to the people of Japan at that time. It was after his death that all of his English texts were transmitted in translated form in Japanese. Those translations themselves also have severe problems. Almost all the Japanese translations were somewhat distorted because they were translated in the wartime. The nuances Okakura tried to express in English were changed into Japanese under the influence of the imperialism.

Of course, there are also other cases. One example of the things that Okakura never stated in Japanese but wrote about repeatedly in English is his statement on the Nihon Bijutsuin 日本美術院; which Okakura translated as the “Hall of Fine Arts”. In English, he openly praised this school as representing the ideals of modern Japan, saying that it “represents the new old school of Japanese Art” (this was in a passage he wrote in a paper for a small exhibition of Taikan, Shunso and Kanzan held at the Century Association in New York, April 1904). But in Japan, in front of the members of Nihon Bijutsuin, he never praised them nor gave any favorable words. In Japanese, in regard to this school, he left only many criticisms and demands for people to develop themselves.

Thus, as we can see, there are significant differences between his expressions in English and in Japanese. These differences derive from the distance between his experience in Boston and in Japan. In the United States, around the beginning of the 20th century, Okakura received so many experiences through his friendship with Mrs. Gardner. They must have been so important, I think, that he himself could not digest them all easily. Perhaps this could be a reason why he could not convey his experiences in Boston to people in Japan. He may have needed more time to wait and mature before he could write about his experiences in Boston in the Japanese language. This is also partly because his experience in Boston took place in a situation where Americans themselves were just starting on their way to grasping the notion of Asia and Japan. This means that Okakura’s experience in Boston must have been formed within a double structure of the mind; by trying to appreciate the West while also working to introduce the East. I believe that Okakura died in the middle of his struggle to build a bridge of understanding between East and West. His thought was unfinished.

It remains the task of Okakura research to further explore the complexities of his work; correcting misinterpretations that have often been rooted in the prejudices of times and politics, and allowing it to breathe a new life, based on a fuller understanding the places, times, and circumstances under which it was written.

April 4, 2009 at the Gardner Museum