What is The Book of Tea All About

Both the title The Book of Tea and the name of the author Tenshin (Kakuzo) Okakura are well known in Japan. They appeared in my junior high Japanese history textbook. But I had never read it until I started to practice tea ceremony six years ago. I was expecting to learn tea ceremony know-hows from this book, so I was shocked to encounter the following part:

“…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 civilized since she began to commit wholesale slaughter on 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 attentions has been drawn to Teaism, which represents so much of our Art of Life. Fain would we remain barbarians, if our claim to civilization were to be based on the gruesome glory of war. Fain would we wait the time when due respect shall be paid to our art and ideals.”

Okakura published this book in New York in 1906.  Let’s date back the history.

  • In 1905, Japan won the Russo-Japanese War and surprised Europe and the world.
  • In 1895, Japan won the Sino-Japanese War.
  • In 1853, Matthew C. Perry, Commodore of the United States Navy, reached Japan’s shore near Bay of Edo (Tokyo) with black steam boats with huge cannons.
  • For about 260 years prior to Perry’s arrival, Japan had closed its doors to the Western world and had enjoyed peaceful time under Tokugawa clan.

I was shocked to learn that there was somebody like Okakura, who never hesitated to express his view this way, when maybe the rest of Japan was all busy trying to catch up with the Western world by expanding its military power.

I was also shocked that he had written this book in English, over 100 years ago, directly targeting the American and the Western-world audience. Have many Japanese people made similar efforts to deepen the understanding of Japan’s traditional culture abroad?

Yes, The Book of Tea introduces you to Japanese tea ceremony (I like the term Teaism as Okakura uses it in the book).  It gives an overview of what entails in the whole process.

But to me this book is not about tea ceremony.  It’s all about why I decided to start this blog.

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