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  • Okakura's Way of Tea:Representing Chanoyu in Early Twentieth-Century America
  • Noriko Murai (bio)

In The Book of Tea (1906), the Japanese art historian and critic Okakura Kakuzō (Tenshin, 1863-1913) explains the Japanese aesthetics of cleanliness:

One of the first requisites of a tea-master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting. A piece of metal work must not be attacked with the unscrupulous zeal of the Dutch housewife. Dripping water from a flower vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew and coolness.1

What an incompatible attitude the artistic East and the pragmatic West have toward cleaning, Okakura seems to be saying with a sigh. Okakura wrote The Book of Tea in English in Boston, and knowing that many of his American readers came from this allegedly hygienic but unaesthetic Northern European background, perhaps playfully intended to provoke the readers to protest that they were indeed sophisticated enough to appreciate the Japanese way of tea or what Okakura called the "religion of aestheticism."2

The Blue Cup (1909) (Fig. 6.1) by the Boston painter Joseph Rodefer DeCamp can be interpreted as one contemporary American response to Okakura's suggestion to combine the appreciation of beauty with the domestic act of cleaning. In an upward gesture, the young parlor maid awakens to the beauty of the blue and white porcelain teacup she has been polishing and inspects the mark on the bottom.3 DeCamp's composition reworks the seventeenth-century Dutch genre tradition of domestic scenes, the social values of which appealed to Protestant America for its emphasis on family, industry, and economy. DeCamp's painting moreover reflects the late nineteenth-century American ideology of ideal femininity as the domestic pillar of the good and the beautiful, a patriarchal moral not foreign to the Japanese doctrine of female virtues epitomized by the creed "good wife, wise mother" (ryōsai kenbo) that was coined during the Meiji period (1868-1912). I do [End Page 70] not know if Okakura ever saw this painting, or if DeCamp read The Book of Tea, but if they knew of each other's work, they might have been mutually amused.

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Joseph Rodefer Decamp, The Blue Cup, 1909. Oil on canvas, 126.68 cm x 104.46 cm. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Gift of Edwin S. Webster, Lawrence J. Webster and Mrs. Mary S. Sampson in memory of their father, Frank G. Webster; 33.532.

Photograph@ 2002 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All rights reserved.

Okakura's juxtaposition of the male Japanese tea master and the Dutch/American housewife illustrates how a contrasting imagery based on gender is drawn to heighten the sense of cultural contrast. This paper examines the relationship between cultural and sexual differences in Okakura's representation of chanoyu (literally "hot water for tea," but usually translated as "the Japanese tea ceremony") in early twentieth-century America. Originally written in English and first published in New York, The Book of Tea projected an image of Japan that was at once artistic and masculine. I italicize the "and" in order to call attention to the tenuous link between the two terms since Japanese art was frequently characterized as feminine in the United States at the time.

Whether it was the cult of Kannon (the bodhisattva of compassion) as the eternal feminine or the allure of the Yoshiwara courtesan as femme fatale, the nineteenth-century American imagination of Japan time and again replayed the fantasy of the Orient as the modern West's exotic feminine other.4 The common perception of Japan as an artistic nation was also consistent with the prevailing worldview that bifurcated the realm of human achievement into "masculine" science and "feminine" art and culture.5 By the end of the nineteenth century, the vision of a synthesis of the masculine and scientific West and the feminine and aesthetic East to create a higher universal civilization had become popular among American Japanophiles such as Ernest Fenollosa, who was Okakura's mentor in Japan during the 1880s.6