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  • Other Tea Cults
  • Allen Hockley (bio)

In its opening pages, Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) includes the following three statements among his reasons for authoring The Book of Tea (1906).

When will the West understand, or try to understand, the East. We Asiatics are often appalled by the curious web of facts and fancies which has been woven concerning us.

Your information is based on meagre translations of our immense literature, if not on the unreliable anecdotes of passing travellers.

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.1

Evidence suggests that Okakura's characterizations were not far from the truth. Most late nineteenth-century Westerners' experience with tea consisted primarily of the sencha served in inns, restaurants, and tea stalls. Their understanding of chanoyu was woefully misinformed and, as Okakura suggests, based to a great extent on the testimony of tourists.2 The scope and nuances of The Book of Tea thus stand in stark contrast to commonly held understandings of the tea ceremony. But the few Westerners who acquired more than a passing familiarity with chanoyu were favorably impressed. Their experiences and opinions—which Okakura knew of but did not acknowledge—were also central to the broader agenda he envisioned for The Book of Tea.

Using descriptive passages and images in accounts authored by globetrotters and expatriates residing in Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912), this paper reconstructs the conceptualizations of tea culture circulating in foreign communities and asks if and how they contributed to Okakura's presentation of chanoyu. I begin by examining Okakura's [End Page 94] claims cited above. What did Westerners know of tea culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? How dependent was their understanding on unreliable anecdotes of passing travelers? Was the tea ceremony regarded as a quaint and childish oddity? And where was it located in the web of facts and fancies spun by foreigners? I follow this with an examination of more informed opinions authored by Westerners who benefited from firsthand experience with chanoyu. I conclude with a discussion of Okakura's use of Western perceptions to frame the agenda for The Book of Tea.

Given the tremendous volume and variety of visual and textual sources that convey Western misconceptions of tea culture, there is a need to limit the evidence I cite below. Okakura would not have had access to, let alone the inclination to read the vast number of Meiji-era travel accounts and residency memoirs. For this reason, I have restricted my selection of textual sources to those he most likely would have been familiar with. These include widely circulated seminal accounts of Japan authored by acknowledged authorities (Aimé Humbert, William Elliot Griffis, and Basil Hall Chamberlain, for example) as well as popular travel accounts, especially those published around the time Okakura wrote The Book of Tea. I have chosen a similarly representative sample of tea-related images that appear with a high degree of consistency in travel accounts and in the inventories of leading commercial photographers, the primary source of tea imagery.

Tea Houses

A discussion of teahouses provides a useful means to frame Western tourists' experience of tea culture during the Meiji era. Felice Beato's photograph of the Tea Houses at Ogee—Yedo appeared regularly in albums he sold to foreigners in the late 1860s and early 1870s (fig. 7.1). The caption accompanying this photograph elaborates on the associations foreigners expressed in their conceptualization of teahouses.

To use the words of Fortune "Ogee is the Richmond of Japan, and its celebrated tea-house is a sort of 'Star and Garter Hotel,' here the good citizens of Yedo come out for a days pleasure and recreation, and certainly it would be difficult to find a spot more lovely or more enjoyable." There is a garden, as is usual at all the places of resort for pleasure seekers, and a running stream overhung with branches of trees and lovely flowers, just in the rear of the tea house.3

Beato's captions often quote what were regarded at...