‘The Book of Tea’ by Kakuzo Okakura (Review)

After a few heavy nights on the town in and around Tokyo, it’s time for a change in pace, and our latest #JanuaryInJapan journey is certainly a much calmer experience.  We’re heading back to the start of the twentieth century, where we’ll be receiving lessons in a very Japanese art, from a man eager to tell us foreigners all about his country’s traditions and customs.  There’s just one question I need to ask, though, before we begin…

…anyone for tea?

Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea is a work I’ve had on my radar for a long time, and when I saw that it was out in the Penguin Little Black Classics series for a handful of dollars, I decided to splash out.  It first appeared in 1906, and if you’re wondering why I’ve forgotten to name the translator here, there’s a simple reason for that.  You see, Okakura actually wrote it in English, and rather successfully, too, in an enjoyable (if slightly old-fashioned) style throughout.

The book is an essay in seven parts, with the writer leisurely making his way around a variety of topics, all connected (closely or tangentially) with what he calls Teaism:

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.  It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order.  It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.
p.3 (Penguin, 2016)

The opening chapter gives a brief overview of Okakura’s topic, and from the start, his style is evident, with a wry humour pervading his comments on how westerners seem to be fascinated by the more violent side of Japanese culture (samurai and ninjas) while ignoring the more civilised aspects, such as Teaism.

After this introduction, Okakura moves on to talk about other topics, but if you’re expecting an in-depth description of the tea ceremony itself, you’re in for a bit of disappointment.  One of the more surprising features of The Book of Tea is a slight lack of focus on, well, the tea ceremony.  Instead, the writer approaches the topic from several different angles, at one moment expounding upon the history of tea and how it came to Japan, the next discussing the influence of various religions and philosophies on Teaism.  Zen is mentioned several times throughout the book, and at times you feel that the approach itself is rather Zen, leaving us to work out for ourselves what the writer’s message is.

However, we do get there eventually, and Okakura does an excellent job of describing the environment of the ceremony, the tea-room:

It is an Abode of Fancy inasmuch as it is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse.  It is an Abode of Vacancy inasmuch as it is devoid of ornamentation except for what may be placed in it to satisfy some aesthetic need of the moment.  It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, deliberately leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete. (p.52)

There’s some excellent description here of the tea-room as the writer explains how it’s put together, and the influence of Zen principles on its design.  For example, there’s the need for constant change, with equipment and decoration constantly changing, as well as an avoidance of the symmetry so respected in the west.

The last few chapters of the book circle around the main topic once more.  There’s a section on art, including a great anecdote about a man who goes to extreme lengths to save a painting, as well as a chapter on flowers, and the different approaches taken in Japan and the West when arranging them.  Okakura then rounds off the book with a look at tea masters and their influence on the format of the tea ceremony, including a description of the dignified passing of one of the greats.

With the exception of the chapter on ‘Tao & Zennism’, which is rather dry (and a bit of a slog if I’m honest), The Book of Tea is a light, entertaining read.  You have to admire Okakura’s ability in English, with many a deft turn of phrase:

The outsider may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing.  What a tempest in a tea-cup! he will say.  But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.  Mankind has done worse,  In the worship of Bacchus, we have sacrificed too freely; and we have even transfigured the gory image of Mars.  Why not consecrate ourselves to the queen of the Camelias, and revel in the warm stream of sympathy that flows from her altar?  In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Laotse, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself. (pp.4/5)

That’s enough to make anyone reach for the kettle…

The Book of Tea reminded of a couple of other books I’ve read in recent years.  One is Noriko Morishita’s The Wisdom of Tea (translated by Eleanor Goldsmith), a lovely work which has a lot more detail on the actual process of the tea ceremony.  However, there are also shades here of another enjoyable long essay, namely Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (tr. Thomas J. Harper and Edward Seidensticker).  This is especially true regarding the humour, with both books gently poking fun at the cultural tension between East and West.

Anyone expecting an in-depth examination of the art of tea will be disappointed, but if you’re a fan of idle musings, you’re in for a treat.  Okakura’s insistence on the importance of tea rings as true today as it did then – if not more so.  As he comments:

Nowadays industrialism is making true refinement more and more difficult all the world over.  Do we not need the tea-room more than ever? (p.68)

Given the turmoil the world’s been in over the past few years, I’m sure many of us can appreciate that sentiment…

11 thoughts on “‘The Book of Tea’ by Kakuzo Okakura (Review)

  1. An interesting post – I’d like to know more about this ceremony. The other books you mention sound more informative, but I like the quirkiness of this one- and written in English!


  2. So glad you got to read it. It’s actually a very essential book, so many Japanese authors refer to it. And not just Japanese. I was amazed to read in the introduction that it’s in this book that “Frank Lloyd Wright first came across the idea of interior space that inspired his own ‘architecture of within’”.
    They also refer to Chikamatsu (the Japanese Shakespeare??), so now I need to discover that author.


    1. The Donald Keene anthology was published in 1961 and reissued in 1990 so it’s out of print, but can be found occasionally second-hand. There also seem to be French editions of his most famous play The Love Suicides at Amijima.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Right, I don’t think this is “idle musings.” It’s a serious book about Japanese aesthetics, usefully paired with Okakura’s next book, The Ideals of the East. The tea ceremony part is a little bit of sleight of hand.


    1. Tom – Never quite sure how serious he’s intending to be, apart from the Zen chapter… Thanks for the heads up about the other book, though, not one on my radar.


  4. This was ALL THE RAGE with my classmates when we were studying Japanese – certainly written to reel the Western onlooker in, isn’t it? A fascinating little book. One of our later teachers (who became a colleague) used to conduct tea ceremonies, so I joined her for a few. Meditation in movement, is how I think of it.


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