I wanted to try something different again for this week’s post. I’ve already posted a lot of information about Izumo and a bit about what I understand of the history and traditional culture of the area. My expertise, however, only stretches so far. That said, I want to dedicate this week’s post to some recommended reading. Specifically, recommended reading from authors of Japan’s Meiji Period.
The Meiji Period is most often known as Japan’s emergence from isolation, and shift to modernization. During this period, Japan managed to shift from an isolated country governed by a feudal system, to a player on the global stage, in the span of only a few decades. Of course, this rapid shift sparked a lot of questions. Specifically, questions about how exactly the country should modernize. How could Japan preserve its cultural heritage while also going toe to toe with nations such as the United States or the British Empire? The ways in which this question was answered are really interesting to look at.
Much of the preservation of Japan’s history and cultural heritage during the Meiji Period was done by ordinary people. For example, Matsumoto castle, now considered a national treasure, was slated to be demolished in the Meiji Period. The only reason it wasn’t, was because of efforts led by Unari Kobayashi, a middle school teacher, and Ryozo Ichikawa. These two men gathered support from everyday people, and eventually raised enough money to buy the castle and the land around it, and preserve the area as a public monument.
The two Meiji Period authors I’m going to talk about today led their own efforts to preserve Japan’s cultural heritage through their writing. Maybe you’ve heard of them, maybe you haven’t, but their names are Kakuzo Okakura, and Lafcadio Hearn.
Okakura and The Book of Tea
Kakuzo Okakura was the son of a former samurai, and born just as the Meiji Period’s modernization began. He was educated both in the English language, and in Chinese classics. He spent several years studying in a Buddhist temple, later attended Tokyo University, and spent a period of time working as a consultant for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In his childhood, he was educated in chanoyu, the way of the Japanese tea ceremony.
The Book of Tea, is Okakura’s defense of the significance of the Japanese tea ceremony to both Western nations, and to Japan itself. To Western nations, Okakura claims that both they and Japan can come to better understand each other through a mutual enjoyment of tea culture. To Japan, Okakura writes that chanoyu is not simply a performing art, as Meiji Period officials wanted to classify it, but a philosophy and a way of life.
I love this book for so many different reasons. For one, Okakura does an excellent job of clearly explaining the importance of each part of the tea ceremony. He explains the design of Japanese tea rooms, human nature as seen through the tea ceremony, the philosophy of flower arranging, and the symbolism behind sharing a cup of tea, all the while remaining accessible, relatable, and funny. I’ve never had the opportunity to formally study tea ceremony before, but after reading this book, I have a much better understanding of why the tea ceremony is so special in Japan’s culture. On top of that, Okakura offering his personal thoughts on modernization at the start of this book helped me to better understand the general mindset of the Meiji Period.
Another reason to love this book is Okakura’s, for lack of a better word, sass. In the first chapter, “The Cup of Humanity,” Okakura writes something that essentially says, “Look, I’ve heard all the unflattering things you Westerners think about Japan. It doesn’t bug me, though. Japan has been making fun of you guys for way longer than you’ve been making fun of Japan. Check out some of these things we’ve written about you!” Okakura doesn’t dwell on this, though, and moves on to say that nations should stop hurling insults at each other and just enjoy a cup of tea. After all, tea is the one thing we can all enjoy, and life is crazy, so let’s enjoy the little things together.
Probably the most important reason I keep going back to The Book of Tea, is to absorb the philosophy of life that Okakura lays out. Here are a couple of quotes from the first chapter of The Book of Tea that I go back to read time and time again:
“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence…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.”
“(Teaism) is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humor itself–the smile of philosophy.”
By explaining the philosophy behind each aspect of the tea ceremony, as well as the symbolism of the tea ceremony itself, Okakura inspires readers to think about how one can apply the philosophy of tea in their own lives. Ultimately, Okakura encourages readers to find beauty in the little things they see every day; to seek out harmony; and to live simply so as not to miss out on what truly matters in life. Okakura encourages readers to do this especially when times are difficult, uncertain, or violent. For this reason, the philosophy of The Book of Tea is extremely relevant today.
To close this section on Okakura, here is one final quote from the end of chapter one:
“The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practised for the sake of utility. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”
Lafcadio Hearn: Outside Coming in
Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece to an Irish father and a Greek mother. He was raised in Ireland by his aunt from his father’s side, and lived in Cincinnati and New Orleans for a part of his adult life. Here, he notably wrote about Creole culture and cuisine, before traveling to Japan. He was sent to Japan as a newspaper correspondent, but quickly ended that assignment. Instead, he took up an English teaching position in Shimane Prefecture’s Matsue. In the years that followed, Hearn made his home in Japan, moving from Matsue, to Kumamoto, to Tokyo, and writing book after book all the way. He wrote extensively about Japan’s national character, everyday life, religion, spirituality, and folklore, as well as his own travels and observations. Eventually, he married Setsu Koizumi, and became the Japanese national, Yakumo Koizumi.
In Matsue, the city about an hour away from me, Lafcadio Hearn is something like a literary rock star. The express train that connects Izumo and Matsue to main bullet train lines is called the Yakumo Express, after Hearn. There’s a whole museum dedicated to Hearn in Matsue, and nearby this museum, one of Hearn’s former residences is preserved.
The reason for Hearn’s popularity appears to be the effort that he put out to truly understand the inner working of Japanese life. Kakuzo Okakura himself mentioned Hearn as a rare example of a foreigner attempting to really learn something from Japan. According to an aside from Okakura in The Book of Tea, the Meiji Period was a time when most Westerners came to Japan to take or to impart, but never to learn or to receive. Meanwhile, Japan was doing everything it could to learn from Western nations. Then, in the middle of this time period, here comes Hearn. Here comes a Westerner writing books claiming that not only should Japan maintain its cultural identity, but also that the West should make more of an effort to learn from Japan, because Japan is better off than the West in some cases.
If you’re interested in Japanese folklore and mythology, Hearn’s Kwaidan would be an excellent read. Kwaidan is a collection of Japanese ghost stories and examinations of traditional customs that have connections to spirituality in Japan. Hearn wrote at least a couple of different books covering folklore, and from what I’ve read, Hearn was able to write books such as these thanks to his wife, Setsu. According to information from the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Matsue, the two of them would often stay up at night with Setsu telling Hearn all the ghost stories that she had grown up with. Also according to the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, Kwaidan is considered to be Hearn’s masterpiece among his books about folklore. The catalog of the museum writes that the stories of Kwaidan “describe the affection, kindness, wisdom, and morality of ordinary people, and the connection between their actions and the spirit world.”
Other books from Hearn are excellent for learning about life in Meiji Period Japan as well. Books such as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan are Hearn’s observations of the character and daily life of people he knew and encountered throughout his life in Japan. I read Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan some time ago. This particular book focuses on Hearn’s travels throughout Japan, and his observations of everyday life. It was really interesting to read Hearn’s observations of the Izumo area. In reading this book, I realized how much Izumo has changed since Hearn’s time. For example, in one chapter of Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Hearn talks about his desire to see Hinomisaki Shrine. Apparently, at the time Hearn wrote this anecdote, it was difficult to get to the shrine from Izumo. One would either have to make a long journey over land, or a journey by sea. Today, if I want to visit Hinomisaki shrine, I just have to drive about thirty minutes down a windy coastal road.
Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life is another work I read recently. It’s a collection of short stories by Hearn and focuses more closely on the character of people in the Meiji Period (hence the name, Kokoro, which means “heart”). This book of short stories is food for thought on human nature and society. The opening story, “At A Railway Station,” details a real incident in Kumamoto, where a man convicted of murder meets the son of the man he murdered. This incident supposedly moved an observing crowd, and a policeman, to tears. Another story from Kokoro that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about is “In The Twilight Of The Gods.” This is the story of an unnamed narrator looking through a collection of relics that a Westerner has stolen from Japan and plans to sell to the British Museum. The narrator is well versed in Japanese culture and understands the value of each of the relics, while the collector does not. In watching the narrator examine the collection and hearing the collector comment the relics, you get a glimpse of the ignorance of Westerners at the time, and the weight of what Westerners can and should learn from Japan.
At the end of the day, I believe Hearn’s intention in writing his books was to show the Western world just how little they really knew about this country that had just opened itself to the world. Japan has a history that goes back about two thousand years; how many Westerners in the Meiji Period could say they knew very much about any of that history, let alone what daily life in Japan was really like? The wonder Hearn experienced in learning from Japan is tangible in his writings. I believe that in writing his books, he hoped that Westerners would come to experience a portion of that wonder themselves, and truly learn something of what Japan had to teach the world.
The works of Kakuzo Okakura and Lafcadio Hearn are what first made me interested in reading more from Meiji Period authors. If you have any interest in Japanese culture or history, I can’t recommend these two authors enough. I’ve especially come to love reading from the Meiji Period because of what experiencing that era of time might teach us today. The Meiji Period was an era of immense, rapid change, that Japan was able to pull through. Today, we are also living in a period of change. Take two seconds to look at current events, and you find conversation after conversation about why and how something about the world as it is now should change. There is support, there is resistance, there are so many screaming matches and literal fist fights. In a time like now, it’s refreshing to look back on authors who also witnessed a tumultuous time of change, but still managed to write about people coming together in mutual respect of life itself. Whether you have an interest in Japanese culture and history, or you want to look at how a society might survive a period of change, I recommend taking a page from the books of these two Meiji authors.
Dixon, Heather, and Junko Yokoyama, translators. Lafcadio Hearn: Tracing the Journey of an Open Mind: The Catalog of Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. By Bon Koizumi, Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, 2016.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life. Tuttle Publishing, 2011.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Tuttle Publishing, 1971.
Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. Kodansha International Ltd., 1989