Ideals of the East: The Spirit of Japanese Art


Written by the foremost authority of the era on Oriental archeology and art, this extremely influential book offers a brief but concise introduction to Asian art. First published in 1883, it responded to a vogue in Western culture for a growing awareness and appreciation of Japanese artistic expressions of beauty and philosophy — a perspective that remains fresh and valid.
Author Kakuzo Okakura (1862–1913) was a co-founder of the Tokyo Fine Art School (now known as Tokyo ...

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Written by the foremost authority of the era on Oriental archeology and art, this extremely influential book offers a brief but concise introduction to Asian art. First published in 1883, it responded to a vogue in Western culture for a growing awareness and appreciation of Japanese artistic expressions of beauty and philosophy — a perspective that remains fresh and valid.
Author Kakuzo Okakura (1862–1913) was a co-founder of the Tokyo Fine Art School (now known as Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music) and a curator of Oriental art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He also wrote The Book of Tea, and together with this volume, his writings rank among the most widely read English-language works about Japan. Ideals of the East wrought profound effects on the Western understanding of the internal consistencies and strengths of East Asian aesthetic traditions. One of its major themes, the connections between spirituality and the evolution of Asian art, provided English-speaking people with the earliest lucid account of Zen Buddhism and its relation to the arts.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486440248
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 3/11/2005
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.46 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 0.27 (d)

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Ideals of the East

The Spirit of Japanese Art

By Kakuzo Okakura

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14871-7


The Range of Ideals

ASIA is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life.

Down to the days of the Mohammedan conquest went, by the ancient highways of the sea, the intrepid mariners of the Bengal coast, founding their colonies in Ceylon, Java, and Sumatra, leaving Aryan blood to mingle with that of the seaboard races of Burmah and Siam, and binding Cathay and India fast in mutual intercourse.

The long systolic centuries—in which India, crippled in her power to give, shrank back upon herself, and China, self-absorbed in recovery from the shock of Mongol tyranny, lost her intellectual hospitality—succeeded the epoch of Mahmoud of Ghazni, in the eleventh century. But the old energy of communication lived yet in the great moving sea of the Tartar hordes, whose waves recoiled from the long walls of the North, to break upon and overrun the Punjab. The Hunas, the Sakas, and the Gettaes, grim ancestors of the Rajputs, had been the forerunners of that great Mongol outburst which, under Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, spread over the Celestial soil, to deluge it with Bengali Tantrikism, and flooded the Indian peninsula, to tinge its Mussulmân Imperialism with Mongolian polity and art.

For if Asia be one, it is also true that the Asiatic races form a single mighty web. We forget, in an age of classification, that types are after all but shining points of distinctness in an ocean of approximations, false gods deliberately set up to be worshipped, for the sake of mental convenience, but having no more ultimate or mutually exclusive validity than the separate existence of two interchangeable sciences. If the history of Delhi represents the Tartar's imposition of himself upon a Mohammedan world, it must also be remembered that the story of Baghdad and her great Saracenic culture is equally significant of the power of Semitic peoples to demonstrate Chinese, as well as Persian, civilisation and art, in face of the Frankish nations of the Mediterranean coast. Arab chivalry, Persian poetry, Chinese ethics, and Indian thought, all speak of a single ancient Asiatic peace, in which there grew up a common life, bearing in different regions different characteristic blossoms, but nowhere capable of a hard and fast dividing-line. Islam itself may be described as Confucianism on horseback, sword in hand. For it is quite possible to distinguish, in the hoary communism of the Yellow Valley, traces of a purely pastoral element, such as we see abstracted and self-realised in the Mussulmân races.

Or, to turn again to Eastern Asia from the West, Buddhism—that great ocean of idealism, in which merge all the river-systems of Eastern Asiatic thought—is not coloured only with the pure water of the Ganges, for the Tartaric nations that joined it made their genius also tributary, bringing new symbolism, new organisation, new powers of devotion, to add to the treasures of the Faith.

It has been, however, the great privilege of Japan to realise this unity-in-complexity with a special clearness. The Indo-Tartaric blood of this race was in itself a heritage which qualified it to imbibe from the two sources, and so mirror the whole of Asiatic consciousness. The unique blessing of unbroken sovereignty, the proud self-reliance of an unconquered race, and the insular isolation which protected ancestral ideas and instincts at the cost of expansion, made Japan the real repository of the trust of Asiatic thought and culture. Dynastic upheavals, the inroads of Tartar horsemen, the carnage and devastation of infuriated mobs—all these things, sweeping over her again and again, have left to China no landmarks, save her literature and her ruins, to recall the glory of the Tâng emperors or the refinement of Sung society.

The grandeur of Asoka—ideal type of Asiatic monarchs, whose edicts dictated terms to the sovereigns of Antioch and Alexandria—is almost forgotten among the crumbling stones of Bharhut and Buddha Gaya. The jewelled court of Vikramaditya is but a lost dream, which even the poetry of Kalidasa fails to evoke. The sublime attainments of Indian art, almost effaced as they have been by the rough-handedness of the Hunas, the fanatical iconoclasm of the Mussulmân, and the unconscious vandalism of mercenary Europe, leave us to seek only a past glory in the mouldy walls of Ajanta, the tortured sculptures of Ellora, the silent protests of rock-cut Orissa, and finally in the domestic utensils of the present day, where beauty clings sadly to religion in the midst of an exquisite home-life.

It is in Japan alone that the historic wealth of Asiatic culture can be consecutively studied through its treasured specimens. The Imperial collection, the Shinto temples, and the opened dolmens, reveal the subtle curves of Hâng workmanship. The temples of Nara are rich in representations of Tâng culture, and of that Indian art, then in its splendour, which so much influenced the creations of this classic period—natural heirlooms of a nation which has preserved the music, pronunciation, ceremony, and costumes, not to speak of the religious rites and philosophy, of so remarkable an age, intact.

The treasure-stores of the daimyos, again, abound in works of art and manuscripts belonging to the Sung and Mongol dynasties, and as in China itself the former were lost during the Mongol conquest, and the latter in the age of the reactionary Ming, this fact animates some Chinese scholars of the present day to seek in Japan the fountain-head of their own ancient knowledge.

Thus Japan is a museum of Asiatic civilisation; and yet more than a museum, because the singular genius of the race leads it to dwell on all phases of the ideals of the past, in that spirit of living Advaitism which welcomes the new without losing the old. The Shinto still adheres to his pre-Buddhistic rites of ancestor-worship; and the Buddhists themselves cling to each various school of religious development which has come in its natural order to enrich the soil.

The Yamato poetry, and Bugaku music, which reflect the Tâng ideal under the régime of the Fujiwara aristocracy, are a source of inspiration and delight to the present day, like the sombre Zennism and No-dances, which were the product of Sung illumination. It is this tenacity that keeps Japan true to the Asiatic soul even while it raises her to the rank of a modern power.

The history of Japanese art becomes thus the history of Asiatic ideals—the beach where each successive wave of Eastern thought has left its sand-ripple as it beat against the national consciousness. Yet I linger with dismay on the threshold of an attempt to make an intelligible summary of those art-ideals. For art, like the diamond net of Indra, reflects the whole chain in every link. It exists at no period in any final mould. It is always a growth, defying the dissecting knife of the chronologist. To discourse on a particular phase of its development means to deal with infinite causes and effects throughout its past and present. Art with us, as elsewhere, is the expression of the highest and noblest of our national culture, so that, in order to understand it, we must pass in review the various phases of Confucian philosophy; the different ideals which the Buddhist mind has from time to time revealed; those mighty political cycles which have one after another unfurled the banner of nationality; the reflection in patriotic thought of the lights of poetry and the shadows of heroic characters; and the echoes, alike of the wailing of a multitude, and of the mad-seeming merriment of the laughter of a race.

Any history of Japanese art-ideals is, then, almost an impossibility, as long as the western world remains so unaware of the varied environment and interrelated social phenomena into which that art is set, as it were a jewel. Definition is limitation. The beauty of a cloud or a flower lies in its unconscious unfolding of itself, and the silent eloquence of the masterpieces of each epoch must tell their story better than any epitome of necessary half-truths. My poor attempts are merely an indication, not a narrative.


Bengali Tantrikism.—The Tantras are works written for the most part in Northern Bengal after the thirteenth century. Their subjects consist, very largely, of psychic phenomena and kindred matters, but they include some of the noblest flights of pure Hinduism. Their chief purpose seems to have been the formulation of a religion which could reach and redeem the lowest of the low.

Hâng Workmanship—Tâng Culture—Sung and Mongol Dynasties.—A brief abstract of the periods of Chinese history might run as follows:—

The Shu Dynasty (1122 to 221 B.C.).—This was the culmination of the process of early Chinese consolidation preceded by the dynasties of Kha and In. The capitals of these powers, though already situated in the valley of the Yellow River, were not yet advanced so far east as the present centre. They were placed westward of the Dokwan Pass, where the river makes a right angle in striking the plains, at that point where it was later to be touched by the Great Wall.

The Shin Dynasty (221 B.C. to 202 B.C.).—The tendency of this power to suppress communism brought about its downfall. The brevity of its duration, coupled with its importance, is only paralleled in modern times by the Empire of the first Napoleon.

The Hâng Dynasty (202 B.C. TO 220 A.D.).—This empire was created by a popular rising. The headman of a village became Emperor of China. But the whole trend and development of the Hângs grew to be imperialistic.

The Three Kingdoms (220 to 268 A.D.).—A territorial division.

The Six Dynasties (268 to 618 A.D.).—The Three Kingdoms were now consolidated under a single native dynasty, which had lasted about two centuries, when an influx of Hunnish and Mongolian tribes of the northern border drove them to take refuge in the valley of the Yang-tse. The scene of Chinese succession and culture is thus shifted at this period to the South, while the North becomes the means of the introduction of Buddhism and the establishment of Taoism.

The Tâng Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.).—This dynasty was the result of the reconsolidation of China under the great genius of Taiso. The capital of the Tângs was on the Hoang-Ho, where the northern and the southern sovereignties were amalgamated. This combination was finally broken up by the feudalistic kingdoms, known as the Five Dynasties, which lasted, however, only half a century.

The Sung Dynasty (960 to 1280 A.D.).—The centre of rule was now again transferred to the Yang-tse. In this era, under the name of Soju or Sung scholasticism, is developed the movement which we have designated in the text as Neo-Confucianism.

The Gen or Mongol Dynasty (1280 to 1368 A.D.).—This was a Mongolian tribe which, under Kublai Khan, overpowered the Chinese dynasty and established itself near Pekin. The Gen introduced Llamaism or Thibetan Tantrikism.

The Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1662 A.D.).—This was due to a popular uprising against the Mongol tyranny. It had its centre of power at Nankin, on the Yang-tse-Kiang; but it maintained a second capital, from the time of its third emperor, at Pekin.

The Manchu Dynasty (1662 to the present day).—This was another Tartar tribe who took advantage of the division of power between the emperor and the army to establish themselves at Pekin. Having put down the rebellion of the generals, they could not again be dislodged. Their lack of complete identification with the nation has been the weakness of this house, and rebellions against their power have arisen always on the Yang-tse.

Yamato Poetry.—The word Yamato is used here as a synonym for Ama, the primitive stock of the Japanese. It is also the name of a province in Japan.

Bugaku Music.—This means dance music—from bu, to dance, and gaku, music, or to play. This bugaku music in Japan was developed in the Nara-Heian period, under the influence of the Chinese culture of the Six Dynasties. It was formed of combined elements of Indian and old Hâng music. It is played by a hereditary caste of musicians called Reijiu, who are attached to the Imperial court, and to grand monasteries and Shinto temples, like Kusaga, Kamo, and Tennoji. It is to be heard on great occasions of festivity and ceremonial.


The Primitive Art of Japan

THE origin of the Yamato race, who drove the aboriginal Ainos before them into Yezo and the Kurile Islands, in order to establish the Empire of the Rising Sun, is so lost in the sea-mists out of which they sprang, that it is impossible to divine the source of their art-instincts. Whether they were a remnant of the Accadians who mingled their blood with that of Indo-Tartaric nations, in the passage along the coasts and islands of south-eastern Asia; or whether they were a division of the Turkish hordes who found their way through Manchuria and Korea to settle early in the Indo-Pacific; or whether they were the descendants of the Aryan emigrants who pushed through the Kashmirian passes, to be lost amongst the Turanian tribes forming the Thibetans, Nepalese, Siamese, and Burmese, and to bring the added power of Indian symbolism to the children of the Yang-tse-Kiang valley, are questions still in the clouds of archæological conjecture.

The dawn of history reveals them as a compact race, fierce in war, gentle in the arts of peace, imbued with traditions of solar descent and Indian mythology, with a love of poetry, and a great reverence for womanhood. Their religion, known as Shinto, or the Path of Gods, was the simple rite of ancestor-worship—honouring the manes of the fathers who were gathered to the groups of Kami or gods, on the mystic mountain Takamagahara, the highland of Ama—an Olympus which had the Sun-Goddess as its central figure. Every family in Japan claims descent from the gods who followed the grandson of the Sun-Goddess in his descent upon the island, by the eight-rayed pathway of the clouds, thus intensifying the national spirit which clusters round the unity of the Imperial throne. We always say "We come of Ama," but whether we mean the sky, or the sea, or the Land of Rama (?) there is nothing, save the simple old rites of the Tree, the Mirror, and the Sword, to tell.

The waters of the waving rice-fields, the variegated contour of the archipelago, so conducive to individuality, the constant play of its soft-tinted seasons, the shimmer of its silver air, the verdure of its cascaded hills, and the voice of the ocean echoing about its pine-girt shores—of all these was born that tender simplicity, that romantic purity, which so tempers the soul of Japanese art, differentiating it at once from the leaning to monotonous breadth of the Chinese, and from the tendency to overburdened richness of Indian art. That innate love of cleanness which, though sometimes detrimental to grandeur, gives its exquisite finish to our industrial and decorative art, is probably nowhere to be found in Continental work.

The temples of Isé and Idzumo, sacred shrines of immaculate ancestrism, with their toris and rails so reminiscent of Indian torans, are preserved in pristine exactness by having their youth renewed every two decades in their original forms—beautiful in their unadorned proportions.

The dolmens, whose shapes are significant, in their relation to the original stupa, and suggestive as the prototype of the lingam, hold stone and terra-cotta coffins of fine form, covered sometimes with designs of considerable artistic merit, and containing implements of worship and personal decoration, which display highly finished workmanship in bronze, in iron, and in various-coloured stones. The terra-cotta figurines placed round the burial mound, and supposed to represent more ancient human sacrifices at the grave, often attest the artistic ability of the primitive Yamato race. Yet the influx of the matured arts of the Hâng dynasty of China, which reached us in this early stage, overwhelmed us with the wealth of an older culture, and completely absorbed our æsthetic energy in a new effort on another and higher plane.


Excerpted from Ideals of the East by Kakuzo Okakura. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The Range of Ideals
The Primitive Art of Japan
Confucianism--Northern China
Laoism and Taoism--Southern China
Buddhism and Indian Art
The Asuka Period (550-700 a.d.)
The Nara Period (700-800 a.d.)
The Heian Period (800-900 a.d.)
The Fujiwara Period (900-1200 a.d.)
The Kamakura Period (1200-1400 a.d.)
Ashikaga Period (1400-1600 a.d.)
Toyotomi and Early Tokugawa Period (1600-1700 a.d.)
Later Tokugawa Period (1700-1850 a.d.)
The Meiji Period (1850 to the present day)
The Vista
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