Reviews -- Art, Tea, and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle by Christine M. E. Guth

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CHRISTINE M. E. GUTH, Art, Tea, and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993. pp. xvi + 232: 10 color pls., 68 black-and-white ills. $29.95.

The subtext of Christine Guth's remarkable book is Japan's role in the centuries-old traffic in misunderstanding and discord between traditional, non-Western societies and the aggressive, technologically advanced nations of the West Japan began to experience these tensions in the 1540s, at the dawn of the Age of Exploration. Guth takes up the story in the 1860s, when Western warships forced Japan to reopen itself to trade and diplomatic relations. Its reaction, of course, was one of the most remarkable in modern history. In less than forty years Japan restructured its government and financial institutions, created a vast industrial base, and deployed a mighty army and navy. Defeating Russia in 1904-05, it became the first Asian nation since Ottoman Turkey to decisively humiliate a major European power in war. By the late 1930s, when tile author's account ends, Japan was expanding its hegemony unto the mainland, beginning to expel European colonialists, and proclaiming a new East Asian economic and cultural sphere.

Concentrating on the art-historical aspects of this dialectical struggle, tile author traces the career of Masuda Takashi (1848-1938), a leader of the giant Mitsui manufacturing and financial combine and one of the most accomplished art collectors of the modern era. Indeed, it is in the careers of magnates like Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) or J. P. Morgan (1837-1913) that suitable analogues of Masuda's achievements may be found.

The son of a low-ranking samurai official, Masuda was given a traditional Confucian and Buddhist education. While still in his teens, however, he studied English and even met America's first consul general in Japan, Townsend Harris (1804-78). In 1864 Masuda accompanied his father to Paris as part of a delegation seeking to close the port of Yokohama to foreign trade. In 1868 he enlisted in a cavalry troop in service to the crumbling Tokugawa military government. In the same year, however, that regime was overthrown by one headed by the emperor Meiji. The industrialization of Japan had begun.

Guth describes some of the transactions by which Masuda successfully mastered foreign business techniques and sought to redefine Japan's perception of its national essence (kokutai), its cultural identity. At first the unemployed former samurai moved from job to job. For awhile he was an interpreter in foreign import-export firms, where he learned Western accounting methods and made life-long friends. His sister went to school in the United States, became a Christian, and renounced her native ways. Masuda worked for the mint in Osaka, became friends with the influential cabinet official Inoue Kaoru (1835-1915) and, in 1876 at Inoue's direction, took over a trading company that was soon absorbed by the Mitsui combine.

Astute in business and a shrewd judge of human character, Masuda quickly climbed the ladder of corporate ranks. He expanded Mitsui coal mines and its control of resources in China. In 1901 he became a director of the central Mitsui organization. Though nominally retired in 1913, he remained an adviser and major influence in the company until his death a quarter century later. Though he was by no means the richest of the plutocrats of the new Japan, his fortune was great enough to enable him to plunge deeply into the art market.

According to the author, Masuda bought his first work of art in 1878, a lacquer box for writing implements. Collecting was in vogue among his friends in government and business, most notably Kido Takayoshi (1833-77), an early leader of the Meiji government and a passionate devotee of literati painting and calligraphy. Indeed, as Guth shows, political and cultural authority were as closely linked in the new Japan as they had been in the old, for the expectation that persons of high status should demonstrate virtue through mastery of arts and letters was deeply rooted in traditional Sino-Japanese statecraft. …