Anna Berliner and her approach to Japanese culture


Chantal Weber

Department of Japanese Studies, University of Cologne, Germany

Introduction: Historical background

In the Meiji period (1868-1912), following the feudal era, Japan invited Western experts (oyatoi gaikokujin お雇い外国人) to bring their knowledge in various academic fields like medicine, geography, law and military. Those experts from Europe and the United States (US) taught at the newly established universities or other national institutions. The Japanese state was eager to learn and educate its people in different fields, all in the name of ‘civilization and enlightenment’ (bunmei kaika文明開化), which should lead to the country’s westernization and consequently modernization. In 1910, after the Chinese-Japanese war in 1894/95 and the Russo-Japanese war in 1904/05, this process came to a completion: achievement of the industrialization, concluding the nation building process and the acknowledgment as a world power.

Nevertheless, in the following Taishô period (1912-1926) some foreigners where still invited to teach at Japanese universities, as was Siegfried Berliner (1884-1961), who started to teach economics at the Imperial University of Tôkyô (today: Tôkyô University) in 1913. He was accompanied by his wife, Anna Berliner (1888-1977). They arrived in 1913, an unfortunate timing as World War I was already approaching and putting Japan and Germany on different sides during the war. However, these political circumstances hardly influenced the good image the German community in Japan had built. Particularly, the German East Asiatic Society (OAG – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens), founded in 1873, remained active during the war and provided a place for exchange on a non-political base. Individuals like Erwin von Bälz (1849-1913) also had influenced the good image of Germans in Japan – he served as personal physician to the imperial household, especially to the physically weak Taishô emperor (Taishô tennô 大正天皇1879-1926).

Shortly after World War I started, the German men in Japan – either being on the reserve list or by choice – were called to the defense of the German Kiautschou Bay Leased Territory in China (Qingtao). After the defeat by the Japanese and British, the German soldiers were transported as prisoners of war (POW) to Japan and interned in camps around the country, mostly concentrated in Shikoku, the smallest of the main islands of Japan. The until today famous camp in Bandô became the model how POW should be treated – it was there, that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was played for the first time in Japan. After the end of the war, it was not until 1920 that the approx. 4.300 POW were repatriated or released to continue their work in Japan.

The life and work of Anna Berliner in Japan, which will be the focus of this article, was highly influenced by the world history and political circumstances. Or with Anna Berliner’s words in her CV:

“Interruptions in the chronological list of professional work are due to two wars, a revolution, the Japanese earthquake and research work.”

Anna Berliner and Japan

Anna Berliner received her Ph.D. from Leipzig University in the field of psychiatry in 1913, right before she and her husband, Siegfried, left for Japan. Siegfried accepted a position at the Imperial University of Tôkyô as lecturer for economy, while Anna through the recommendation of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) was able to work at the psychiatry department of the same university.

It is often said, even by Anna Berliner herself, that she was Wundt’s only female student. However, Wundt, who was an international renowned expert, had in fact another female student. Anna’s thesis was supervised by Max Brahn (1873-1944) and Wundt is mentioned as second adviser. Wundt was highly respected in Japan; one proof is the fact that his library was purchased by a former student and can now be found at Tôhoku University in Sendai, Japan.

Unfortunately, shortly after they arrived in Japan and settled into their new life, World War I started and Siegfried Berliner had to report to duty when the attack of Qingdao by Japanese and British forces was becoming imminent. After the defeat Siegfried was first interned in the camp in Marugame and later transferred to the camp in Bandô. While her husband was interned, Anna Berliner stayed for six months close to the camp in Marugame; she was able to send food and even visit him. Eventually, in 1915, Anna Berliner was forced to leave her husband behind in Japan and to go to the US. She studied and taught at Berkeley and Columbia (Universities), and also conducted research at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York. Finally, she was allowed to return to Japan in 1921.

The following years Anna Berliner took different job offers in Tôkyô: She became a consultant at Hoshi Pharmaceuticals, Japan’s biggest pharmaceutical company at that time, founded by Hoshi Hajime 星一(1873-1951). She also taught at Hoshi seiyaku shôgyô 星製薬商業 (today: Hoshi University), the university associated with Hoshi Pharmaceuticals, and at Nihon University. In addition, she was a consultant for Gotô Shinpei 後藤新平 (1857-1929), who was a very influential politician; among other things he was the mayor of Tôkyô after the Great Kantô Earthquake in 1923 and an active member ofthe OAG. Anna Berliner was not only very active in her profession, but sought contact with other prominent persons on a more private basis. It is documented that she met at a friend’s house Hiratsuka Raichô 平塚らいてう (1886-1971), one ofthe leading feminist activists of her time. When Albert Einstein (1879-1955) visited Japan in 1922, he was welcomed by the Berliners in their house in Tôkyô – on three occasions Einstein mentioned Anna Berliner in his travel diary.

November 21, 1922: “In the evening, cozy evening at the Berliners’ charming Japanese home. He, an intelligent political economist, she, a gracious, intelligent woman, true native of Berlin.” (Einstein, Albert and Rosenkranz, Ze’ev. The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine, and Spain, 1922 – 1923. Princeton University Press, 2018.)

During this second period in Japan, Anna Berliner published some articles in Japanese, and worked on a booklet titled “Japanische Reklame in der Tageszeitung” (Japanese Advertising in Daily Newspapers), which was published in 1925. Based on a carefully conducted data collection she analyses the specific characteristics of Japanese advertisement in comparison to advertisement in Germany and the US. She concludes that there are differences, which are cultural and should not be judged in terms of civilizing advancements. She distinctively does not get on the track of Orientalism or Exoticism, which was still very common in those days. This is also true for her main research of that time, which led to the book “Der Teekult in Japan”.

Der Teekult in Japan”, 1930

Anna Berliner wrote the first book about the Japanese tea ceremony (sadô 茶道) in German, “Der Teekult in Japan” (The tea cult in Japan), published 1930 in Leipzig. Actually, it was one of the first books ever written by a non-Japanese about this topic and until today, it is one of the most elaborated books about sadô in German, with 369 pages and 23 pages glossary. The book consists of three parts divided in 27 chapters:

  • Part One: The Material Fundamentals;
  • Part Two: Rules of Behavior;
  • Part Three: What is the tea ceremony and what does it mean?

Attached to the last page is a very detailed fold-out chart of all historical tea masters.

There are various reasons why this book is remarkable: First, Anna Berliner describes in every detail the tea utensils and the architecture of the teahouse – this has never been done to this extend by a non-Japanese. Second, the description of the tea gathering shows that she, in fact, studied the tea ceremony herself and was not only an observer. Third, the last part about “What is the tea ceremony and what does it mean” is an analysis of the tea ceremony not only as a living tradition but also as a cultural practice that defines the human behavior.

The Japanese tea ceremony, or better: Way of Tea (literal translation of sadô), developed in the medieval ages and is said to have matured as an art with Sen no Rikyû 千利休 (1522-1591). The art of tea is a communicative form of drinking tea in a regulated setting, where every movement is trained. The theory of ichigo ichie 一期一会 (one time, one meeting; every meeting is unique) states that every tea gathering has to be arranged according to the occasion, to the people attending and to the season of the year. Often referred as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of the arts, sadô incorporates architecture, the art of flowers, garden architecture, pottery, and calligraphy, just to name a few. In this setting the attendants can break free from their everyday lives and immerse themselves into the world of tea, connecting to other people, the nature and the aesthetic. This experience will stay with the attendants afterwards, in their everyday routine.

The biggest and best-known tea schools, the three Senke schools, trace their roots to Sen no Rikyû: Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushanokôjisenke. Anna Berliner studied three years, from 1921 to 1925, with a teacher of the Omotesenke school. This in itself is remarkable for a foreigner in Japan, but due to her language skills Berliner was able to study sadô with a Japanese teacher and other students in Japanese. Therefore, she studied sadô in the most direct way and not through translations, which would always only give a selected interpretation of the art of tea. For her book she consulted literature on tea in Japanese and did a remarkable research in the utensils used in the Way of Tea – the book includes 64 pictures of various jars, bowls etc. and some sketches for the systematics of different forms of utensils.

Anna Berliner states in the first sentence:

If one wants to get to know an alien nation, you have to participate in all their activities.” (p.1)

That is exactly what she did, but she was not only an observer or a passive participant, but rather conducted detailed research in the history and practice of the Way of Tea as well as learning the practice with a Japanese teacher. Being able to speak and read Japanese was definitely an advantage in her research; a very rare knowledge among Germans living in Japan (at that time). In the first two parts, Berliner explains in great details the practice of sadô. Of great interest is the last part, where she analyses her observation and experiences according to the philosophy of tea. She states:

“As soon as I come to the tea room, I am far from all which troubles me usually, through the new environment detached from time and space. Pleasantly a consistent mood takes possession on me, vanishing all inner conflict.” (p. 259)

Though even Japanese today have trouble sitting in seiza 正座 (literally “proper sitting”; sitting on one’s knees), Berliner writes:

“I like sitting the Japanese way.” (p. 259)

She then again emphasizes the possibility of becoming someone new in the tea room, not concerned by the outer world, but just being oneself. She writes:

“Consciously, the Way of Tea turns away from civilization. Like in Taoism, it goes back to the simple, the natural.” (p. 267)

Due to her own research background, Anna Berliner is able to put her experiences into a broader context. She writes:

“In tea the [aesthetics] demand raises as far as the individual itself becomes a piece of art in terms of calmness and overcoming physical demands.” (p. 269)

Anna Berliner refuses clearly to judge the tradition of sadô in terms of European standards:

“It would be wrong to deny the Way of Tea all deeper meaning, because it forgoes conceptional explanation and limits itself to emotion. The tea cult is not a European scientific demonstration, which needs conceptional clarity. The self-evident requirement for logical clearance cannot be extended to something, which lays outside the European scientific knowledge.” (p. 270)

To understand the Japanese tradition of tea one cannot apply western logic or western scientific rules to it.

However, coming from a European country, Anna Berliner did just that – applying a Western approach to a non-Western phenomenon. But she emphasized that one has to be aware of one’s own origin and socialization. For doing proper research on the Japanese culture one must adjust Western cultural theory accordingly. In this understanding, Anna Berliner was quiet ahead in cultural science of her times.


One year after the Great Kantô Earthquake in 1923, which destroyed most parts of the Tôkyô-Yokohama-area, Anna and her husband returned to Germany and settled in Leipzig. Anna took great interest in Japanese-German relations and together with Siegfried founded the German branch of the OAG. It is also documented that their house was filled with Japanese art and furniture – unfortunately, everything was lost due to their escape from the Nazis in 1938. They also welcomed Japanese students studying in Leipzig to their house and one of them even lived with them, Itakura Tomone 板倉鞆音 (1907-1990), who later became a professor at Aichi University, Nagoya.

Though Anna Berliner did not conduct further research on the Japanese culture, she seems to have stayed in contact with friends and colleagues in Japan even after World War II, as letters in her legacy indicate. “Der Teekult in Japan” can be regarded as a pioneer work and counts to this day as one of the most elaborated standard works on the Japanese Way of Tea in German.


  • Rode, Hans K.; Spang, Christian W.: “Anna and Siegfried Berliner”. In: Cho, Joanne Miyang; Roberts, Lee M. and Spang, Christian W. (ed.): Transnational Encounters between Germany and Japan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 105-126.
  • Kantowsky, Detlev: “‘Der Teekult in Japan‘ Eine Erinnerung an das grundlegende Werk von Anna Berliner“. In: Internationales Asienforum, Vol. 40 (2009), pp. 159-168.

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