Dr. Samuel C. Morse is a renowned art historian, teacher, curator, and expert on the art of Japanese Buddhism. He currently serves as the Howard M. and Martha P. Mitchell Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Morse grew up in a family of professors who traveled internationally; he first visited Japan as a child, and returned as a teenager. As a high-school student in Massachusetts, he was enlisted by an art-collector neighbor to organize a trip to Japan, help locate unique ceramic works created by Japanese artists, and catalog the newly purchased items. Morse’s work on the collection captured the interest of two Japanese art experts at Harvard University, who became supportive mentors to the young scholar. Under their guidance, he studied Japanese art history at Harvard and earned his Ph.D. in 1985.
Morse’s work in the field of Japanese art history has been recognized by a range of notable institutions, and he’s received fellowships from the Mitsubishi Foundation and Japan Foundation. At Amherst, he currently teaches subjects including Japanese religious art, museum studies, and the history of the Japanese tea ceremony. Morse is also an accomplished curator, and has overseen exhibitions at the Smith College Museum of Art, Mead Art Museum, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Katonah Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
NichiBei Connect spoke with Morse about the evolution of Japanese art history, the practice of teaching traditional and contemporary Japanese art, and the rewards of lifelong engagement with Japan.
How did you first become aware of Japan as a country and culture?
I grew up outside Boston, and both my parents were college teachers. My initial encounter with Japan came when my father won a Fulbright scholarship to New Zealand when I was in sixth grade, and we stopped in Japan on the way home. My mother had been very much involved in children’s literature. She wanted to meet Ishii Momoko, the woman who translated Winnie the Pooh and the Beatrix Potter books from English into Japanese. So we spent two weeks in Japan and had a very good time.
My father became eligible for a second Fulbright three years later, and both my parents accepted positions to teach at Kobe Women’s College. I had the option to stay in the U.S., go to school, and live with friends or family members, but I chose to travel with my parents to Japan. I didn’t speak any Japanese at the time, but we discovered a school in a neighboring town that was used to having foreign students. I had special tutoring and really hit it off with my Japanese language instructors. I became increasingly enamored with speaking a language I never could have imagined I would learn.
What happened after you returned to the U.S.?
I remained very interested in the Japanese language. We were living in Milton, Massachusetts at the time and, through the church we went to, I was introduced to a man named Carl Weyerhaeuser, who was very interested in collecting contemporary Japanese ceramics. When I was a junior in high-school, I helped him put together a three-week trip to Japan to visit potters and add to his collection, and I was able to travel there with him. I was fluent enough to serve somewhat as a translator, though he also had an agent on the trip who was bilingual. The three of us traveled around Japan and he purchased many pieces of Japanese ceramics. When we came back to Massachusetts, I was charged with cataloging what he had bought.
People at the Harvard Art Museums learned that there was an interesting Japanese ceramics collection nearby in Milton, Massachusetts, and they came out to see it. When I met them, I learned that there was a whole world of Japanese art history beyond my own experiences.
How did you learn to catalog the works that you helped purchase?
The curator of Japanese art at the Harvard Art Museums at the time was a woman named Louise Cort, who later became Curator for Ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. She took me under her wing and taught me how best to catalog Carl Weyerhaeuser’s collection. I had to learn about not just the works, but the potters and their histories.
At the time, I was also fortunate to meet John M. Rosenfield, who was teaching Japanese art at Harvard. He and Louise Cort were editing a series of book translations, and they asked me to translate a book on Shino and Oribe, two regional kinds of Japanese ceramics from the 16th and 17th centuries. So by the time I finished high-school, I was very fortunate to have Japanese language skills, the experience of working with Carl Weyerhaeuser’s collection, a remarkable opportunity to do translation, and more than a passing knowledge of Japanese ceramics.
Did Louise Cort and John Rosenfield continue to guide you as mentors once you started studying at Harvard?
They did. When I got to Harvard, Louise Cort insisted I take a Japanese art history course with John Rosenfield. He was a magnificent undergraduate teacher, and he completely sold me on Japanese art in general and Japanese religious art in particular. He had initially been a scholar of Indian Buddhist art, but made a shift in the early 1960s to Japan because he wanted to study a country where the religion was living, rather than an artifact of the past. He brought Japanese art to life for me.
As I studied, it also became clear that I wouldn’t gain exposure to all the topics I found exciting simply by staying at Harvard for four years in a row. So after my second year, I knew that I wanted to study in Japan. But study abroad didn’t exist in the mid 1970s. It’s very much a phenomenon of this century rather than the past century.
Were you indeed able to study in Japan?
John Rosenfield had been given some money to help undergraduates learn more about Japanese art, and that money was channeled to me. I was able to attend Kyoto University of the Arts for a year and learn about Japanese Buddhist art first-hand. Two important things happened there.
The first was that I went hiking every weekend with the man who had been Carl Weyerhaeuser’s agent. He loved to explore, and we would go to temples outside the city of Kyoto. I got to see an awful lot of temples first-hand, and became fascinated by the interaction of religion and art in the context of a temple setting. I knew I wanted to learn more.
The other thing was that John Rosenfield introduced me to some of his Japanese colleagues and they, too, took me under their wings. They were far more open to helping an American undergraduate than I expected them to be.
Why do you think that was?
Part of it was that I spoke the language, and part of it might have been that there were very few people doing what I was trying to do at the time. I was lucky to be invited on a research trip that some scholars were taking to Murōji, a temple deep in the mountains, south of Nara. They actually let me help them carry statues off the altar and look at them up close. It was remarkable because, like with most religious art, if you just go to a temple as a tourist, you can’t do that.
It was wonderful to visit temples I hadn’t expected to visit, and see things I hadn’t expected to see. I became very interested in images carved out of wood. Japanese artists carved wooden religious icons remarkably well, and had a very interesting approach towards transforming trees into sculptures.
Over the years, it became clear to me that a religious icon is not just something that was made and put on an altar. It takes life from the rituals that are conducted in front of it. There’s an important interaction between the image and the audience. The more I learned, the more I became interested in this interrelationship between art and its observers, and how ritual brings objects to life in front of an audience.
What inspired you to focus on teaching?
I experienced great generosity from my mentors in the United States and Japan. Working with them was transformative, and I was lucky to benefit from their sustained generosity over a long period. Even after graduating from college in 1978, I would often return to Japan and see the same people, who would continue to share fascinating things with me. Teaching allows me to share what I’ve learned with others, undergraduates in particular. I try to instill in my students the same excitement that I felt when I first understood what the tea ceremony was about, or the excitement one can feel standing in front of a religious image while watching a ritual take place. I try to construct that excitement in the classroom as much as possible.
Has the field of Japanese art history changed significantly since you started teaching?
One very good change is that the world is taking global contemporary art seriously. My training in the history of Japanese art often ended in the Meiji period, and just barely made it into the twentieth century, so I’ve had to train myself to be able to teach Japanese art up to the very present. I think many of my colleagues have done the same thing.
Why is the teaching of contemporary art such a meaningful change?
It’s exceedingly important that students understand that Japan is not an artifact, and that the country is changing through the arts. Tokyo is a dynamic city, for example—you can tell just by looking at the buildings designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects, and there are plenty. Being able to explain those structures to students and have them understand is exceedingly gratifying.
Anime and manga are entry points for many students’ interest in Japanese art, which is another reason why teaching the contemporary is valuable. And even though I am no specialist in anime and manga, I do quite a bit of work with contemporary Japanese photography, so I can still connect with those forms from the perspective of still images.
And while it’s important to teach the contemporary, it’s also important that undergraduates understand how the pre-modern shaped what we have now. I try to find the balance between reaching my students in the world that they are familiar with and challenging them to explore unfamiliar topics.
Why do you regularly teach a class on the Japanese tea ceremony?
I don’t know of anything like the tea ceremony outside of Japan. I find the tea ceremony to be a very effective way to introduce students to Japanese culture and aesthetics, and a way to explore how students think about themes like rusticity versus perfection. In the class, we discuss how you can share experience non-verbally, through the use and appreciation of objects within such an immersive ceremony. I continue to teach that course with great passion, and it connects me back to meaningful earlier moments of my career in Japanese art.
What advice could you offer to young people visiting Japan who want to learn more about Japanese art and art history?
It’s important to be inquisitive. When I lived in Kyoto in 1975, I very much wanted to get out and explore. That sort of curiosity has become even more important because Japan is becoming increasingly urban. There’s a lot of focus on what happens in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, and many people don’t explore other areas. If you stay within the cities, there’s a lot you can miss. Potters, for example, generally don’t live in big cities, so if you want to expand your experience base, it’s important to get out into the countryside and see more things. That’s true of art history, architecture, anything associated with the environment, and many other interesting fields.
How can people who are accomplished in the U.S.-Japan space give back as mentors?
Teachers and professors will often have at least one or two students in every class who get very excited by the topics being discussed. Encouraging those students to learn more, and taking the time to open doors for them, can be very helpful. That includes introducing motivated students to professionals whose specialties might align with the areas those young people want to study.
In general, we need to get more people involved in Japanese studies, and the primary way to do that is to respond to young people’s enthusiasm by offering them internships, fellowships and other opportunities that get them to Japan. We need to let young people have transformative experiences like being in Tokyo for the first time, being in Nara for the first time, and understanding that these two worlds manage to co-exist in a harmonious way. And we must all rely on colleagues and connections to help give students the support they need.
How long have you been working with the Japan-United States Friendship Commission?
I’ve only been a commissioner for one year, and it was a year within a pandemic, so opportunities to collaborate with our Japanese partners were more limited than they were in the past. That said, I’ve found it very interesting and rewarding to see how much interest there is in Japan, as demonstrated by the proposals that the Japan-United States Friendship Commission receives. I’ve always felt that the arts writ large—whether visual arts, dance, music or performance—are ideal ways to open avenues of communication for Americans who may not know a lot about Japan, or for people in Japan who may not know a lot about the United States. So it’s been very rewarding to support cultural and educational dialog through the grants that the JUSFC gives.
Are there any elements of Japanese life or culture that might not be well known, but that resonate with you all the same?
Japan is the only country that has experienced the impact of nuclear weapons, and I find it exceedingly interesting that Japanese artists who are far too young to have witnessed the bombs firsthand still need to have that conversation with their art. When I meet artists such as the painter Yasuki Masako or the photographer Arai Takashi— who may be twenty years younger than I am, but are still interested in exploring a dialog with the uniquely Japanese experiences of nuclear weapons—it can be very powerful and moving.
Another aspect is the aftermath of the terrible destruction Tokyo faced during the fire bombings of 1945. The resilience and optimism that the Japanese managed to rekindle after the end of the Second World War are remarkable.
What advice could you offer to young readers who want Japan to be part of their careers and lives moving forward?
One doesn’t need a vocational focus in order to become involved with Japan. Regardless of where your interests lie, remember that those interests can take you somewhere different, and you can pursue them while keeping Japan in mind. If you allow Japan to exist within your frame of reference, at some point in the future, the role of Japan in your life may suddenly expand and become transformative.