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Chanoyu: Following ceremony to a tea.

Why do millions of Japanese practice chanoyu, the venerable tea ceremony-cum-performance art, when one can make a cup of tea with a tea bag in minutes? What were and are the functions, expectations, and ramifications of this long-standing ritual?

When one examines the evolution of the custom, from sociopolitical to economic to medicinal to metaphysical factors, and from gender to class to pedagogic to nationalistic considerations, it becomes clear that not only the practitioners of chanoyu but also the tea ceremony itself have gone through many phases of making the grade over the centuries.

Historical beginnings

Although Japan is associated with green tea, tea plants are not native to the nation. Tea was introduced to Japan from China reportedly in the eighth century. A record indicates that Emperor Shomu, a devout Buddhist, invited Buddhist monks to a religious ceremony in which tea drinking was involved at some point during his reign from 724 to 749. There is no further information about this tea drinking. In 815, a Buddhist monk, Eichu, served tea to Emperor Saga, whose reign was from 809 to 823. Although it was enjoyed in the Imperial circle, the convention soon waned for unknown reasons.

Eisai (1141-1215), regarded as the founder of Japanese Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism, brought powdered tea--the tea used for the present tea ceremony--and tea seeds to Japan from China. Eisai was a great advocate for tea drinking. "Tea is the most wonderful medicine for nourishing one's health; it is the secret of long life," he declared in his book Kissayojo ki (Drink Tea and Nourish Life). For "the secret of health lies in the well-being of the five organs," Eisai continued. "Among these five the heart is sovereign, and to build up the heart the drinking of tea is the finest method."1 In fact, he wrote Drink Tea and Nourish Life "in the hope of saving the Shogun [military leader] Sanetomo [1192-1219] from alcoholism by extolling the virtues of 'the cup that cheers but does not inebriate.'"2 (Sanetomo's brief life ended for another reason: assassination at the hands of his nephew, who, in turn, was quickly beheaded.)

By the 14th century, the practice of drinking tea had spread to the warrior class in medieval Japan, perhaps because the simplicity and austerity of Zen philosophy fit the lifestyle of samurai, a burgeoning class that needed a new culture. But soon tea gatherings became luxurious parties among military lords and wealthy merchants. Chanoyu gave them "opportunities to socialize, for business discussions (or battle strategy), and to demonstrate their dignity in a public setting. Since neither of these groups belonged to the aristocracy, it can be assumed that a crucial motive for their practice of the tea ceremony was a desire to acquire refined manners, thereby achieving elevated status."3

During the chaotic Warring States (1467-1573), Japan was not a unified nation; instead, dozens of independent factions clashed regularly amid social upheaval and political intrigue, making armed conflict and sudden death part of everyday life. This state of tumultuous affairs affected the tea ceremony in at least two ways. First, because class and standing were fluid and not necessarily predetermined, even a peasant could become a military lord. Therefore, social distinctions were not strictly observed in tea gatherings; anyone could be invited and everyone in attendance could behave as equals. Second, the quintessential term of the tea ceremony, ichigo ichie--this meeting could be our last--brewed accordingly. Since every human encounter was a singular occasion, never to recur exactly the same way again, and since reality was in precarious flux, mindful host entertained appreciative guests. And in this environment wabicha (a rustic tea ceremony in a small space)--the tea ceremony as a highly-stylized art form--emerged. Wabicha originated from a Zen Buddhist priest named Murata Shuko (14227-1502), who believed in sober and imperfect beauty. Merchant tea master and warlord adviser Sen Rikyu (1521-91) perfected wabicha by fusing it with Zen sensibilities.

Practitioners of the tea ceremony were men; the reasons for this are unclear but may pertain to protecting or enhancing station, stature, and sway. Rich merchants and military lords competed to practice the tea ceremony because they were considered the creators of culture; chanoyu, therefore, became a status symbol, a way of making the grade. It also was not uncommon for tea gatherings to take on political purposes in negotiations or connote a show of force vis-a-vis power and wealth. The feudal lord Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), for example, displayed expensive utensils at tea ceremonies to underscore his prowess. And the life of Matsunaga Hisahide (1510-1577), a rival military lord, was spared after he gave his invaluable tea caddy, called tsukumonasu, to Nobunaga.4 (Hisahide wound up committing suicide after Nobunaga successfully besieged him, and one of Hisahide's orders before taking his life was to destroy a priceless tea kettle, hiragumo, that Nobunaga had coveted.) Joao Rodrigues (15617-1633), a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who came to Japan in 1577, commented on the tea ceremony: "although the small house and its utensils may appear rough, people spend large sums of money on them. Some earthenware utensils may be worth twenty thousand crowns--something which will appear as madness to other nations."5

In the Edo period (1600-1868), the shoguns of the ruling Tokugawa family enforced a rigid class system, and practitioners of tea ceremonies largely adhered to this mandate. By claiming some relationship with Rikyu--through relatives or disciples--various schools of the tea ceremony arose. For instance, the Sekishu School, founded by Katagiri Sadamasa (16051673), a feudal lord who learned the tea ceremony from the disciple of Rikyu's eldest son, was "popular among the feudal lords because of a rule that allowed a student to receive qualifications to teach the tea ceremony once they had completed a course"6 (The Sekishu School is still extant.) Yet when lineage counted heavily, some iemoto (the founder or headmaster of traditional Japanese art schools) of lower social ranking could socialize with those above them. For example, the iemoto of the three Senke Schools (Omote Senke, Mushanokoji Senke, and Ura Senke), established by the sons of one of the grandsons of Rikyu, taught chanoyu to feudal lords and thereby made the grade. (The Senke Schools are popular today.) Chanoyu, then, largely became a quasi-leisurely pursuit of men of privilege.

Later iterations

With the fall of the Tokugawa military government in Edo (old Tokyo) in 1868, the tea ceremony faced potential extinction. The ensuing Meiji (1868-1912) government wanted to establish a modern society with social advancement at least partially based on merit. The introduction of universal conscription to serve a highly mechanized military made samurai obsolete, and chanoyu lost patrons. Furthermore, as the early Meiji government looked to the West for inspiration in everything from medicine to politics to literature, and ignored traditional Japanese performing arts, the tea ceremony was considered inconsequential. Japanese art objects, tea utensils, and related hanging scrolls sold for next to nothing. The tea ceremony, deemed antiquated and insignificant, was submerged by the tsunami wave of Westernization.

Top: the author hosts a tea ceremony at Miami University in 2010, as her daughter MaryEllen Sakura Reider, a high school senior, and Tariq Lacy, a senior East Asian languages and cultures major at the campus, observe.

A lifeline came from a handful of powerful and wealthy businessmen and political leaders like entrepreneur Masuda Takashi (or Don'o, 1848-1938) and statesman Inoue Segai (or Kaoru, 1835-1915) who collected art. Initially, these elite men were not necessarily interested in chanoyu, but they became passionate about the rite upon obtaining its utensils, scrolls, and huts. Meanwhile, important iemoto and practitioners of chanoyu defended the tea ceremony as a spiritual foundation for the Japanese. And arts scholar Okakura Kakuzo (or Tenshin, 1862-1913) explained in The Book of Tea (1906), a landmark volume he wrote in English, that the tea ceremony is [a] cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. [T]he philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste. Our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting--our very literature--all have been subject to its influence.7

Furthering its impact, the tea ceremony found a great alliance in women. The main reason was because studying it was considered instrumental to learning etiquette. When educator Atomi Kakei (1840-1926) founded a women's school in Tokyo in 1875 (the Atomi School for Girls still exists today), she adopted the tea ceremony in her curriculum to teach manners and decorum. Other women's educational institutions gradually added the tea ceremony to their pedagogy. During the ensuing Taisho period (1912-26), which pursued liberal democracy, the tea ceremony expanded rapidly and became remarkably popular, much through the tea ceremony curriculum at women's schools, not to mention the influence of iemoto.8 The practitioners of the tea ceremony were hitherto predominantly men, but the ratio of male to female chanoyu practitioners reversed by the 1930s.9

The belief that the tea ceremony was the best way for young Japanese women to learn etiquette grew in the mid-20th century. Chanoyu helped women make the grade for marriage and homemaking. Soon after World War II, Sen Soshitsu XIV (1893-1964), the 14th iemoto of the Ura Senke school, exclaimed, "First of all, the urgent business is that schoolgirls seem to have completely forgotten about good manners as a result of long mobilization and wartime life. I think it is critical to get them back on track. ... I want to diffuse the tea ceremony thoroughly in society--not only to the limited number of people called the tea masters but to call out to the masses."10 At the same time, some Japanese intellectuals, like Hisamatsu Sen'ichi (1894-1974), claimed chanoyu as a cultural synthesis embracing many traditional arts and sciences such as Zen, architecture, flower arrangements, and calligraphy. Through media and lifelong learning centers, the tea ceremony spread to the masses and to women in particular.

In the latter half of the 1950s and early '60s, women began to appear at the center of culture because an increase in national income and the introduction of electric appliances such as washing machines allowed homemakers to pursue other interests, including chanoyu. Homemakers who finished childrearing suddenly had time and money to enrich themselves and others, in this case, to learn to perform tea ceremonies.11

Contemporary permutations

That trend has continued. More than 2.6 million people host or attend tea ceremonies, and 90 percent of them are women, according to the Statistics Bureau of Japan, as of 1996.12 (The population of Japan in 1995 exceeded 125 million; preliminary count in 2010 surpassed 128 million.13) Nowadays, a number of young women start chanoyu out of curiosity, and the incentive to learn etiquette through it remains strong. Almost half of the female practitioners are in their late 40s or older and have completed domestic responsibilities of childrearing.14 They "have social acknowledgement only as domestic supporters, and wish to have acknowledgement beyond that limited role. They obtain such social acknowledgement, first of all, from gaming attention and respect from other women," remarks cultural anthropologist Etsuko Kato, an expert in Japanese tea ceremonies. "By giving each other the chance to present their body movement and knowledge," Kato adds, "these women create a unique social space for each other. They together expand their space in society for further acknowledgment."15

One might assume, then, that the tea ceremony has come to serve as a progressive act by subverting sex-role socialization and advancing gender equality. Women usurp a role previously dominated by men and find common cause in doing so, all the while keeping alive what's most important about the national legacy: valuing precious beauty on its literal and spiritual levels. Not necessarily. At least until the 1950s, male executives and business owners practiced chanoyu for social networking. Kuwabara Takeo, a renowned scholar of French literature, wrote in 1953: "These days most capitalists in Osaka do the tea ceremony. A president of a company told me that he did not like it at all. But [he said that] some men who regained power after the war ... identify themselves as tea ceremony practitioners ... and the tea ceremony is the most effective means [for ambitious business people] of toadying to them."16 What's more, one reason that economically successful men ceased to practice it after World War II might have been due to new ways of socialization such as golf. (17)

Timeless appeal

There are many benefits to performing chanoyu beyond empowerment through knowledge and recognition. For one thing, rituals can be reassuring once one knows how to follow them, as it is soothing to see steam rising out of a cast-iron pot in the spare loveliness of a tearoom and calming to hear tea being stirred by a bamboo whisk amid hushed appreciation. A tea ceremony, in other words, is a quiet moment amid turbulent life; in this fast-paced society, chanoyu provides a place to relax, a retreat from the hectic outside world. As significantly, and as alluded to above, practitioners of the tea ceremony embrace tradition and promote heritage. They carry cachet as bearers of national pride. Most of all, they enjoy the ambiance of serenity and perhaps the satisfaction of making the grade that come with chanoyu.

Noriko Tsunoda Reider (The Ohio State University) earned an instructor's certificate in Japanese tea ceremonies from the Dai Nihon Chado Gakkai (Japan Association of the Tea Ceremony) in 1986. Professor of Japanese literature, language, and folklore at Miami University, she has published two books, Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present (Utah State University Press, 2010) and Tales of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan: Kaidan, Akinari, Ugetsu Monogatari (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), and more than a dozen articles on Japanese themes in academic journals. She earned degrees in Japanese history from Sophia University in Tokyo (B.A., M.A.) and in Japanese literature from The Ohio State University (M.A., Ph.D.). Her email address is

Elements of a Formal Japanese Tea Ceremony

The formal Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu, typically held for one to five guests today, encompasses three stages that cumulatively last about four hours when conducted in a teahouse. The host, or teishu, and guests usually wear kimonos. There is no particular season or occasion for chanoyu; when and how often to attend is an individual choice.

First, guests enter the tearoom and appreciate the decorations chosen by the host such as a hanging scroll in the alcove. A bamboo shade on the window of the teahouse provides further atmosphere; tatami mats cover the floor. The host then serves a meal in the same room. Afterwards, guests retire to an inner garden for quiet conversation and contemplation. Meanwhile, the host replaces the hanging scroll in the alcove with flowers, sets out necessary tea utensils, and rolls up the bamboo screen. The climactic final stage starts when participants return and the host makes thick tea in a silent, stylized manner and engages the guest of honor in a formal dialogue about tea. Then everyone takes turns savoring this thick tea. The host serves a thin tea, again in prescriptive silence, to conclude the festivities.1

Chanoyu, then, "calls for a good knowledge of architecture, landscape gardens, and tea utensils, as well as the capacity to appreciate the total effect of their beauty."2

Noriko Tsunoda Reider


Phi Kappa Phi member Noriko Tsunoda Reider teaches in the Department of German, Russian, Asian, and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at Miami University. Here she combines scholarly activities with private pursuits; Reider publishes often on Japanese culture, history, prose and folklore and earned an instructor's certificate in Japanese tea ceremonies.
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Author:Reider, Noriko Tsunoda
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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