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Chanoyu, nation building and femininity

Chanoyu, nation building and femininity - Yunomi.life

Moé  Kishida |

This is a book review and commentary written by Jimmy Burridge, tea aficionado and casual student of history, currently based in France. Enjoy! 


In this article we offer commentary on two books that examine who practiced tea ceremony, what it has meant and what social and cultural roles it has played over the centuries. They are titled: 

Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice. Kristin Surak. 2013. Stanford University Press. 

Cultivating Femininity: Women and Tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan. Rebecca Corbett. 2018. University of Hawai’i Press. 



Most Japanese, and even some foreigners, have at least a vague image of the tea ceremony (chanoyu) as involving lords and samurai in feudal times. We may imagine them putting aside their swords to sit down for a carefully rehearsed ceremony. We perhaps have the idea that it was used as a background for displays of wealth, fostered social connectivity and even played political roles. We know that today things are quite different, there aren’t samurai and that almost anyone can practice chanoyu. But we also know that there is still a high degree of formality and tradition and that the tea ceremony depicts something intrinsically Japanese. We can probably imagine there would be some sort of special way to drink the tea but all in all, most people know relatively little about the tea ceremony itself, who participated, what it means or has been used for. The two books discussed here use sources dating back over 150 years, interviews and personal experience to explore these questions and to give a more nuanced perspective on the historic, and modern, significance of the tea ceremony. 

Both books are written by non-Japanese women but each of the authors has extensive familiarity with Japanese culture and the tea ceremony. In spite of being academic works of scholarship intended for an audience already familiar with the basics of tea, I found them approachable, well written and highly readable. I actually appreciate their formal and rigorous approach. They are not, however, the type of light reading you may pick up occasionally before drifting off to sleep! My main take away message is that chanoyu is much more than a highly codified, participatory ceremony with historic roots. I learned it has played multiple roles in its dynamic history and has layers of significance spanning personal, social and national spheres. These books go much deeper than repeating the basic stories about Sen no Rikyū or Murata Jukō, which can drift toward celebrity hagiography. They rather explore what was happening in parallel and after Rikyū, as well as take stock of social and cultural trends through time. I highly recommend these books and encourage you to dive into what the tea ceremony has meant, who practiced it and for what purposes they practiced chanoyu over the centuries! 


Summary and Commentary

In Cultivating Femininity Rebecca Corbett primarily compares women’s roles in the tea ceremony in Edo and Meiji era Japan. The Edo period (1600-1868), immediately preceded the Meiji era. The reforms of the Meiji era led to the modernization of Japan and its emergence as a globally important nation-state. The Edo period followed what many people imagine as feudal Japan (1185-1600), complete with samurai and daimyo (regional lords), where the “classical” aspects of the tea ceremony were codified. Just for reference, Sen no Rikyū, whom many regard as the primary influence on the Japanese Tea ceremony, died in 1591. 

Rebecca Corbett points out how in the Edo period there where two distinct spheres of tea practice. The formal sphere was composed of elite politicians, warriors and members of their courts, such as Sen no Rikyū. The vast majority of literature today deals with this formal sphere and focuses on a relatively small number of tea ceremonies, led by men, that have been deemed particularly influential. Yet even in this sphere, historical records and letters indicate women, particularly wives of tea masters or samurai, performed important tea ceremonies, albeit primarily when the husband was away. Nevertheless, women had the knowledge, the experience and the trust, not just of their husband but of the local daimyo, who would be disgraced if the tea ceremony was fumbled in some way. Women’s important role in this sphere is by in large unrecognized today. 

Women also had significant roles in the other, less formal sphere of the tea world, where the majority of tea ceremonies would have been held. The author suggests that this less formal sphere was where new ideas, procedures and aesthetic elements were experimented with and that women played an important role, and not just as guests. Rebecca Corbett uses historical records, publications and even old theatre pieces to write women back into the pre-Meiji history of the tea ceremony. Log books from tea gatherings can be especially valuable because they include every detail about what utensils were used, what artistic elements were displayed, who was there and who poured the tea. 

A particularly interesting segment relates the story told in a puppet play, Gonza the Lancer (Yari no Gonza kasna katabiri, 1717). In this story, Osai, the wife of a tea master has significant responsibility and knowledge of the tea ceremony, including secret knowledge typically regarded as reserved for the male son of a tea master. Osai has even taught her daughter enough of the esoteric aspects for the daughter to perform an important and rare type of tea for the local daimyo. These aspects of popular culture indicate that women were indeed involved in the performance and practice of the tea ceremony yet women have not received the same recognition for their contributions, creativity and maintenance of the practice. 

Both Cultivating Femininity and Making Tea, Making Japan closely examine the relationship between the tea ceremony and women in the transformative Meiji era. In Edo Japan the tea ceremony was primarily practiced by elite groups, or courtesans associated with elites. The revolutionary reforms of the Meiji Restoration opened the tea ceremony to new groups. Rapid industrialization created a new business class without ties to the previous aristocracy, but with an interest in situating themselves as refined members of a new elite class. Practicing and hosting tea ceremonies were a means to demonstrate their broad range of expertise, refined artistic taste and authentic Japanese values. Practicing the tea ceremony became a way to keep a foot in traditional Japanese culture but also operate in the modern world characterized by ‘civilization and enlightenment’ (bunmei kaika). 

There were many profound changes at this time; the islands of Japan were being united under a single central government, transportation and industry were changing the character of both urban and rural areas, social organization and cultural norms were shifting. On a different level, political and intellectual influencers were searching for a framework that would bring the country together, create a national identity and enable Japan to be understood internationally. The publication in 1906 of the extremely influential book, The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kahuzō, did much to define the tea ceremony as the quintessential expression of Japanese culture and aesthetics. This seminal book influenced popular perception of the tea ceremony in both Japan and abroad. It was around this time that the tea ceremony came to be seen as the most concise and best expression of national identity, and even a type of national symbol. 

The authors explore primary documents from girls’ schools, popular periodicals and guidebooks, as well as academic works from the Meiji era, to illustrate how the tea ceremony was used to teach proper values and comportment. Debating how to teach proper Japanese sensibility, values, and manners to young women was a common topic of public discourse and learning tea was widely viewed as an effective methodology. At least basic elements of the tea ceremony were taught in both public and private schools and much more time was devoted to the tea ceremony in elite girl schools. Some of the strictly codified movements of chanoyu directly teach finely refined manners applicable to situations other than chanoyu, but that are critical to proper Japanese comportment. Examples include how chopsticks are to be picked up, used and set back down, how to sit and how to eat at the formal meal accompanying a tea ceremony. Learning how to wear and move in a kimono, how to stand up and which foot to lead with when turning was considered part of learning to be a proper, respectful and modest young woman. 

On a deeper level, learning values, proper comportment and gaining a refined femininity through studying tea were thought to be a foundation for the greater nation building project. Chanoyu became popularized as a type of women’s training for ‘good wives and wise mothers’ (ryōsai kenbo), a common phrase in Meiji era ideology. The importance of learning tea is illustrated by the following argument of the time; learning to harmoniously serve tea is linked to harmonious homes; harmonious homes are foundational for the new Japan; therefore, women learning tea is an important nation-building project. Women were thus burdened with triple responsibilities of mother, homemaker and nation-maker. It was this period that can be credited with “inextricably linking tea, femininity and Japaneseness.”

In her book, Making Tea, Making Japan Kristin Surak examines modern tea practice and modern-day training for the tea ceremony. While clearly anyone can learn how to make matcha, being a fully certified and recognized practitioner or teacher carries significant social value. Tea schools formally train students in the tea ceremony, award certificates for completing training and effectively regulate the formal tea world. Kristin Surak outlines the rigid hierarchical structure of some tea schools, called the iemoto system, and comments on how quotidian types of knowledge and certification can essentially be paid for, but the more esoteric aspects remain exclusive. Perhaps ironically for schools whose economic existence depends primarily upon women paying for training and certification, the male leadership at the most influential tea schools still defines and controls the tea ceremony. 

Kristin Surak closes with commentary on how modern male and female practitioners seem to have different goals, with men highlighting connoisseurship, intellectual and philosophical understanding while women’s practice seems to focus on “learning proper comportment, etiquette and manners.” Modern male practitioners often stress the warrior and diplomatic roots of the tea ceremony while women stress grace and appropriate seasonal aesthetics. This striking contrast in how the tea ceremony is envisioned, taught and practiced by modern day men and women illustrates the remarkable plasticity of the tea ceremony. 

Scene from the modern day Japanese tea ceremony. Image credit: kikuo / PIXTA



What becomes clear from a historical perspective of chanoyu (tea ceremony) is its dynamism, adaptability and continued relevance. Aspects of the tea ceremony have changed dramatically over the centuries, yet others have stayed much the same. Perhaps this paradox between stability and change is what has enabled chanoyu to be such an important part of social and political life over the centuries. Chanoyu has played roles as a political tool for state-craft, been a highly important status symbol, helped build a national identity, taught gender roles in a modernizing Japan, reinforced notions of a unique “Japaneseness” in an internationalizing Japan, as well as been used to showcase Japanese aesthetics to international audiences. The tea ceremony has shown its polyvalence across centuries of profound social, economic and political change and continues to be an important practice and touchstone. We are left to wonder about the future of tea ceremony and its relationship to Japanese culture. How will chanoyu be maintained, and change, through the ongoing transformations of our world? Will tea culture continue to be central aspect of Japanese identity, and if so, it what form?


wabi sabiToo much wabi sabi? The awkwardness of two of our French made matcha bowls suggest there is value in rigid control over tea ceremony utensils. Photos by Jimmy Burridge. 


For more books about Japanese tea:

The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura 

Check out other posts written by Jimmy Burridge: 

Tea History Shines into the Future

Climate Change and Tea Chemistry 


Featured image credit: acworks/Photo-AC.

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