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The way of tea in Japan

In Japan, the simple act of drinking tea has been elevated to an art.

Tea was introduced to Japan from China sometime in the early 9th century. As in China, tea was appreciated in Japan for its medicinal value. It was also popular at the emperor’s court in Kyōto as an elegant beverage associated with Chinese higher culture, which Japan’s ruling courtier class was then assiduously imitating.

In the late 9th century, Japan’s direct borrowing from China largely ended. One result was that tea lost its popularity, and before long the Japanese may even have stopped drinking the beverage altogether. In any case, we find little about tea in Japanese historical records for the next 300 years. Then in the late 12th century, the Japanese monk Eisai, one of the founders of the Zen sect of Buddhism, reintroduced tea to Japan from China. Eisai wrote a book praising tea as a medicine that was especially good for the heart. He also recommended tea as a means of staying awake during the long hours of seated meditation practiced in Zen temples.

The tea that Eisai brought from China was green, or unfermented. (In contrast, the black– or as it is known in Japan, red–tea drunk by most Westerners is fully fermented.) Eisai also introduced Japan to a new way of making tea. The Japanese originally had adopted from China a method of tea preparation in which tea was shaved from a brick of pressed leaves, mixed with flavorings such as salt and ginger, and boiled. However, sometime after Japan’s first exposure to tea, the Chinese developed the practice of making tea by dissolving a powder made from tea leaves in hot water. To stir the tea, the Chinese developed a specialized implement known as the whisk. Although the Chinese eventually abandoned the use of powdered tea, the Japanese incorporated both powdered tea and the whisk into their tea ceremony in the 15th century. In this way, the ancient practice was preserved. Nearly all modern tea drinkers, including the Japanese, drink infused tea (in which the tea, loose or in bags, is placed directly in hot water) in their everyday lives.

By the 14th century, tea drinking had spread to all classes of Japanese society. At the boisterous tea gatherings of the time, members of Japan’s warrior elite participated in tasting contests to identify varieties of tea. Of the various types produced domestically, that from Toganō in the mountains northwest of Kyōto was the most highly prized. At these parties, the warriors also made ostentatious displays of the rare and costly tea utensils that they began importing from China in the early 14th century.

The highly structured tea ceremony, in which powdered green tea is prepared for guests in their presence, began to develop in Japan during the 15th century. At that time the Japanese were seeking to cultivate a more serious appreciation of the articles of art and craft that they had been importing from China. Included among these things Chinese were paintings, especially in the monochromatic ink style; calligraphy scrolls; ceramics; and lacquerware. It is possible that Japanese initially gathered for the purpose of admiring these artistic objects and simply served tea as refreshment. However, the drinking of tea itself eventually became the focus of the gatherings, and participants used the Chinese objects for serving the tea, as well as for display in alcoves and on shelves.

A major step in the development of the tea ceremony occurred when the host began to prepare the tea in the same room in which it was served to guests. The host prepared the tea with strictly regulated, ritualistic movements, while guests adhered to an exacting etiquette that defined their every movement as well as their occasional conversation with the host. To enter a tearoom was to enter another world, separate from the mundane, everyday life outside. Indeed, from the late 15th century to the late 16th century, the tea ceremony became a model of social harmony and spiritual fulfillment in a time of internal conflict and violence in Japan that was so intense it has been called Sengoku, or the “era of warring states.”

As informal tea drinking was transformed into the ritualistic ceremony known as the “way of tea,” it was suffused with the spirit of Buddhism, especially Zen. By the late 16th century, when the tea ceremony was raised to its highest level by the great master Sen no Rikyū, practitioners of the ceremony frequently asserted that “tea and Zen have the same flavor;” that is, they are one.

The tea ceremony also became a focal point for the development and expression of artistic and aesthetic values. The great tea masters, who were versed in the procedures of serving tea and made a career of teaching them to others, became leading arbiters of taste in the various arts and crafts that were brought together in the ceremony. Although fashions in the tea ceremony varied from period to period, it came to be associated especially with the aesthetic of wabi. Wabi has no exact parallel in English, but one authority defines it as a beauty that is simple and unpretentious, imperfect and irregular, or stark and austere. A typical wabi tea bowl, for example, is likely to be muted in color, only partially glazed, and imperfectly shaped. The “wabi tea” of the 16th century is commonly regarded as the tea ceremony’s highest spiritual and aesthetic form.

Merchant families in cities such as Kyōto, Nara, and Sakai were leaders in the evolution of the tea ceremony, especially the wabi form. Sen no Rikyū, for example, emerged from a merchant school in Sakai. Patronage for Rikyū and other masters came mainly from Japan’s warrior chieftains. Rikyū rose to national prominence in the service of two warlords, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan in the late 16th century, bringing the period of Sengoku to an end.

The tea ceremony flourished during the more than 250 years of peace that followed under Japan’s Tokugawa shoguns. Tea attracted practitioners from all classes of society, and various schools of tea emerged. The most important of these were three merchant tea schools founded by grandsons of Sen no Rikyū: Urasenke, Omotesenke, and Mushanokōji Senke. Rikyū himself was deified as the “god” of tea, and all schools claimed spiritual affinity with his way of tea.

After Japan entered the modern world with the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogun in 1867, many of its traditional arts fell on hard times. Along with other native customs, the tea ceremony was neglected as the Japanese eagerly pursued Western cultural forms and practices. In an effort to resuscitate the ceremony, tea masters managed to have it incorporated into public school education as a means of teaching traditional etiquette and conduct to Japanese girls and young women. Whereas practitioners of the tea ceremony previously had been almost exclusively male, from this time on they became increasingly female. Today, the vast majority of those who practice tea are women.

The tea ceremony continues to enjoy considerable popularity in Japan. The largest tea school, Urasenke, is said to have some two million students. Those who participate in the tea ceremony, however, are an aging group. There is concern that in a rapidly changing Japan, the younger generation and their children may not take to tea as readily as did their parents and grandparents. A decline in the popularity of the tea ceremony would be lamentable in part because it would diminish a unique art form that for centuries has been at the center of Japanese culture. In addition, fewer tea practitioners would mean fewer patrons for traditional Japanese crafts, including ceramics, lacquerware, and bamboo work,  that have long been closely associated with the tea ceremony.

About the author: Paul Varley is Sen Sôshitsu XV Professor of Japanese Cultural History at the University of Hawaii and the author of Tea in Japan, Essays on the History of Chanoyu; Japanese Culture; and Warriors of Japan, As Portrayed in the War Tales.