The Historical Relationship Between Politics and the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chado or Chanoyu), and Sen no Rikyū as Political Advisor

History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chado or Chanoyu) 
by Jimmy Burridge and Ian Chun
(image: Sen no Rikyu, courtesy of the Sakai Plaza of Rikyu and Akiko 堺市博物館蔵 - also a small but great museum to visit if you are ever in Osaka, Japan)

 

Chado 茶道, chanoyu 茶の湯 and chaji 茶事 are referred in the West today as the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The terms can be respectively translated as the way of tea, the “art” (literally, “hot water”) of tea and a tea gathering. In all cases the translations clearly indicate a social and aesthetic practice, with perhaps some religious connotations. What most people think of today as the Japanese Tea Ceremony stems from a style of tea ceremony that gained popularity among merchants and was adopted by the warrior class in the 16th century. 

Sen no Rikyū is the most prominent figure in the history of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and founder of the three most famous schools of tea (there are some 70 schools still in existence today). He lived at the height of the Sengoku Period (Warring States Period, 1467-1615) and was the most influential figure to bring prominence to the tea ceremony. He promoted the wabi style of tea ceremony that is associated with Chado today, but was not the originator; the wabi style had a broad range of aesthetic, religious, cultural, economic and political influences over the preceding centuries and was in development among the religious, merchant and warrior classes. 

Furthermore, the tea community at the time was just that, a community of practitioners, experimenting with many of the same influences and using tea for a combination of leisure, business and politics. Historical evidence strongly suggests the tea ceremony under the “Great Unifiers” of Japan, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, was also used to promote political interests and as a form of diplomacy. 

 

Roots of the tea ceremony

Tea is thought to have first come to Japan from China with the monk Eichū around 805, who had studied Buddhism in China for 30 years. Tea thus carried with it a predominantly Chinese influence with pronounced elements of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhist practices. Tea was thought of as a cure-all health tonic, but its use was limited to the aristocracy and monasteries. Consumption of tea was never popular with common people, nor with merchants and its use died out shortly after 895. 

A rebirth of tea culture was enabled by the monk Eisai (1141-1215) who brought new seeds and the practice of drinking tea from Sung Dynasty China. Eisai introduced a tea culture with a puerh like cake of tea, ground to a powder and then whisked to a froth. Eisai promoted his new tea culture for its health benefits but it was also consumed by monks, who starting with rubrics brought from Buddhist monasteries in China, further developed the ritual of tea preparation and drinking. Tea offered the experience of enlightenment in the most common of experiences being performed perfectly. 

Outside the monasteries, tea culture developed two contrasting facets in this period. Firstly, tea was a pastime of the upper classes who used tea socially as a type of garden game sometimes accompanied by alcohol and gambling. Secondly, tea was formally prepared and consumed amongst merchants as a means of building relationships, gaining trust and discussing business.

Predecessors and influences on the style of tea associated with Rikyū include Zen master Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) who brought forward the idea that the experience of enlightenment in the most common of experiences like preparing and sharing tea. He likely taught tea to the outcast monk Murata Mokichi (Shukō 珠光 ) (1423-1502), who in turn brought together three major influences to mark the beginnings of wabi tea; monastic tea ritual, social tea gathering and sōan style setting (a simple and small tatami mat room, reminiscent of a monk’s hermitage). Shukō described his aesthetic as hiekareta (chilled, dried-up). Shokō’s adopted son, Soshu, hosted tea gatherings at his carefully crafted downtown Kyoto tea retreat. Sogo, another disciple of Shokō, is known to be among the first non-monastic practitioners to reject famous and valuable objects. Takeno Jōō (1502-1555), a student of Sogo, was an influential tea master and merchant in the city of Sakai and began using the term wabi (frugality) to describe his tea ceremony aesthetic. He was also a master of renga, a type of collective poem writing popular at the time, suggesting yet another type of influence on the tea ceremony. 

Jōō helped propel the career of another tea master and merchant, Imai Sōkyū (1520-93), a contemporary of Sen Rikyū (1521-1591). Rikyū studied wabi tea with Jōō after perfecting the more formal Higashiyama tea style (a blend of nobility, samurai and Zen influences) with tea master Kitamuki Dōchin. The Higashiyama tea ceremony, favored by the nobility and the samurai, harkened back to the tea of the aristocracy in the 12th and 15th centuries, and typically involved the ostentatious display of famous or valuable objects. These extravagant events enabled the host to display his wealth and engage in a type of power politics. The more intimate merchant style tea ceremony provided an opportunity for exclusive meetings, private conversations and deal making among participants. These are the precedents that lead to tea being used as a form of political maneuvering, diplomacy and soft power. 

 

Tea ceremony politics

The Onin war in 1467 collapsed Japan’s feudal system and ushered in over 100 years of war (the Sengoku period). The period of turbulence finished when the last of three great military leaders, known as the Great Unifiers, brought the vast majority of Japan under centralized control, in no small part thanks to the use of tea as a political tool. For much of the Sengoku period “tea and politics were intimately related” (Bodart, 1977). Indeed, Oda Nobunaga, considered the first of the three Great Unifiers of Japan, and Rikyū’s first high-level sponsor, used the phrase chanoyu seido (tea ceremony politics). 

As outlined above, the social and ceremonial use of tea, involving demonstrations of wealth and status, had been a pastime of the aristocracy and samurai class for many years. The simpler, wabi style tea ceremony, developed and favored by the merchant class likely came to be supported by warlords because it furthered their political agenda in three ways. Firstly, because the merchants controlled access to important supplies. Secondly, tea was a means of engaging in diplomacy and alliance making. Thirdly, performing a tea ceremony was a way to exercise soft political power, gain cultural capital and demonstrate a type of political legitimacy.

Warlords found it strategic to maintain close personal contact with merchants and even favor certain merchants to ensure continued preferential treatment. Tea diaries from Sōkyū and others at the time strongly suggest tea ceremonies played key roles in the business and political relationships inherent in the dealings of important merchants and warlords. Like Rikyū, Sōkyū was a merchant of the important port city of Sakai near Osaka, downriver from Kyoto. Major warlords maintained key castles in both Osaka and Kyoto, making relationships to Sakai merchants strategically important. 

In part by helping to arrange the city of Sakai’s submission to Nubunaga, Sōkyū positioned himself during the turbulent war years in such a way that his wealth as merchant, and status as tea master, grew under Nobunaga. Sōkyū, with the aid of Nobunaga, came to hold rights to trade in not just traditional goods, such as salt and preserved fish, but also owned mines and factories producing the tools of modern warfare; gunpowder, silver and iron for ammunition, blacksmithing and gunsmithing. Other important merchants, who were also tea masters, were similarly favored by Nobunaga. Rikyū himself previously worked as an ammunition merchant, making him an ideal contact for warlords in need of a critical supply. Maintaining friendly relations to the tea merchants, and even employing them as tea masters, may be part of the reason that the lavish tea ceremony previously favored by the samurai class was replaced by the more austere wabi aesthetics developed by the merchants. There is even a 1575 letter in which Nobunanga thanks Rikyū for the gift of 1000 musket balls. 

Nobunaga felt hosting tea gatherings and possessing valuable tea utensils afforded political power. Nobunaga’s tea ceremony politics thus involved possessing highly valued utensils, curating invitations to important ceremonies, carefully delegating official titles of tea master, controlling who has the ability to teach tea and forbidding others to host tea ceremonies. Togugawa, the last of the three Great Unifiers, further cemented his control over who and how tea is practiced by laying the foundation of the iemoto system, which continues to hold power over the tea ceremony today. 

Strategically gifting valuable tea utensils was another form of delegating and retaining power. Rikyū worked with Nobunaga as a type of secretary and middleman who ensured that proper gifts, such as tea utensils were strategically gifted to particular people. A frequently cited example is Rikyū recommending a specific tea kettle be gifted to a warlord. When Nobunaga was betrayed and forced to kill himself, he ordered his body and the valuable tea utensils he had with him burned to prevent others from using them. 

Following the death of Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having previously led a military unit under Nobunaga, rose to power. Tea was especially important for the previously uncultured Hideyoshi to demonstrate his refinement and image as more than a talented peasant who had become an enormously successful military commander. Performing tea allowed him a platform to demonstrate “sophistication, social standing and political legitimacy” (Kaufman, 2018). 

In 1585 Hideyoshi and Rikyū gave a supremely politically important tea ceremony to the emperor. Hideyoshi was granted the title kampaku ‘Imperial Regent’ from the emperor and Rikyū was given the Grand Master of Tea title. With these titles they both gained an enormous amount of cultural-political legitimacy. Later, Rikyū helped organize the Grand Kitano tea ceremony 1587, a tea ceremony of unprecedented size and extravagance. It was ostensibly an effort to thank all tea practitioners following Hideyoshi’s military success in Kyushu but simultaneously a way to demonstrate Hideyoshi’s cultural supremacy. 

Rikyū and Hideyoshi worked closely together both in tea and politics. Rikyū was left in charge of Osaka Castle while Hideyoshi was away on military campaign, and in this position received and responded to sensitive military communications. On other occasions Rikyū was able to use his prestige as a form of soft power to bring about diplomatic resolutions to confrontations. In 1586 Rikyū helped resolve a conflict between an ally Otomo Sorin and another daimyo using tea ceremony diplomacy. There is even a mention in the literature that tea ceremonies were conducted for high status samurai before battle, as a means to honor them and provide a sort of meditative reflection on the beautiful impermanence of life (Cross, 2009). 

In another high-level case, Rikyū used the status and respect he held as “The Grand Master of Tea” to help secure the acknowledgement of Hideoyoshi as Japan’s ruler from Shimazu Yoshihisa, a major warlord in Kyushu. In Northeast Japan, Rikyū helped negotiate a settlement so that the insubordinate warlord Date Masasume would recognize Hideyoshi as ruler. 

This brief survey of the history of the Japanese Tea Ceremony makes clear it arose from a culturally diverse confluence of political, economic, cultural, as well aesthetic influences rather than created by a single person. Similarly, the tea ceremony’s political role stands in contrast to most commentary on the tea ceremony, which focuses on the aesthetics of the tea ceremony. Indeed, it is possible that the merchant style wabi tea may never have become the dominant form of tea had it not served political functions.

 

The following articles and books contributed information for this article.

  • Bodart Beatrice M. 1977. Tea and Counsel. The Political Role of Sen Rikyu. Monumenta Nipponica 32, 49. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2384071
  • Cross Tim. 2009. The Ideologies of Japanese Tea; Subjectivity, Transience and National Identity. Kent, UK: Global Oriental LTD. ISBN 9781905246755
  • Kaufman Cathy. 2018. A Simple Bowl of Tea: Power Politics and Aesthetics in Hideyoshi’s Japan, 1582 – 1591. Dublin Gastronomy Symposium 2018 - Food and Power. 1–7. Available at: https://arrow.tudublin.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1125
  • Watsky Adrew M. 1995. Commerce, Politics and Tea: The career of Imai Sokyu (1520-1593). Monumenta Nipponica 50, 47–65. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2385279.
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