By Jenna Lindeke Heavenrich for YCAPS
Dr. Etsuko Kato of the International Christian University led a fascinating seminar to roughly twenty participants at Plat ABC in Iwakuni on the gendered power dynamics throughout the history of tea ceremony in Japan. Professor Kato began her presentation with a phrase from tea ceremony, 「一期一会」(ichi go ichi e), or “one encounter, once in a lifetime,” in reflection of the seminar’s once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet each other and discuss this topic together.
Displaying a photo of a regular tea ceremony from her field research, she invited seminar participants to make observations. First, we noticed that all of the roughly 20 participants were women. Next, over half were wearing kimono, which is a difficult, time-consuming process, even before coming to tea ceremony class. This demonstrated dedication and enthusiasm. Then why, she asked, is modern tea ceremony in Japan mostly practiced by women, when it was originally founded by men? Her research centered on “tema’e” or the highly choreographed, controlled movements that are used in tea ceremony.
To tell this story, she took us back to before the warring states period, and reviewed who were the most respected members of society. First, the imperial family and other nobility, who demonstrated refined, controlled movements in their practice of a traditional court football game. Next, a later shogun was known for his clan’s artful practice of archery and warrior etiquette, which included controlled body movements. Finally, Zen priests also had ritualized movements for everything from prayer to meditation to cleaning. They also imported ritualized tea drinking from China.
Tea ceremony, then, was founded during the 15th century Warring States period, when two new non-nobility classes were rising in power: the wealthy merchant class and the powerful non-nobility samurai. The merchants created tea ceremony as a means to develop, practice, and demonstrate their refined nobility through refined movements. The non-nobility samurai, who included Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, enthusiastically took up tea ceremony to demonstrate their own high-class status.
During the Edo period, the movements in tea ceremony became even more exaggerated. Warriors became aristocracy, and tea ceremony continued to be a symbol of their refinement. Townspeople began to grow interested, and more tea schools grew. However, until this point, tea was a men’s activity. When, Professor Kato asked again, did it become a women’s story?
Professor Kato elaborated on two points in history that shifted tea ceremony into a more feminine activity. First, when the Meiji restoration dissolved the samurai class, the teachers of tea ceremony suddenly lost their main clients and needed a new market. So, they turned to teaching at girls’ schools, where tea ceremony became a symbol of etiquette and refinement, to prepare women for marriage. Additionally, Japan’s many wars during the Meiji period produced many war widows, for whom teach tea ceremony was an ideal livelihood. In these ways, it empowered women towards financial goals (marriage or economic independence).
Second, following the end of World War II and tea ceremony was held up as a “cultural synthesis” for Japan at a time when the country faced a crisis of culture. Further, women’s role as a family caretaker in the new postwar family system, led many women to revisit tea ceremony as a group activity after their children were grown and other care responsibilities lessened. Here, women felt empowered through their constant learning, refining their body movements, and participating in a community of similar women.
Professor Kato concluded with an examination of what tea ceremony means for women today, now that there is more gender equality in the home and workplace. Perhaps, we have returned to the original purpose as “samurai of the workplace” where people of all genders can demonstrate nobility through refined body movements.
During the Q&A discussion participants discussed the similarities between tea ceremony “tema’e” and martial arts “kata,” levels of mastery in tea ceremony, power dynamics in modern tea ceremony, masculinity in modern tea ceremony, quirky modern tea ceremony practices, as well as how the image of tea ceremony in Japan has been used by other countries.