Analyzing Japanese Nationalism through the Urasenke Tea Ceremony

By Val Reynoso

Kristin Surak sociologically analyzes the Japanese tea ceremony, also known as chanoyu, and the power hierarchies involved in it in her book ‘Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice’.

The Urasenke tea ceremony is of deep significance to the Japanese and informed by the hereditary hierarchy of the Iemoto system. The historical rise and dominance of the Iemoto has secured the concentration of nationalism that is characteristic of the Japaneseness of the tea ceremony.

Ieomoto is a Japanese term that means “house-origin” but typically has the connotation “founder” of a designated school of art. Iemoto can also be used to describe a system of familial generations in traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony. The Japanese Iemoto system consists of a hierarchical structure within the school itself in which the Iemoto is rendered as the supreme authority.

Surak’s sociological and ethnographic analyses of the Japanese tea ceremony deviate from non-analytical perspectives on it, seeing that these analyses tend to be informed by orientalism, racism and Western bias, whereas Surak successfully illustrated the significance of Japanese nationalism in the enactment of the tea ceremony.

The support organization of the Urasenke Chanoyu Center is the Urasenke Tea Ceremony Society which provides visitors with a better understanding of the chanoyu as well as participation in the Urasenke Tea Ceremony. The tea ceremony at the Urasenke Chanoyu Center demonstrates the power dynamics of the Iemoto and the deep significance that this ceremony carries for the Japanese who practice it.

The Japanese Ieomoto system is fundamental to the social orders and hierarchy within the realm of the tea ceremony and the Japaneseness that is embodied through the enactment of it. Japaneseness and its ties to the Urasenke tea ceremony and the culture of commemoration centered around it are indicative of theories of culture and ideology.

Culture is a system of meaning composed of values, beliefs, behaviors, practices, material goods, symbols and language. Ideology is a system of ideas that typically form the basis of socioeconomic and political theories. Moreover, tea is a significant object in the Urasenke tea ceremony; the Iemoto system within the tea world also serves as a connection between the nationalist charge of the tea ceremony and typical nationness expressed in tea practice—all of which has been sustained by broader aspects of society and Japaneseness.

Furthermore, the Japaneseness of chanoyu is demonstrated through the actions and interactions among tea practicioners and their guests; as stated by Surak in ‘Making Tea, Making Japan’, “Practicioners invoke Japaneseness both to elucidate the broader cultural significance of what they’re doing and to inculcate in others, as they themselves have come to embody the higher justifications that enabled tea to weather the difficult transition from the premodern to the modern era.”

Embodiment and enactment is vital to the Japanese tea ceremony and is the means through which nationalism is channeled through tea. The Iemoto system the tea ceremony is rooted in, is informed by familial inheritance through death. The title of Iemoto is typically hereditary although this is not always the case and in the Urasenke tea ceremony, the Iemoto carries the name Soshitsu–derived from the name of the founder of the Urasenke school of tea. With practice, the student can work their way up the hierarchy of the Iemoto although most will not obtain the title of the Iemoto.

Familial descendants of the Iemoto can build their way up to the top through engagement in the Japanese tea ceremony and enactment of Japaneseness, it is a process that is rooted in construction and growth of an ongoing lineage.

The Japanese tea ceremony is also in part a result of capitalism and imperialism and the nationalism enacted through it has felt the impact of these factors. Showa imperialism and the fall of the Tokugawa in Japan influenced further development of the tea ceremony, seeing that a strong body of adherents to contemporary tea school and explicit nationalist ideology incorporated into the ceremony were developed by the upstart Iemoto Tanaka Sensho; this served as a foundation for the tea ceremony’s decades-long assimilation into the symbology of Showa imperialism.

The tea ceremony was once again further shaped by the military occupation after the Pacific War. Additionally, the prewar organizations of the Iemoto already functioned on a growing, majority-woman constituency. Moreover, the Iemoto were currently capitalizing off of the post-imperialist shift from political to cultural motifs as legitimized expressions of Japanese nationalism.

The tea ceremony in the modernized sense has always been particularly nationalist and in the post-imperialist era of Japan, the tea ceremony was transformed into one incorporating imperialist elements from the Showa and more effeminate. Japaneseness is intimate and yet capitalizes off of imperialism. The sociopolitical shift in the importance of the chanoyu post-Tokugawa resulted in the legitimization of the tea ceremony and Iemoto resilience. Chanoyu is also intimate, it is the relationship between the tea practitioner and the students, each step of the ceremony an exchange between individuals or a student’s enactment of nationalism through drinking the matcha tea.

Val Reynoso is a Politics and Human Rights undergrad, journalist and Marxist-Leninist activist.

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