- A Nation, a World, in a Bowl of Tea
A kimono. A tatami floor. A bowl.
Together, these objects almost instantly evoke the Japanese tea ceremony, though they are seen throughout society: kimonos are worn for parties or weddings, tatami floors are as often as not found in inexpensive lodgings, and bowls of rice are served with almost every meal.
Early on in her careful study Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice, Kristin Surak says, “The Japaneseness encoded in tea places, captured in tea objects, and patterned into tea movements can be interpreted and experienced as quintessentially Japanese by the Japanese themselves because it is different—but not completely removed—from mundane aspects of life” (18). Surak’s greatest strength is her awareness of the factors that inform the tea ceremony’s central place in Japanese society, from commercial structures allowing the seamless delivery of the objects and architecture of tea anywhere on the globe, to the casual use of history—not always accurate—deployed in a Sunday lesson. [End Page 507]
As a visitor to Japan, Surak discovered that the tea ceremony offered a unique opportunity to transcend a deeply integrated inclination by the Japanese to draw distinctions between natives and nonnatives. Through coaching and studied movement, Surak became adept at the poses and structures of the Ura Senke school and entered an unusually liminal state, one in which those around her sometimes seemed to forget her foreignness. Surak sees something in this evolution that others have not, and it is at the core of her book: the tea ceremony is not only a culturally rich performance incorporating many of Japan’s other important arts—ceramics, calligraphy, flower arranging, traditional fashion and fabric design, architecture and gardens, food—but a performance so structured that it eclipses the individuality of its actors. It no longer mattered that Surak is not Japanese; her accomplished participation expressed something deeply indigenous to Japan. She could effortlessly follow tea’s constricted choreography—moving modestly in a kimono, crossing a tatami floor without stepping on borders, holding a bowl lightly in her hands—even as others around her, including most Japanese, could not.
Throughout the book, Surak presents a divided self: the tea practitioner studying the refinements of placing a valued object properly versus the foreign researcher with unusually free access. One indulgence she openly acknowledges is her mobility. While those around her might find it difficult to attend tea ceremonies in other places or by other schools, Surak was permitted that freedom, noting in her preface that she spent extensive time with tea participants from the Omote Senke, Mushanokōji Senke, Edo Senke, Dainihon Sadō Gakkai, and Seki Shū schools. Each school has developed internal differences that define it against the others, but Surak is interested less in the distinctions between tea schools than in their commonalities.
Chief among these commonalities is their shared history, extending back centuries in time, but equally important is their role today, schooling the less socially secure in the central aspects of a deeply resonant cultural practice, a role first taken up with the expansion of the middle classes in Japan’s Meiji era. Surak draws attention to the manner in which the tea schools, each led by a priest-like iemoto, involve two constituencies: casually centralized international elites who ornament and elevate the social status of each school, and others—women, the middle class—who hope to find their own social security in the less aristocratic ranks. Surak explains how each [End Page 508] school of tea reaches out to ambassadors and business leaders through contemporary programs deployed under the flag of “Peace in a Bowl of Tea,” suggesting a central position in politics and international exchange that echoes tea’s use by savage shoguns in an earlier era. Cosmopolitan tea ceremonies are today broadcast within both...