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  • Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice by Kristin Surak
  • Eric C. Rath (bio)
Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice. By Kristin Surak. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2013. xviii, 252 pages. $85.00, cloth; $24.95, paper; $24.95, E-book.

As much as the tea ceremony is one of the archetypal symbols of Japanese culture for foreigners, tea is also central to notions of Japaneseness within Japan, contends Kristin Surak in Making Tea, Making Japan. Referencing major studies of nationalism as an ideology and as a practice of daily life, Surak identifies the tea ceremony as a symbol of the modern state, and she analyzes tea as a type of “nation work,” a means of translating abstract ideas of Japanese identity into bodily practices defined as nationalistic. The tea ceremony is “a Japanese space within Japan,” and Surak shows how learning tea, dominant views of tea in history, and tea’s place in wider society reveal how Japaneseness is produced and sustained (p. 14).

Chapter 1, “Preparing Tea,” leads the reader from the busy streets of Tokyo into Mushin’an, a multiroom apartment renovated into a traditional set of tea rooms, gardens, and preparation areas used for tea classes and gatherings. Surak utilizes the example of Mushin’an to describe an ideal architectural setting for tea practice, introducing also in the chapter the utensils and the intricate procedures used in the ceremony. Surak’s knowledge of tea from a decade of personal study culminating in a teaching license makes her an ideal guide. Yet, her study is not a simplistic paean to the way of tea or a listing of tea trivia and insider remarks. Her succinct examples from personal observation and experience point out how learning [End Page 492] the bodily movements, language, and aesthetics of the ceremony transforms its practitioners into living embodiments of national cultural sophistication. The first chapter is probably one of the most thoughtful introductions to the tea ceremony available in print.

The second chapter, “Creating Tea,” provides a clear, dispassionate overview of the history of the tea ceremony that could stand on its own as a short reading for students. Like most tea historians, Surak begins with the Chinese origins of the ritual consumption of the beverage, but she parts company with the numerous histories in English and Japanese that tell the history of tea in Japan simply by recounting the genealogy of famous masters. Surak focuses instead on how the political elites in premodern Japan practiced tea as a mark of social distinction. Referencing Christine Guth’s Art, Tea and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle (Princeton University Press, 1993), Surak finds a continuity in the practice of the “daimyo tea” of Tokugawa shoguns and the opulent tea favored by captains of industry in the early twentieth century. Surak’s history is a helpful reminder that the rustic (wabi) style exposed by the leading tea masters of today as the dominant and most spiritual “way of tea” actually held very little sway among the political elite in early modern Japan, and its teachers were hardly the arbiters of taste then that they have become today. New to the world of tea in the twentieth century was the great increase in female practitioners who encountered tea in etiquette books and home economics texts and, after 1929, even in radio broadcasts. The consistent message of these books and of general history textbooks was the centrality of tea to national history and culture. The notion that tea was a quintessentially Japanese art that Sen no Rikyū (1522–91) perfected was taken as gospel by the start of World War II.

The postwar rise of the Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushanokōjisenke tea schools, which are the largest in Japan, is the subject of “Selling Tea,” the third chapter, which focuses on iemoto, the “family heads” of tea organizations. Critical to the rise of iemoto in tea, as well as other fields such as theater, was the development in the early modern period of a system of credentialization, which organized artistic knowledge into grades requiring the purchase of licenses for study. Selling licenses to practitioners remains an important source of...


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