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  • Crafting Identity as a Tea Practitioner in Early Modern Japan: Ōtagaki Rengetsu and Tagami Kikusha
  • Rebecca Corbett (bio)

Premodern Japanese tea culture has been depicted overwhelmingly as a male activity. Reading any standard history of tea culture, we learn about the merchants who formalized the practice in the late sixteenth century and the warlords they served; the warrior tea masters who continued to develop the practice and philosophy throughout Japan’s early modern period; the wealthy industrialist-connoisseurs in the early twentieth century; and the grand masters of the now dominant Sen-family schools of tea (Urasenke, Omotesenke, and Mushanokojisenke).1 When women do feature in either popular or academic discussion of tea culture, they generally figure as middle-class housewives in modern Japan who are learning tea culture as a way of cultivating gender and national identity, the assumption being that by studying tea they learn how to be a proper Japanese woman.2 Female tea practitioners from the early modern period (1600–1868) are generally presented as exceptions to the norm, such as women of the imperial family who were able to practice tea because of their high status.3 Even then, a divide is perceived between men’s tea practice, whether historically or in the modern period, and women’s tea practice. Men’s tea practice is said to be focused on connoisseurship, the collecting of tea utensils as art, and an intellectual or philosophical understanding of tea culture. Women’s tea practice is said to be about learning comportment, etiquette, and manners—a mode of practice that encompasses neither the rational, intellectual dimensions of male practice nor the aesthetic [End Page 3] appreciation and economic capital that men can display as connoisseurs and collectors of tea utensils as art.4 Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, there was a popular discourse as early as the eighteenth century that presented tea culture to commoner women as a way of learning to be graceful.5 Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century guides for women’s edification urged women to learn the basics of tea culture—how to perform the procedures for making thin tea and how to be a guest for the thick tea service—but suggested that women did not need to go any more deeply into the study of tea.

In this essay, I show that some women in early modern Japan could be connoisseurs and collectors of tea utensils as art, and even makers of tea utensils. The two modes of tea practice—learning tea as a means of cultivating the mind and displaying aesthetic knowledge, and learning tea as a means of cultivating genteel appearance and social graces—should not be understood as representing men’s tea practice and women’s tea practice. Women have been active in both fields, even in the early modern period, when women are often thought to have had little or no involvement in tea culture.6 Here I focus on the production of tea utensils by two nuns, Ōtagaki Rengetsu 大田垣蓮月 (1791–1875) and Tagami Kikusha 田上菊舎 (1753–1826), in order to place women back into the social history of tea culture and demonstrate that for women learning tea often meant more than just learning to be graceful. In particular, I focus on the tea scoops they crafted—just one type of tea utensil they were involved in creating—to show how their identity as aesthetic connoisseurs and tea practitioners was itself crafted through the making of these physical objects. Although Rengetsu and Kikusha should by no means be regarded as representative of all female tea practitioners in early modern Japan, aspects of their practice and lives reveal the ways in which early modern women’s tea practice could occur within the realm of aesthetic connoisseurship, knowledge, and display. I begin with an explanation of the world of tea culture in which Rengetsu and Kikusha participated, before presenting biographical information on each woman. Finally, I discuss their tea practice and the tea utensils they made, focusing on tea scoops in particular.

Japanese Tea Culture

Tea culture in Japan encompasses many things, from the quotidian act of drinking a cup of leaf green tea with a meal to the precise ritual of preparing...


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