- Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice by Kristin Surak
As a graduate student I participated in a five-week long seminar on Japanese traditional arts, including daily chanoyu lessons and the opportunity to attend several ceremonies in exquisite teahouses with impeccably manicured gardens. While I personally found the postures and rigidity of tea excruciating, I was fascinated with its cult of practitioners and their levels of dedication, generosity, and expertise. Kristin Surak’s excellent work, Making Tea, Making Japan, provides an eye-opening survey of the history and practice of chanoyu that reveals the tea world’s institutional frameworks and patterns of authority, physical and material aspects of its training and practice, and its representation to general audiences. Surak’s main argument is that tea practice represents “nation-work” (p. 3 and elsewhere), the production of “Japaneseness” through everyday practices thought to embody a unique national essence. Often deemed a form of cultural synthesis, i.e., a montage of aesthetic elements that evoke the nation—elements including costume (kimono), ceramics, calligraphy, and flower arrangement (ikebana)—the tea ceremony is a potent tool for inculcating and maintaining ideas of the nation that support state interests among both practitioners and nonpractitioners alike. Surak’s work, however, goes beyond examining the politics of culture as a component of nationalism. It also makes a groundbreaking contribution to critical studies of Japan’s modern cultural institutions.
Despite the fact that it is practiced by less than two percent of the population, tea is nearly universally recognized as “archetypically Japanese” (p. 10). Answering the call of nationalism scholar Anthony Smith for a framework integrating historical and ethnographic approaches, Surak deftly bridges methodologies to explore the meanings of Japaneseness produced by and reinforced in the nation-work of the tea ceremony. The historical chapters illuminate why and how tea gained the potential to become a quintessential practice of nation-work in the modern period. In short, it held well-known associations with premodern historical figures at the pinnacle of political power—such as Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536?–1598), and Ii Naosuke (1815–1860)—and was mythologized and canonized by both leading intellectuals and the powerful iemoto institutions. The author’s ethnographic research demonstrates how tea represents core (or perhaps stereotypical) Japanese social and aesthetic values. For example, tea practice requires refined, correct versions of daily behavior, from holding chopsticks, to bowing, to walking in kimono. The selection of utensils and decor demonstrates sensitivity to seasonality, often claimed as an element of national cultural essence. The rigidly defined gestures and behaviors of the ceremony accommodate key social norms, such as ritual purification, hierarchical [End Page 352] personal relations, and “nonverbal empathetic understanding” (p. 51). Tearoom layout and the design of favored utensils embody the “asymmetrical harmony” (p. 41) thought to characterize national aesthetic taste. All such forms of cultural knowledge, preference, and comportment serve to mark practitioners as “better” members of the nation—those who embody national values, as distinguished from the “embarrassing” nationals who cannot convey Japaneseness to international audiences (p. 150). Surak insightfully suggests that tea ceremony’s status as the epitome of Japanese culture is also due to a dualistic identity—it is simultaneously everyday and exceptional, mundane and exotic. Chanoyu’s longevity, stability, and reflection of conservative, gendered ideology mark the practice as ordinary, while the expensive props, elaborate staging, and scripted behaviors transmit a sense of extraordinary spectacle.
The author bravely claims her work will uncover the “gritty reality that lay under the sheen of spiritual ideals” (p. xi) and “remedy some of the lacunae” (p. 12) in past tea scholarship, which has been largely dependent on the powerful Urasenke Foundation, representing seventy percent of the world’s 2.3 million tea practitioners. Her insider status as a ten-year veteran and licensed teacher of Urasenke, coupled with self-admitted special privileges often granted to white, Western academics, has provided her with access to special information and exclusive events that have enabled her to conduct a critical analysis of the ideological...