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  • Cultivating Femininity: Women and Tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan by Rebecca Corbett
  • Christine M. E. Guth (bio)
Cultivating Femininity: Women and Tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan. By Rebecca Corbett. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2018. x, 189 pages. $68.00, cloth; $28.00, paper.

Tea culture has been one of Japan's leading exports since the nineteenth century. Tea was performed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and in 1906 Okakura Kakuzō published The Book of Tea, a book written expressly for English-language readers that is still a popular introduction to the subject today. Since its publication, there have been books on tea by masters and affiliates of the three schools founded by Sen no Rikyū's heirs as well as by scholars, many of whom have spent some time studying under the auspices of one of these schools. For the most part, these works have been descriptive in nature with little critical analysis of the narratives promulgated and institutionalized by the tea schools. Recently, however, English-language publications have increasingly challenged officially sanctioned accounts and opened up avenues of inquiry that throw new light on tea culture past and present. Morgan Pitelka's Handmade Culture: Raku Potters, Patrons, and Tea Practitioners in Japan (University of Hawai'i Press, 2005), a revisionist history of the Raku family of potters, one of the ten craft lineages patronized by the Urasenke school, and Eric Rath's Japan's Cuisines: Food, Place, and Identity (Reaktion, 2016), a chapter of which is devoted to dismantling the attribution of the origins of kaiseki cuisine to Rikyū, come to mind.1 A standout among studies of tea in the contemporary world that looks beyond the official line is sociologist Kristin Surak's Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice (Stanford University Press, 2013), which explains how the practice of tea has become "nation-work," a way of performing cultural nationalism, especially for women. To this growing list we can now add Corbett's excellent study reevaluating women's involvement in tea culture during the Edo and Meiji eras.

Today women comprise some 90 per cent of tea practitioners, although few hold positions of power or authority within the patriarchal tea school system. It is widely accepted that female engagement with tea only began in the Meiji era, when the modernizing Urasenke tea master Gengensai "liberated" women by allowing them to study tea (p. 13). Why this view has remained unchallenged for so long despite evidence to the contrary is a [End Page 276] question that Corbett takes up in her introduction. The failure to acknowledge women's participation in Edo tea culture, while part of a wider pattern of female marginalization, she argues, may be attributed to their lack of school affiliation. Their involvement tended to be informal, carried out as members of their household, so that their names rarely figure in records of tea gatherings. Also, when they participated, it was as guests, rarely as hosts. For them, tea was primarily a kind of somatic socialization, a way of "cultivating femininity," rather than a sociopolitical, philosophical, or connoisseurial practice as it was for their male counterparts.

Corbett gathers a surprising range of documentation that illuminates the many ways in which women accessed tea culture outside official channels during the Edo period. This includes texts in both manuscript and printed form written expressly to guide elite women's practice of tea; pictorial evidence that tea utensils figured among dowry goods; a Chikamatsu Monzaemon puppet play in which the wife of a tea master, in her husband's absence, reveals to a disciple the proper method of preparing tea; and sugo roku board games in which learning tea was represented as a step along the path to female success in marriage or employment in elite households. These indicate that although tea was practiced primarily among the warrior and aristocratic elite, commoner women also aspired to learn the basics of tea to enhance their social standing. As Corbett writes:

Though in the popular image of tea culture promoted today it is said that status distinctions have no place inside the tearoom, preserving status distinctions was very much a...


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pp. 276-279
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