- A Bowl for a Coin: A Commodity History of Japanese Tea by William Wayne Farris
A street seller calling out "a bowl for a coin" seems incongruous with the exalted experience that many Westerners associate with Japanese tea consumption. This perception speaks to the success of the 1906 classic The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō (also known as Okakura Tenshin). Never yet out of print, the slim volume was both a discussion of aesthetics and a nationalistic promulgation; through its sheer ubiquity, it has shaped not only Western perceptions about tea in Japan but also the paths of scholarly inquiry. From early works like A. L. Sadler's Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (Kobe: J. L. Thompson, 1933) to more recent exercises such as Kristen Surak's Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice (Stanford University Press, 2013) and Rebecca Corbett's Cultivating Femininity: Women and Tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan (University of Hawai'i Press, 2018), chanoyu has been the prominent face of Japan's relationship with tea in the Western mind, even though the imported plant was cultivated and consumed in the country for hundreds of years before the establishment of a formalized ritual.
Tea ceremony is unquestionably an important line of inquiry, as throughout history it has impacted a wide range of artistic, architectural, culinary, and social practices. Nevertheless—as William Wayne Farris's invocation of the street tea seller's cry might suggest—for the last several hundred years chanoyu has not been the way most people in Japan come into contact with and consume tea. Despite the beverage's consequential and pervasive presence, the greater context of its production and consumption outside the chanoyu sphere has been lacking in English-language scholarship, making Farris's "commodity history" a welcome and much-needed contribution to understanding not only tea but also many of the political and economic forces that have shaped Japan. Farris addresses his theme by examining "four interrelated aspects—the farming, processing, distribution, and various social and cultural functions of tea—because they supply the broader context within which chanoyu was created" (p. 3). The first two aspects receive closer attention than the others.
Farris begins and ends the book with accounts of his personal encounters with Japanese green tea in locations as diverse and unlikely as Cape Town in South Africa and a greasy spoon restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri, his surprise at which was the inspiration for this project. The international staging nods to current trends in the historical field that stress interconnectivity and globalism, though the study itself remains solidly focused on Japan.
The concise discussion proceeds chronologically, with the four chapters roughly corresponding to the conventional periodization of Japanese history. In the first, "The Prehistory of Japan's Tea Industry, 750–1300," Farris examines the introduction of tea into Japan in the eighth century, convincingly arguing that it arrived half a century before the Buddhist priests Saichō and/or Kūkai are traditionally thought [End Page 132] to have brought it from China. Much care is taken with explicating tea strains, "the hit or miss nature of ancient tea farming" (p. 12), and processing methods. Using important sources like tax records and gift exchange documentation, Farris traces the introduction of tea as a medicine and its connections to Buddhism in the Nara period, followed by its spread as a recreational drink among a "tea-mad ruling class" (p. 32). More attention might have been paid to the interrelationships between the nobility, tea consumption, and the various sects of Buddhism, but the building blocks are there for one who wants to make this sort of analysis. Given that sources are scarce prior to the Heian period, it is not surprising that many of the conclusions in the chapter are speculative, but Farris lays out his arguments clearly and without pretension. To some extent, the differences between this and the succeeding chapters reflect the difference in sources, which increase in volume and variety over time.