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  • Gathering for Tea in Modern Japan: Class, Culture and Consumption in the Meiji Period by Taka Oshikiri
  • Meghen Jones
Gathering for Tea in Modern Japan: Class, Culture and Consumption in the Meiji Period. By Taka Oshikiri. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 208 pages. Hardcover, £95.00/$130.00; softcover, £29.99/$40.95.

Why and how did chanoyu, the formalized preparation and consumption of powdered green tea, survive after it lost the patronage of the Tokugawa shogunate? This is the central question of Taka Oshikiri’s Gathering for Tea in Modern Japan: Class, Culture and Consumption in the Meiji Period. Oshikiri acknowledges previous explanations—that by the mid-Meiji era, chanoyu as traditional Japanese culture provided a sense of national unity; that, for women, the state initiated instruction in its practice; and that iemoto (family heads) played key roles in its continuance. In contrast, Oshikiri contends that a rather scattershot array of individuals and groups carried the mantle of chanoyu through the transformative decades of the Meiji era and that the variety of people responsible reflects the fragmentation of Meiji society itself, as well-known tea masters and nonprofessionals alike maneuvered through shifts in class structures and other challenges of the period. Based on a dissertation and article on related topics, her book reveals how chanoyu remained an elite practice while also incorporating a new constellation of actors thriving within modern systems of institutional support.1

Oshikiri’s emphasis is on the social nature of Meiji chanoyu, rather than its ritual-istic or aesthetic aspects. Rejecting the translation of chanoyu as “tea ceremony,” she defines it as “a highly formalized sociocultural activity elaborated from the consumption of powdered green tea (matcha)” and involving a “whole set of customs . . . organizing the space in which to socialize, as well as to wine, dine and drink tea” (p. 1). Assuming readers are aware of chanoyu basics, Oshikiri does not address its somatic aspects or the difference, for example, between the physical engagement expected of a Japanese guest at a gathering of cultural elites in Tokyo and [End Page 198] that expected of an American guest at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Rather, her book mainly concerns the details of events and the motivations of their organizers. A range of well-cited primary sources presents, in Oshikiri’s words, a “montage of various spaces” (p. 11) and documents the activities of middle-class intellectuals and the elite within those varied settings. These individuals and groups represent, as Oshikiri states, “the evolving relationships amongst the state, industrial society and the culture of chanoyu” (p. 16).

Chapter 1 focuses on early Meiji government policies for material culture as they related to chanoyu. Oshikiri identifies tensions between policies concerning culture and those concerning industry, as exemplified by the contrast between the Jinshin Survey of 1872 and the Vienna World Exhibition of 1873. In the former, which took place following the 1871 Decree to Conserve Aged Artefacts and Old Objects, officials from several agencies traveled to temples, shrines, and family residences in the Kinki region to identify and document objects worthy of conservation. Oshikiri shows how antiquarian interests drove the survey team’s approach, leading them to highlight chanoyu utensils; in the Vienna World Exhibition, on the other hand, the private interests of government officials did not translate to any particular emphasis on displaying such items. Instead, organizers selected large, eye-catching ceramics to dazzle European audiences; the few chanoyu utensils on display exemplified particular craft mediums or were placed in the agricultural products section. Clearly, early Meiji officials privately valued chanoyu but did not see in it the potential to develop Japan’s export industry, a major aim of the nation’s participation in international expositions.

Chapter 2 examines the commercial exhibitions sponsored by the Kyoto Exhibition Association. Starting in 1871, this group of Kyoto merchants coordinated displays of objects from China, Japan, and the West in order to boost the local economy. From the outset attendees could appreciate tea utensils owned by merchants and heads of tea traditions and see staged services that expanded chanoyu away from a limited elite base. From 1875 onward, for example, female entertainers from Gion served tea in the table...


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pp. 198-201
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