Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

Perfecting tea ceremony in wabi-cha style: Takeno Jōō and Sen no Rikyū


In the medieval Muromachi period (1336-1573), the mainstream idea of tea ceremony was an extravagant party using expensive tea utensils made in China. As the end of Muromachi period approached, a new age was about to emerge and the concept of tea ceremony was changing.


Tea ceremony, focused on tea utensils for such a long time, was now starting to reevaluate how one should think about the tea ceremony and how people should communicate with each other.


As this process occurred, the connection between Buddhism and tea ceremony became deeper. Rather than luxury, tea ceremony came to value simplicity and frugality. A new concept emerged in tea ceremony: wabi-sabi, where only what is needed is retained and the superfluous is eliminated, and beauty is found in imperfection. This type of tea ceremony is called “wabi-cha.”


  The wabi-cha tea ceremony
In the Muromachi period, the extravagant style of tea ceremony predominated, but as the Muromachi period drew to a close, the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) began. In this period, also known as Warring States period, Japan was repeatedly ravaged by war in many parts of the country.


This was the period in which tea ceremony was perfected. Takeno Jōō (1502-1555) and his disciple Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) were largely responsible for perfecting tea ceremony as a cultural form.


All Japanese people know Rikyū as a historical figure because he is invariably mentioned in school history classes. Rikyū is a great figure in the world of tea ceremony because all tea ceremony schools are based on his notions of tea ceremony. But first, let us consider Jōō, Rikyū's master.


Jōō was born in the town of Sakai in Osaka prefecture. Although much of Japan was devastated by wars at that time, Sakai was a prosperous town of traders, an unusually calm and peaceful town. It was also an autonomous city run by merchant citizens.


Jōō was raised in Sakai and was a leather merchant. He was also a tea ceremony master and an accomplished waka poet.


Much of Japanese culture originated in China. In fact, tea ceremony was introduced to Japan from China. However, waka is an ancient Japanese tradition. Through the incorporation of the element of waka, the Way of Tea became a uniquely Japanese cultural form.


The term “wabi-sabi,” which describes the special character of the Japanese tea ceremony, is a term that originally came from waka poetry. It is thought that the concept of wabi-sabi — finding true beauty in imperfection — was brought to perfection by Jōō.


  The perfection of the tea ceremony by Sen no Rikyū
When master Jōō was 39, he took a disciple who later became known as Sen no Rikyū. It is Rikyū who is recognized as the person who transformed the tea ceremony from the extravagant older style by establishing “wabi-cha,” in which the superfluous is eliminated as much as possible.


Like Jōō, Rikyū was a merchant born in Sakai. Rikyū had performed tea ceremony since he was young, but it wasn't until he reached the age of 60 that he developed an original style of tea ceremony. In other words, until that time, he performed tea ceremony in the same way his predecessors did.


Rikyū died at the age of 70, so in just ten years, he perfected the wabi-cha tea ceremony, which takes the concept of beauty in imperfection as its cornerstone.


After Rikyū turned 60, he served Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the daimyo who unified Japan. Rikyū became a very famous master of the tea ceremony and, although he was only a merchant, he began to have great political influence. It is said that Rikyū was the only one who was able to offer his opinion to Hideyoshi, the ruler who held power over all of Japan.


The influential people of that time all learned tea ceremony, and Rikyū was regarded as the most accomplished master of tea ceremony. Because of this connection, he had a great influence not only on tea ceremony, but also in the realm of politics.


Eventually, however, Rikyū angered Hideyoshi somehow, and was put to death. Even today, it remains unknown how Rikyū offended his master so much that he had to die.


It is significant that Rikyū's style of tea ceremony rejected the old tea ceremony in which expensive utensils were used. In Japanese tea ceremonies performed from Rikyū's time onwards, it was not expensive and perfectly symmetrical tea utensils made in China, but rather, uneven or “misshapen” tea bowls and utensils that came to be preferred.


Tea ceremony had an important role in Japan at that time, and this is why the concepts of “finding beauty in imperfection” and “simplicity and frugality” that were introduced into tea ceremony by Rikyū remain an important part of the aesthetic sensibility of the Japanese people to this day.

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