Influence: World in A Teacup

As Rikumo introduces our own Morihata line of organic green teas, we begin a regular series on Japanese tea. Today, we're examining the overall impact of tea on Japanese culture.

Tea is the world's most international beverage; only water is consumed more frequently.  It has influenced routines, diets and cultures from Bhutan to the United Kingdom.  Tea's effect on life in Japan, however, is particularly noteworthy because the tea ceremony has profoundly reshaped both art and society. 

Tea illustrates a pattern within Japanese history: almost everything that is considered uniquely Japanese has been borrowed from abroad and then re-interpreted.  Tea was originally imported from China as a form of medicine, and Buddhist monks began brewing it to stay alert during long sessions of meditation.  The process of steeping and sharing tea was then re-interpreted as the intimate ritual of the tea ceremony and spread throughout the country.  So treasured is the rite today that Japan's cultural ambassador to the United Nations is a tea master.

The spread of tea revolutionized several Japanese artistic disciplines, including pottery.  New bowls and plates were invented specifically for use in the tea ceremony, and in some kilns production methods were altered to better express the rite's elegance.  While the introduction of plastic kitchenware has drastically reduced ceramic production elsewhere, the continued need for tea utensils keeps Japanese kilns burning.  The national popularity of the tea ceremony also led to lasting architectural developments.  As tea masters refined the aesthetic of the tea ceremony, they developed rooms for hosting that would better reflect the cozy and artistically refined nature of the ritual.  These rooms and the architectural styles they fostered ultimately pervaded Japanese architecture; even today, the living room of a Japanese house can be referred to as the cha-no-ma or tea area.

The intimate experience of sharing warm tea with friends had broader social effects as well.  Medieval Japanese politics revolved around tea ceremonies with allies and feudal subordinates, and slowly the ritual came to symbolize cultural sensitivity and good taste.  The tearoom was also a neutral, safe space for negotiations.  Even today it is common for Japanese business meetings to be conducted over freshly brewed cups of tea, as drinking tea together suggests hospitality and intimacy.  Today, the formal tea ceremony remains a symbol of cultural refinement, and many young Japanese women take lessons in tea etiquette to develop their social graces.

Tea has deeply affected Japanese culture and history, inspiring innovations in artistry while also cementing relationships and good manners.  Yet the Japanese tea tradition is still alive and vivid, as easy to appreciate as a warm, freshly brewed cup of sencha.  

WORDS BY KYLAN SCHROEDER

PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS SETTY