Steeped in Tradition: Japanese Women and the Modern Tea Ceremony

Japanese women seek a disconnect with routine domesticity.

The Japanese proverb “igicho ichi,” which translates to “one encounter at a time,” is a far-fetched concept in the multi-tasking, high achieving world of today. However, that kind of mindfulness and discipline is an essential component of the ancient Japanese practice of chado, or tea ceremonies.

Chado, literally “the way of tea,” had its beginnings in Japan in the 16th century when Zen Buddhist monks began to incorporate tea consumption into their spiritual practice. At its inception, the practice was reserved solely for men, however over time, women have not only become the main conservators of the tradition, but have used it as a way to assert their equality in Japanese culture.

Etsuko Kato, author of The Tea Ceremony and Women’s Empowerment in Modern Japan, explains in her book that older, middle class women and housewives represent more than half of chado practitioners today. Around the start of the 20th century, wealthy women and wives of medical doctors became the first women to begin the study of tea. Then, as economic circumstances improved, more women had access to household appliances and thus the free time necessary to devote to such endeavors.

“The tea ceremony certainly had an association with domesticity, so it became socially considered a ‘desirable hobby’ for young, premarital women,” says Kato. “Housewives after WWII established women’s own space out of the tea ceremony, away from family obligations.”

While its earlier manifestations had more of the feminist ethos, the modern tea ceremony is treated more of a novelty practice, owing to the fact that Japanese women have more options in areas of relationships, careers, overseas travel and education than they once did.

“Especially since after the 1990s, marriage is becoming less and less a social norm, so many women just work, study, and devote themselves to whatever they like, whether they marry or not,” says Kato, “More recently, [I hear] some single, working, economically independent women are learning [the tea ceremony] like they learn yoga or English, as one of self-cultivation.”

Far from being just about the consumption of a traditional beverage, chado is a highly social event that incorporates elements of architecture, flower arranging, dress, calligraphy ceramics, fine utensils, and cuisine. Women who are commonly taught the discipline either in Japanese high schools or by their mothers and grandmothers, must study all these components in their preparation to host tea ceremonies.

The tea itself is generally a powdered green tea known as matcha, first brought to Japan by monks after studying in China in the 8th or 9th century. Guests sip the tea from a singular bowl in a series of ritualized movements. With rigorous procedures and structure, chado is as much about the process of making and serving tea as it is about actually drinking and enjoying it.

Despite its roots in Zen Buddhism, the level of spirituality tied to the practice isn’t the same for everyone, says Kato. However, the emphasis on mindfulness and procedure – which lies in stark contrast to the ways of the modern world – is standard. Making the conscious effort to simply slow down is intended to help participants develop deep harmony and connection with surroundings, senses, nature, and other individuals.

“How deeply one sees spirituality depends on each practitioner,” explains Kato, “but many elements, such as tranquility and discipline of body movement, have a strong association with Zen Buddhism, even today. Even those pracitioners who ‘just like tea and sweets’ are at the same time attracted by the spirituality, even if unconsciously.”

Viewing or participating in the the traditional practice of chado is a privilege for outsiders. Various temples in cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto offer a shortened version for tourists, however a formal tea ceremony lasts up to several hours, includes meals, and can vary in urban versus rural settings.

No matter where they are held, the most important component of the tea ceremony – slowing down – is perhaps best represented by the Japanese character for “busy.” The word is a made up of two symbolic characters: the first meaning “spirit” or “soul,” and the second meaning “to die.” Through chado, one seeks to disconnect from the busy world bring the soul back to life.

Flickr: Nyaa_birdies_perch and Ame Otoko


Rosie Spinks

Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist from California with a degree in Environmental Studies. Her work has been published in publications including Sierra magazine, GOOD magazine, the Ecologist, and the Guardian Environment Network. A passion for travel, running barefoot outdoors, and reconnecting people to what is good dominates most of her thoughts. You can follow her writing on Twitter and Tumblr.