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"Westerners and Tea"

In my class on Japanese tea culture, we were asked to deliver a short, semi-formal speech. This was meant to serve as our final, as we needed to apply the knowledge we gained to explore a topic we were interested in. I've decided to share my speech with you all. Hope you enjoy!

(I've noted words that may need further explanation for all of you readers, since my intended audience for the speech had just studied all the terms in class with me. Definitions will be found at the bottom.)


Through the entirety of this course on Tea Culture, we have been introduced to the incredible history and cultural impact tea has had on Japan. I choose the topic “Westerners and Tea Ceremony” for this final presentation. My reasoning for making this choice is simple: misconceptions. I wanted to explore the possible causes for the misconceptions Westerners (namely Americans) have about Japan’s culture of tea. Though it has been over a hundred years since our formal introduction to Sadou¹ in Okakura Tenshin’s The Book of Tea,² Sadou is still extremely misunderstood by the English-speaking world. She is exoticized just as much as – if not more than – her kindred cultural intuitions from abroad. I must admit guilt in this, too. Long before I seriously began my studies in Asian culture, I saw Sadou as something far different than what it is.

In preparation for this final presentation, I contacted some friends and acquaintances over the phone from home and asked if I could make notes of our discussions. I asked what they thought of tea ceremony, if they had an idea of why it is done, and if Americans and/or other foreigners could participate. Of course, I took what they said with a grain of salt since I only spoke with a relatively small group from a small part of my country. It is unfair to claim that this utterly minuscule sample size can represent the entirety of the diverse populations in the United States. However, I do feel their ideas fall in-line with what I have come to expect in my 20 years of consuming American culture.

“I think it must be some religious thing.” Said one acquaintance of mine, who I’ll refrain from naming for anonymity’s sake. “Like, you can only do it on special days. Maybe on their version of ‘Christmas’ or ‘Easter’ or whatever. But it must celebrate something, am I right?” Of the six people who were willing to speak with me, five believed Sadou was a religious, Godly celebration (that perhaps required the presence of a spiritual authority to be done with authenticity). That’s partially correct, as its origins are deeply rooted in Shintou³ and Continental⁴ faiths. But one does not need to believe in Asian deities to enjoy participation in – or perhaps even the hosting of – a tea ceremony. Of course, a fair knowledge of Asian religion is required for a deeper appreciation of the aesthetics in the art and motions of the teaist.⁵

I theorize that this idea that tea ceremony is a strictly religious service (much like a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve) is due in part to linguistic difficulties. (As a side note, I have a strong interest in linguistics and etymology, so this portion was the most enjoyable for me.) Whoever the foreigner was who decided that the English word should be tea ceremony, I do not know. However, I can imagine myself being in their shoes. It was, of course, a relatively short time ago that I was unaware of the intricacies of this practice. I would imagine that this person, upon hearing of or witnessing the ritualistic, carefully produced actions of a tea practitioner, must have concluded that the situation was a ceremony of some sort.

By its very definition, a ceremony is the ritualistic observance (and often the celebration) of an uncommon circumstance; ceremonies don’t commemorate daily occurrences. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations, deaths, births – those are ceremonial. Indeed, serving tea can be a means of observing such an occasion in the life of the principal guest,⁶ but such events are not needed. If that were the case, then the few Japanese families who practice serving tea daily would not be doing “real” tea ceremony. Nor would the members of various tea clubs in schools across the nation.

I stuck my nose into a dictionary to find if there was an instance of the literal words for tea and ceremony coming together in the Japanese language to describe the ritualistic serving of tea. Due to my inability to find any such pairing, I believe that “ceremony” only came into the mix as a result of a Western misunderstanding. For example, there is chagoto, chakai, and saen. These all pair tea with words implying a “gathering,” “meeting,” “party,” “banquet,” and so on – but never quite a ceremony. Then there is, of course, Sadou – the word we most likely mean when we use the term tea ceremony. A literal translation for the word is the path of tea or Way of Tea. I prefer the latter, as Sadou is a way of life for tea practitioners. The principles of tea (aestheticism, mindfulness, hospitality, etc.) are what a tea practitioner⁷ – and certainly a tea master – is bound to live by.

The easiest and most effective way to bridge the gap of any misunderstanding is for personal experience to occur. Thus, I asked my American acquaintances if they felt it would be acceptable to have tea ceremonies outside of Japan. Furthermore, I asked if they thought they should be able to become a tea practitioner. “Absolutely not.” Said another, different from the first one I quoted. “That’s appropriation of culture. If I was in Japan, I might go to one. But I am not Japanese! I can’t do it!” That response was on the extreme end, although most were uncomfortable to some extent with the idea of becoming a tea practitioner.

There certainly is a conversation to be had about where the line is between the appropriation and appreciation/adoption of culture. That’s not a conversation I am going to get into here, other than to say I disagree with the idea that tea culture should be separated by heritage. Tea is for everyone. Okakura Tenshin⁸ certainly thought so – introducing us to Japanese tea culture was one of his purposes in writing The Book of Tea. In talking about the Western practice of afternoon tea, he writes “we know that the Worship of Tea is established beyond question.” I couldn’t agree more.

In fact, we’ve strayed away from our love of tea. While in England it’s still very common, tea culture has fallen out of favor in America. Tea is a solitary pleasure at best and a mere tool for fighting winter colds at worst. In the modern age, most of us have abandoned the idea of relaxing with the comfort of gentle conversation and warm, aromatic tea. Our lives have become so hasty that we have forgotten how healing hospitality – and tea – is for the soul. Perhaps we do not necessarily require the adoption of the Japanese Way of Tea, but I think we would most certainly benefit from the rediscovery or reinvention of our own Way of Tea.

I am excited to bring the knowledge I have gained from Okakura and this course back home with me. I do believe I will continue to learn about tea and, perhaps, adopt the title of “teaist.”

  1. Sadou: Tea Ceremony, Tea Culture.

  2. The Book of Tea: The textbook used for this course.

  3. Shinto: Spiritual beliefs native to Japan.

  4. Continental: something originating on the Asian mainland - places such as China, India, Korea, and so on. By continental faiths, I am referring to Buddhism, Daoism, etc.

  5. Teaist: Someone who participates in Sadou.

  6. Principal Guest: The guest of honor at a tea ceremony.

  7. Tea practitioner: A teaist.

  8. Okakura Tenshin: (born 1862 - died 1913) The author of our textbook. Arguably, he is the most important English-speaking scholar of Asian culture and art to come from Japan.

#sadou #teaculture #tea #ceremony

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