Making “Japanese” tea

Kristin Surak

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In a smallish room with screen paper doors and woven tatami mats as flooring, a woman in a kimono kneels in front of a boiling iron kettle preparing tea. Skillfully picking up and setting down items from the assortment of utensils arranged in an orderly manner around her, she places two measured scoops of powdered tea in a ceramic bowl. As she sets the delicately carved bamboo scoop down on the finely lacquered tea caddy and takes off the lid from the ceramic water container, the voice of the teacher sitting diagonally to her corrects her gesture, “Right hand.” The student has been coming to tea lessons once a week for almost ten years, but sometimes finds it hard to concentrate when the three other students, sitting to her side and waiting to drink the tea, chat among themselves – particularly when it’s an interesting story. She finishes whisking the tea to a frothy green consistency, artfully turns the bowl, and sets it out for the first “guest” who turns from the conversation back to the preparation scene and slides forward on her knees to retrieve the bowl, careful to keep her kimono from spreading apart indecorously. With a formal greeting, she politely bows to the second guest, bows to the student who made the tea, and raises the bowl to drink. What could be more Japanese? Since Hobsbawm and Ranger’s (1983) seminal book, revealing the invented origins of taken-for-granted traditions has become a mini growth industry in many of the social sciences. This chapter follows this well-trodden path but makes a shift in analytical approach, from a focus on top-down construction processes to a concentration on those emerging from the bottom upwards. More than exploring how particular practices and objects are intentionally constructed as a part of “heritage” my aim is to direct attention to the dynamics of how they become “Japanese” or their role in producing “Japaneseness.” A comparison of tea ceremony1 in Japan and the US is a productive means to delineate these processes. Not only do Japanese make tea, but, on occasion, tea makes its practitioners Japanese. At first glance, “Japanese heritage” may seem to be a possession or trait of a particular ethnic group. Treating ethnic groups as entities possessing ethnic  attributes makes it possible to use traits such as heritage as indicators of their existence. This presupposition enables research on ethnicity or nationhood to employ combinations of religious practices, choice of dress, holiday celebrations, cuisine, and so forth – aspects of “heritage” – as indexes or measures of ethnic identity. Yet, such assumptions elide key questions concerning the production of ethnicity and putative groups. By viewing ethnic practices as a possession of ethnic groups maintained across time and taking this as the starting point of analysis, researchers leave unspecified the ways in which a practice becomes “ethnic” in the first place. Such starting points reproduce “substantialist” assumptions presupposing the very reification processes that ought to be analyzed (Brubaker 1996: 14). Rather than uncritically assuming that practices are ethnic, analysts should focus on how practices are made ethnic. By adopting this approach, ethnicity as well as heritage can be analyzed as a contingent accomplishment rather than an a-historical given and we can examine how ethnicity and heritage construction may interact – working together, working apart or working against each other. One of the central functions of heritage in its practical application is to help define particular groups (Hobsbawm 1983: 9). Heritage claims, even when made by individuals, are always based on group membership, if only implicitly. Indeed, heritage helps to establish “groupness” by identifying members or legitimate claimants and constructing boundaries. Given the “group-work” heritage accomplishes, a key question to explore is how this occurs. In what ways does heritage help to construct group identity, define membership, and produce ethnicity? In this chapter I sketch out some ways in which heritage and ethnicity construction may intersect in practice. I focus on the US to examine how tea can facilitate a sense of Japaneseness by outlining some relevant boundary dynamics in this multiethnic setting. In particular, I examine the role of tea in making and marking Japaneseness through explicit ethnic contrasts, forging commonalities within implicit ethnic boundaries, and providing a channel for non-ethnic work such as developing social status. I conclude by highlighting some similarities in the processes of making “Japanese” tea in Japan as well and stressing the importance of avoiding the temptation to see the world only through the lens of ethnic identity. Although a practice may in some contexts provide a way for accomplishing ethnicity, in other contexts it might not. Tea ceremony can be more or less “ethnic” depending on the situation and may not always express Japaneseness. The argument presented here draws on ethnographic, historical, and inter view data collected in the US and interprets these in light of similar ethnographic and interview material collated in Japan.2 The US data focus on the Los Angeles metropolitan region, the area in the continental US with the longest history of institutionalized tea ceremony practice and the greatest number of participants. In the Urasenke school in Los Angeles, there are 30 active tea teachers, 300 dues-paying members of the official organization, and as many as 150 non-members trained in tea, mainly students of high school and college tea classes or people who have suspended lessons. The next largest school of tea in Los Angeles, Omotesenke, has around six active teachers and less than 150 practitioners in total. In addition to participant observation of weekly tea lessons and informal and formal tea events from 2001 to 2003, I draw on numerous informal conversations and twelve formal interviews with a snowball selection of tea practitioners3 living in greater Los Angeles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMaking Japanese Heritage
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781135255732
ISBN (Print)9780415413145
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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