Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice

Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice

Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice

Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice


The tea ceremony persists as one of the most evocative symbols of Japan. Originally a pastime of elite warriors in premodern society, it was later recast as an emblem of the modern Japanese state, only to be transformed again into its current incarnation, largely the hobby of middle-class housewives. How does the cultural practice of a few come to represent a nation as a whole?

Although few non-Japanese scholars have peered behind the walls of a tea room, sociologist Kristin Surak came to know the inner workings of the tea world over the course of ten years of tea training. Here she offers the first comprehensive analysis of the practice that includes new material on its historical changes, a detailed excavation of its institutional organization, and a careful examination of what she terms "nation-work"-the labor that connects the national meanings of a cultural practice and the actual experience and enactment of it. She concludes by placing tea ceremony in comparative perspective, drawing on other expressions of nation-work, such as gymnastics and music, in Europe and Asia.

Taking readers on a rare journey into the elusive world of tea ceremony, Surak offers an insightful account of the fundamental processes of modernity-the work of making nations.


The origins of this investigation of the relationship between the tea ceremony and Japaneseness are personal as well as scholarly. In 1999, a friend, like many eager to share “Japanese culture” with foreigners, asked if I would like to visit her tea ceremony class, and I, like many foreigners eager for a taste of “Japanese culture,” accepted her invitation. After watching the students make tea, I was given the opportunity to try my own hand at the intricate procedures. Though my memories of that day have worn thin, I still recall my utter confusion at how to do something as simple as pick up a tea bowl while trying to follow the teacher’s directions, “Left hand, right hand. No, right hand …” But I went back the next week, and the week after.

More than fulfilling an exoticized image of “real” Japanese culture, the tea class offered me an entrée into wider Japanese society. At the time, I had been teaching English on a rural island for about one year, but my language skills were poor and I spent my free time with other foreigners in neighboring areas. Joining the weekly tea class allowed me to enter a local home, make local acquaintances, and, above all, learn the local language. I acquired the phrases to humbly deflect rather than complacently accept compliments, the elaborate vocabulary for marking degrees of formality and position in hierarchies, and the nuanced ways of recognizing efforts by and impositions on others. As my command of the language grew stronger, acquaintances became friends, and I felt more secure in participating in the social worlds around me.

As it has done to many other practitioners, the tea practice—the preparation procedures and modes of interaction at lessons—began to mold my foreign body into forms regarded as distinctively Japanese. Expected to be different and not to understand, newcomers to Japan are assumed to bring unfamiliar customs to local interactions that may jar locals into awareness . . .

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