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Rebecca Corbett

Jan 17, 2022

Cultivating Femininity

Women and Tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan

University of Hawaii Press 2019

The overwhelming majority of tea practitioners in contemporary Japan are women, but there has been little discussion on their historical role in tea culture (chanoyu). In Cultivating Femininity: Women and Tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan (U Hawaii Press, 2019), Rebecca Corbett (USC East Asian Library) writes women back into this history and shows how tea practice for women was understood, articulated, and promoted in the Edo (1603–1868) and Meiji (1868–1912) periods. Viewing chanoyu 茶の湯 from the lens of feminist and gender theory, she sheds new light on tea’s undeniable influence on the formation of modern understandings of femininity in Japan.

Corbett overturns the iemoto 家元 tea school’s carefully constructed orthodox narrative by employing underused primary sources and closely examining existing tea histories. She incorporates Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of social and cultural capital and Norbert Elias’s “civilizing process” to explore the economic and social incentives for women taking part in chanoyu. Although the iemoto system sought to increase its control over every aspect of tea, including book production, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular texts aimed specifically at women evidence the spread of tea culture beyond parameters set by the schools. The expansion of chanoyu to new social groups cascaded from commoner men to elite then commoner women. Shifting the focus away from male tea masters complicates the history of tea in Japan and shows how women of different social backgrounds worked within and without traditionally accepted paradigms of tea practice. The direct socioeconomic impact of the spread of tea is ultimately revealed in subsequent advances in women’s labor opportunities and an increase in female social mobility. Through their participation in chanoyu, commoner women were able to blur and lessen the status gap between themselves and women of aristocratic and samurai status.

Cultivating Femininity offers a new perspective on the prevalence of tea practice among women in modern Japan. It presents a fresh, much-needed approach, one that will be appreciated by students and scholars of Japanese history, gender, and culture, as well as by tea practitioners.

This book is now available for free in open access at DOAB, ProjectMuse, and JSTOR. 

The history and the culture of tea practice in Japan is multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional, and as far reaching as it is underestimated among Japanese intellectuals today. Also, in the field of Japanese studies, it is far from being comprehensively examined. That is probably because tea ceremony as a "relational aesthetics" (to borrow Hannah Kirschener's term), whether it is about the aesthetics of tasting the tea or of admiring the beauty of a cup, or about perfecting one's precision of the artistic procedure, or simply sharing the space with a good company, has made a far too profound effect in the formation of Japanese history and culture to be explained away in one setting. 

Yet, the simple questions of whether or not women practiced tea in Edo the Meiji Japan and of how that shaped the cultural understanding of the practice itself today have escaped the minds of historians and philosophers for decades. This has something to do with the fact that we are trained to control our imagination by ruminating on the texts written by masters in a patriarchal Iemoto system alone, thus failing to gather evidences that forge our insight into what actually happened in and around the tea rooms. 

By presenting a series of salient examples, this book makes clear the historical accessibility of tea ceremony to women in early modern and modern Japan. It is indeed an incredible achievement of a historian but what is philosophically outstanding here is that it invites us to think beyond the textual horizon and gently guides us to expand out historical understanding. 

At the end of the interview, I asked Rebecca as an amateur of tea practice (but also as a curious reader of intellectual books on sadō): What is great about practicing the way of tea? And if we are interested in entering the way, where should we start? Although these questions may not look like going after the leitmotif of the book, it is certainly inspired by it and I hope many readers of this book will find themselves en route to the nearest tea room for sharing their ideas. 

Takeshi Morisato is philosopher and sometimes academic. He is the editor of the European Journal of Japanese Philosophy. He specializes in comparative and Japanese philosophy but he is also interested in making Japan and philosophy accessible to a wider audience.

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Takeshi Morisato

Takeshi Morisato is philosopher and sometimes academic. He is the editor of the European Journal of Japanese Philosophy. He specializes in comparative and Japanese philosophy but he is also interested in making Japan and philosophy accessible to a wider audience.

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