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Japanese History: the Way of Tea

In: Historical Events

Submitted By marisalaselle
Words 1835
Pages 8
Marisa Maen
April 16, 2013 Since the beginning of Japanese history, many cultures such as Korea, India, the United States and the most prominent, China, have consistently influenced the people and culture of Japan. Although the Japanese aesthetics may have begun as something borrowed from its neighboring cultures, the Japanese have truly evolved their aesthetics into unique and authentic. In modern times, their aesthetics continue to greatly influence world art and fashion. Ranging from their poetry, to the tea ceremony, to architecture, the Japanese aesthetics began as something mimicking that of China and other cultures, and over time, have developed into something purely and truly Japanese.
Because of its close proximity to China and Korea, Japan, in the pre-modern times, was greatly influenced by the cultures surrounding it. Early knowledge of the Japanese people can be found in the dynastic histories of China. “The Chinese called Japan the land of Wa…described as consisting of ‘one-hundred’ ---probably meaning a great many ---countries or tribes” (Varley, Japanese Culture, p. 7.) Since this time, the Japanese sent missions to China and slowly adopted many of their cultural aesthetics. Even though there was a very strong Chinese influence, the Japanese eventually assumed their unique aesthetic sense. This aesthetic sense is collectively known as miyabi, or refined sensibility, mono no aware, or the capacity to be moved by things, wabi and suki, or imperfect, irregular beauty. These aesthetics can be seen from ancient times in Japanese history all the way up until twenty first-century, modern times. There is a very long history associated with Japanese literature. Because the Japanese adopted the Chinese culture so easily, the Chinese method of writing tended to affect the way that literature changed throughout Japan’s history. Although, there was Chinese influence seen in Japanese literature, poetry, such as the “Man’yoshu,” “may with some justice be termed examples of ‘pure’ Japanese literature” (Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature, p. 20.) The “Man’yoshu” has been called one of the world’s greatest collections of poetry. One of the most incredible characteristics of the work is that although some of the later poems still have traces of Chinese influence, the uniqueness that is Japan’s aesthetic is felt throughout a majority of the work. The Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware is seen in the poetry of the Nara period, but didn’t become a unique and dominant aesthetic until the Heian period. A work that was completed around the same time as the “Man’yoshu,” on the other hand, shows the influence the Chinese had on Japanese literature. The “Kaifuso” or “Fond Recollections of Poetry,” was written by the Japanese court, but in Chinese. The influence of China was so great that the Japanese writers did not know how to express themselves in their own native language and because there was an amount of distinction that came with being able to complete literature in a more complicated and difficult language. The Chinese language continues to help the Japanese convey thoughts that may be too advanced for the Japanese verse system. In the tenth century, Japanese poetry reached its highest development. The “Kokinshu” or “Collection of Ancient and Modern Poetry,” written by Ki no Tsurayaki was one of the biggest contributors to the move away from Chinese influence and towards Japanese prose. One may note in Tsurayaki’s prose some Chinese influence, such as the parallelism, but his is essentially a Japanese style both in vocabulary and construction. Tsurayaki especially believed that poetry, nature, feelings, and people would guide the unique aesthetic of mono no aware or the capacity to me moved.
The poetry of the early tenth century included fairy tales influenced by Japan, China, and India, and a more realistic type of poem. The combination of these types developed into a masterpiece of Japanese literature that best exemplifies the mono no aware aesthetic, “and indeed aware appears as an adjective in the book (referring to things that are moving) no less than 1,108 times’ (Varley, Japanese Culture, p. 66.) “The Tale of Genji” contains many hundred poems and may be included in one of the great novels of the world. An interesting fact is that women wrote most of the great, Japanese poems of this time. The Japanese men of this time thought that the Japanese language was below them, so they continued to write prose in Chinese. “The Tale of Genji” was definitely a continuation towards of a truly unique Japanese prose. This shift away from a Chinese aesthetic into a purely Japanese aesthetic is not only seen in Japanese poetry, it can also be seen throughout the very special tea ceremony.
Chanoyu, or the way of tea, did not just appear out of thin air, it developed and evolved over an extremely long history. The source of tea drinking in Japan began during the early Heian period. Tea drinking had for a long time been an aspect of the Chinese T’ang culture. It was viewed by Japanese priests, studying in China, and was then brought back and described in Japan. The earliest record of tea drinking in Japan involves a character named Eichu who prepared and served tea to the emperor at the time. Emperor Saga had a great admiration for Chinese culture and tea drinking quickly became the popular and fashionable activity of his court. After the death of Emperor Saga, the popularity of drinking tea declined, but members of the Buddhist priesthood continued to drink it medicinally and religiously.
During the Muromachi period the tea fields were still mainly found near temples, but smaller tea fields began to pop up called peasant fields. This allowed for tea to become more of a commodity and documents that involved the buying and selling of tea began to be seen. “Tea was produced in Kyoto, and stores materialized to sell it” (Isao, Varley, Tea in Japan, p.11.) Because of the vast growth of different tea fields, tea competitions began to distinguish such teas. The tea competitions are another example of how the Way of Tea has developed into something purely Japanese. “In contrast to the Chinese practice of judging tea by its quality, the tocha of Japan were competitions aimed at distinguishing teas according to the regions where they were grown” (Isao, Varley, Tea in Japan, p.11.)
The rules of tea drinking changed over time and so did the purely Japanese aesthetic that can be seen in the Way of Tea. Wabi has become the most important aesthetic related to the tea ceremony. “Wabi means to transform material insufficiency so that one discovers in it a world of spiritual freedom unbounded by material things” (Isao, Varley, Tea in Japan, p.196.) This aesthetic is especially seen in the utensils that are used in the tea ceremony. The use of commonplace objects is also a major feature of the Japanese tea ceremony. These items do not need to be in perfect condition, just must be well maintained. The wabi aesthetic searches to find the beauty in the mundane and flawed, instead of in the new and immaculate.
Chanoyu and the essence of wabi have greatly helped to shape and develop the Japanese aesthetic. The architecture of the tea room has also evolved over time and represents another aesthetic unique to Japan, suki, “meaning taste or refinement but with a hint of eccentricity thrown in” (Isao, Varley, Tea in Japan, p. 198.). This leads into the next discussion of how the architecture of Japan has slowly developed into something uniquely Japanese, although it may have originally been influenced by other cultures The architecture of the tea room is very symbolic of a purely Japanese aesthetic. A traditional tea room will have aspects mainly influenced from a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Buddhist architecture. Ancient Japanese architecture had a repetitive use of wood and wooden structures in the construction. Accompanying the use of wood was the use of other natural materials. Among these were earthen-type walls and the ability to change the shape of a space was very popular. The Japanese used adjustable walls in order to create a continuity, or flow, from one room through to another. Often times, this flow would continue even through to the exterior of the space. And finally, long and straight beams emphasize the popularity of geometrically arranged design. The Japanese aesthetic suki, “a form in which the parts are eccentric and do not match” (Isao, Varley, Tea in Japan, p. 198,) is one of the elements easily seen in the architecture of the Japanese tea ceremony room. The architecture consisted of pillars that are uneven and bamboo beams that may not perfectly match. Many of the structure of the tea room may have angles that are straight, but may also have areas that are curved and rounded. Many items in the tea room are not brand new and have been repaired or even patched up. This irregularity of the objects of the tea room is the essence of the suki aesthetic and has become a warped sense of beauty to the Japanese. The modern day architecture in Japan has had a technological revolution through the use of an array of new building materials, bricks, steel, and cement to name a few. Another important advance was the use of reinforced - concrete in larger cities such as Tokyo. The West has had the most profound effect on Japanese architecture in the late nineteenth century. The “over-Westernization of Japan in the late nineteenth century,” was mainly due to the over abundance of foreign architects (Varley, Japanese Culture, p. 326.) This also had an impact on the young Japanese architects that were studying in the city. “The Japanese architects of this age used ‘only the techniques and external forms of the industrial civilization of the West, without understanding its spiritual background,’” this led to a greater concern on the engineering side of the culture of architecture. This is the very Japanese part of modern-day architecture, structure is more important than design as it pertains to trying to contain minimal damage during an earthquake. It wasn’t until the late twentieth century that the Japanese architects became more aware and concerned with applying a relationship between structure and design. Japanese architects began using their materials to accent special qualities of the design. There was a push towards applying the most humanistic design instead of a dehumanizing design. What really led to a truly unique and Japanese aesthetic was the combination of traditional tastes with the modern values that were driven by the West. In conclusion, Japan has definitely been influenced by its surrounding cultures. Although parts of other cultures can still be seen minimally in the Japanese culture, the Japanese, over time, have skewed other aesthetics and have developed their own unique and special collection of aesthetics. Definitively, the original and custom to Japanese aesthetics include miyabi, mono no aware, wabi, and suki. The aesthetics of Japan can be especially expressed in the art forms of poetry, the tea ceremony, and architecture.…...

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