In the U.S., Tea Party politics refers to a certain strain of Republican conservatism. But in Japan, tea politics are of an altogether different sort: The ritual drinking of this ancient beverage — often thought of as the epitome of Japanese restraint and formality — has long been entwined with issues of power and national identity.
A thousand years ago, Buddhist monks studying in China brought tea back to Japan. And while the tea ceremony is meant to encourage spiritual contemplation, early on, it became enmeshed with very earthly displays of power. Japan's 15th-century aristocrats and other elites adopted the esoteric practice, holding tea parties during which they would also display rare Chinese objects to convey power and wealth.
As Andrew Watsy, a professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University, explained to NPR in 2014, "To be politically powerful at this time also meant that you had to show that you had some sort of cultural sophistication as well."
According to Kristin Surak, a professor of Japanese politics and author of Making Tea, Making Japan, the tea ceremony is full of contradictions. It's a Zen-like renunciation of the material world — and simultaneously, a place where expensive tea wares convey affluence. It's intended to be a place of equality, but often serves to reinforce power and hierarchies. Although each preparation is meant to be unique, the ritual is the same thing over and over.
"It's presented as a universalistic practice open to everyone and pitched as being about wa, kei, sei and jaku (harmony, respect, purity and tranquility)," says Surak, who spent more than a decade in Japan, studying the art of the tea ceremony and observing its subtleties. "The claim is that everyone in the world can understand those things, and that if everybody sat around and had a bowl of tea, we could create world peace."