Tea for the Grandees

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Tea for the Grandees
Author: Jun Itō
Specifications: ISBN  978-4163903767
274 pages
13.4 x 19.5 cm / 5.3 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Bungeishunju Ltd.
Tokyo, 2015
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


Medieval Japan endured an extended period of fragmentation when warring feudal domains were vying fiercely with one another to expand their territory, before the hegemonic ambitions of Oda Nobunaga (1534–82), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98), and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) led to the unification of the country and to rule by the Tokugawa Shogunate for more than two and a half centuries—an era commonly referred to as the Edo period (1603–1867) after the name of the city where the Tokugawa administration was located, now known as Tokyo. Although the basic historical facts surrounding these three great feudal lords are well established, the highly distinctive personalities of the strongmen have made them perennially popular subjects among writers of historical fiction as well as their readers. In this work, author Jun Itō trains his lens on Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his relationship to tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), the man who had the single greatest influence on the evolution of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony known as chanoyu.

What is known is that Hideyoshi ultimately ordered Rikyū to commit seppuku in 1591—even though the tea master was not a member of the samurai class. What is not known is what Rikyū may have done to incur the wrath of his longtime disciple in the Way of Tea, whose confidence he had enjoyed until that time. Itō boldly speculates about what may have come between the two eminent figures through the eyes of several other distinguished disciples of Rikyū—men of the samurai class who practiced the Way of Tea.

Oda Nobunaga was the first to think of using the Way of Tea as an instrument of national unity by spreading the practice not only among wealthy merchants and samurai but among the common townsfolk as well. As a leading figure in the world of chanoyu and a man who had amassed great wealth through trade, Rikyū becomes a confidant of Nobunaga, but when the warlord expresses his intent to advance onto the continent and conquer the Ming Dynasty in China, Rikyū begins to harbor serious doubts out of a concern that extended wars will undermine the public tranquility that he sees as the ultimate goal of spreading chanoyu. So he comes up with a plan: get Nobunaga assassinated so that the reins of power will pass on to his most trusted vassal Hideyoshi—with Rikyū remaining as a behind-the-scenes fixer in matters both political and cultural. After wheedling his way into the ambitious Hideyoshi’s good graces and disposing of Nobunaga, he wields power as a counselor to Hideyoshi on matters of strategy.

A rift develops in the relationship between Rikyū and Hideyoshi when the warlord takes up Nobunaga’s refrain and begins talking publicly about invading Korea and going on to conquer the continent. Rikyū considers it madness, but deciding that the time has come to unhitch his fate from Hideyoshi, he endorses the Korean campaign in the belief that it is sure to fail and weaken Hideyoshi’s forces. The troops sent to the peninsula in 1592 do indeed meet with fierce resistance and are thrown back, but before any of that can take place, Hideyoshi sees through Rikyū’s ulterior motives and orders him to commit ritual suicide.

An important motif running through the narrative is that of wabi, a difficult to define aesthetic of simple, austere beauty with roots in Buddhism, which is strongly associated with the Way of Tea. As an exceptional artist, Rikyū claims that he alone can judge what constitutes wabi in the context of chanoyu. When Hideyoshi constructs a tearoom in which everything is covered with gold leaf, Rikyū praises it as the ultimate expression of wabi—giving rise to strong misgivings among his disciples.

Itō has deftly and dramatically woven together what we might normally expect to be two mutually exclusive realms—the world of the samurai warrior, and the world of high art.