Japanese Art in the Asia Society Collection

Asia Society

Water Jar for Tea Ceremony
Mie Prefecture
Momoyama to Edo period, late 16th-early 17th century
Stoneware with impressed design under glaze (Iga ware)

Designed with impressed gridlike patterns on a green and brown glaze, this water jar is a perfect statement of simplicity, humility, and rusticity, the Japanese aesthetic celebrating the everyday. The patronage of tea wares is one way in which military leaders gained political legitimacy, embracing cultural forms that related to high spiritual values typified by the Chinese scholar-recluse. Not only were rustic ceramics such as this water jar intensely coveted and carefully guarded, most of the wares were given names, biographies, and diaries to designate their status and importance.

Chanoyu, or The Way of Tea

According to Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), the greatest tea master of Japan, chanoyu (or "the way of tea") is nothing more than boiling water and drinking it. He preaches that inside the tea room social distinction disappears and discussion of political, military, religious, ethical, and social matters is prohibited. The cult of tea stresses the values of simplicity, self-control, and restraint, and embodies a moral, an ethic, and eventually an aesthetic. Ironically, this learned and affected appreciation for the lowest, the poorest, and the broken is a sophisticated and intellectual approach that separated the connoisseur from the layman. Sen no Rikyu himself ultimately lost his life due to his intimate involvement with politics and power through tea.