In the rarefied world of Japanese tea ceremony, innovations have often been greeted coolly. When the Japanese-American abstract sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-88) gave a tea kettle of his own making to the landscape designer and tea connoisseur Mirei Shigemori (1896-75), the recipient was baffled.

“It violates every concept of what a conventional tea kettle should be,” said Shigemori. “Noguchi doesn’t understand what ‘new’ means for tea.”

What new can mean is the theme of the recent exhibition “When Japan’s Tea Ceremony Artisans Meet Minpaku’s Collections” at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka (Minpaku). In this experiment, the Senke Jusshoku (10 designated craft-producing families for Senke) were brought to the museum, where the entire collection stored there — a quarter of a million items — was made available to them. Their brief was to seek inspiration from a small selection of objects according to their personal aesthetic inclinations, then refine their choice to a single object and create something new based on their own time-honored traditions.

Jusshoku are the recipients of traditionally transmitted artisan skills that have served the major Kyoto tea schools (Senke) for hundreds of years. Formalized tea standards were laid down by Sen no Rikyu (1521-91), who encouraged local artisans to create simple utensils possessing an aesthetic humility. By the mid-Edo Period (1603-1867), there were more than 10 craft families; the name is recent, dating from a 1919 exhibition in Osaka’s Mitsukoshi department store. The popularization of the name Jusshoku came with an early 20th-century tea ceremony renaissance that led to an enormous increase in the demand for tea wares.

In the process of producing something new, though, the Jusshoku had to temper their creations to practical and aesthetic standards laid down by Rikyu. Practical concerns include the convenience and intention of the user, and aesthetic ones, the creation of objects that are seemingly in a natural state and soberly adorned and free from affectation. Neatness and cleanness of form are also prized. A certain unassuming quality must be discerned — no bold statements whereby the presence of an object is too forcefully felt.

A case in point is the 14th-generation woodworker Komazawa Risai (b. 1930), who notes in the exhibition catalog the continuing importance of Rikyu’s ideals for contemporary tea life. Sifting through the museum collection, Komazawa took a fancy to wooden headrests and stools from Kenya and earthenware ceramics from Morocco, but the form of a woven bread container from Morocco in particular entranced him. Ignoring its vivid color combination of gold, red and green fabrics, Komazawa fashioned a hexagonal tea sweets container with decoration primarily of natural paulownia wood grain and a few engraved cloud and flower shapes.

Thirteenth-generation lacquerer Nakamura Sotetsu (b. 1965) brought similar restraint to her contribution. Having assembled an assortment of objects such as an eight-sided table from Morocco, a ceramic from Mexico and tiles from Turkey, she settled upon two Iranian tiles with sprawling organic designs and a brightly colored pouch used by women in Guatemala. The influences of these objects percolated with her own hereditary traditions, resulting in a black, four-sided dish with a simplified geometrical design in subdued gold and gray.

While the items from the museum’s collection are from distant lands and times, the new wares created have found in the foreign objects aesthetic similarities to local tea traditions. The basket of goods assembled by the 12th- generation scroll-mounting maker, Okumura Kichibei (b. 1934), includes a vertical bamboo calendar and a horizontal picture scroll from Indonesia because they suggested to him the formats of Japanese hanging scrolls. His contribution is a folding screen made form Mexican amate paper, a kind of mottled and textured fabric made from bark. In another project, Okumura took a liking to Indonesian banana paper and fashioned kamashiki (paper kettle pads) of 48 sheets folded into fourths, a tradition also said to have begun with Rikyu.

Other sections in the exhibition include the historical examination of Jusshoku traditions and their comparison to other hand-made world crafts. The former is of particular interest for the background it provides to contemporary Jusshoku activities, and also the chance to view such rare items as the “Black Raku Tea Bowl” by Chojiro (d. 1589), the founder of Raku ceramics who produced designs Rikyu commissioned with the so-called roof-tile carving skills of his professional trade.

In stark contrast to the anything-goes impulse of the contemporary art world, the tea world, it seems, is one that seeks in contemporary creation not the liberation from rules and tradition, but freedom from arbitrary and impulsive behavior.

“When Japan’s Tea Ceremony Artisans Meet Minpaku’s Collections” is showing at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka till June 2; admission ¥800. For more information, visit www.minpaku.ac.jp

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