Tea ceremony master Oribe was a Baroque soul in 1600s Japan

By Yasuhiko Mori / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterAfter ordering the suicide of Sen no Rikyu by ritual disembowelment in 1591, warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi needed a new tea ceremony master. For the role, he tapped Furuta Oribe, a high-ranking retainer who was also one of Rikyu’s most prominent direct disciples.

Oribe was reportedly chosen to dress up the tea ceremony, moving from Rikyu’s rustic approach to one that would better satiate the lavish tastes of the ruling elite. Oribe was himself a daimyo, endowed with a domain valued at 35,000 koku in Nishioka, Yamashiro Province, to the southwest of present-day Kyoto City.

Outside of the teahouse, Hideyoshi was busy confiscating swords and conducting land surveys, in a campaign to entrench the wide social chasm between peasants and samurai. Up until then, it was not unusual for townspeople and farmers to take up arms and head into battle.



  • Courtesy of the National Diet Library

    Courtesy of the National Diet Library
    A portrait of Oribe from a biography of six tea mastersThese “sword hunts” and surveys would eventually give shape to the more regimented feudal society that would usher in a long period of stability and peace, setting the stage for the tea ceremony to permeate throughout society among those members of the samurai and chonin “townsman” castes with the time and resources to dabble in recreational pursuits.

But first Japan would undergo another turbulent upheaval, one that would pull Oribe back onto the battlefield.

Hideyoshi died from illness in 1598. The following year, Oribe passed down control of his domain to a son. Having already gained widespread acclaim and established himself as a great tea master to succeed Rikyu in his own right, Oribe retired to his residence in Fushimi (now Fushimi Ward, Kyoto City).

In 1600, the influential daimyo Tokugawa Ieyasu raised an army from Fushimi Castle, and Oribe entered his service. A chain of events followed resulting in the Battle of Sekigahara, a decisive victory over Hideyoshi loyalists that laid the framework for the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate.

In recognition of Oribe’s service in the battle, he was granted a domain of 10,000 koku by Ieyasu, now the first in a long line of Tokugawa shogun.

In 1605, the second shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, attended a tea gathering held at Oribe’s residence in Fushimi, signaling that Oribe had been anointed the shogun’s tea ceremony teacher. A steady stream of daimyo frequently visited Oribe’s residence, and the daimyo-style tea ceremony was born.

Oribe organized and supervised tea ceremony events attended by the shogun. He developed a boldly individual new aesthetic that came to be known as “Oribe-gonomi,” or the “Oribe taste.” Together with gardens and teahouses, his designs for tea ceremony utensils, particularly bowls and other Oribe ware pottery, became all the rage.

The distorted tea bowls made under his direction were so eye-catching that they struck his contemporaries as even comical. It is a style that is still coveted today.

Writer and critic Seigow Matsuoka sees Oribe as a kindred spirit to the freedom of the Baroque movement spreading from Europe at the time.

During Oribe’s lifetime, Baroque fashion had already begun arriving on Japan’s shores and represented a foreign avant-garde. In a striking departure from the staid balance and harmony of the Renaissance era, the Baroque style unleashed an explosion of dynamic and highly ornate designs.

Oribe’s style was described as being “practically avant-garde” by Hiroshi Teshigahara, the iconoclastic ikebana flower arranger, artist and director of the film adaptation of Kobo Abe’s novel, “Suna no Onna” (The Woman in the Dunes).

Although Oribe was a direct disciple of Rikyu, their goals for the tea ceremony made them ideological opposites. Rikyu tried to simplify the tea ceremony, eliminating superfluous artifice. In a word, Rikyu’s approach made him an early proponent of minimalism.

In 1614, Ieyasu waged war against Toyotomi Hideyori, Hideyoshi’s son and a daimyo living in Osaka Castle.

Oribe naturally joined Ieyasu’s camp. However, after Ieyasu’s victory became certain, Oribe was accused of having been secretly in touch with the opposing camp. Compelled to commit seppuku, Oribe took his own life without a word of excuse, saying simply, “I won’t justify myself as it is unseemly.”

Despite the great difference in their styles, so it was that the disciple also crossed a mercurial leader to meet the same fate as his teacher.Speech