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Looking at Oribe
by Don Pilcher

Ceramic shards, Kyoto

     Some stories don’t lend themselves to a simple and direct telling.  This is one. The impact of Furuta Oribe on the culture of Japan, particularly its tea ceremony and ceramics production, involves a fascinating blend of history, politics, culture, aesthetics and style.

     We might start with a discussion of the history of tea, recalling that it was first used in China but began to be consumed in Japan in the 13th century. At first, the Japanese tea ceremony made exclusive use of Chinese accoutrements. These included fine paintings, textiles, metalwork and, of course, ceramics. They were elaborate and expensive objects and obviously reserved for use by the upper class.

     But, by the mid-1500s, a new aesthetic sense began to take hold in Japan. In the tea ceremony, the classical Chinese objects were supplemented by the everyday utensils made in and used throughout Japan. Enter Furuta Oribe (1543/4–1615), a military general and tea master to the shogun and samurai ruling class. Oribe promoted a tea ceremony style that embraced a robust, interpretive and idiosyncratic attitude.

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