Thursday, August 12, 2010

WARNING-Tea Can Be Hazardous To Your Health: The Death of Sen-no-Rikyu

Last night I checked out two excellent articles-“Tea and Counsel-The Political Role of Sen No Rikyu” in Monumenta Nipponica from Beatrice Bodart-Bailey, one of my favorite historians, and also “Tea Politics, Christianity, Diplomacy and the Economics of the Korean Wars” by Maria Petrucci. “Tea Politics” had little to say about Rikyu but did have some interesting observations. One of them is another aspect of the tea culture daimyo could use to their advantage-they could reward trusted vassals with ‘rare and valuable’ tea utensils rather than having to give up more in the way of a stipend or land. There were also some amusing early examples of the ‘ugly Westerner’, where the Jesuits and western traders called these same tea utensils ‘fit only for using in a birdcage’ and ‘not even worth two pennies’. Bodart-Bailey’s article was fascinating and shows Rikyu to have been quite the political schemer, not the ‘simple man of tea’ that he is usually portrayed as in novels, movies, and the popular imagination. She presents a convincing argument that his death was the result of the end of the warring states, a conflict within the ranks of Hideyoshi’s retainers over how to deal with the Date, the death of Hideyoshi’s son, and Rikyu’s non-samurai status.

Bodart-Bailey deconstructs and pretty much lays to rest all of the other theories that are given to explain Rikyu’s death sentence, showing the most popular ones (the ‘statue on the gate’ and his alleged corruption in dealing/evaluating tea utensils) to be little more than formal excuses used to order his death (much like Tokugawa Ieyasu used ‘Hideyori’s bell’ as the excuse for the Osaka campaign). An interesting note is that Rikyu was originally ordered to be crucified, but he was instead allowed to commit seppuku and the STATUE was crucified! She also shows that there is little evidence that Rikyu used his tea utensil dealings to enrich himself, and that what he did was very much in line with what other well regarded tea masters did. He also left very little wealth behind for his family, another factor that points to him not having exploited the tea utensil angle. As for ‘he came into conflict with Hideyoshi over Korea’, this seems to be utter BS lifted from novels-none of his letters or other evidence exist to support it, and Rikyu was certainly not averse to taking part in waging and planning war, something his letters are full of. There was also the theory Rikyu was killed because he converted to Christianity (no evidence that he did). As for the theory concerning Rikyu’s daughter, the ‘widowed daughter’ that Hideyoshi supposedly coveted as a concubine was not a widow at the time of Rikyu’s seppuku. There was also the theory that Hideyoshi’s extravagant style of tea clashed with Rikyu’s simpler ascetic, but this is also shown to have not been the case.

It looks rather that Rikyu was just outmaneuvered and destroyed by opposing factions within the Toyotomi camp, led by the younger retainers in general and Ishida Mitsunari in particular. Rikyu didn’t help his cause with Hideyoshi by thumbing his nose at him over the years. For example, when the Buddhist cleric Kokei Shuchin was ordered exiled by Hideyoshi, Rikyu gave him a ‘going-away tea ceremony’-in the tea room located in Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai pleasure palace!

Bodart-Bailey’s argument is that Rikyu came to power acting as a messenger and facilitator for Hideyoshi. His position as a tea master meant that he had access to many important merchants and daimyo, had a master-disciple relation with many of them that demanded their respect (which the ‘upstart Hideyoshi’ used to his advantage, since many of these same men wouldn’t even think about bothering to reply to him directly), and had the time and opportunity to act as a messenger when Hideyoshi’s generals were usually busy with campaigning.

However, as Hideyoshi slowly gained more power, the wars died down and his samurai returned to being administrators and the offices of power began to get more formalized. At this time Rikyu had a tremendous amount of influence with Hideyoshi, since the Taiko could no longer micromanage things like he used to and had to rely on his closest advisors on many matters. This made Rikyu a perceived threat and a target for many of Hideyoshi’s ambitious vassals, and lacking a real power base with troops and territory, he didn’t prove hard to disgrace and discredit. After all, he was a merchant’s son in a high position, an anomaly in the Toyotomi power structure. His situation worsened when Hidenaga (his primary supporter/protector and Hideyoshi’s brother) died. This was also about the time Hideyoshi’s first son died, and Hideyoshi was filled with rage brought on by grief-a situation that usually ends up with someone else being the brunt of that misplaced rage.

The factional struggle between the Toyotomi ‘centralists’ (led by Ishida Mitsunari) and the ‘decentralists’ (led by Tokugawa Ieyasu and Rikyu) over how to deal with the Date (who, after ostensibly paying homage to Hideyoshi at Odawara, appeared to be rebelling afterwards) seemed to be the incident that sealed Rikyu’s fate. The centralists advocated a military solution-the decentralists, negotiating. While the decentralists won, this caused the centralists to make an issue out of all of Rikyu’s scheming and differences of opinion with Hideyoshi over the years. Ishida is accused in particular of having a grudge against Rikyu-there are contemporary accounts of him torturing Rikyu’s widow and daughter after Rikyu’s suicide. While there’s no evidence to back these accounts up, it does indicate that there was a good level of animosity between the two. Rikyu had slowly fallen out of favor with Hideyoshi over the years, and it looks like the Taiko threw him as a bone to Mitsunari in order to mollify him for the Date incident.

Rikyu compared himself to Sugawara Michizane in his death poem-both men that fell victim to the scheming of political opponents, so it seems that Bodart-Bailey’s thesis seems to be the correct one.

There’s other great information in these articles as well. For example, it appears Oda Nobunaga suddenly became interested in tea when he wanted to gain the favor and enlist the aid of Imai Sokyu-a tea master/merchant/arms dealer who was instrumental in getting the city of Sakai to accept Oda suzerainty.


  1. That excuse about the statue always sounded a bit too unbelievable, too silly, to possibly be all there was to it. Surely Hideyoshi was not that fickle (or was he?).

    Thanks much for expanding upon some of the more serious factors which likely contributed to Hideyoshi's decision to order Rikyû's death. One of these days, I'll have to read that Beatrice B-B article myself.

    A great post.

  2. Never really interested in Rikyu personally, but good post nonetheless. ALways good to know more.

    Also, I register in the SA Forum some time age as "Kayjee", but I can't seem to login. Can a staff help me?