Sen no Rikyu (千利休)

SEN no Rikyu (April 21, 1522-1591) was a tea master during the late Medieval times of the Sengoku and Azuchi-Momoyama periods. He is know as an achiever who established wabi-cha or Soan no cha (deliberate simple style of the tea ceremony) in which he reduced any kind of decoration as much as possible, creating an atmosphere of tension.


His father was Yohyoe TANAKA, and his mother was Myoju HOSHIN.

According to "SEN Kakeifu" (genealogy of the SEN family) and "SEN no Rikyu Yuishogaki" (a history of SEN no Rikyu), his grandfather SEN'ami was from the TANAKA clan, a branch family of the NITTA and SATOMI clan, and the grandfather had worked as Doboshu (experts in art) to Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA. It is said that Rikyu took the family name of his grandfather. However, some people are skeptical about this explanation because it first appeared in "SEN no Rikyu Yuishogaki," which was written by Rikyu's grandson Sosa KOSHIN, and there are no historical materials written by Rikyu's contemporaries that tell the same story about Rikyu's family name.

Names and Titles

The designation "Ami" was quite common among the followers of Jishu sect of Buddhism in those days, so the name is not necessarily associated with the position of Doboshu. Rikyu's childhood name was Yoshiro, but later he changed his buddhist name to Soeki and called himself Hosensai.

Rikyu's most widely known name was Koji (Buddhist name) given by Emperor Ogimachi to join the Kinchu tea ceremony in 1585 because he was a mere townsman at that time and not allowed to enter the imperial palace. There are various conjectures about the who invented Rikyu's Buddhist name: Soto DAIRIN, Sokin SHOREI, or Sochin KOKEI. All of them were great priests who became caretakers of the Daitoku-ji Temple, and Soto and Sokin also served the Nanshu-ji Temple as caretakers. According to Soen SHUN'OKU, who studied under the same master as Sochin, it was Soto DAIRIN who came up with the name of Rikyu (according to "Ichimokuko"). However, Soto had already died 17 years before the Kinchu tea ceremony was held, so if he had something to do with giving Rikyu the name, it would be "Rikyu Soeki" that Soto gave to Rikyu, and Rikyu only used the first name "Soeki" when he was young, and later on may have used the last name "Rikyu" on occasions when he entered the imperial palace. Then it is understandable that a portrait of Rikyu (preserved in Masaki Art Museum) made in 1583, two years before Kinchu tea ceremony, has a word of praise: "Rikyu Soeki Zenjin." Many people thought that the designation meant "glory has already been fading, " but now it is considered to mean "never be contented with your talent, and seek your way like an old awl with the point worn smooth." There is another presumption that the name came from Lu Yu, who is considered to be the author of "The Classic of Tea." Anyway, he used the name of "Rikyu" only in his later years, and most of his lifetime as a tea master he called himself "Soeki".

He is also known as Chasei (Tea saint).

Success in Life

SEN no Rikyu was born to a family of fish merchants (a shop called Totoya) in Sakai, Izumi Province. His father was Nayashu (owner of the fish warehouses). Rikyu began his study of tea ceremony at an early age, and became a disciple of Dochin KITAMUKI at 17, and then studied under Joo TAKENO, trying to reform a traditional style of the tea ceremony with his master. He underwent Zen training at the Nanshu-ji Temple, and also visited the Daitoku-ji Temple frequently, which was its head temple, and located in Murasakino, a suburb of Kyoto.

While Nobunaga ODA was ruling Sakai, Rikyu served Nobunaga as Saju (person who is in charge of the tea ceremony) and later on served Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI. In 1587, Rikyu was fully in charge of the Kitano Grand Tea Ceremony, and gained the trust of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI for a while. In October, 1585, Rikyu served in the Kinchu tea ceremony for Emperor Ogimachi hosted by Hideyoshi, and received the Buddhist name "Rikyu" from the emperor. While he designed a golden tea room, he was bringing wabi-Cha to perfection, inventing Soan teahouse, making Raku tea bowl and beginning to use Hanaire (flower vase for tea ceremony). As Rikyu's reputation as a tea master culminated, he took up residence in the Juraku-jo Castle owned by Hideyoshi, got involved in designing a garden in the castle, and received a fief of 3000 koku.

Forced Suicide

In 1591, Rikyu angered Hideyoshi, and was ordered to seclude himself at Sakai. Toshiie MAEDA and some of Rikyu's top seven disciples, such as Shigeteru (Shigenari) FURUTA and Tadaoki HOSOKAWA, tried in vain to save his life, and Rikyu was called back to Kyoto to be sentenced to die (harakiri) at the residence of Juraku. He was 70 years old. It is said that when Rikyu killed himself, Hideyoshi's army enclosed the residence for fear of being resisted by Rikyu's disciples. After his death, Rikyu's head was hung at the Ichijo Modori-bashi Bridge. His head was also displayed under the foot of the wooden statue that was said to be one of the reasons of his death, at the main gate of the Daitoku-ji Temple.

There is a death poem thought to have been composed by Rikyu the day before his death.

Seventy years of life,Ha, ha! And what a fuss!With this treasured sword of mine,I kill both patriarchs and Buddha!I carried the sword, which I owned so long,The time has come at last,I throw the sword up to the sky.

The reason why Hideyoshi sentenced Rikyu to die isn't clear, but there are some views about it. When the gate of Daitoku-ji Temple (Kimokaku) was renovated, Rikyu placed a wooden statue of himself shod in straw sandals on top of the gate; passing under the statue was humiliating for Hideyoshi.

Rikyu under suspicion of profiting by selling cheap tea utensils at high prices.

It is said that Rikyu took some stone from the emperor's tomb without permission, and used it to make washbowls and garden stones.

There is a rumor that Rikyu and Hideyoshi were in conflict about their different views of the tea ceremony.

It is also said that Hideyoshi wanted Rikyu's daughter for his mistress, but Rikyu rejected his offer saying, "I don't want to be taken as a man who has succeeded in life because of his own daughter," so Hideyoshi hated Rikyu deeply.

These are various explanations like these.

Also, some people say that Rikyu got involved in the political conflict around the instability of the TOYOTOMI administration after the death of Hidenaga TOYOTOMI. It is recorded that when Yoshishige OTOMO visited the Osaka-jo Castle, Hidenaga TOYOTOMI said to him, "I will take care of all the official business, and Soeki (Rikyu) will handle all personal matters," which suggested how deeply Rikyu was involved in the politics in the TOYOTOMI administration, therefore it is clear that there were some groups against Rikyu wanting him to lose his position.

After the Death of Rikyu

The well known successors to Rikyu were SEN no Doan and SEN no Shoan; the former was a son of Rikyu's first wife Myoju HOSHIN, and the latter was a son between Rikyu's second wife SEN no Soon and her previous husband, and Shoan was also known as a husband of Rikyu's daughter. In addition to them, these two people were also Rikyu's successors: Soan MOZUYA, husband of Rikyu's daughter, and SEN no Shoji. However, Doan and Shoan were forced to seclude themselves at the death of Rikyu, and the SEN family went into decline for a while. Incidentally, Rikyu's second wife Soon was a good assistant and understood him very well, being familiar with the tea ceremony and changing the shape of Fukusa (napkin) into what it is today. It was Oribe FURUTA who succeeded Rikyu as a tea master of the TOYOTOMI clan, but other daimyo tea persons like Nagamasu ODA and Tadaoki HOSOKAWA inherited the concept of wabi-cha.

A few years after Rikyu's death, Doan and Shoan were pardoned with the help of Ieyasu TOKUGAWA and Toshiie MAEDA, and Doan succeeded as head of the Sakai-Senke family, but the family died out soon. Therefore only the branch families of Kyo-Senke called the three SEN families survive today. Also the YABUNOUCHI family of the Yabunouchi School and the SEN family were related by marriage around this time.

The three SEN families are the lineage of Shoan, adopted son of Rikyu, and Shoan's son SEN no Sotan, who had served the Daitoku-ji Temple as Kasshiki but returned to secular life and reestablished the SEN family, setting up his residence in front of Honpo-ji Temple in Kyoto, which belongs to the Omotesenke and Urasenke now. Around this time, Hideyoshi gave him 3 long chests from the elegant collection left by Rikyu (according to a book of "Shigetsushu"). Sotan's second son Soshu, third son Sosa and fourth son Soshitsu each established new branch schools, which became today's Mushakojisenke Kankyuan, Omotesenke Fushin'an and Urasenke Konnichian, respectively.

The Rikyu-ki (memorial ceremony of the death day of Rikyu) is held at the Daitoku-ji Temple on March 27th and 28th (according to the Gregorian calendar).

Rikyu's Tea
As the one who perfected "wabi-cha," Rikyu is described in an exaggerated way in historical materials like "Nanboroku." "Namboroku", a forged text, says that a poem created by FUJIWARA no Ietaka was included in "Shin Kokin Wakashu" (there is no poem like this in the collection though) and it describes well the essence of Rikyu's tea ceremony, which denied superficial decoration and pursued substantial beauty. The poem goes like this: to the people who consider only flowers beautiful, I would like to show the grass in the snow which brings the spring. However these historical materials focus on the spiritual aspect of Rikyu's tea ceremony too much, obscuring its true meaning. The best clue to know the tea ceremony of Rikyu's time is "Yamanoue Soji Ki" (record of Soji YAMANOUE) written by Soji YAMANOUE, who was Rikyu's leading disciple. According to that record, Rikyu inherited the traditional style of tea ceremony until he was 60, and began to establish his own style after 61 (when the incident at Honno-ji Temple occurred). So it was during the last decade of his life that Rikyu brought wabi-cha to perfection.

The fundamental point of Rikyu's tea was to deny the importance placed on meibutsu (famous works of art and craft), and it could be called a kind of asceticism. Instead of meibutsu, Rikyu invented implements for tea ceremony such as Mozuya-gama (kettle) and Raku tea bowl, a characteristic of which was lack of decoration in shape. In contrast to Karamono (Chinese utensils) including meibutsu, it is important that these implements not be too expensive.

Rikyu also made an epoch-making reform of the teahouse. He invented Soan teahouse. Until then the smallest teahouse had a space of 4 and a half tatami mats, but Rikyu made it smaller reducing the number of mats to 3 or even 2, which was only common among the townsmen at that time, invented Nijiri-guchi (a small entrance to the teahouse), Shitaji window, a mud wall and an alcove 120 to 150cm in width. Among of these inventions, Rikyu's innovative "window" to the teahouse is notable. Before Rikyu, lighting of the teahouse came through 2 or 4 sliding doors at the veranda and it was "one-way lighting," but Rikyu enclosed the teahouse with a mud wall first and then made a window anywhere it was necessary. (invention of the art of "enclosure"). This made it possible to handle the lighting in the teahouse freely, so they could make some parts bright or dark as they like. After that a skylight and Furosaki window were incorporated, which enabled him to design more effective lighting. He made rapid changes in freedom of teahouse design, and the possible variations became infinite. Rationality and freedom in design of Rikyu's teahouses could be called almost modern, and have a great influence not only on the Sukiya style architecture but also on the general Japanese architecture up until today.

Also, "Roji" (a garden next to the teahouse) was one of the important achievements of Rikyu. It had been a mere passage before Rikyu, but he transformed it into a space for tea, a space for entertainment in its own right. This brought the tea ceremony to perfection as an "integrated art," which lasts only for the short time of one's visit, drinking tea and leaving. The concept of fulfilled time in the tea ceremony is expressed by "Ichi-go ichi-e" (one chance in a lifetime).

Today there are many things that have the name of Rikyu such as Rikyu-bashi (chopsticks), Rikyu-nezumi (gray color), Rikyu-yaki (grilled fish or meat with sesame) and Rikyu-dana (shelf), which suggest that Rikyu contributed not only to a tea ceremony but also to the Japanese tradition.

Places related to Rikyu

There is a place that is said to have been the site of Rikyu's teahouse at Shukuin, Sakai city, Osaka, and is preserved by the city as a historical site.

A monument to Rikyu's residence was erected in Seimei-jinja Shrine in Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto, and it is also said that Rikyu had residences called "Mozuno Yashiki" at Mozuno in Sakai city, "Daibutsu Yashiki" in front of Higashiyama Daibutsu, "Daitoku-ji Yashiki" in front of the main gate of the Daitoku-ji Temple and "Yamazaki Yashiki" at Yamazaki, Shimamoto-cho, Osaka.

There is still a Japanese confection called "Rikyu manju" all over the country of Japan.


Rikyu brought various new ideas to the Japanese tea ceremony. He instructed craftsmen like the RAKU family, having them make implements for the tea ceremony, and he also designed a teahouse and created utensils such as Hanaire (flower vase for tea ceremony) and a tea scoop. Rikyu simplified the process of the tea ceremony which was still complicated at the time of Joo, and produced wabi-cha utensils and gained lots of supporters and successors. That is why people call Rikyu the tea master who perfected wabi-cha.

Teahouse of Myokian: located in Ooyamazaki-cho, Kyoto. Reputed to have been built by Rikyu. A national treasure.

The Golden Teahouse: Rikyu designed it at the ordered of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI. There is a replica of the Golden Teahouse in the MOA Museum of Art.

Letters written by Rikyu: "Musashi Abumi no Sho" (a letter to Oribe), "a letter to Kanbei SUEYOSHI", "a letter to Matsui Sadonokami", and so on.
"Kishinjo" (a list of donations or donors)
Calligraphy, "Koshu Saigetsu" (means the moon seen from a lonely boat)
"Onjo-ji" and "Shakuhachi" bamboo flower vases
"Namida" (teardrop) and "Omokage" (remaining image) tea scoops

Works About SEN no Rikyu
"Hideyoshi and Rikyu" (written by Yaeko NOGAMI)
"SEN no Rikyu and His Wives" (written by Ayako MIURA)
"SEN no Rikyu Hongakubo Ibun" (produced by Toho Co. Ltd. in 1989)
Director: Kei KUMAI
Author: Yasushi INOUE
Cast: Eiji OKUDA, Toshiro MIFUNE, Kinnosuke YOROZUYA, Go KATO, Shinsuke ASHIDA and others.
"Rikyu" (produced by Shochiku Co. Ltd. in 1989)
Director: Hiroshi TESHIGAHARA
Author: Yaeko NOGAMI
Screenplay: Genpei AKASEGAWA
Cast: Rentaro MIKUNI, Yoshiko MITA, Koshiro MATSUMOTO (IX), Kichiemon NAKAMURA (II), Ryo TAMURA (actor), and others.

Television Programs
"SEN no Rikyu: Like Grass Peeking Through the Snow, Waiting for Spring"
Screenplay: Seiji HOSHIKAWA

[Original Japanese]