Iemoto: Hereditary keepers of Japan’s traditional arts

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo

Omotesenke Iemoto Sen Sosa, left, entertains guests with tea in Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto.

By Yasuhiko Mori / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer KYOTO — “Iemoto” is the name of the system of family schools in traditional Japanese arts, such as the chanoyu tea ceremony and ikebana flower arranging, which have taught many disciples while passing the arts down through generations. The word “iemoto” can also refer to the founder or master of such a school.

The San-Senke, or three chanoyu schools of the Sen family — the Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushakojisenke — which trace their origins back to the master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), are good examples of iemoto. Another is the Ikenobo school of ikebana. All these iemoto, with deep historical roots, are families in Kyoto.

Even before the iemoto system was established in the early 18th century, arts such as chanoyu and ikebana had been handed down through the generations from olden times. For example, Rikyu is known as a master of the tea ceremony who created the style of San-Senke’s tea ceremony, but Rikyu’s master was Takeno Joo, and Joo in turn had been taught by a disciple of Juko, an even earlier teacher Juko. Each was a chanoyu master who marked a new epoch in the art.

At that time, the arts were not necessarily passed down through biological family lineage. A teacher bestowed full proficiency in the art on pupils with or without any blood relationship who mastered the art’s secrets. After the pupils attained full proficiency, they became teachers in their own right and had their own pupils.

Three great-grandsons of Rikyu established their own schools and split into the three San-Senke. Leading disciples of the Sen family — Yamada Sohen, Sugiki Fusai and Fujimura Yoken — also branched off and formed their own schools. This was in line with conventional practice in those times.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), known as an era of peace, people of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo) spent much of their time taking cultural lessons. It was said that a man should enjoy eight arts, such as chanoyu, ikebana, Chinese poems, waka and haiku Japanese poems. But people needed teachers to learn each art.

In response to mounting demand, the number of teachers increased. A collection of official Kyoto documents called Kyoto Oyakushomuki Taigai Oboegaki, created around 1714, said there were 440 professional teachers living in Kyoto, providing instruction in martial arts as well as such traditional arts as chanoyu and ikebana.

Should many schools split off one after another, multiplying the branches of families, the tradition and authority of the schools could be impaired. The seventh head of the Omotesenke, Joshinsai, put an end to the proliferation of schools. He made it clear in his will that his successor as head of the school would have to be his biological child or son-in-law.

Thus, the hereditary iemoto system was established. Only the heir to the iemoto could take the family name of Sen. The heir’s brothers assumed a different surname and were treated as pupils. Only the three Sen family schools can use “Sen” in their names, and there were no further schools.

An iemoto monopolized the authority to give licenses to pupils. The heir was the only person to succeed to that authority, a practice known as isshi soden in Japanese.

As it is impossible for a school’s master to teach every student directly, iemoto has given teaching certificates to students who had reached to a certain level. They are called middle-echelon teachers, making them part of a hierarchy with only one iemoto master as a supreme authority. Since the mid-18th century, such an iemoto system has been adopted in other arts in addition to chanoyu.

Matsunosuke Nishiyama, a researcher of the iemoto system, said, “In Japan, there have been mechanisms that are very similar to the iemoto system, as seen in the Kodokan Judo Institute, the Nihon Ki-in of Go and many other quasi-iemoto systems, although those are not called the iemoto system.” In a quasi-iemotoi system, there is not one single master who has inherited the arts from generations past, but the mechanism is still very similar to the iemoto system.

Japanese people tend to put importance on old families that have been around for many generations, perhaps by natural inclination, and probably also partly because of the existence of the iemoto system.

The head of the Kanze school of Noh moved to Edo when the Edo shogunate government was established. The Kanze school is currently led by its 26th grand master. Hyotei, a restaurant in Kyoto that earned three Michelin stars, is now run by the 15th successive chef his family has produced.

The oldest hereditary family is the Imperial family, with the current Emperor being the 126th in his line, though the line includes early mythological figures only written about later.

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This column, which appears once a month, is about various aspects of the culture of Kyoto.

Mori was born and raised in Kyoto. He has 30 years of experience in reporting about Kyoto culture. He has extensively covered scholars of the New Kyoto school, the heads of tea ceremony and flower arrangement schools, as well as maiko in the Gion area of the city.Speech

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