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Japanese Views on Materials and Spirituality in Tea-Ceremony Rooms: A Fusion of Wood Science, Architectural History, and the Tea Ceremony

Research Topic
Japanese views on materials and spirituality in tea-ceremony rooms: A fusion of wood science, architectural history, and the tea ceremony

Lead Researcher
Suyako Tazuru, Assistant Professor, Research Institute for Sustainable Humanosphere, Kyoto University

Joint Researchers
Junji Sugiyama, Professor, Graduate School of Agriculture, Kyoto University

Rie Nakayama, Associate Professor, Kyoto Institute of Technology

Yasutaka Matsumoto, Specially Appointed Associate Professor, College of Architecture, Nanjing Tech University



In order to realize a sustainable society, it is important to maintain not only material aspects (hard aspects) but also a peaceful mental state (a soft aspect), which is the source of people’s continuous motivation. For this purpose, we need to sufficiently clarify and understand the “cultural wisdom” that has been handed down from generation to generation since ancient times, not one-sidedly but from multifaceted perspectives beyond the framework of research areas, and it is important to use this “cultural wisdom” for the rich improvement of spirit and culture. The following points are essential to maintain such a soft aspect: to delve deeply into the secrets of the materials used in cultural properties that serve as the foundation of peoples’ spirits, to reflect on the relationships between people and materials, and to pass these on to the future.


Japan has preserved many wooden cultural assets, such as architecture and wooden statues, showing It was in the 1930s that a method of tree species identification based on the accumulation and use of microscopic anatomical information garnered through optical microscopy was introduced as an alternative to relying on intuition. Since then, it has been used effectively in the fields of archaeology, architectural history and so on. However, the procedure of tree species identification itself is sometimes destructive, and the number and types of cultural properties to which surveys using this method can be applied are limited.


The applicant, who is a wood anatomist, has conducted interdisciplinary research on the use of wood and views on wood materials in East Asia, including the development of new methods like synchrotron radiation. For example, one of the research projects discovered by means of tree species identification that the species of trees used for wooden statues are completely different in China, Japan and Korea. The reason for this is currently being investigated using an interdisciplinary approach. This research project received the Kyoto University Tachibana Award (Honorable Mention) in 2021.


Through exploring views on wood materials, the architecture of tea ceremony rooms has been considered the culmination of Japanese spirituality and wisdom related to wood. In order to identify tree species, it is necessary to collect fragments from parts of the materials that have deteriorated. In tea ceremony rooms, however, the deterioration of pillars is considered to represent “wabi / sabi.” Therefore, it is difficult to collect sample materials and little investigation of which tree species are used as materials has been conducted. On the other hand, much reliance has been placed on visual estimation by carpenters or architects.


Since repair work has been carried out on more than 20 tearooms, including the National Treasure “Joan” and the important cultural property “Ura-Senke Konnichi-an” in the past few years, surveys of tree species used in tea ceremony rooms which are being dismantled have been conducted. In addition to the conventional method using microscopy, tree species surveys from a scientific standpoint using synchrotron radiation X-ray CT, which can identify tree species from even an extremely small sample, have been conducted. As a result, it was found that there were many cases where the tree species that were actually used were different from those which were believed to have been used for many years. For example, research about the National Treasure “Joan” built by Oda Urakusai has challenged prevailing views on materials. A new article on this subject is currently being prepared for submission.


As the tea masters of the time must have carefully considered the selection of each wooden part, revealing this information will help us understand the thoughts of each tea master, as well as provide important findings that will deepen research in fields such as architectural history or tea ceremony. In addition, information on tree species based on scientific knowledge is very useful in passing cultural assets on to the future, because there is a rule that the same species as the original tree should be used for its replacement in restoration work.


Some tea ceremony rooms, the culmination of the wisdom of Japanese wood culture, are now being destroyed one after another in many places. Facing this current situation, it is expected that systematic clarification of the tree species used as architectural components here and now will not only provide hints for thinking about the spiritual aspects and views on the wood materials that spiritually supported the ancient Japanese, but also bring significant findings to various interdisciplinary fields, such as those revolving around architectural history, timber distribution and religion.