The founder of the Sen school of tea ceremony

Sen no Rikyū (千利休, 1522-1591) was a tea master of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600) and the founder of the Sen school of tea ceremony. His grandfather, Tanaka Sen'ami, is said to have been one of the dōbōshū (同朋衆, special retainers to the Muromachi shogunate who practised the tea ceremony and other arts) in the service of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Rikyū's father, Tanaka Yohei (田中与兵衛), moved to Sakai in Izumi Province (now part of Osaka Prefecture); tradition has it that Yohei took the character Sen of his father's name as his family name. The family became wholesale fish dealers and eventually joined the ranks of the egōshū (会合衆), a group of wealthy merchants who formed a virtually autonomous city government.

Rikyū was born in Sakai and first studied tea ceremony under Kitamuki Dōchin (北向道陳, 1504-62) of the Nōami school and later under Takeno Jōō (武野紹鴎, 1502-55) of the school founded by Murata Jukō (村田珠光, 1423–1502), generally regarded as the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. He also studied Zen under the master Shōrei Shūkin at the Daitokuji temple in Kyōto. In 1569, Oda Nobunaga conquered Sakai and put the arms-manufacturing city under his direct control. From 1570 to 1573, with Imai Sōkyū (今井 宗久, 1520-93) and Tsuda Sōgyū (津田宗及, died 1591), Rikyū served as Nobunaga's tea master.

He went on to perform the same duties for Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Rikyū and Toyotomi had become close friends when they both served Nobunaga. As Hideyoshi's supreme tea master, he received a significant stipend in the form of extensive landholdings. In 1585, Sen no Rikyū oversaw the lavish tea ceremony Hideyoshi held for Emperor Ōgimachi (1517-93; ruled 1557-86) at the imperial palace. As he was a commoner, he had to be declared a priest to be allowed to enter the palace. That was when he received his ecclesiastical name Rikyū. With Tsuda Sōgyū, he also officiated at Hideyoshi's opulent outdoor tea ceremony held at the Kitano Tenmangū shrine in 1587. Hideyoshi had ordered a portable golden tearoom in which only the whisk, ladle, cloth, and carpet were of ordinary materials. While the magnificent golden room was popular with the public, Rikyū's assistance was criticised, as it meant a departure from the principles of Wabi.

In 1591, Rikyū suddenly fell out of favour with Hideyoshi and was forced to commit seppuku. Several reasons have been suggested for this:
  • that he placed a life-sized statue of himself in the Kimmōkaku, a structural addition to the main gate of the Daitokuji that he and his family donated
  • that he refused to give his daughter to Hideyoshi
  • that he demanded exorbitant prices for his tea utensils.
He died on 21 April 1591. Sen no Rikyū left his imposing mark on the tea ceremony, introducing implements such as flower holders fashioned from bamboo, rough black tea bowls are known as raku ware (楽焼 raku-yaki), and the Amida no kama, a type of iron kettle. A proponent of wabi-sabi (侘寂), he preferred to use simple objects close at hand and to emphasise the ordinary, everyday aspect of the tea ceremony. In one of his poems, he reminds his disciples that "the tea ceremony is nothing more than boiling water, steeping tea, and drinking it."

He was also responsible for reducing the size of the tea room (茶室 chashitsu). The trend had begun in the Muromachi Period (1333-1568) when the so-called shoin-style teahouse was simplified to produce a rustic effect. Sen no Rikyū reduced the size to only two tatami mats, or even one and a half, in his pursuit of the ideal of yoriai (寄合), the special communion among participants in the tea ceremony.


  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
  • Weston Mark, Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan's Greatest Men and Women, Kodansha 1999
  • Elison, George/ Varley, H. Paul, The Culture of Tea: From Its Origins to Sen no Rikyū, in Warlords, Artists, and Commoners - Japan in the Sixteenth Century; University of Hawaii Press 1987
  • Turnbull, Stephen, Sen Rikyu - Portrait of a Civilian, in Essential Histories - War in Japan 1467-1615, Osprey 2002
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