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The Significance of Drink in Japanese History

by Davin Lee

Senzan. (Japanese, 20th century). Sake Cup, 20th century porcelain. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gift of Simon Kriger, 63.14.9

The Senzan sake cup produced in Japan during the 20th century provides a unique historical perspective on the social dynamics of food and drink of that era. Once an isolated and highly traditionalist country, Japan saw many changes during the 19th and 20th century. Imports from trading expansions after the Meiji restoration opened the country up to many external influences, especially in art. We see the western and chinese influence in this sake cup, as it possesses a stem reminiscent of western cups and cobalt blue porcelain adornments that originated in China. Gone is the idea of wabi-sabi design, where the imperfections in art are appreciated as indications of the fleeting nature of existence, and instead are replaced with the amalgamation of cultural influences booming at the time. The cup is perfectly symmetrical, and appears sterile and finely finished. There is a lack of traditionalism indicative of the shift towards industry and ‘westernization,’ a concept that only grew stronger after the country lost in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War.

Sake has been an important aspect of Japanese culture since the Yayoi Period 2500 years ago. During traditional weddings it is consumed by the bride and groom in turn from the same cup to signify their bond. In the kaiseki, a feast of small dishes meant to balance each other without overconsumption, sake or tea serves as the main drink. Even in the modern era, it is common practice for salary men to drink sake together at night, often playing drinking games or singing. The drinking of sake plays a major role in the way people share time and company in Japan. It is a unifying element that may transcend class or familiarity and serves as a means to get to know someone and enjoy in a shared pastime of drinking.

The design of the cup indicates that the role of sake has begun to shift around the time it was created. Along with Western and Chinese influences came the popularization of beer. The cultural significance of sake, the traditions surrounding its drinking, and the design of the vessels meant to hold it were changing rapidly. In most traditional Japanese designs, there is a deep intention in the way each thing is crafted and is supposed to be represented. This is why if you examine sake cups of, for instance, the Azuchi–Momoyama period, you will see that clay is used and the cup appears more rustic and unadorned. With the death of Shintoism, lessening devotion to kami, as well as various external influences, Japan shifted to a more secular belief system. This is evident in the more market-forward style lacking the transcendentalist elements of past designs. Though still an important piece of glassware in every home, this cup marks the halfway point between the old and the new.

Works Cited

Ulak, James T. “Azuchi-Momoyama Period.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., Accessed 2 Oct. 2023.


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