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Iemoto: Japanese Encyclopedia

Iemoto: Japanese Encyclopedia

Translated by Hilary Keyes

Written by ニコ

2016.12.15 Bookmark

Iemoto is the term referring to the headmaster of a school of a particular Japanese traditional art. Passed on through generations and to apprentices and pupils, these arts are not only of historical value, but also greatly admired and respected.

Iemoto - The Headmaster of a School of Traditional Art

When looking for information on elements of traditional Japanese culture, such as tea ceremony and ikebana, the word ‘Iemoto’ often appears.

In general, ‘iemoto’ best translates to 'head of a family or school', and refers to the family lineage or head of the family that has advanced or developed a traditional culture, such as tea ceremony or ikebana. For example, in tea ceremony there are the Omote Senke and Ura Senke, or Omote School of Tea Ceremony and Ura School of Tea Ceremony. Each of these schools is lead by an iemoto.

The meaning of iemoto is rather broad, and there are other meanings to it other than what was introduced above. Please think of this as being a very simplified explanation of the word.

The Strict World of Iemoto School System Arts

In iemoto style households, children are raised from a young age to practice a given traditional art, and are expected to become the successors of the art school when they become adults. The head of the school may also take on apprentices who wish to be trained in that art form as well; they will be taught the necessary skills and be given guidance by the school's more advanced practitioners as well.

One of the most noticeable features of the iemoto system is that there is a strict hierarchy between the masters and pupils within a given family or tradition. More so than the money paid by the pupils, which keeps the school going, the management done by the head of the school is of value and is seen as more important to keeping the tradition alive. It goes without saying that there are merits for the pupils to this system as well. Upon successfully completing their studies under their master, the pupils are granted a license that states that they have achieved a level equal to that of their instructors. By receiving this written certificate, the now-former pupil can begin to work in the same capacity as the master.

The History of Iemoto


The iemoto system was formalized in the Edo era (1603 - 1868), but there has been a loose system in this fashion in Japan for about the past 1000 years or so.

According to popular belief, the division of roles when it came to poem or musical performances gradually began to be handed out based on one's heritage, at least when speaking of high ranked individuals. Ultimately, performances made before the Emperor, shogun, daimyo or other members of the highest social class began to be restricted to those performers of a certain level, and these performers began to have an almost holiness to their talents. As a result, no other artisans were permitted to perform these arts and it became necessary for the parents to instruct their children in the arts in order to pass down the techniques and skills to future generations. It is believed that, from this system of inheritance, the iemoto system was born.

Where Can You Enjoy Art Performances by Iemoto Headmasters?


From the standpoint of the iemoto system being one in which pupils must learn from a master, other than in very special circumstances, the average person will not have an opportunity to see the art of an iemoto headmaster for themselves. However, on special days such as the New Year, it may be possible for the general person to see performances by the iemoto themselves. It will be very important to look up the information on this sort of performance well in advance however.

Although it may be impossible to get a firsthand look at the performing arts of headmasters, it is possible for visitors to Japan to freely see the traditional arts that the iemoto system has protected and promoted over the years.

For example, if you head to Sendagaya in Tokyo, you can pay a visit to the National Noh Theater, where you can see the stage upon which Noh and Kyogen are performed and even actual performances. Or, in the event spaces of some department stores, ikebana displays made by masters and students of a particular school are sometimes held.

For those interested in tea ceremony, a visit to Kyoto is our recommendation. Within Kyoto there are both large and small institutions where you can experience a tea ceremony of some form or another; in these institutions you can even learn to make tea, as well as the basics of the etiquette involved in drinking the tea too. If you are interested the dances performed by geisha, you may see them in Kyoto, or also in Kanazawa. If you visit an old ryotei, or Japanese restaurant, besides being able to enjoy authentic Japanese style meals, you can watch dance performances by geisha or take part in a dinner party where the entertainment is provided by geisha or maiko as well. There are also plans available in major historical sightseeing areas where you can wear a kimono as you go walking about, so please, look for these sorts of plans in advance when making your travel arrangements in Japan.

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