November 30, 2022

Lessons in Leadership: Insights from a Japanese Tea Ceremony

A young boy wearing a white VR headset

The Japanese tea ceremony is an important part of Japanese culture. It is a way of thinking, and a set of manners that are deeply ingrained in Japanese history. The heart of the Japanese tea ceremony is people.

If you are not familiar with the Japanese tea ceremony, here is a little background information. The Japanese tea ceremony is also called chado, chanoyu or sado.

The Japanese tea ceremony is based on four key principles left by tea master Sen No Rikyū: Wa, Kei, Sei, and Jaku. These principles represent the foundation, spirit, and philosophy of the Japanese tea ceremony.

  • Wa (harmony): open one’s heart and get along with one another. A sense of togetherness with people, nature, and our surroundings.
  • Kei (respect): Respect one another. The ability to accept and respect others despite our differences. Be kind, humble, and accept who we are.
  • Sei (purity): Purify not only what one can see, but also what's within one's heart.
  • Jaku (tranquility): Keep your calm in any situation. Remaining calm in our lives will help us think clearly and make the right choices.


Below is a snapshot of a few similarities shared between the Japanese Tea ceremony and conducting business in general in Japan.

Tea ceremony context

Business context

Be prepared

Before you begin the tea ceremony, it is important to take a moment to prepare yourself and think about the tea experience you want to create for your guests. This includes considering the tea garden or chabana (the area where you will be serving the tea), as well as the tea utensils you will be using. During the tea ceremony, be present and focus on the actions and movements involved in preparing and serving the tea. After the ceremony, take a moment to pause and appreciate the experience, as well as help your peers clean up.

In the tea ceremony, every movement, every step, and every moment is precisely defined.

Be prepared

Make sure you're always organised and have your business tools ready to go - this includes any necessary documents and business cards. Be prepared for your presentation and negotiations so that you can make the best impression possible.

Even in a digital world, business cards are important in Japan. There is a certain way to exchange business cards between both parties, so make sure you're familiar with the customs before meeting with potential clients or partners.

Bow (Ojigi) as a sign of respect & appreciation

In tea ceremony, there are 3 ways to bow too but we use the term, "真 shin"(formal), "行 gyo"(semiformal), "草 so"(informal).

The different levels of bows are used for different situations, each with their own level of respect. The bow is a way of showing gratitude and respect towards the teacher and other guests.


Bow (Ojigi) as a sign of respect & appreciation

There are 3 ways to bow, depending on the level of respect you have for the person or how apologetic you are.

Bowing slightly at 15 degrees is the more casual way of greeting someone. During meetings, people would normally bow at 30 to 45 degrees and hold it for a couple of seconds.

If before your meeting you see some colleagues bowing to each other, you can follow their lead and bow as well to show appreciation/politeness.


Be early/don’t be late

Being punctual is key when it comes to taking part in a tea ceremony. Students preparing for the temae must be on time so that they can complete the necessary steps before the ceremony begins. Depending on how late someone arrives, he or she may not be able to join in the tea ceremony at all.

Be early/don’t be late

Time is an important resource in business that should never be taken lightly. Being punctual is key in any meeting or appointment because it shows that we are reliable and considerate of the other person's time. It's always best to arrive 10 minutes early so that we can be prepared for any potential challenges that might come up.

Wear appropriate clothing

If you want to attend a chakai ceremony, for example, there are special clothes you should wear (a kimono and/or clean, comfortable clothes). Generally, it's best to stick to plain colours and avoid anything too flashy. And be sure not to wear any strong perfume.

Wear appropriate clothing

Creating a positive first impression is essential when doing business in Japan - this means dressing the part! Wearing simple, dark colours such as black or grey conveys a look of professionalism and cleanliness. Of course, the type of work you do will dictate what is appropriate to wear but in general, it is important to look well-dressed and put-together.

Hierarchical presentation

The guest seating arrangement in a tearoom is very important, with the most honored guest known as the Shokyaku sitting in the first position. The Shokyaku has the important job of communicating with and expressing appreciation to the host. All other guests should also express their appreciation, but they are guided by the Shokyaku.

Hierarchical presentation

Respecting the age and status of those you interact with is important in any social setting. In a business meeting, for example, it is customary to introduce the seniors first, followed by the juniors.

If you know Japanese, make sure to use proper keigo (honorific speech) when speaking to them.

Accept Matcha/Sweets

If you are attending a tea ceremony, it is customary to enjoy matcha with some sweets (wagashi). Each guest can accept and enjoy their piece.

If you can't finish, simply leave the rest aside and excuse yourself.

Accept Matcha/Sweets

If you are offered tea and snacks, it is best practice to politely accept and consume them or accept them and leave them on the side, rather than rejecting the offer.

In some companies, refusing to accept the offerings can be seen as rude!

Gift sharing

It's very common, before starting classes, to give the teacher a small present to share with the class - especially if you've been overseas.

Sharing and gift-giving are strong concepts in many cultures.

Gift sharing

If you're returning from overseas and it's not your first time, it's customary to offer Omiyage. Even in a business setting, if you've just been overseas, it's best practice - and appreciated - to give a small souvenir as a way to show that you care and appreciate being part of the group.

Ichi go Ichi e*

Every meeting is an opportunity to gain valuable insights and experiences that can never be repeated in the same way again. If we let these opportunities slip away without enjoying them, we will miss out on valuable moments that could be gone forever!

Ichi go Ichi e*

Being fully present during meetings with your colleagues and clients is crucial in order to make the most of the opportunity to learn and grow from one another.

The ichi go ichi e concept teaches that we should always be fully engaged in everything that we do in order to make the most of the experience.

We all have our own specialties at work, but this is a reminder not to get too comfortable in our routines and to always strive to do our best every day!

Good things take time

A lot of my friends ask me why I've been studying tea ceremony for more than 10 years. Well, first of all, it's not the mindset we're in. And yes, it does take time to master the first temae (tea procedure).

To serve tea properly, there is an intention and choreography behind each movement. Gesture needs to be mastered so that the movements come naturally.

There are many different disciplines to be mastered in the world of tea ceremony, from walking and presentation to serving tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) based on time and seasons. Chabana (flower arranging) and preparation inside the tea house and in the roji (garden) are also important aspects of welcoming guests to a gathering.

We need to be patient in our learnings, as mastery of these disciplines takes time and practice.

Good things take time

You can't build a business in 5 minutes - everything of value takes time. There's no such thing as overnight success. In Japan, like in many countries, it takes time to build trust and partnership.

Business deals are rarely closed in the first meeting. Japanese businesses tend to focus on the long term and want to know you, your background, your product & services before doing business with you.

We need to be patient in our learnings.

Have fun

Remember that while there are plenty of things to learn, it's important to also enjoy the process. Sen no Rikyū**, a Japanese tea master, once said "You should know that Japanese tea ceremony is just to boil hot water, make tea, and drink it." These words imply the essence of Japanese tea ceremony. In other words, simplicity is key and enjoying the moment is what's most important.

The Japanese tea ceremony is about more than just following rules and protocol. It's a chance to slow down, enjoy tea with others, and appreciate the moment. In doing so, we create bonds with ourselves and those around us. That is the real meaning of the ceremony.

Sen no Rikyū**

Sen no Rikyū also known simply as Rikyū, is considered the historical figure with the most profound influence onchanoyu, the Japanese "Way of Tea", particularly the tradition ofwabi-cha.

Have fun

Remember that there's a lot to learn, but try to enjoy the process. If you can, attend a nomikai - an after-work drinking party where coworkers can bond and get to know each other in a more casual setting.

This is where you can let your true colors shine.

Remember, successful long-term negotiations always start with a human connection.

Ichi go Ichi e*

The expression ichi go ichi e is based on four Japanese characters, 一期一会, which literally mean “one time one meeting”.   This expression has its origins in the century’s old Japanese tea ceremony, where great emphasis is placed on recognizing the transience of meetings between the tea ceremony host and tea ceremony participants.

This means that every moment we experience is a unique treasure that can never be repeated in the same way again. So if we don't take the time to enjoy it, the moment will be gone forever!

There are so many life lessons that can be unpacked from this concept alone. It would make for a whole separate article!


Sword-wielding Warriors and the Modern-day Business People

The Japanese tea ceremony has adapted to modern times by no longer being reserved to monks and samurai classes. Samurais used to perform the tea ceremony before going to war. Even though we are not currently at war, I would like to believe that the tea ceremony can now be seen as a way for a few Japanese business leaders to slow down from our fast-paced life and release the stress from work.

Panasonic founder, Konosuke Matsushita, built one of the largest Japanese consumer electronics companies. He's referred to as the "God of Management" in Japan and was very well known for practicing Tea ceremony every morning before work.

I believe it was his way to find peace and focus before work. As he once said, "By moving between stillness and motion, the energy of truth springs forth."


Japanese tea ceremony is a cultural event that is practiced in many different aspects of Japanese culture, from architecture and gardening to calligraphy and pottery. Tea ceremonies are held for a variety of reasons, such as celebrating seasonal changes or the harvest of fresh tea leaves. They can also be held simply as a way to meet with friends or business acquaintances. At its heart, the principles of Wa, Kei, Sei, and Jaku can be applied as a framework in our everyday life and when doing business in Japan.

I will leave you with this quote from Shigenobu*** - "The tea ceremony not only provides an escape for a moment but also an opportunity for practicing a way of being that can be taken to the outside world. Attention to detail, unremitting vigilance, and learning to calmly handle a situation that is, according to Shigenobu “not provided for in the fixed rules”. All words of wisdom, and food for thought when it comes to running more effective business activities."

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