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  • Japanese: 家元 (iemoto)

Iemoto is a term referring to the head of a school of traditional Japanese arts. The iemoto system can be found operating most strongly in tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arrangement), incense ceremony, and utai (Noh chanting),[1] though it can also be seen in most other traditional Japanese arts, from schools of shamisen and various other music and performing traditions, to swordsmithing, traditional basket-weaving, and cabinetry. Though bearing its own distinct characteristics, the traditions followed in this regard by schools of traditional arts bear strong connections to the broader conception of the ie, or household, as a unit of social organization.

Origins and History

Though an iemoto can be described as the "house head," that is, the head of a school or family, the characters used to write the term might be more literally translated as "origin/source house." The term is said to have come into use around 1757, as the heads of schools began to identify themselves, and their schools, as the authoritative origin, or source, of the authentic version of a given art.[2] Their claims to authority in this respect were often tied closely to lineage, charting a direct descent from disciple-to-master, back to an authoritative founding figure. For the three chief schools of tea, this figure is Sen no Rikyû; by claiming direct descent from Rikyû's methods, techniques, and aesthetic values, the tea schools are able to boast legitimacy, and authenticity of their tradition.

Voltaire Cang argues that the iemoto system was able to develop because, by the 1750s or so, many arts had grown to have enough of a following that they could support themselves by following their own aesthetic or artistic path, rather than being beholden to the whims of a more limited set of patrons. Many became able to rely entirely on income from sources such as students paying for certification, thus freeing themselves entirely of reliance on patrons. As a result, schools could develop and maintain their own distinctive styles and forms in a more concerted manner, and pass these on to new generations of students. The iemoto style of teaching, in which an iemoto sat at the top of a hierarchy of professionals, semi-professionals, and amateurs, emerged at this time, and any given school or master gained strength and prestige from having an ever-growing hierarchy of students and masters under it/him - or, from the reputation of an extremely limited and select group permitted entry.

The development of the iemoto system represents a significant change in how the arts were passed down, and how artistic networks were organized. In the medieval period, any accredited master could accredit others to go take on their own students; this resulted in quick and extensive spread for many arts, but did not create tight-knit networks. Under the iemoto system, the iemoto (grand master) claims exclusive right to accredit teachers, thus strengthening the value of the accreditation, and creating a more tightly-connected network of members of the school. Under this system, all students and teachers within the school benefit from the prestige of being associated with, and accredited under, a recognized school, while the iemoto and the school itself benefits from the prestige of having so many adherents.[3]


Francis Hsu identifies four chief defining characteristics of the iemoto system: the master-disciple relationship, an interlinking hierarchy, the fictional family system, and the supreme authority of the head of the school, i.e. he who holds the position of iemoto.[4] Through the first three of these, forming close emotional and personal ties both between master and disciple, and between all members of the same school, the iemoto system bears close similarities and connections to the ie ("household") system central to Japanese society more broadly. Key differences, of course, include the secondary, supportive role of the wife of an iemoto (as opposed to the significant role of the wife in a standard household, or ie), and the voluntary nature of inclusion in a school of art, in those cases where one has chosen one's art, rather than being born into it.

Regarding the authority of the iemoto, Nishiyama Matsunosuke identified six rights, or powers, held by the head of a given tradition: (1) The right to the techniques of the tradition, including control and alteration of secret techniques, repertoire, forms or styles, and performance rights (2) The right to the teaching and transmission of the art, and certification of practitioners (3) The right to expel or punish members of the school (4) The right to possessing and granting art-names (i.e. stage names, professional names), and to costume, crests, or the like associated with those names and with the school (5) The right to facilities and equipment belonging to the school (6) The right to a monopoly over the income arising from the exercise of the above rights.[5]

In many arts operating within the iemoto system, there is little flexibility or freedom for practitioners to deviate from the styles, techniques, or forms handed down from above (i.e. from the master, or the iemoto). Within a given school, the system of training, and of progression, is typically highly codified, with many arts holding secret teachings which are only made known to those adepts who have trained long enough to achieve a particular level within the hierarchy.

The Ryûkyû Kingdom did not traditionally have an iemoto system, but many traditional Ryukyuan arts came to incorporate the iemoto system in the Meiji period. While there are those who now consider this a part of the tradition of their school, or of Okinawan arts more generally, there are those who are working to reject or undo the imposition of the iemoto system into Okinawan arts.

Professional Names & Fictional Family System

Under the iemoto system, disciples typically adopt an art-name, that is, a stage name or professional name, consisting of their master's family name, and a given name that incorporates either part or all of the master's name, or is otherwise an established name in the tradition. Sometimes, the given name is an entirely new one. In most music and dance traditions, the process of earning and being granted a stage name is called natori (lit. "name taking"), though in other traditions, the terminology differs. In some arts, disciples are also formally (legally) adopted into the family, becoming considered true relatives, and included on one another's family registers.

The name of the iemoto of a given tradition often passes down in its entirety. For example, the head of the Urasenke school of tea ceremony, in every generation, is known as Sen Sôshitsu.

Meanwhile, other members of the school are granted a chamei (lit. "tea name"), including the surname Sen, and the character (as in Sôshitsu) combined with one or more characters of the practitioner's legal name.

In schools of ukiyo-e painting & printmaking, artists would sometimes take on the names of their masters, resulting in there being multiple artists by the names Torii Kiyonobu, Torii Kiyomasu, and Hiroshige, to name just a few examples. However, more commonly, ukiyo-e artists took only one character from their master's name; thus, the students of Katsukawa Shunshô included Katsukawa Shun'ei, Shunkô, Shunchô, and Shunrô, while artists of the Utagawa school included Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Utagawa Kunisada, and Utagawa Kunichika.

In kabuki, meanwhile, actors change names over the course of their career, often beginning their careers with a new, non-traditional name, and then progressing through prestigious names of the past over the course of their career. Ichikawa Danjûrô XII, for example, one of the most prominent actors active today, began his career as the sixth Ichikawa Shinnosuke, and then later became the tenth to hold the name Ichikawa Ebizô. Meanwhile, a young actor named Nakamura Ryûnosuke is the first member of the Nakamura family (an adopted art-name) to bear the given name Ryûnosuke; later in his career, he will likely take on the name Nakamura Karoku, held by his father, and by his grandfather, great-great-grandfather, and great-great-great-grandfather before him.


Schools of traditional arts generally support themselves by charging steep fees for certificates of rank or name, as well as charging royalties or fees to lower-ranking teachers (masters) within the hierarchy, who run branch operations training students, and who in turn, in order to support themselves, charge students for their lessons. Many schools also sell officially licensed products, including specialty equipment and training manuals.


  • Voltaire Garces Cang. "Preserving Intangible Heritage in Japan: The Role of the Iemoto System." International Journal of Intangible Heritage 3 (2008). 71-81.
  1. Noh is among a number of arts which use a term other than iemoto to refer to the head of a school. In Noh, the term used is sôke, though the function of the role is a classic example of the iemoto system.
  2. Cang, 74.
  3. Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 168.
  4. Cang, 74, citing Francis Hsu. Iemoto: The Heart of Japan. John Wiley & Sons, 1975. 63-68.
  5. Nishiyama Matsunosuke. Iemoto no kenkyû, in Nishiyama Matsunosuke chôsakushû v.1. Yoshikawa Kôbunkan, 1982. 16.