History of kiseru




The origin of the Japanese word kiseru is uncertain. The most common explanation is that it would come from the Cambodian word "khsier" meaning "pipe". But nothing truly attests it, and others think it could come from the Portuguese "que sorver" ("which is drawn"). There is also the same problem etymology for the word "rau", which refers to the main bamboo pipe of a kiseru. Some say that this term would come directly from the country name of "Laos" neighboring country of Cambodia which bamboo were used to make pipes. While for others, it would also come from Portuguese or Spanish "rabo" ...


How it all began

Portuguese did introduce tobacco in Japan in the second half of the sixteenth century. The Japanese were particularly surprised to see the Portuguese smoking pipes and spitting out smoke and would have exclaimed "The Southern Barbarians have a fire in their belly!"

But tobacco was quickly adopted by the Japanese people and by the end of the sixteenth century, the kiseru was already used to smoke tobacco in Japan and remain there the only way to smoke tobacco for the next three centuries, until the Meiji Restoration (1868), when cigarettes arrived in Japan and became very popular.


hanga kiseru

Epoque Edo (1603-1868) : The heyday of kiseru

The Edo period (1603-1868) that precedes the development of cigarettes in Japan was the heyday of kiseru. From the early seventeenth century when the bans were lifted, tobacco was already well established in all classes as a luxury good. It was at this time that really developed  the use of kiseru and the socalled "kizami tobacco", a very finely shredded tobacco.

In the Edo period there was in the high society the "Tobacco Ceremony" or "The Way of Tobacco" (tabako- 烟草道). As for the tea ceremony, for example, rules of politeness and decorum were fixed. It was the "good manners to give and receive the kiseru" ("キセルの請取渡(うけとり わたし)の礼"). Here's how the rules were set:

1 - If one has a guest foremost one soukd prepare the tabako-bon ("tobacco tray").

2 - the guest will not start smoking before the arrival of the owner.

3 - The owner, upon his arrival, first say, "Would you please smoke some tobacco."

4 - The guest politely decline the offer saying, "I would not dare, the master should smoke first."

[Repeat two or three times the 3 and 4 politeness...]

5 - The master of the house takes a paper towel with which he carefully clean the the kiseru and hands it to his guest, saying, "Please, try this. '

6 - The guest can finally begin to smoke, not forgetting to compliment for the nice taste of the tobacco...


Around mid-Edo, the Japanese started to want smoking outside their homes. To do so, and carry their kiseru they developed different accessories like "tabako-ire.". When finishing their studies, they would receive a "tabako-ire" reward. These are usually hung on the belt of the kimono and thus they became a social sign : young people could show them off and tell everyone  "see, I'm adult" !

It also became very fashionable to have a silver "nobe kiseru". It was an essential fashion accessory for young people from rich houses.

The presence of kiseru in many woodblock prints of the Edo period attests to the importance of this object in the daily life in that period.

But from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the Edo period, cigarettes imported from the West and Russia became increasingly popular.



Meiji-Taishō (1868-1926) : cigarettes overwhelm kiseru 

The Meiji Restoration is a major turning point in Japanese culture. This is the time when Japan re-opens its doors to the rest of teh world, and when after about two centuries of quasi-autarky, Japanese people are eager to learn from the West. This will naturally help the cigarettes to develop and make the kiseru decline. From the very begining of Meiji (Meiji 5-1872), the first Japanese cigarettes were born.


However kiseru were still very popular, especially in rural areas and among those who alreqdy seek to preserve the traditional Japanese culture.

This would include the famous Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), Japanese naturalized Irish author who took the name of Koizumi Yakumo. He loved smoking and had a collection of over a hundred kiseru.


Kiseru de Lafcadio Hearn

Some of Lafcadio Hearn's kiseru


In his book Around The World On A Bicycle, the American Thomas Stevens who went around the world on his bicycle between 1884 and 1886 tells us about the use of kiseru at this time:

« Everybody in Japan smokes, both men and women. The universal pipe of the country is a small brass tube about six inches long, with the end turned up and widened to form the bowl. This bowl holds the merest pinch of tobacco; a couple of whiffs, a smart rap on the edge of the brazier to knock out the residue, and the pipe is filled again and again, until the smoker feels satisfied. The girls that wait on one at the yadoyas and tea-houses carry their tobacco in the capacious sleeve-pockets of their dress, and their pipes sometimes thrust in the sash or girdle, and sometimes stuck in the back of the hair. »


Jeune japonaise ralumant son kiseru par Th. Stevens (1886)

A young Japanese woman lighting her kiseru, by Th. Stevens (1886)

(source : www.japanbiking.com)



Contemporary Era: renaissance of kiseru?

In 1929, there were still 190 workshops and nearly 400 artisans who produced kiseru Japan. Now there are only a few artisans left.

However, very recently Japanese people started to appreciate kiseru again. "Kizami" tobacco (particularly adapted for kiseru) which production was completely stopped in 1979 is now produced again. Japanese, especially young Japanese, are rediscovering the pleasure of smoking kiseru. Historical TV series and mangas in which the heros smoke kiseru certainly influenced this renewal.


La sulfureuse Kiyoha dans le film "Sakuran"

The beautifull Kiyoha in the film "Sakuran"...



Kiseru Festival

This is anecdotal, but interesting : every year, on the first Sunday of September, is held in Ibaraki region an amazing Kiseru Festival "Kiseru Matsuri" in which men carry in the mountains a huge kiseru (60 kg, 2.6 meters long, 28 cm diameter), with Shinto rituals. This festival is held every year on Mount Kaba-san, in Ishioka since 1954, after the tobacco crops in the area were "miraculously" saved from heavy hail. A massive 3.5-meter kiseru made of bamboo and tin by the peasants was then given as an offering at the local Shinto shrine. Ten years later, in 1964, a magnificent kiseru (see picture below) was crafted by the famous Murata factory who wanted to offer this symbolic kiseru to the local deity before stopping the production of its famous kiseru...

 Kiseru Matsuri

2.6 meter long Murata Kiseru !

(Source : www.ishioka-kankou.com)



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