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Japanese Fika

Tea with Seiko Ito and Wen Yuju  


Fika is the Swedish custom of taking a break over a cup of coffee or tea. In Japanese Fika, Seiko Ito is our host and invites a guest to chat over tea, sweets, and flowers. Our guest this time is author Wen Yuju, who says Seiko’s approach to novels has given her a great shot of courage. The two discuss everything from teatime in Taiwan to Audrey Tang, and end with a heart-to-heart session on literature.


Yuju and I were neighbors in Asakusa. Having deepened our horizons in the interval, we reunited after a long blank end enjoyed an inspirational chat!

Seiko Ito

Tea is a time for the elder to entertain the family

Yuju: In Taiwan, it’s usually the men who make a big fuss over tea. I was told the custom is for the wise old man type to serve tea to his children and their wives.

Seiko: The children are served too?

Yuju: Entertaining your daughters-in-law and daughters by birth makes you a gentleman. One of my uncles was happy to give me a rundown on Taiwanese tea etiquette.

Seiko: That’s a charming custom, isn’t it? Tea is a time for the elder to entertain the family.

Yuju: In Japan, I was under the impression that serving tea was the job of younger women or the more junior members present. It felt fresh to see my uncle proudly serving tea.

Seiko: Do you use those tiny teacups?

Yuju: Yes, the tiny bowls that look like sake cups. They are arranged on the tea tray with the teapot and all the other utensils, and the host pours hot water over them, talking softly the whole time. It’s quite artistic.

Seiko: So tea is recognized as a highly important ritual, and the better skilled you are at preparing it, the more respect you earn. Are the guests allowed to socialize and have a good time?

Yuju: It isn’t a serious atmosphere. You’re told to relax and make yourself at home.

Seiko: Is the party strictly limited to the family?

Yuju: Anyone who is invited is a member for life. The woman next to you might be a cousin’s ex-girlfriend. Wedding ceremonies also work much the same way. In Japan, you make a list beforehand of who is coming and who isn’t, whereas in Taiwan, a wedding invitation might come on the day of the event. It’s very informal, like, “My friend is getting married. You want to come along?”

Seiko: So it’s a real party.

Yuju: Basically, everyone is welcome because sharing the feast will bring good fortune to the bride and groom. 

Seiko: That’s the great thing about Taiwan and the reason it has handled this coronavirus so well. That charitable mindset came into play in an emergency because it was already ingrained in the community.

Yuju: Yes, you could say that. Soon after the outbreak of COVID-19, medical masks ran out of stock across Taiwan, and the digital minister, Audrey Tang, whipped up a system where no one person could buy up the mask supplies. She effectively prevented a situation where citizens were scrambling for masks. I admire Taiwan for naming someone like her a minister.

Seiko: New Zealand and the Nordic countries have also handled the pandemic well. What all these countries had in common was that they explained the situation over and over, day in, day out. This is true of Taiwan as well. Where does it get the motivation to keep the citizens informed?

Yuju: I imagine Taiwan is strongly aware that it rules over different groups of peoples. When your neighbors think differently from you and have different backgrounds, you explain things as a matter of course, otherwise you wouldn’t understand one another. Audrey Tang is an amazing person. There’s no question about that. But it’s just as amazing that Taiwan is ready to give someone like her the opportunity to live up to her potential.

Seiko: The people who granted authority to Audrey Tang showed us that there is hope even amid a global pandemic.

Out of all authors, Seiko Ito influences me the most!

Yuju: In Japan, you get the feeling everyone expects everyone else to have the same views. If you share your opinion and it’s different, chances are you will be hushed up. And if you’re like me, with a foreign background and especially in the position of a woman, you will be treated like a troublemaker. Recently, I’ve come to embrace the fact that I’m treated like noise. I even wish I’m worthy of noise, and I’m sure this is your influence. Out of all currently active authors, I am proud to say that I am probably under the strongest influence of Seiko Ito.

Seiko: Brilliant! You have excellent taste.

Yuju: Many characters that appear in Japanese literature are Japanese, so I used to write my novels pretending that I was Japanese too. But after reading Bungei mandan (Comical Literary Critique), by you and Hikaru Okuizumi, I felt liberated. It made me realize that novels and literature are a free media, and I am free to write whatever I like.

Hana ni hasami uchi (The Nose Shot by Both Sides) and Shosetsu kinshirei ni sando suru (In Favor of the Novel Ban) further convinced me that novels are allowed more freedom. Who says a novelist shouldn’t discuss politics or deal with history? We’ve been conditioned to obey all kinds of taboos in novels, and more precisely, in Japanese “pure literature.” But you taught me it’s okay—go ahead and violate them! “Imai-san” [one of the short stories in Hana ni hasami uchi] is quite intense too.

Seiko: It’s a strange novella, yes.

Yuju: As that novella says, voices and sounds are rather untamable. They might not necessarily be reproduced accurately in transcription. So in truth, “Imai-san” isn’t strange at all—it’s perfectly normal. I’m also influenced by Yoko Tawada [novelist and poet who emigrated to Germany and writes in both Japanese and German] and by Hideo Levy [novelist and scholar of Japanese literature who was born in America and writes in his non-native Japanese], and they too are sensitive to the relationship between the written letter and the spoken sound.

Seiko: Both of those writers come from a place where it’s practically their duty to explore the mixture of Japanese and non-Japanese. Although I can only work exclusively in Japanese, I like to highlight the noise within the Japanese language. That’s what drives me to write rap songs.

There is such a thing as an East Asian creole

Yuju: As for me, I felt as though anything I wrote needed to be in the Japanese language.

Seiko: You had no choice but to ignore the you that existed in a different language, right?

Yuju: I was testing myself because I feared it was impossible to take what I had experienced in Taiwanese and Chinese, and write about it in Japanese-language novels.

Seiko: Whatever the language, writing compels you to adhere to that language’s rules of grammar. And speech involves time, so you can’t deal with two languages at once. Yoko Tawada and waka poets of the Heian period, from the eighth to twelfth centuries, disagreed with that idea and attempted to say two things at once. Right now, this is my object of fascination. I’m working on a modern Japanese translation of Noh plays, where a single word might carry three meanings.

Yuju: Looking back, I’ve spent a longer period of my life outside the Japanese language, and my experiences during that time flow through me as sounds. For instance, in Japan my name is written “Wen Yuju” in Chinese characters along with the romanized pronunciation “On Yourou.” This should be a topic of great interest, but few people appreciate it. Similarly, when I deliberately try a double entendre, readers merely acknowledge the unusual use of Japanese, and that’s it. But your novels convince me that I’m not wrong.

Seiko: Thanks, but I have yet to meet with complete success. I wrote Kaitaiya gaiden (Side Story of a Deprogrammer) in cyberpunk style [a subgenre of science fiction set in a high-tech dystopian future], but it takes advantage of the fact that Japanese text can be glossed with ruby characters. Yoko Tawada uses rhyme to achieve the effect. And you, Yourou. Has anyone before mixed the Taiwanese, Chinese, and Japanese languages the way you do?

Yuju: Perhaps the people of Taiwan writing in Japanese in the days of Japanese colonial rule. Unfortunately, their work was treated as imitation Japanese literature at the time, and it was not accepted as Taiwan literature in postwar Taiwan because it was written in Japanese. Part of me hopes to settle their grudge.

Seiko: By all means, settle their grudge. You can demonstrate that there is such a thing as an East Asian creole.

Japanese Fika Table

Tea | Taiwan Li Mountain Honey-Tasted Charcoal Roasted Oolong Tea、Premium Taiwan Dayuling Oolong Tea(Taiwanese teahouse Rengetsu-tei)
Taiwan Li Mountain Honey-Tasted Charcoal Roasted Oolong Tea has notes of honey, and Premium Taiwan Dayuling Oolong Tea has a clean taste. Both varieties are naturally cultivated. Teapot by Shiho Hayashi. Teacups by Shino Takeda. Plates by Akio Nukaga.

Sweets | Apple cake (SunnyHills), dry fruits (DAYLILY), other
Sunny Hills specializes in Taiwan’s traditional pineapple cake. For this sitting, we selected a new release. Served with candied roselle flowers and hawthorn sticks from DAYLILY, and dry mango from Rengetsu-tei.

Flower | A sultry arrangement with the ambience of Taiwan
A flowery combination of achiote native to tropical America with Laelia Santa Barbara Sunset, a relative of cattleya orchids. Presented in a vase by New York-based ceramic artist Shino Takeda.

Wen Yuju, Author
Wen Yuju was born in 1980 in Taipei, Taiwan, and moved to Tokyo with her family at the age of three. Her parents spoke Taiwanese and Chinese at home. Wen made her literary debut in 2009 with a Subaru Literary Prize honorable mention for Kokyokoraika (A Fine Journey, A Fine Return). She won a 2015 Japan Essayist Club Prize for Taiwan umare, Nihongo sodachi (Born in Taiwan, Raised in Japanese), and was listed as a candidate for the 2017 Akutagawa Prize for Mannaka no kodomotachi (In-Between Children). Other publications include Raifuku no ie (House of Happiness), Kukojiko (Airport Time and Light), the essay collection Kokugo kara tabidatte (Departing from National Language), and most recently Lo bah png no saezuri (Warbling Minced Pork Rice).

Seiko Ito
Born 1961 in Tokyo, Seiko Ito is an author and creator who works in a spectrum of expressive genres including literature, film, stage, music, and online platforms. His latest publication is the book The Medicine called ‘LOVE’.

text | Bunshu photography | Atsushi Yamahira Flower | Chieko Ueno (Forager)