Imai Sōkyū (1520-1593) served as a merchant in the city of Sakai and later became a renowned master of the tea ceremony during the late Sengoku and early Azuchi-Momoyama periods. His first name was Imai Hisahide, then Imai Kanesada, and then Imai Sōkyū upon entering the priesthood. His son was Imai Sōkun. The family home was identified as the Naya. Together with Tsuda Sōgyū (another merchant from Sakai) and Sen no Rikyū, Sōkyū is known as one of three tea masters from that period.
Sōkyū originated from the village of Imai in the Takaichi District of Yamato Province. His ancestors were the Genji-Sasaki clan from Ōmi Province who resided in Imai-ichi Castle in the Takashima District of Ōmi, yielding the family name of Imai. He moved to the harbor town of Sakai in Izumi Province, settling in the residence of Naya Munetsugu. Sōkyū learned the tea ceremony from a wealthy merchant and tea practitioner in Sakai named Takeno Jōou. Sōkyū eventually became the son-in-law of Jōou, and received all of the family’s tea utensils, having prevailed in an inheritance dispute with Takeno Sōga. In 1554, he donated 170 kan mon to the Daitoku Temple in the Kita District of Kyōto. In the early days, he was a merchant of military goods including leather goods such as deerskins used in the manufacture of helmets, which generated income and enabled him to form associations with sengoku daimyō from many provinces.
Sōkyū also served as an attendant to Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the shōgun, for the tea ceremony. He quickly responded to the imposition by Oda Nobunaga of levies to support military activities. In the autumn of 1568, Sōkyū met Nobunaga at Akutagawa in the Nishinari District of Settsu Province on Nobunaga’s march to Kyōto, where he presented Nobunaga with a Matsushima tea kettle and precious eggplant-toned tea utensils from the Ming dynasty. Sōkyū soon earned the favor of Nobunaga, while Yoshiaki conferred upon him the title of Minister of Finance for Buddhist Affairs (大蔵卿法印). Later that same year, Nobunaga levied a military tax of 20,000 kan mon on Sakai, whereupon members of the town council sought support from the Miyoshi clan to resist the demand. Sōkyū successfully served as an intermediary between Nobunaga and the council, for which he was awarded a fief with a rice yield of 2200 koku in the Sumiyoshi District of Settsu.
Prior to Nobunaga’s march upon the capital, Sōkyū served as a collections official for the bakufu in both the northern and southern manors that comprised the town of Sakai. Nobunaga secured his position by appointing him as one of his deputies to help establish control over Sakai. Thereafter, Nobunaga heavily relied upon Sōkyū and granted him an assortment of special privileges. In 1569, Nobunaga authorized Sōkyū to levy taxes on salt and salt products at five sites in Settsu in the environs of Sakai, along with transit fees on the Yodo River. In 1570, Sōkyū, together with Hasegawa Sōnin, were assigned to manage silver mines in Tajima Province, including the Ikuno Silver Mine. Renowned blacksmiths known as the Kawachi Imoji engaged in the production of arquebuses and gunpowder in his domain. Consequently, Sōkyū secured a prominent role among the council elders in Sakai, driven in part by Nobunaga’s aim to govern the nation. Sōkyū further served with Sen no Rikyū and Tsuda Sōgyū as tea masters for Nobunaga.
Following the demise of Nobunaga, Sōkyū served under Hashiba Hideyoshi. Together with Mozuya Sōan and Sumiyoshiya Sōmu of Sakai, Sōkyū served as a tea master and conversationalist. In 1587, he cooperated in the Kitano Tea Ceremony to celebrate the completion of Hideyoshi’s palace in Uchino in the Kamigyō District of Kyōto. Hideyoshi, however, favored Konishi Ryūsa, a purveyor of medicinal remedies, and Sen no Rikyū over Sōkyū, resulting in a decline of the elevated status he enjoyed under Nobunaga.
Sōkyū died in 1593 at the age of seventy-three. He authored, among other works, a record of the tea ceremony in his own name, as well as personal memoirs.