Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tea "Beyond" Japan Part 1: Getting In the Way of Tea

Tea "Beyond" Japan   Part 1: Getting in the Way of Tea

Book Review

Americans Studying the Traditional Japanese Art of the Tea Ceremony: The Internationalizing of a Traditional Art by Barbara Mori, (Mellen Research University Press, San Francisco, 1992)
(Originally Published in Kyoto Journal, Issue #71, 2009)

It is said it takes a minimum of 10 years to begin to master (small “m”) any of the formal Japanese cultural arts, from tea ceremony to scroll mounting, karate to flower arrangement. This little black book, originally published as a dissertation but easily read and enjoyed for its balance of detail and insight, is the ultimate back-stage pass to the often frenetic world of Midorikai, the Japanese tea ceremony school for foreigners established in 1973 in Kyoto at the farsighted Sen Family’s back-lot branch, Urasenke. It is a good introduction to the history and practice of chanoyu for the uninitiated and for anyone who would seek a window on formal training in the cultural arts of Japan.

The author, Asian sociologist Professor Barbara Mori, was a student from 1983 – 1985 at the intercultural peacemaker project founded in 1973[1] by now Retired Grand Master (Daisosho) Genshitsu, then Hounsai, Dr. Sen Soshitsu, XV, as a gift to the world. Like a well-schooled teishu (tea host), Mori offers a deeply-dipped scoop on the post-graduate residential training program through which hundreds of well intentioned gaijin-cum-chajin passed for nearly three decades. Given the carefully managed relationships within this tightly regulated cultural matrix, to her credit she is relatively unabashed and, from my experience as a visitor to the program on three occasions after that, quite accurate.
At the time of writing, the Midorikai (literally “green” group) was a three-year residency program at the Konnichian compound along the Horikawa Avenue in the north-central area of Kyoto, the historic home of the Sen families since their famous ancestor, Rikyu in the 16th century. Students were college graduates at minimum, often in Japanese studies, and some were studying on scholarships provided by Dr. Sen to institutions with which he had established direct academic relationships. Others, who were studying with teachers abroad, were fortunate enough to be invited join the full-time students in lectures, on outings and to participate in the training exercises for short periods of time. The experience was unparalleled in its exposure to the very heart of the “high” part of Japanese culture at levels very few Japanese themselves ever experience. In total over 400 people from 30 countries have participated in the program.

It has been Daishoso’s hope that once adept in the history and practice of creating chanoyu, literally the tea’s hot water, his deshi, students with a formal relationship to a teacher, would carry their knowledge and enthusiasm as teachers back to their home countries and establish chanoyu training centers throughout the world. They would promote his vision of  “Peace through a bowl of Tea”. The Midorikai program has continued with modification by his son, now Grand Master Zabosai, Sen Soshitsu XVI, to this day.

Daishoso’s plan in action incorporated strict adherence to the Japanese way of learning and doing, and embraced, in appropriate measures, the diverse cultural distinctions that could complement the signature Japanese tea aesthetic. It would be safe to say that men and women from every country with which Japan has political relations have passed through the nijiri-guchi (the small guest entrance to the tea room) of Midorikai. Americans have numbered significantly high among attendees and a handful of foreigners have served as teachers and administrators at the Kokusaibu (foreign office) in Kyoto for years, placing them among the rank of highly accomplished chajin.

Mori's book is their story. She quotes them anonymously, revealing problems coping with daily life in Japan and the school’s rigorous standards, their deflated mystiques about the exotic nature of Japanese culture and tea ceremony, and their struggles living along the dictates of a foreign social standard. Many didn’t speak or read Japanese when they arrived and had to rely on English, which was the second language of the program. Formally and informally students were expected to know and behave in accord with their place in the hierarchy of the sempai – kohai (upper / under class(wo)men), and even higher, to teachers and the school’s staff and the Sen family.

To learn chanoyu, one needs to know much more than how to boil water for powdered tea, to select and handle a utensil, to know the name of a historic fabric pattern, to prepare and serve seasonal kaiseki meals, to build a fire or hang a scroll. Chanoyu is a physical, aesthetic, psychological and social experience, one that requires a person to rely on innate instincts and academic prowess. Perhaps the most strenuous physical part is sitting on the floor on one’s heels in seiza for long periods of time. Emotionally, one’s ego can be challenged. Mori reports burnout on more than one occasion.

In addition to study about tea, Midorikai students had lectures and field trips about other cultural areas that have an effect on or are affected by tea, such as Kabuki, Noh theatre, architecture, Japanese history and Zen Buddhism (including zazen meditation practice), to name a few. Midorikai students on occasion were privileged to be counted in the Grand Master’s official entourage when he was invited to make a offertory tea for dignitaries and in historic places, such as Kinkakuji and Tenryuji temples. At the same time, students are responsible for cleaning classrooms and tearooms, organizing and presenting tea demonstrations for public events, maintaining student utensils and class records.

All of this experience is considered essential for the development of character which will produce a person who engages in chado, the Way of Tea in all aspects of her life. According to the Midorikai rules, one is expected to cultivate and inculcate the principles of “Wa (harmony), Kei (respect), Sei (purity) and Jaku (tranquilly) a part of our everyday lives. ... We must try to find out for ourselves the true meaning of self-discipline which involves a steady, determined effort to learn the Way.” [2] It is these same four principles that are to be present in a tea ceremony.

Mori’s keen observational skills enabled her to detail the impact on students of the rigors of the school’s 24/7 tea boot-camp educational style over a full spectrum of experiences, in class and out, often crossing boundaries of private space / time. According to the Urasenke website[3], “Tea to one student may be the ideal means to learn about the Japanese mind and culture, while to another the Way of Tea is a means to attain inner peace and outer harmony. Once accepted into the Midorikai program, however, students must try to fit into the social and mental climate of the strict demands of the traditional training program at Urasenke.”

Under these circumstances, however, students are hardly ever extra-curricular. Kyoto is a very small place, and, while it looks like even the buildings are indifferent if not actually asleep, nothing is so completely covert as to fly beneath the well entrenched radar of the tea establishment. One cannot step out of line without news of an indiscretion getting back to the school and having an impact on one’s standing.

“Urasenke is a kind of Byzantine court, filled with intrigue, a kind of monopoly pyramid,” commented a non-Japanese male teacher to Mori. “Errors in this system are never forgotten, and tag after you,” she reports another non-Japanese male teacher  reflecting on the career ups and downs of some of the Japanese teachers.

Urasenke configures several types of instructional programs at its headquarters, Midorikai being only for foreigners. A parallel program, Gakuen, is conducted for Japanese nationals. Mori reports one informant, a non-Japanese male student, saying, “Here at Urasenke foreigners are treated in a sort of special way. They are invited to many functions held at Konnichian at the main center of Urasenke with Oiemoto, whereas the Gakuensei (Japanese students), as far as I can see, don’t have a lot of privileges.” Another, a Japanese-American third-year student, told her, “Foreigners are not considered part of the system. On the other hand, I don’t believe non-Japanese are given the benefit of the doubt as far as learning the more advanced forms of tea appreciation.” Midorikai students who do not speak Japanese will be oblivious to the nuances of this fact. What can be understood directly from English (or through the mediation of a bilingual colleague) is a wealth of knowledge.

Midorikai rules acknowledge and Mori concludes that its up to each student to find a way to adapt to the structure of daily routine, from living in the school dorms to cleaning the school tea rooms, from dressing in kimono to studying for the next day’s practicum. Whether taking responsibility for a public event or the breakage of a class utensil, the individual becomes responsible for and to the group, and the group to the school patrons. For some these lessons are more difficult to learn than yet another way to clean a tea scoop!

Each Midorikai student has his or her own stories to tell. They all reveal the boldness and generosity of the Urasenke experiment to expose foreigners to the most intimate of experiences of Japan. Mori’s work is part one of a story that has evolved to this day. A new class of students comes in each year and the efforts of those who have graduated and are promoting “Peace through a bowl of Tea” have been manifest “beyond” Japan with great success.

To see how Midorikai fits into the Urasenke system, you may view the Urasenke English language newsletter http://www.teeseminar.de/archive/newsletters/Urasenke-Newsletter_110.pdf

[1] The first class for foreign students was established at Urasenke in Kyoto in 1970
[2] “Midorikai Rules and General Information” (61st Year of the rule of Emperor Hirohito)
[3] www.urasenke.or.jp