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A Japan tea master's wish for peace (Pt. 1): Facing dark past of WWII suicide mission

Dr. Sen Genshitsu, former Grand Master of the Urasenke tea school, is seen extending his hand toward a ladle during a tea offering ceremony at Nishinomiya Shrine in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, on April 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

"'We're counting on you.' I can hear my fallen comrades calling me from above," said Sen Genshitsu, former Grand Master of the Urasenke tea school in Kyoto. A prominent figure in Japan's tea ceremony tradition, he was also a member of a Pacific War suicide mission squad. The voices he hears belong to fellow soldiers mobilized only to die aboard fighters and other human-operated weapons that crashed into enemy ships.

    Dr. Sen's strong resolve to honor his comrades and do his duty as a survivor of the war has caused him to devote his life to helping achieve a world without conflict through the philosophy of tea ceremony.

    On April 19, Sen turned 98 and conducted a tea offering ceremony at Nishinomiya Shrine, the head shrine for the god of fortune located in west Japan's Hyogo Prefecture. He has a long-standing custom of doing ceremonies on his birthday.

    Standing 175 centimeters, Sen conducted the ceremony in a black kimono and white "tabi" split-toed socks. Using a "fukusa" cloth, he purified the tea container filled with tea, then using a tea scoop to put tea powder in the tea bowl. Hot water from a steaming kettle was ladled into the bowl. After whisking the tea with a tea whisk, the master carried them to the main shrine building. Offerings of two bowls -- one "koicha," or "thick tea," and one "usucha," or "thin tea," -- were made as some 40 individuals watched.

    After the ceremony, we talked in the shrine's backroom, where he said, "I prayed for the coronavirus pandemic to be contained as soon as possible. Many across the world are suffering." Each year, Sen makes the tea offerings in the hope lives will no longer be lost to earthquakes, torrential rains, diseases and other tragic calamities that come to mind.

    When I asked the Grand Master's thoughts on still being healthy at almost 100, he gave an unexpected response: "I feel ashamed." He showed no sign of contentment with his longevity, and said shame has hung over him for the 76 years he has outlived his comrades, even though he was "supposed to die, too."

    At the same time, he also thanks that "showing humility to one another, as if telling the other party, 'go ahead,' or 'you first,' without any discrimination or differentiation, nurtures harmony, and creates a peaceful world." He continued to say, "Tea ceremony practices teach us this. I survived. That's why I make visits around the world while hoping for a world without conflict, starting with the one tea bowl before me."

    Sen was born in 1923 as the eldest son of the 14th generation head, or "iemoto," of Urasenke, founded by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), who had a profound impact on "chanoyu" tea ceremony. He began taking lessons on June 6, at age 6, the starting date said to bring great improvement in artistic pursuits. His destiny was to succeed the tea school as the 15th generation master.

    But war cast a shadow over society as conflict between Japan and the United States began in December 1941 -- the same year Sen entered Doshisha University. In October 1943, arts students were mobilized for military service. Though many expressed concerns over the Urasenke school's successor going off to war, the military made no consideration for family lineage. Sen passed the physical examination for conscription and joined the Imperial Japanese Navy. The day he departed, he told his younger brother to succeed Urasenke in his stead if the worst came to pass. His mother insisted, "If anything happens, call on the mighty Rikyu. He is your guardian deity."

    Sen served in the Tsuchiura naval aviation corps in Ibaraki Prefecture before being appointed second lieutenant for the Tokushima naval aviation corps in west Japan. In 10 months he acquired skills from piloting to correspondence that usually require several years to master. During a session dropping inert bombs, he and a flight partner were made to beat each other up following orders by a superior displeased with their inability to carry out instructions. Some died in training accidents, others tried to take their own lives. He was confronted with the reality of death.

    He recalled being summoned to the Totsutotsusai tearoom by his father a few days before his December 1943 departure. As they faced each other, his father showed him the dagger Rikyu used to perform seppuku, or ritual disembowelment.

    Rikyu served 16th century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and was ordered by his master to undertake ritual suicide. Various theories exist as to why the warlord made the command, including Rikyu's disapproval of Hideyoshi's desire to invade Korea, as well as anger over a statue of Rikyu installed on the Daitokuji Temple's Sanmon Gate. Rikyu refused to listen to those around him saying he should offer an apology to Hideyoshi, instead choosing to take his own life.

    The dagger was created by Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, a distinguished sword craftsman of the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Its about 25-cm-long blunt blade glistened in the tearoom. Sen's father said only that Rikyu used it in suicide. At the time, he didn't know why he showed him the dagger, but after entering the military, he finally understood his intention.

    On the surface, his father seemed to be saying, "When it's time to die, you must with dignity like Rikyu. Are you prepared for this?" But his father's true message to his son may have been: "You absolutely mustn't throw away your life so easily. Don't ever let it go to waste."

    (This is part one of a three-part series. The next part will be published on Sept. 27.)

    (Japanese original by Takuto Imanishi, Osaka Regional News Department)

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