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A Japan tea master's wish for peace (Pt. 2): Devoting his life to comrades lost in war

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

"What did my comrades have to die for? Even now, I can't escape these bad memories. I want to get rid of war through the philosophy of tea ceremony. This is my dying wish." So said Sen Genshitsu, 98, former grand master of the Urasenke tea school, when asked in December 2018 about the approaching end of Japan's Heisei era (1989-2019).

    As a student, Dr. Sen was mobilized into the former Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, and eventually assigned to a "tokkotai" unit, or the suicide force more commonly known outside Japan as the "kamikaze." Speaking of his Pacific War experiences, he was unable to govern his fury, raging over the cruelty of young men being ordered on irrational missions that meant their certain death.

    Sen said that the only positive thing he gained from his time in the Navy was the fraternity of his comrades. If one of them slipped up during training, they were all beaten together by their superiors. The tokkotai members also shared their food rations with each other, and discussed what "death" meant to each of them. "Our comradery was not simply built on mutual support, but a sense of solidarity in sharing the same destiny," he said.

    Japan's war situation got worse by the day, and the Imperial Japanese military formed suicide mission squads starting with the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, attempting to ward off defeat. In March 1945, the Tokushima naval aviation corps, to which Sen belonged, was also notified that a suicide unit would be formed. Paper slips were distributed to the some 200 personnel, who were instructed to mark "strongly desire (to become a suicide soldier)," "desire," and "do not prefer." Sen took the first option, thinking, "I might as well if I have to go anyway." A few days later, it was announced that all 200 of the men would be dispatched as part of a suicide attack unit.

    The soldiers did intensive drills in Shiragiku trainers for days on end. They were training to plummet into enemy ships from an altitude of 2,000 meters; in other words, they were preparing to die. Sen said that he was frightened about being put in the same situation as 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who was ordered to perform seppuku, or ritual self-disembowelment.

    Besides fear, he also remembers the indignation he felt toward his superiors' words, which remain with him to this day: "You bastards came here to die," and, "You won't ever find such a desirable way to go." They stirred a visceral anger within the young naval airman over the suicide mission mentality, so belittling of human life. He could not help feeling anguished over losing sight of why he was born.

    One day, the young Sen was among a group of seven or eight tokkotai members taking a brief break before dinner. Opening a tea box he carried with him at all times, he boiled water in a kettle and made tea. One comrade let slip, "I want to meet my mother and have her pat me on the head." As if being moved by these words, Sen stood up, and called out for his mother in the direction of his hometown, Kyoto.

    At first, his comrades just watched him in a daze. But then they all stood up and screamed, "Mom, Mom" in the directions of their hometowns.

    One companion said, "If I make it back alive, serve me tea in your tearoom, alright?" This was the last conversation he had with the man.

    Many of his comrades plunged to their deaths after taking off from bases in southwestern Japan's Kagoshima. Name plates placed on the dinner table vanished one by one.

    This photo provided by the Urasenke tea school shows Dr. Sen Genshitsu, right, serving tea during a tea ceremony at a military base.

    According to a Tokyo-based foundation that continues to commemorate the war dead from tokkotai units, the total Japanese servicemen killed in suicide missions stands at 6,418, including both Army and Navy personnel. Apart from those in suicide attack aircraft, the tally also includes human torpedo pilots, and those aboard boats that sped into enemy vessels, among members of other suicide units.

    On behalf of his comrades, Sen said, "None of my companions attacked to sacrifice their lives for the nation. They had a desperate wish to protect their loved ones, even if it cost them their own lives."

    Though Sen had also braced himself for death with the same mindset, a superior called on him to "stand by." He could not grasp what was going on or why he was removed from the mission. He asked his superior officers to join attacks three times. However, they refused the requests as they would "violate orders." He was transferred to the Matsuyama naval aviation corps in the western Japan prefecture of Ehime, and the war soon ended.

    "I wanted to go with my comrades," said Sen, who still does not know why his final mission was canceled.

    (This is part two of a three-part series. The last part will be published on Sept. 28.)

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

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    Sen Genshitsu was the 15th generation head, or "iemoto," of Kyoto's Urasenke tea school until the end of 2002. He has obtained PhDs and honorary degrees in tea culture at universities in and outside Japan. He has held over 100 titles, including UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and the president of the U.N. Association of Japan. He served in the air force division of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Pacific War, and subsequently joined a suicide mission squad. From this experience, he has dedicated himself to attaining peace through the philosophy of tea ceremony.

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