In a quiet Japanese tatami room, a women in her 50’s slowly slides open a paper fusuma door while seated in seiza style. She bows in respect to her tools in front of her, then enters the room sliding forward on her knees. She begins by wiping the bowl and pouring hot water in it to warm it. She adds matcha, the green tea powder, into the tea bowl and stirs it quickly with a bamboo whisk. Every move she makes is perfectly performed, without any wasted motion. She turns towards the guests to serve the tea.
“No,” Kumada-sensei, her 89 year old tea ceremony teacher, interrupts her, “pick it with your right hand and put it down with your left.” The student quietly corrects her mistake and the teacher begins to tell us her remarkable life story.
“I was born in 1927, a small town in Aki city of Japan and I was the third of a six children,” explains Kumada-sensei. “It was normal to have 6 or 8 siblings at that time, we used to use our older siblings hand-me-down clothes. The oldest and the youngest got the most attention, so I had to speak out or no one in my family would listen to me. I had to be assertive but when I stepped outside I was a completely different person, I was so quiet.
“When I was growing up, no matter what happened, my oldest sister had to sacrifice herself. And when our parents got sick, she quit her job and help out at home. I remember when my sister told me ‘Become independent and have your own job. That will help you.’
“Her words encouraged me to get a job which was very rare at the time. Most girls stayed home and got married at a young age and helped their houses.”
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life until one day a former student returned to the school and spoke.
“She was going to the Red Cross hospital school at that time and at the moment I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. Only one out of ten passed the entrance exam so I studied really hard.”
Once she entered the school, she studied to become a public health nurse not a nurse.
“My friend’s older sister had just become a public health nurse and hearing her story inspired me,” says Kumada-sensei adding with pride, “They don’t take orders from doctors but make up their own decisions.” It was the first step for her to become an independent women.
Working as a public health nurse wasn’t easy and she used to carry her resignation with her every day.
“One of my superior didn’t like me because I was going to a junior college at night and getting more educated than him.” She never gave up, even though that wasn’t the only conflict she had to face at work.
At that time, fetching tea and cleaning the office were “women’s jobs” but when she began at the new office, Kumada-sensei insisted that it wasn’t her job. The head of personal department used to complain to chief clerk about her behavior but she never changed her style.
“I still remember telling him this,” she explains. “’At school, I was taught to do my job not chores, I’m not here to serve you tea!!” Her face flashes angrily at the memory, but she soon starts to laugh. “It’s so funny when I think of it now.”
In the summer of 1948, the National Public Health Ministry held a training with GHQ in Tokyo. During that training, they were sent to outdoor theater to welcome a special guest. When they got there, kindergarten children were singing a song, ‘A blue bird came. Today, I’m with Ms. Helen Keller.’
“I remember that I was surprised to see colorful dresses that American women and children’s were wearing.”
War was something she grew up with, from the Manchurian Incident in 1923, until the end of the Second World War in 1945. When she worked at the Red Cross Hospital, air strikes happened a couple times in Kochi. Each time they evacuated to an air-raid shelter.
“At times, we couldn’t move some of the severely injured patients because of their lack of strength. There was a time when I stayed with them in the hospital during the air strike, holding a patient’s hand in a dark room, hoping the bombs wouldn’t hit us.”
Life wasn’t easy back then, but the tea ceremony was something that brought joy to her life. She started learning tea ceremony from her neighbor when she was 20. A lot of people were struggling for basic food, so the tea ceremony wasn’t popular. But she really enjoyed it so she kept learning.
“My teacher told me to get ready for teaching and now I’m here teaching for 30years. The tea ceremony is a composite art,” she explains. “It includes history, literature, calligraphy, drawing, flower and pottery–but it’s also part of our daily life. Love, kindness, respect, the way you live, and the hospitality, tea ceremony plainly describes the peaceful way to live life, and the Zen spirit. There is an expression in Japanese,「茶禅一味」 “Chazenn Ichimi” which means that tea ceremony and zen are the same thing. The tea ceremony is the heart of Japan and I want the next generation to remember it.”
Kumada-sensei explains that the tea ceremony is easy to start but hard to stop because the learning never ends. There is a saying in Japanese.” 「夕べに道を聞けば明日に死すとも」 “Even if I die tomorrow I will be grateful to learn something new today.”
“It never ends, that makes it more interesting.” Kumada-sensei says with a smile.
The student slowly puts her tea utensils back into a little box and moves her body towards the teacher. She takes the tea bowl and bamboo whisk and puts it near the box. She picks up everything then turns towards the fusuma and slides forward on her knees. She exits the room, turns back to give a deep bow, then slowly closes the door.