Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Tea Ceremony

Yasunari Kawabata's Thousand Cranes takes place in Japan soon after World War II. The central character is a 25 year old man whose late father was a collector of rare old tea ceremony objects and a practitioner of the traditional tea ceremony. Quite a few of the key scenes take place in the now-mildewing tea-ceremony cottage in the family garden, and the collected objects play a major role in this psychological drama.

The focus of the book is the young man's relationship with his father's two mistresses and the daughter of one of them. An unnamed maid and another young woman are the only other characters in the book: it's almost like a stage play with only a very small cast.

Several times, there is an enactment of the tea ceremony or some part of it, at a critical emotional point. Water boils. A tear falls on the iron kettle. The choice of rare and special water vessels, tea bowls, and decorative objects creates atmosphere and they become symbols to the characters and to the story. Sometimes a meal is served.

Nothing, basically, is ever said about the characters' tasting the tea, eating the food, or even noticing what food is being served. The tea ceremony is all about ritual and proper behavior. The way it affects the characters is important in the drama of their interaction and their individual problems. However, I find it very telling that the actual content of the tea vessels is not part of this drama, as I believe it would be in an actual tea ceremony. Savoring the tea is listed in documentary books as part of the ritual -- personally I find the tea at tea ceremonies unbearably bitter, and couldn't appreciate it.

I'm not able to tell if this lack of sensual participation or tasting the small snacks or the meal of tea time would be a meaningful symbol for a Japanese reader. It may be too late to know this, as the traditions described in the book are much rarer now than they were 50 years ago when the action took place.


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Each March, I believe it is, the U of M Japanese students club holds a huge cultural festival and there is a society of women in Ann Arbor who practice the art of the tea ceremony and perform it at the festival. I know, too, that my Japanese exchange daughter took lessons for six months to learn how to do this so she could demonstrate it for us and for friends in the U.S. I didn't realize that men could be practitioners. I don't know how prevalent this is today, or if it's along the lines of, say the Civil War re-enactments or things of that ilk.

Mae Travels said...

As far as I know, the tea ceremony was mainly practiced by men in the really old days (when women were really kept in the home to a great extent), then mixed, now I think mainly women. It wasn't exactly part of the religion, but somehow associated with it -- one of the tea houses in the book is on the grounds of a Buddhist temple.