The Devil Is in the Details
There is a moment, in some rituals of the tea ceremony, that calls for the kettle to be lifted from the charcoal brazier that heats it.
W hen lifted, it can leave a dusting of burned charcoal on the side of the brazier, and to brush this away, the host uses a fan, called a hakobi, made from a single tail feather, usually of a hawk.
The brushing movement, like everything else in the ceremony, is done according to strict form. As the hakobi is lifted with one hand, for instance, the host places a finger of the other on the far end of the feather. It’s a gesture of respect for the fan.
The fan comes in two types. If you look at a bird’s tail feathers, you’ll see that those from the left side of the tail have the spine of the feather (it’s called a rachis) slightly offset. There is more “feather” on the left side than on the right. On the opposite side of the tail, this is reversed. So there are clearly left and right tail feathers, and there are hakobi made from them both.
THE “KATA” of the tea ceremony are called temae. Meaning “hands in front,” it refers to both the motions and the act of learning them. One watches his teacher’s hands in front of him and copies the movements. In those ceremonies that involve a hakobi, when it’s not in use, it sits at the side of the host, who is kneeling on the mat. Here’s where a distinction comes in: If the tea room is set up so the guests are to the right of the host, he will use a left-style hakobi, with the bigger part of the feather closest to the guests. If they’re on the right, he will use the opposite hakobi.
And if the hakobi is reversed, if a right hakobi is used when the guests are seated to the host’s right? If just this tiny, apparently insignificant break in form is made, it’s an indication. It’s a sign the host is giving to his guests. It’s a message. I’m serving you tea. We’re observing social niceties. But I do not trust you. I do not know what your real intentions are. I do not necessarily wish you harm, but know that I have reservations about our relationship.
IF YOU WANT to understand feudal Japan, you must understand that the country, from the 15th century until the 17th century, endured constant civil war. That’s where its martial arts came from. Not just fighting on the battlefield but also methods of conducting oneself in virtually every social interaction were martial in nature.
Sliding on or off a floor cushion had a classical etiquette — and it was, at its heart, a safe way to do it, to move without exposing oneself to potential danger. Picking up a pair of chopsticks had its own etiquette. In all but the most informal — and, therefore, trusted — environments, the chopsticks were lifted using both hands and with the palms turned outward while the chopsticks rested in them to show to others that the hands were empty of weapons.
In addition to this etiquette, social symbolism became developed to an almost fantastic degree. Communication was made through this. I was once at an exhibition of flower arranging, or ikebana, with a senior teacher of a very old ryu of the art. As we came to one large arrangement, I heard her suck in her breath and mutter. I knew enough to pursue it. The arrangement included big strips of bamboo that had been split and curved dramatically. “The bamboo’s torn to split it lengthwise,” she told me. “That would indicate the practitioner’s clan was going to war. It should have been sawn smoothly, not roughly split, to indicate a peaceful intent.”
MUCH OF THIS symbolism seems almost absurd to us today. However, you must place it in context. When societies develop in a closed way, the sharing of symbols is easy. Japan had a closed culture. It was a closed country for hundreds of years. Every Japanese shared the same history, the same society.
Compare this to our multicultural history and society. We do not have the same volume of shared symbols; the whole concept is foreign to us. Gestures or manners that might be a sign of openness in one context could be interpreted as “pushy” in another. If I brought flowers cut from my garden to a female neighbor, her husband might interpret it as a genuine sign of friendship — or he might be angry at my “forwardness.” But in ancient Japan, there was a mutuality of understanding and a shared perspective.
I HAVEN’T ADDRESSED the martial arts yet, but can you see the connection? The American sits in the dojo in seiza, on his knees. His Japanese, or Japanese-trained, teacher tells him his hands are too low when they’re resting on his thighs. His shoulders are too high. His knees are too far apart. The teacher finds half a dozen corrections — just in the way he’s sitting. I was watching a video of a karate demonstration together with a Japanese budo teacher. As it began, the participants bowed to one another. The teacher snorted. “They can’t bow,” he said. And I knew that no matter how good the technique might be, the teacher would not take it seriously.
Again, this is difficult for us to understand, but it is not entirely foreign. If you come to a job interview wearing a checkered tie with a checkered shirt, in some companies, you will have seriously compromised your chances of getting the job.
Learning the rules, learning the symbols and their use, is part of living in society. Yes, in our society, things are much more relaxed. Good thing, I suppose. The next time you think that your teacher in the dojo is being overly critical, that he’s nitpicking your every move, remember the hakobi fan in the tea room. And remember how in Japanese society, little things can say a lot. Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name in the search box.