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.

Black Belt - - Karate Way - BY DAVE LOWRY

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.

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