KYOTO - Sen Genshitsu, 91, can look back on serving as the 15th grand master of a tea ceremony school known as Urasenke, which has roots connecting it directly to Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), a chanoyu master during the Sengoku period.
He can also look back on days spent waiting for an attack order as a pilot of a special attack unit-better known as the Kamikaze unit-during the last stage of World War II.
After the war ended, Genshitsu strove to promote international exchange through the art of tea ceremony.
The following is excerpted from an interview with Genshitsu.
Genshitsu: In the autumn of 1943, when I was a sophomore at Doshisha University, the government suspended the military service exemption for students majoring in the humanities, and I joined the Navy in December that same year.
Since the eldest son of the grand master of a tea ceremony school had to answer a call to arms, I suppose my parents were crying in their hearts.
As my brother who was two years younger-Yoshiharu Naya, the founder of Tankosha Publishing Co.-was also called into the Imperial Japanese Army, they must have been worried sick about what would become of the family.
For the first time, my father presented before me a short sword forged by Awataguchi Yoshimitsu, a renowned swordsmith during the Kamakura period [1192-1333].
The sword was the very same one which Rikyu is believed to have used when he ended his life through harakiri [honourable suicide].
As he set it before my eyes I was told, "Take a good look at this [before you go]."
It was only after I joined the unit when I realised what my father was really saying.
"I see. My father meant that if I die, I should die as Rikyu did."
Rikyu, who committed harakiri at the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his master and the ruler at the time, declined a petition by those around him that he should receive a lesser penalty than death. Rikyu had no fear of death.
I applied for the unit in March 1945. I received training earlier on to be a naval officer in the navy's air unit in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture, as a trainee of the navy's 14th preparatory pilot training course.
I was later transferred to the navy's air unit in Tokushima.
Our unit's commanding officer told us: "We will organise a special attack unit for Okinawa. You'll be handed a sheet of paper. Circle one word, write your rank and name and then submit it." There were three words to choose from: "Ardent wish," "Wish" and "Nay."
At the time, Ko Nishimura, my comrade and training partner who would eventually go on to become an actor after the war, was reluctant to express any eagerness.
But I submitted the paper after circling "Ardent wish," persuading Nishimura that he had to because we "have to write down our name, so that's not an option." In the end, all our members were assigned to the unit.
But I couldn't be like Rikyu. Nishimura would say, "I don't want to die." I found myself replying, "I can't commit harakiri."
Regardless, training dragged on every day-from diving our planes at altitudes of 2,000 meters to night flight exercises because if we were to fly from the Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture toward Okinawa, we'd depart from the base in Kagoshima and arrive near Okinawa at around 4 a.m., before dawn.
Our plane, named "Shiragiku," was able to fly at a maximum speed of only 230 kph. Since our plane was loaded with two bombs weighing 250 kilograms each on both wings, it flew even slower.
So, we could only fly under the cover of night to reach Okinawa because formations of Grumman aircraft were lying in wait to attack us, at a point just be-yond the Amami Islands.