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The Way of the Tea

A Japanese tea ceremony is about treasuring every moment, says scholar Yuko Eguchi ’03, an idea she brought to life during her visit to Bates

Story by Bates College March 17th, 2016

'This moment may never happen again'

The historical path of the Japanese tea ceremony is a long and winding one, so we will pick it up in the mid-16th century, when the great tea master Sen no Rikyu perfected the procedure of making tea, systematizing the motions and standardizing the tearoom and tea utensils.

In doing so, he restored the earlier influence of Zen Buddhist monks, who had adopted the tea culture from China for meditation and for healing.

“This was a warring period,” Yuko Eguchi ’03 explains prior to presenting a tea ceremony during her visit to Bates in early March. “Samurai were running around killing each other, and you’d never know if you would live tomorrow or not. Sen no Rikyu wanted to say, ‘Just stop this nonsense. Let’s invite your loved ones, your friends, and share one bowl of tea.’ His teaching was that we must treasure and appreciate every moment and occasion — Ichi-go-ichi-e, that this moment happens once in a lifetime.”

Yuko Eguchi ’03 visited Bates on March 3 and 4, shortly after defending her dissertation in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh.

'But it's Not good enough'

As a child in Japan, Eguchi was given a Western-style education, and her parents selected classical piano and classical ballet for her to learn. At Bates, she studied music composition. “I loved writing music. But then I just realized that, well, I’m okay composing, but it’s not good enough.”

That began her study of “music as culture and music in culture.” Today, she is a scholar of ethnomusicology — specifically, geisha songs — who says that her mission as a scholar is, first, “to introduce this great Japanese tradition” to an American audience. “I want people to recognize the value of this Japanese culture.”

Then, she says, “I want your people and country to help me to re-import it back to Japan. It’s difficult trying to do what I’m doing in Japan, because people kind of look down on whatever the old people were practicing.”

A pair of geta, traditional Chinese and Japanese footwear.
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'I Cried yesterday'

“So many of the Bates music faculty, Asian studies faculty, they’re role models for me,” Eguchi says.

During her visit, she gave a lecture on Japanese traditional arts for students in a world music class taught by Associate Professor of Music Gina Fatone. Fatone was ill when Eguchi was scheduled to speak, so colleague James Parakilas introduced Eguchi to the class.

“It was the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had because it’s the very room, Room 128, and the very professor that I learned from as a student.” Eguchi has given many lectures to thousands of students during her graduate work at Pitt, but this was different. This was at Bates.

“In front of him, in the very room, it was really, really….” She pauses. “It was an honor. He was there, listening to me, and he was crying too.”

Eguchi conducts the tea ceremony as a photo of a Bates mentor, Hirasawa Professor of History Atsuko Hirai, is displayed behind her.

'There's no endpoint'

A tea ceremony has a starting point and a stopping point. But it is also endless. “Once you start practicing tea, there’s no endpoint. You have to learn pottery, you have to learn flowers, you have to learn the architecture [of the tea room], gardening, cookery — everything’s involved. So it is a difficult thing. That’s why tea ceremony is called ‘Department of Japanese Culture.’”

“But the core is the art of human relationships, like how to keep the peace between one human being and another, over sweets and tea. So it’s really a sort of compacted form of Japanese culture itself.”

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'What I do is very specific, very rare'

Eguchi’s visit to campus came right after she defended her dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh, a dissertation examining how the aesthetic concept of iroke (roughly translated as sensuality or eroticism) has shaped the geisha music and dance culture.

Eguchi specializes in a short song form called kouta, songs accompanied by a three-string instrument called the shamisen, and a related dance practice called koutaburi. “What I do is very specific and rare. There are not very many other people doing this.”

Eguchi intended to learn only the music, but her 94-year-old teacher told her that the two are intricately tied together, that “if you want to know music really well, you’ve got to dance. If you want to know dance, you’ve got to do the music.”

“The aesthetics of kouta are deeply molded and shaped by the concept of iroke,” Eguchi says. But it’s a concept of eroticism very different from the West’s. “The body’s fully covered, and they perform with a very rigid form. That came from the blind musicians who played the shamisen first, a long time ago. But within the sound, within the slightest motion, and within the air around them, they’re representing sexiness.”

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'I Will Follow You to the End'

If the tea ceremony dates to 16th-century Japan, then Eguchi’s senior thesis at Bates drew on a 17th-century European art form.

In other words, she wrote and staged an opera, of all things.

I Will Follow You to the End dealt with contemporary teenage prostitution in Japan, about a prostitute who falls in love with a John, “gets pregnant, and she’s doomed. So that was the opera.” Of course, she recalls, “I didn’t know what it took to make an opera. I was young and stupid — ‘Well, Puccini did that, Wagner did that. Why don’t I do that?’”

Being young and stupid is what college is all about, and for Eguchi, her mentors in the music department — and many other faculty members — turned out for her. Not to save her but to help her navigate the way. “They just spent so much time for me.”

In the music department, she got guidance from Parakilas, Philip Carlsen, William Matthews, John Corrie, and Amy Beal. Others included Sarah Strong, professor of Japanese language and literature professor, who helped with the libretto, and dance program director Marcy Plavin, who advised on the choreography, as did two students who contributed hip hop dancing.

“I couldn’t have done it if I had been somewhere else. It was Bates. I had to have the performers, instrumentalists, and then also singers, actors, and dancers, and then also stage props, management, lighting, a whole village of people.” There was an orchestra of a dozen or so pieces. Onstage performers included students, the late history professor Atsuko Hirai — a classically trained soprano — as well as Corrie, Strong, and Eguchi herself, who played the shamisen.

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Footnote: Produced by the Bates Communications Office with photography by Phyllis Graber Jensen and text by Doug Hubley