Making Tea, Not War

by Nassrine Azimi, Co-Founder/Coordinator, Green Legacy Hiroshima Initiative

The Japanese general and tea master Ueda Soko has a special place in the hearts of Hiroshima citizens.

Born in 1563 near present-day Nagoya, Ueda’s bravery led to his early rise as adjoint of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Warfare in those days was the principle way of life for ambitious young samurai but Ueda had other aspirations. He apprenticed under tea masters Sen no Rikyu and Furuta Oribe and myth has it that such were his powers of inner-focus and dedication that in the tense hours before the Summer Battle of Osaka he was found calmly carving tea utensils out of bamboo stalk.

Ueda settled in Hiroshima as the retainer of the area’s feudal lord, and it was here that he chose to shed the soldier’s sword and armor, to dedicate instead his vast intelligence and discipline to Sadō, the Way of Tea. By the time of his death, at age 87, he had become a grand master not just of the tea ceremony itself but also of garden architecture and design. Hiroshima’s beautiful Shukkeien Garden is one of his many masterpieces.

Shukkeien burned to ashes by the atomic bombing in 1945 but was lovingly restored, to now thrive as one of Hiroshima’s main attractions. Ueda’s style of Sadō, too, survived more than three and half centuries of social upheaval, political turmoil and the atomic bombing. Today the Ueda Sokoryu school of tea, as it is officially known, spreads his teachings worldwide, with branches from Canada to New Zealand, and from Australia to Germany.

Forged itself in the crucible of battles, issues of war and peace remain central to Ueda’s school of thought. In the pre-dawn hours this August 15, marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat and surrender, the school's current head, whose own father was killed in the atomic bombing, sat on a simple wooden platform raised in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, in the direct axis from the Atomic Bomb Dome. The park temporarily transformed into an ethereal tea garden, the master then calmly served tea to Hiroshima’s mayor and other guests. It was easily the most meaningful tea ceremony I have ever attended.

The symbolism is deep. Hiroshima itself can relate to the path, from war to peace, embraced by its favorite general and tea master. A military capital of Western Japan since the Meiji era, Hiroshima’s devastation by the atomic bombing compelled it to seek a new identity, and new means of livelihood, as an “international city of peace and culture.” Like Japan--indeed probably more than the rest of Japan--Hiroshima has been grappling with how societies can create, and sustain, a peace economy.

Post-war visionary politicians of the calibre of mayor Shinso Hamai rethought the rise of their burnt city with great fortitude. Hiroshima's center--the bomb’s actual hypocenter--was transformed by the genius of architect Kenzo Tange into a tree-covered memorial park. This proved to be not just the right choice but a remarkably astute one economically, too. To this day the memorial park continues to function on many levels--as a monument to those killed by the atomic bombing, as a beautiful and green symbol of hope and of oxygen, and as a dynamic venue for international and national events. It is an important addition to the city’s civic and economic life, visited by millions every year, and consistently among the top-10 sites most visited by foreigners in Japan.

Hiroshima is always a good place to stir ourselves from apathy in the face of our governments’ subjugation to what President Eisenhower so dreaded--the malignant influence of the military-industrial complex. And this 70th anniversary of the end of war may be the right time: recent and serial failures of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty negotiations seem to have galvanized many states, cities and members of civil society to throw in the towel of business as usual, and to rally instead under the umbrella of the humanitarian imperatives to ban nuclear weapons. Movements such as Mayors for Peace too, with its more than 6,700 member cities worldwide, can and should stir a political groundswell within civil society, to break the disarmament logjam.

For nuclear weapon states it is an article of faith, that nuclear disarmament is somehow secondary to the non-proliferation agenda. As Ramesh Thakur and his colleagues at the Australian National University have recently written in Nuclear weapons: The state of play 2015, the nine nuclear-armed states may never give up their positions of privilege voluntarily--why should they? It therefore falls upon the non-nuclear weapons states, and all of us, to challenge this status quo and the second tier position that disarmament has somehow been straightjacketed in.

Other than the threats they pose, there is the hefty price tag of nuclear weapons. The roughly 16,000 warheads cost, by cautious estimates, 100 billion dollars a year (by comparison, the U.N. core budget for the 2014-2015 biennium was 5.5 billion dollars). Yet were ninety percent of this arsenal to evaporate tomorrow, not many would actually notice the difference--with enough warheads still left for nuclear weapon states to eradicate their enemies, themselves and the entire planet. This is, at best, a shockingly dismal benefit-cost ratio.

Poll after poll show a strong global majority in favor of nuclear disarmament. More than half of the nuclear weapon states are also relatively well-functioning democracies, where public opinion matters. As my friend David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has often said, dollar for dollar, nuclear disarmament may be the best deal in town. A massive reduction of nuclear weapons may not solve our war and violence problems, nor, in this age of terrorism, remove the nuclear threat entirely. But it could breathe much needed life into our sagging hopes for a nuclear-free world, removing the Damocles' Sword from over our collective necks so we can focus on other clear and present dangers.

From August 26 the United Nations Conference on Disarmament is convening its annual meeting in Hiroshima. Eminent experts and others from governments and civil society gather, to think afresh about how to advance the nuclear disarmament dossier in the spirit of these 70th anniversary commemorations. They will surely visit the Peace Memorial Museum but I hope they also get a chance to read, or reread, Black Rain, by Masuji Ibuse. Ibuse, a son of Hiroshima and a writer of great erudition and humanity, took 20 years to complete his masterpiece--time he said he needed to overcome his rage at the horrors of atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Where reams of reports and official documents may fail to move, Black Rain is a powerful and universal indictment of the stupidity and cruelty of war, and an ode, to the beauty and sanctity of life.

If Ueda Soko, abandoning the path of violence for the way of peace, could accomplish so much with the humble tea leaf and a few bamboo stalks, surely the rest of us, too, can become more imaginative, in ridding humanity from the curse of these evil, costly nuclear weapons? If we do--and we can--vast new opportunities and vistas await to be discovered, some earthly, some spiritual, some even in a simple bowl of tea.

Nassrine Azimi
Born in Iran in 1959, Swiss citizen. Earned a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute in Geneva in 1986 and another master’s degree from Geneva University’s Institute of Architecture in 1998. Joined the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in 1986. After serving as chief of UNITAR’s New York office, became the first director of its new Hiroshima office in 2003. Stepped down in 2009. Now serves as its senior advisor. In 2011 co-founded and now co-coordinates Green Legacy Hiroshima Initiative (http://www.unitar.org/greenlegacyhiroshima), a project to send around the world seeds and seedlings from trees that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Has written opinion pieces in the International New York Times and other publications on various topics, including on Hiroshima’s efforts to bring about peace, and on the aftermath of the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Her latest book, Last Boat to Yokohama, was released in May 2015. Resident of Hiroshima.