Japanese Tea Ceremony, Image credit: Mizuno Toshikata [Public domain]
Japan is known to many as a country rich in culture. Some of the most famous Japanese cultural traditions have been practiced for over 1500 years. The Japanese names for them usually contain the character「道」 (dō), although each tradition is unique unto itself and more or less unrelated to the others.
Normally, 道 means “road” and is read as 「みち」 (michi). However, when Japanese people use the character together with other kanji to identify cultural traditions such as martial arts, it is pronounced “dō” and carries an implied nuance of “seeking for truth and oneself through dedication to a single thing.”
Let’s take a look at a few of these traditions that use 道.
Known to foreigners as “tea ceremony,” 茶道 was first documented in Japan in the 9th century following its arrival from China. In the 1500s, 千利休 (Sen no Rikyū) developed a style now known as 「侘茶」(wabi-cha), which put more emphasis on simplicity and less on extravagant materials and settings.
Historically, the Japanese tea ceremony has also been heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, sharing some of its most important elements: harmony with nature (自然との調和), respect (敬), purity (清), and tranquility (寂).
Playing the role of host in a Japanese tea ceremony is extremely difficult - even for Japanese people - but don’t let that scare you away! Many foreigners find great enjoyment in simply taking part as a guest.
Here is a photograph of one of my own 生け花 arrangements, done in 「池坊・自由花」 (ikenobō jiyūka, or “freestyle”).
More commonly referred to as 「生け花」 (ikebana), this tradition is popular among women. The idea of an offering of flowers in a religious context was brought from China along with Buddhism around the year AD 538. In the Muromachi Period (1336–1573), a priest who lived by a pond (池 or “ike”) and possessed inordinate skill in altar flower arrangements started a school which would come to be known as 「池坊」 (ikenobō), thus officially establishing the 華道 tradition. Originally, the art emphasized natural shapes and forms in homage to the natural world. However, as time passed, the style underwent numerous changes and eventually evolved into several different schools.
Aikidō is the name of a Japanese martial art created by Morihei Ueshiba in 1920. Although often lumped together with other fighting styles such as 空手 (karate) and 柔道 (jūdō), 合気道 differs in that it requires almost no physical power.
To enable this, the style makes the most effective use of the attacker’s own power, and in doing so allows a much smaller defender to hold her own against a large opponent.
The character 「合」 means “joining; unifying; combining,” while 「気」 carries connotations of “spirit; energy; mood; morale.” The main aim of aikidō is to train both the mind and body to be at peace and in concord with nature.
The kanji 「弓」 (yumi) means “bow.” 「弓道」 is the name given to Japanese archery.
In the 16th century, 弓 were weapons of war.
When the Edo Period (1603-1867) brought with it a long period of relative peace to Japan, archery continued as a part of samurai training known as 武士道 (bushidō). But around the beginning of the Meiji Period, the samurai lost their status in society, and the art of the bow became endangered. In response to this threat, in 1896 a group of kyūdō masters gathered to save traditional archery.
When I practiced 弓道, my teacher said to me, “The difference between kyūdō and archery is the goal of each. In kyūdō, your score is not important. The most important thing is harmony with the other participants.”
Image [Public Domain]
Mastering a foreign language is not as simple as merely memorizing a bunch of word lists or phrases from a book. It requires a deep understanding of the culture and traditions ingrained in the minds of the people who speak it. By studying aspects of culture such as the traditions listed above, you will gain valuable insight into Japanese culture that will accelerate your language studies in ways that are not always immediately obvious.
Not to mention, participating in these traditions yourself can be downright fun!