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The kamikaze pilots who cried out 'Mom!'

Sen Genshitsu, former Urasenke grand tea master, talks during an interview in Kyoto. Genshitsu reflects on a life dedicated to the tea ceremony and experiences as a kamikaze pilot in World War II.

KYOTO, Japan — 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:

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 [honorable 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 realized 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 organize 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 (143 miles per hour). Since our plane was loaded with two bombs weighing 250 kilograms (550 pounds) 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.

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During a break between training flights, I performed a tea ceremony beside my beloved fighter plane. I had a portable tea box with me and served rationed yokan bean-paste jelly from Toraya — a sweets shop long famed for its yokan.

Then a friend of mine, Yoshikage Hatabu from Kyoto Imperial University, said to me, "Say, Sen, if I make it back alive, let me have tea in your real tea room."

Even now, his words still linger in my ears. In that moment, I thought for the first time that I wouldn't come back alive and felt a chill up my spine.

I was overcome with desperation so I stood up, turned to the direction of my home in Kyoto and cried out "Mom! Mom!" My fellow fighter pilots also got up and began shouting "Mom!" toward their own hometowns.

Hatabu was the first of us to leave for a suicide attack mission. He never returned. Nishimura and I were the only ones of our group that survived. He actually took off for a suicide attack mission, but he had trouble with his plane and managed to come back.

I myself was never deployed. I was transferred to the Matsuyama flying corps in mid-April [in 1945] where I saw the end of World War II. To this day I still feel shame.

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My family welcomed me home with great joy after I was discharged from military service.

Not long after, American soldiers from the Occupation Army showed up at our home asking for a cup of tea. They had driven a big Jeep through a narrow alley up to the tea house.

I felt they were quite unpleasant, but my father looked nonchalant as he ushered them into a tatami room and served them tea. But he would bark "Get away!" to those who were rude or ill-mannered. Even the younger ones were surprised at my father's dignity.

And then it hit me. It doesn't matter if you're an Occupation army soldier or a citizen of a war-defeated country when it comes to the way of tea. I decided to convey the Japanese spirit of the tea ceremony to people the world over. As a war survivor and a tea ceremony master, I felt this was the path that was set before me.

I visited the United States for the first time in 1950 and have visited more than 60 countries since. A catchphrase I came up with to spread the ways of the tea ceremony was "Peacefulness starts with a tea bowl." I have continued to pray for peace in each of the bowls of tea I serve.

In 2011, a tea-offering ceremony was held at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. I prepared a bowl of tea to pay tribute to the souls of those who died when the battleship Arizona sank in Pearl Harbor after being attacked by Japanese warplanes, and another to wish for peace in the world. An American survivor of the Arizona air raid told me that, for him, there would be no more "Remember Pearl Harbor" from that day forth.

The tea ceremony has a mysterious power. It is not a religion, but it seeps into our hearts just the same.

Whenever the anniversary date comes around, I dedicate tea to my fellow soldiers who died in the war in the waters off Okinawa where they rest. In May this year, I held a memorial service on a ship off Naha Port for the war dead accompanied by my classmates from pilot training school. We lowered baskets containing tea, sweets and flowers, which gently sank into the sea. Minutes later, a green hue spread through the waters. I believe my friends drank the tea offering.

I tell my grandchildren and others about the war, but it's hard for them to understand. They're aware of the importance of peace, but they tend to only think of ways that Japan can avoid war. Instead of fleeing [the idea], I wish for them to think of how wars can be prevented.

About Sen Genshitsu:

Sen Genshitsu was born in 1923 in Kyoto as the eldest son of the 14th-generation Urasenke iemoto grand tea master. He studied at Doshisha University because Yae Niijima, the wife of university founder Jo Niijima, learned the tea ceremony under the 13th-generation Urasenke iemoto. Following military service, he took Buddhist vows at Daitokuji temple and received the Buddhist title Hounsai. In 1964, he undertook the iemoto position, passing it to his eldest son in 2002. After the transfer, he renamed himself Genshitsu. He was awarded the Order of Culture in 1997. He was also appointed a UNESCO goodwill ambassador as well as a Japan-U.N. goodwill ambassador. His books include "Cha no Kokoro Sekai he" (The heart of tea to the world).

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