Kyoko Kasai: Master of Japanese Tea Ceremony & Rule Breaker

My last cultural anthropology class as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara fell into the the hands of professor Silke Werth and her studies on Japanese culture. Our quarter assignment was to interview someone of Japanese descent and present our findings to the class. I was nervous but SO excited to share the story of a woman who brought genuine happiness into my life with her firecracker personality. As I finished my presentation, my review was in: students liked how I brought her to life in a multisensory way and I hope you feel the same. This is a woman worth knowing if only through words because she is inspirational, wise, and dare I say, a model for women everywhere.

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I have always had an affinity for Japanese culture. Their stance on sexuality; their third gender, the Shinjuku Boys, the Kabuki and Takarazuka theater’s highlight openness far beyond that experienced here in the United States and are unique to say the very least. Their origin stories that gave birth to vibrant myths are so exciting for me to revisit. Their delicate arts and practices like Ikebana and tea ceremonies ground me. I hope everyone reading this has a romanticized idea about a particular culture far removed from their own because it will truly help you understand why Kyoko Kasai made me feel nostalgic over a place and culture I have never experienced fully. I felt transported in time as we spoke, I felt her feelings of joy, pride, and what I would describe as sadness when talking about her parents but what she may describe as just another life experience. Kyoko, is unlike any Japanese woman I ever met, but I am not here to compare and contrast her to others. I am here to tell you the life history story of sensei Soyko Kasai, Master of tea and her beautiful presence that gleams with a hint of playful rebellion.

matcha

I observed Kyoko teach her students the art of tea making for about 4 hours when I found myself indulging on matcha green tea and a cracker snack at the end of a long practice. Kyoko conducted herself in such a regal manner that the memory of her playful nature when first revealed to me, will forever me etched into my memory. It was silent in the tea house, all you could hear were the leaves rustling in the wind and a water brook filling this tranquil space with life. A mosquito landed on the student’s cheek who was making tea, he did not feel a thing but the other students took silent notice like myself. Kyoko walked around to see what all the eyeing fuss was about, whispered something to her student and SMACK. She slapped the mosquito dead on his face. Everyone gasped but Kyoko laughed so hard that we laughed with her. I loved it, sometimes it can take a few interactions before you get to see someone’s playful side and I was lucky to be in the presence of people who made Kyoko feel comfortable. Being observed, let alone interviewed can be a daunting experience. Throughout the practice she would translate instructions she had given them, explaining the purposes of their practice. When we finally got to sit down and talk, she held the same position she was in most of the practice, sitting on her heels.  I asked her for the correct pronunciation of her name and its origin.

My given name is Kyoko Kasai (Key-oh-ko Kah-sigh) but I also have a tea name Soyko Kasai

Kyoko’s mother wanted to give her a katsumi. Katsumi are gender neutral names but it happened that a monk told her mother that Kyoko, bears the same symbol as Kyoto (the ancient capital of Japan) was more suitable and feminine for her daughter. Kyoko said that Katsumi, in her opinion, are too strong of names. This was interesting; if I had to describe Kyoko’s personality, it’s both strong and gentle. Growing up as an only child, she was exposed to tea ceremony through her mother. However, she had no interest in the particular ways her mother practiced. Her childhood friend’s mother was the one to teach Kyoko the ways of tea ceremony first, at 16. She also learned to play the Koto, a stringed instrument and learned calligraphy. She laughed saying she hated it because her mother’s friend was too strict and that didn’t make it any fun. I loved gaining insight into Kyoko as a young woman, she was defining what it meant to not follow societal norms and gender roles. She was someone who knew what she wanted and didn’t waste time doing things that didn’t bring her satisfaction. At 13 she designed her own outfits and had her aunt who was a seamstress execute her fashion visions, all the while her mom disapproved. Kyoko recalled her mother saying ““NO! You’re only 13, you shouldn’t wear that kind of stuff.”

But I did (wear that kind of stuff) I am not a timid girl. I express myself (laughs) My mother said that my dad always let me get away with everything. Dad said “This is not my fault.” (laughs)

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In terms of education, she found her own schooling that suited her interests: music and singing. These schools were private, meaning they were also very expensive. Her parents completely supported her and when recalling her life in Japan, she said she was very lucky that they did. My favorite and most cherished recollection she shared was that of her wedding day.

Kyoko: Okay, okay, okay. On my wedding day when the bride and the groom enter, I walk in front of him (laughs).

Kyoko’s Tea Student: Oh yeah!?!?!

Kyoko: He don’t see nothing wrong with me walking in front of him. Everyone said later “Oh my goodness, Kyoko! You shouldn’t walk front of him” my wedding was informal (laughs)

Kelly/Interviewer (Me): Is it safe to say you did not follow traditional gender rules?

Kyoko: Traditionally, women walk three steps behind the husband (laughs) but I was always three steps ahead. (recalling quote in Japanese) “Husband says, wife follows” okay but my case “Wife tells, husband follows”

We all laugh

Kyoko’s Tea Student: Very rare (laughs)

Me: She very unique!

Kyoko: That’s why I said, that guy my husband. If other one, I cannot live. (laughs)

Wanting to know more about her upbringing and her parents gender values or traditions, I asked Kyoko if her dad made most of the decisions at home. She said

Sometime, but I myself always, I made my own decisions. Even when I married and came to America, it was my decisions. My parents, they respected me or they forgive me or I don’t know their feelings but always my mother said after that she was so sad. But my father told her “Kyoko hasn’t died, she just lives across the ocean, so why you so sad and cry?”

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At 22, she moved to Los Angeles and met her grand master who she said is the founder of tea ceremony schools, Urasenke in the U.S. Her grand master is still alive today at the age of 98. To Kyoko, tea is part of everyday life in Japan and it is not seen as something special. Tea gatherings are a sort of party, especially for the host or hostess. You invite a main guest and two other guests. You welcome everyone into your home, you talk about the tea, who made it, and why the utensils and arrangements were picked. Kyoko explained that everything has an intention. The flowers are picked seasonally and made to look natural. Another word for this is Ikebana. The scroll that is picked for the day carries a special meaning. On the day I visited, Kyoko had picked a scroll that symbolized the seasonal changes from Winter to Summer and Children’s day which was soon approaching. Translated, it read “The fresh breeze comes from south. The emperor’s courtyard feels very nice” it was a Chinese poem. The story of a special scroll came to mind when I asked Kyoko to recall a cherished memory of her time in Japan. She was at Tea school in Kyoto and the students were asked to practice a tea gathering. Kyoko was the main guest and her friend who played hostess had laid out a scroll that spoke volumes to Kyoko

I was shocked because it said “The crystal ball has to be shined more.” That meant to me that I am here, I have to study more, and shine myself more. It was my first stepping stone for tea gathering

Kyoko currently travels back and forth to Japan to keep “shining herself” and sharpening her skills. She is always learning something new and speaks with pride about it, especially when she talks about transferring her knowledge to students. She once mentioned that her college taught her “for others” and her thoughts are always for others. I found that so beautiful about her and felt like this was a true representation of Japanese culture – it was a community, everything done for each other. To further drive home this idea, she told me she is not religious but still attends church to sing and read the bible with everyone.

I am not a member and I am not Christian. But I understand and my center is open.

Holding

I lastly wanted to talk about the brief conversation Kyoko and I had about death. Her parents both died within the past year or so. Her father was 94 and her mother, 89. She traveled back to Japan to be at her fathers side for two weeks before his passing but her mothers death was sudden and surprised her. This was the most solemn I had seen Kyoko in our lively time together. She said something that moved me tears later when I played back our interview. Kyoko was someone I was so humbled and happy to have met and heard stories from, I really enjoyed the language barrier because everything she said was so authentic and the way she chose to translate her feelings and words were beautiful. It reminded me of my own mother and the way she translates her thoughts from Spanish to English; they are so much more fun compared to the daily English grammar you hear because of the different worldview that can be introduced to you.

So, in Japan I conduct funeral and people said “You’re so sad” and I don’t feel any sadness but maybe they feel me. (speaking of funerals) It should be a celebration of how happy she was.

It was amazing to hear about the people who challenged Kyoko and still loved and respected her. Her openness and her nature to be unlike women of her culture moved me. She is politely and beautifully unapologetic. To label her as a paradox would be wrong because of the negative connotation contradictions bring. While she was not a fan of strict “others,” she entered a discipline that required the utmost strict regime and behaviors. I wish I could go back and ask her how that figures into her life. I’m sure she would laugh and have a wise answer but I like the mystery. I chalk it up to finding a balance. It was even more endearing to hear about the people who supported Kyoko as she “broke these rules.” Her aunt supported her fashion choices and even encouraged her by making outfits. Her father always reassured her that she was a nice girl even if her mother discouraged him and her husband clearly had no problem with Kyoko as the powerhouse woman she is. If there’s one thing Kyoko taught me, it was to genuinely laugh off the people who are “should-ing” all over you and your lifestyle choices. Be you, have an open center, and every once in a while, stop and listen to what the birds and leaves are saying while drinking tea.

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