It took just a moment in time: 6 August 1945 at 8:15am. The first atomic bomb to be used in warfare exploded 600 metres above Hiroshima. The city was destroyed in an instant. An estimated 70,000 people died in that same instant. At least the same number again died as a result of the effects, although the number is probably much higher.

To stand at the spot which is “ground zero” in Hiroshima is a moving experience; to view the grim exhibits and listen to the testimony of survivors at the memorial museum is frankly shocking. It brings home the fragility of human existence. It took just a moment.

In Japan, the tea ceremony is a much-loved tradition. Its founder, Sen no Rikyu, offered an explanation of its importance in one simple phrase, ichigoichie: one time, one meeting. Or, put another way: each moment is unique; each moment occurs only once. It will not happen again. Therefore, every encounter, every meeting, must be deeply cherished.

The tea ceremony has a ritual to it, in which the host serves the guests with humility and courtesy. Guests’ enjoyment is paramount. In Japan, much emphasis is placed on according importance to “other people” regardless of age, gender or status.

The principles which apply to the tea ceremony include harmony, respect and calmness. Imperfection and asymmetry are often referred to. Everyone is treated equally in the tea ceremony room. Simplicity, restraint, dignity, gracefulness, mindfulness, non-judgment, selflessness and the connectedness of all things are at its heart. It is about living in the moment. There are particular techniques performed, in a very specific way, and the setting is important too, as is the frequent bowing to one another.

Living in the moment. Hiroshima shows what can happen in just a moment when human beings are set against each other. The tea ceremony captures the idea of the moment in a quite different way, where the emphasis is on building good and respectful relationships.

As someone whose career has focused on helping people to build better relationships and to reduce unhelpful conflict, these ideas resonate with me. As a mediator, I am aware of how important the early meeting of disputing parties on a mediation day can be. Very often I invite the participants to meet together with me for breakfast. The idea is to use the sharing of simple food to create or restore working relationships which will underpin the negotiations which lie ahead that day. I try to set the tone with some remarks about the purpose of the meetings and the behaviours which, in my experience, tend to work well. This may be against the background of previous difficult exchanges, either directly or in a court process.

Reflecting on this moment in mediation, it occurs to me that the principles of the Japanese tea ceremony have application here, and indeed more widely. Respect, dignity, humility, seeking harmony, restraint, non-judgment; these are all helpful attributes in a productive negotiation, whether carried out in mediation or more directly. After all, each negotiation moment happens only once.

Some of those charged with political leadership in this country might do well to employ this thinking too. And to remember how quickly, in an imperfect world, things can degenerate in human affairs. It takes just a moment.

I have written before in this column about the tension between travel, carbon footprints and facing up to climate change. Recent experience suggests to me that we must find ways to continue to get to know and learn from each other around the world. We will not survive if we cut ourselves off from others. Travel seems essential to our common understanding. We need to find a balance, however, and be discerning and restrained – and to cherish every encounter when we do meet others at home or abroad.

Incidentally, I write this before the Japan-Scotland rugby match but readers will know the result, if indeed the game has taken place at all. If the Japanese team has triumphed, we must remember that we have so much more in common with people from that country than anything which divides us. They are passionate about their rugby too! And I do hope the Scottish team will continue its new tradition of bowing to the crowd at the end of matches. It might catch on elsewhere.


Originally published as an article in The Scotsman on Monday 14 October 2019.

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