Arts & Entertainment

Zoom monks and virtual geishas: How Japanese traditions adapt to new normal

By Antonio Hermosín Gandul

Tokyo, July 9 (efe-epa).- A Zen monk sits in front of a webcam, rings a bell, and begins a meditation session with dozens of virtual participants spread all over the world.

This is how Japanese traditions have adapted to the “new normal” following the coronavirus pandemic, despite having largely shunned new technologies so far.

“Relax and pay attention to the air that enters and leaves your body. While exhaling, free your mind of unnecessary thoughts,” said Daigo Ozawa, the abbot of the Tokozenji monastery in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, in one of the weekly free classes of the meditation technique “zazen,” offered in both Japanese and English.

In absolute silence, the participants follow the monk’s instructions about the practice, which is carried out in a seated position and considered the core of Zen Buddhism.

The monks of Tokozenji resorted to the alternative of videoconferencing after being forced to cancel their face-to-face classes due to the pandemic, just like practitioners of other Japanese traditional arts such as geisha performances.

“Sincerely speaking, I was very skeptical of online zazen sessions,” Ozawa told EFE, explaining the importance of the monk’s physical presence in this discipline for supervising the breathing or correcting postures by touching backs and shoulders of disciples with a cane.

The monk decided to try out virtual sessions when a few months ago the regulars in his monthly physical classes said they were “extremely sad” by not being able to attend due to the restrictions for containing the spread of Covid-19.

“I wanted to help the society in some way during this time of great uncertainties and difficulties,” said Ozawa, adding that zazen could help in “clearing the mind and finding peace and tranquility.”

Once the preparation and structure of the sessions are adapted to the virtual format, the way of conducting the classes “does not change too much” compared to in-person sessions, the abbot said.

The one-hour classes consist of a brief introduction followed by two meditation sessions interspersed by the monk interpreting a poem and end with a reading of the comments and questions left by the disciples in chat.

“I feel much more peaceful, not just due to zazen but also because I can feel the connection with others, sharing this moment from a distance,” one of the participants said after a session.

The geisha performances, which traditionally take place in an intimate and exclusive atmosphere for clients of a certain socioeconomic standing, have also been forced to adapt to the post-coronavirus era.

Since May, a “kenban,” – an association of geishas – in Hakone, southwestern Tokyo, has been offering collective or individual online sessions by these entertainment professionals trained in the arts of dance, music, and conversation.

The initiative came up as a way to keep the geishas employed after they lost their earnings due to the pandemic, as well as to ensure that they could “continue training and preparing themselves,” Tamaki Nishimura, head of the Meet Geisha platform, told EFE.

In the teleconference programs, geishas perform traditional dances and songs, play instruments, and chat with clients, who are recommended to connect through computers or phones along with a drink or some finger-food.

This is an attempt to recreate the festive and intimate atmosphere surrounding the geishas as much as possible, although Nishimura admits it is “very different” from a live performance, which is evident from the criticism her initiative has attracted.

“There are some who say these are not real geishas because they don’t follow the tradition. (…) But those who work with us believe that if there ever was a time to change the concept of geishas, it is now,’ she said.

“Maybe this is the only way we have of surviving,” adds Nishimura, who believes that due to the pandemic they would not be able to hold company dinners with 20-30 guests, which used to be one of the main income sources for the geishas of Hakone.

Although at the beginning of July the kenban reopened its live performances with small groups and ensuring social distancing, the geishas continue to offer virtual shows amid increasing interest among clients from Asia, Europe, and North America, Nishimura said. EFE-EPA

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