zen & the art of flower arrangement

Jennie Zeitler practice ikebana at  the Yokosuka Naval Base community center. Photo by Tetsuo Nakahara, Stripes Okinawa
Jennie Zeitler practice ikebana at the Yokosuka Naval Base community center. Photo by Tetsuo Nakahara, Stripes Okinawa

zen & the art of flower arrangement

by: Tetsuo Nakahara | .
Stripes Japan | .
published: November 19, 2015

In Japan, arranging flowers is more than a mere hobby for decorating rooms. It is a spiritual tradition and art form that goes by the name of “ikebana.”

This form of Japanese flower arrangement has been practiced for more than 500 years. Today, ikebana is a well-know, popular practice with classes held not only throughout Japan but worldwide. There are many ikebana exhibits out on town, and classes can be found on many U.S. military bases from the Kanto Plain to Okinawa Island.

“The biggest difference between Western flower arrangement and ikebana is that ikebana has a more spiritual aspect,” said Nobuko Usui, president of Tokyo-based Ikebana International. “Ikebana artistic expression is to create a universe within the flower arrangement space. The artists create arrangements as if there is a planet with a sky, land, water and other living elements within that space.”  

The group’s website further explains ikebana as, “a way to express creativity within certain rules of construction. Its materials are living branches, leaves, grasses, and blossoms. It is the art of color combinations, natural shapes, graceful lines, and the meaning latent in the total form of the arrangement.”

Upon arriving in Japan in the sixth century, Buddhism introduced the custom of placing flower arrangements on altars. It is said that a priest of the Rokkakudo Temple in Kyoto who was extremely talented at arranging flowers became so famous for it that he began teaching the skill to other priests.

Because he lived, “by the lake,” or “ikenobo” in Japanese, the area is known is known as Ikenobo. Today, the Rokkakudo Temple area and Ikenobo are an ikebana mecca, drawing Japanese and foreign fans alike.

Over time, ikebana became popular not only at the imperial court and with Buddhist clergy, but among commoners as well. By the 1500s, it was so popular that it could be seen at traditional festivals, and exhibits were held periodically, according to Ikebana International. Between 1560 and 1600, when many spectacular castles were built, ikebana played a major role in elaborate decorations that showed the wealth and power of shoguns.

Today, more than 2,000 ikebana schools are registered with the Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology, according to Ikebana International. Each school has its original style based on the same basic concepts. However, some schools have more modern styles, while others are more traditional. The three major schools are Ohara, Sogetsu and Ikenobo. 

Despite its Kyoto origins, even the most traditional style, Ikenobo ikebana, can be found as far south as Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, where instructor Michiko Urasaki takes full advantage of the island’s diverse flora. She says that thanks to Okinawa’s tropical weather, the flower arrangements there can be very exotic.

“Ikenobo style is the oldest school in ikebana and its headquarters is in Kyoto,” said Urasaki, who teaches her classes at Schilling Community Center. “We try to use local flowers but we also need to take flowers from (mainland) Japan for arrangements. There are many flowers in Japan that Americans have never seen. So, I really want hope they will have a chance to enjoy these flowers as well as the art of ikebana.”

For Keika Arai, a Sogetsu ikebana instructor who’s been teaching classes at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, for 20 years, it’s as much about creative expression as it is the traditional form.

“What makes ikebana so interesting is its minimalist approach to making arrangements,” said Arai. “Sogetsu’s motto is ‘Anyone can make ikebana, any material can be used, and arrangements can be placed anywhere.’ That’s why it’s popular worldwide. And we teach a more freer creative style compared to other schools.

“Since we have international offices, some of our students continue doing ikebana after they return to the States,” Arai added. “Because military members have a limited time to stay in Japan, I hope they enjoy ikebana culture and hopefully learn a skill for decorating a home, party or other events. It would be nice if ikebana becomes a bridge between Japan and the U.S.”

Yokosuka Navy spouse Jennie Zeitler said she was initially attracted to Arai’s classes because of the unusual beauty of ikebana arrangements. Now she’s clearly fascinated by other aspects of the art as well.

“I’ve learned that in ikebana you have a lot space in your flowers, and also it’s minimal; whereas in American arrangements, flowers are just saturated in a design,” Zeitler said. “It’s kind of hard to remember that the simplicity and the space are the important themes in ikebana.”

Such inklings of that deeper appreciation is what ikebana experts say their art really has to offer. It is one that may just help practitioners discover, as well as create, a whole new flower universe of their own. 

“When you focus on making your own ikebana art, you become very concentrated,” said Ikebana International’s Usui. “And it helps people live ‘in the moment’ and appreciate things in nature. So, don’t worry too much about how the arrangement will be – just enjoy yourself with ikebana.”


US-Japan friendship through flowers

Many may be surprised to learn that the nonprofit cultural organization Ikebana International has its roots in the U.S. military presence in Japan. It was founded in Tokyo in 1956 by Ellen Gordon Allen, the wife of U.S. Army General Frank Allen, according to Nobuko Usui, the group’s current president.

“Mrs. Allen learned ikebana in the 1950s while she lived in Japan when her husband was stationed at General Headquarters,” said Usui. “She was impressed by the art of ikebana and earned her teaching certificated from Ohara School. She started teaching ikebana and even published a book (Japanese Flower Arrangement: A Complete Primer). She established the organization to foster the world peace through ikebana. And our organization’s motto is ‘Friendship through Flowers”.

Mrs. Allen returned to Washington, D.C., and helped found Chapter No. 1. She died in 1972 at the age of 74, according to the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Today, Ikebana International’s headquarter is located in Kanda, Tokyo. There are 200 chartered chapters in over 50 countries with about 8,000 members in all over the world, according to Usui. Nearly 50 percent of the members are American and there are 68 Chapters in the U.S. Those interested in ikebana can contact local chapters for available classes and events.

“Ikebana was initially introduced to the U.S. and other countries by a military wife,” said Usui. “The connections between military wives was so strong that news about ikebana was passed on by word of mouth, eventually making it so popular in the U.S.”

For more information on Ikebana International: www.ikebanahq.org

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