—— Can you tell us about your current activities?
In addition to private lessons at home, I teach Ikenobo ikebana classes in Balboa Park, National City, Rancho Santa Fe, Vista, and other places. Not only Japanese, but also many Americans charmed by flowers attend my classes. Currently, I have approximately 100 students studying ikebana. I also participate in activities for a cultural organization called “Ikebana International,” established in Tokyo in 1956 by the late Mrs. Ellen Gordon Allen, who had been deeply impressed by the spirit and artistry of ikebana. With the motto “Friendship Through Flowers,” members of various nationalities and schools of ikebana regularly hold exhibitions, perform demonstrations, and conduct school visitation programs designed to introduce Japan and its culture to American students.
—— Ikenobo is considered to be the mainstream of ikebana. Can you tell us about its history?
You can say that the history of the Ikenobo Headmasters is the history of ikebana itself. “Ikenobo” was originally the name of the clan of chief Buddhist priests serving the Rokkakudo Temple, which is believed to have been founded by Prince Shotoku. Through successive generations, the priests had lived in a hut (bo in Japanese) near a pond (ike), so people called them “Ikenobo.” It was about 500 years ago when ikebana started appearing in written history. In the middle Muromachi (1338-1573) period, Ikenobo produced Senkei, a master of the rikka (“standing flowers”) style, and in the late Muromachi period, Senno Ikenobo wrote an ikebana textbook entitled “Senno Kuden” and established the philosophy of ikebana: not to simply enjoy the outward beauty of flowers, but to discover the profound meaning of the life of plants by reflecting upon natural flowers blooming in fields and mountains or by waterfronts into our living. That concept established an enlightened approach to flower arrangement. During the Momoyama (1573-96) and the early Edo (1603-1867) periods, two generations of Senko Ikenobo succeeded in enhancing the elegance and quality of rikka. Through Edo, Meiji (1868-1912), and Showa (1926-89) periods, masters highlighting their times produced the fragrant culture of ikebana. More recently, the forty-fifth Headmaster, Mr. Sen’ei Ikenobo, has created new styles, shoka shimputai (“living flowers” new style) and rikka shimputai, which adopt traditional ikebana to today’s living space and life styles. In 1995, Ms. Yuki Ikenobo was appointed as the forty-sixth Headmaster Designate, the first female headmaster in the Ikenobo history. We currently have approximately 400 chapters in Japan and 100 chapters in 30 countries throughout the world. We have literally become “the Ikenobo of the World.”
—— How did you discover ikebana?
I was born into an old family in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, the oldest of four brothers and four sisters. In the early Showa period, people considered skills in flower arrangement, tea ceremony, and the Japanese harp as feminine qualifications, so I had taken all sorts of lessons since my childhood. But in 1931, when I was six, the Manchurian Incident broke out, which eventually led to the Pacific War. That changed our way of life in Japan. Like everyone else, throughout the entire fifteen years of the war, my youth was bound to war matters instead of ikebana. In the prewar and postwar confusion, which included the deaths of my father and a brother, volunteer labor in the war effort, air raids, black market, etc., it was a time when none of us ̶ my family, myself, or the country - knew what would happen tomorrow. One day, in an air-raid shelter, I was moved by a single violet in light purple planted in a simple basket. It was modest, and as beautiful as a single star twinkling in the sky. I was enchanted by its simple beauty. I sensed its power to survive on this scorched earth. That taught me human beings and plants stood in the same place in this universe. When we accept the fact that we humans always die just like flowers which eventually decay, we become sincere in how we live in this moment. To be part of the world called “the arts,” we need to accept this fact first.
—— What brought you to the United States?
Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast announcement of ending the war changed everything overnight. Our financial situation had been difficult, so in order to support our family, I started working for the department of physical therapy at the Navy Hospital. There, I met my future husband, an American who was working in Japan. We got married in 1953. Then, partly because my husband recommended it, I attended the Ikenobo University Teacher Training Institute in Tokyo and graduated there in 1958. I took a variety of Japanese arts classes at the Institute. These covered areas of traditional culture, such as flower arrangement, tea ceremony, incense ceremony, and social etiquette, and that of traditional arts, such as dance and music, and that of creative arts, such as calligraphy, pottery, and Japanese-style painting. I also took home economics classes including cooking, Japanese confectionery, kimono dressing, and off-campus activities, as well as social cultural education classes including current events and contemporary etiquette. Discovering traditional culture means to discover many hearts that have sustained it and to beat with them. Through my studies at the Institute, I was able to understand my Japanese identity, to discover myself, and to grow as a cultured person by enhancing my creativity. In 1959, we moved to San Diego so that my husband could receive medical treatment.
—— Did you open your ikebana classroom right after coming to the US?
Early on, I never thought about teaching ikebana in America. One day, my English conversation teacher, Mrs. Stewart, asked me about my hobbies. I told her I could perform ikebana. She seemed very interested and invited me to a flower show held at the San Diego Garden Club. She had served as a judge for the Iris Society, a gardening club for lovers of Japanese flowers including the iris. She strongly recommended that I participate in a convention hosted by the Garden Club, so I presented elaborately arranged flowers, combining decayed local tree branches dyed in black with yellow roses. That attracted the judges’ attention. After that, together with Mrs. Greene, one of the leading experts in Western-style flower arrangement in the US, I had a valuable opportunity to present a Japan-US ikebana exhibition entitled “East Meets West” in Balboa Park.
In the 1960s’ America, more than ten years after the end of the Pacific War, there had been a boom among upper-class people in things related to Japan. Magazines such as New Yorker and Vogue featured articles about Zen Buddhism, whereas House Beautiful introduced Japanese culture in two volumes with a headline “shibui” (refined). Today, people in the world widely accept Japanese traditional culture including the concepts of wabi (simple, austere beauty and tranquility) and sabi (combination of loneliness, resignation, and tranquility), Kabuki, Noh, tea ceremony, ikebana, as well as outstanding industrial products from Japan and Japanese food such as sushi. But America’s adoration for the Orient had just sprouted in the 1960s. And in 1962, I opened an ikebana classroom backed by people interested in Japanese ikebana, and in 1976 I succeeded in establishing the Ikenobo San Diego Chapter. In addition, while teaching ikebana, I took lessons from instructors from Japan, driving up to Los Angeles every month. I continued to learn the philosophy of ikebana creation, studying the “universality and trends” in Japanese flower arrangement. I did that for fifteen years.
—— Have you had any interesting experiences with ikebana in America?
Unlike Japan where various kinds of flowers bloom in each season and the appearance of plants changes slightly according to changes in nature, it is difficult to get floral materials in here San Diego. But, the purpose of Japanese flower arrangement is to arrange natural flowers blooming in fields and mountains or by waterfronts, so I grow plants in my small yard and offer my students some floral materials. I have also asked the students to grow plants themselves and to enjoy a simple flavor of each tree branch or each plant. In Japan, I was taught “not to step on the teacher’s toes,” but things are different here in America. When I met the forty-fifth Headmaster Mr. Sen’ei Ikenobo in 1976, he was surprised and said, “Ms. Oehler, I’ve learned that you go to the classroom before your students and prepare for the class. It’s opposite in Japan.” But today, my students do everything from the preparation for the class to the cleanup. Still, I’d like to be considerate in everything ̶ handling of flowers, cleanup, consideration to keep the flowers longer, courtesy to the teachers and friends, thoughtfulness for the invited guest -̶ I’d like to be modest for both flowers and people. We should always be aware of this frame of mind to train ourselves mentally through ikebana. That leads to "artistic lives," making the fundamentals of our lives rich and beautiful.
—— What’s the difference between ikebana and flower design?
It seems that young people nowadays are more interested in flower design than ikebana. Well, flower design is “designing” flowers, so it has advantages. It’s scientific and easy to learn as well as being gorgeous and easy to decorate. Meanwhile, the origin of ikebana is said to be Buddhist priests’ practice of offering flowers to Buddha in the sixth century. Ikebana is based on the notion of depicting the universe, the earth, and human beings in balance by using natural flowers. Japanese flower arrangement is about clipping flowers, which is basically kuge (Buddhist flower offering).
It is an act of “praying,” and that makes ikebana. Recently, the free style, in which you arrange flowers without restriction by understanding their characteristics from a design viewpoint, has been popular. Also ikebana looks exotic to Americans because it not only presents interesting shapes, but also includes the spirituality, the thoughtfulness, and the sense of beauty that Japanese have treasured. That’s my understanding. When somebody senses, through ikebana, the importance of “harmony” planted in Japanese culture ̶ that’s my happiest moment.
—— What do you believe are your greatest achievements?
I still vividly remember my participation in the “Flower Arrangement 100 Exhibits” held at the Ueno National Japanese Art Museum in Tokyo in 1959. As if receiving a big medal, I was very ecstatic. It was an exhibition by 100 ikebana experts from leading schools in Japan. As a delegate from Ikenobo, I described autumn, arranging foxtails and dark red chrysanthemums. My teacher may have sent me there out of “compassion,” but it became extremely memorable as a highlight of my experience in Japan. In May 2000, we held a celebration for the 25th anniversary of our chapter and invited the forty-fifth Headmaster Mr. Sen’ei Ikenobo from Kyoto. It was a wonderful program. The Headmaster presented three works, one each in shoka shimputai, free style, and rikka shimputai, and charmed the audience with his calm personality and convincing, skillful speech. On that occasion, I was granted a certificate of appreciation for my longtime service and the appointment of Iemoto Karoshoku “Junkaroho.”
—— Can you tell us about the quintessence of ikebana?
One day, a Japanese woman, who seemed to be in her fifties, visited my home. She said she had been in the US for twenty years. Judging from her manners that showed her foresight, I could tell she was intelligent. She turned out to be in an important position at a major corporation. She said, “I started thinking about the meaning of life for the first time recently. But, even such meaning seems fragile and empty. As I think, I come to understand that happiness which humans pursue is based on the ‘ending,’ which visits everybody someday...” After that, she has continued coming to my place, and it’s been three years. I want to believe that ikebana has at least become an oasis for her soul and a messenger to inform her of the preciousness of life. Regardless of the shape, every flower has life, and that life disappears in the blink of an eye. Searching for beauty in such a moment and presenting that limited life is the mission of ikebana. I would say, it’s to “clip the twinkle of life and display it.” In today’s hectic society, I think, people seek tranquility. I would say ikebana, which produces tranquility as an “interval” in space or as the “beauty of simplicity,” is one of the healing approaches needed today. Thinking that way, I come to understand that the meanings of kenka (flower offering) and kuge (Buddhist flower offering), which are the origin of ikebana, have been changed over the centuries. They are not only to show respect for gods and Buddha, but also to treat our guests, to entertain our families, and then to please ourselves.
—— Can you tell us about your dream for the future?
In the everlasting great river of history and tradition, our thoughts and emotions, as well as things that we can achieve in our lives, may be merely a drop of water. But, if we can play, as that tiny drop, a role in nurturing society, we are happy. Flowers bloom in every country. Regardless of the time, people have loved flowers as beautiful beings, and cherished and enjoyed them in daily life. By being skilled at vitalizing the beauty of flowers and plants, we can maximize their natural beauty. A seed planted in San Diego grows to be a mature tree, creates cool shade on the street, and provides people with freshness. That makes me happy. And I hope, in the distant future, it bears adorable flowers, decorates the street, bears delicious fruit, and makes people happy...