Teaching Ikebana in Australia

Christopher James* (Melbourne, Australia)

Published in Internationala Journal of Ikebana Studies, Vol.7 (2019)  

I am a Sogetsu practitioner and have been actively teaching since 2005. I attended my first ikebana classes when I spent four months in Nagoya in 1992. The majority of my students are westerners, most of whom had never been to Japan when they began studying ikebana. When teaching westerners, the teacher needs to be prepared to provide some of the historical and cultural background that has led to the development of today’s ikebana. This is perhaps best done in small ‘doses’ as the classes progress. However, I think this background information is necessary for the student to develop the sensitivity to be able to make ikebana that has depth and is not just formulaic. 

Leaving aside the historical evolution of ikebana, there are some highly relevant aspects of the Japanese cultural world-view that influence ikebana. With regard to this cultural background, one of the cultural assumptions of the Japanese world-view is the dualistic notion that says: to represent the whole of a thing one must represent both its ‘in’ (dark) and ‘yo’ (bright) aspects. Westerners are usually more familiar with the Chinese terms ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ for these concepts. The concepts of in and yo lead into what I consider to be the two defining characteristics of ikebana. They are: asymmetry of design and the use of space. 

By way of example: with regard to asymmetry, when we walk through the natural environment we do not experience the shaded side and the sunny side of plants in equal proportions at any given moment. We always see more of one than the other, so asymmetry is a given. It is there in nature. Similarly, if you think of a beautiful natural landscape you are not likely to be imagining something with perfect symmetry. When applied to ikebana this means that we should see some of the shaded side as well as the sunny side of our materials. Thus we see the whole. 

 Image 1. Illustration of asymmetry  (below)

Image 2. Illustration of creating space (below)

The other element of central importance in ikebana is the space within and around the work. This space is like the energetic stillness in meditation; like the pause or interval in music that is the transition to a new phrase. Space in ikebana allows the materials to breathe and the form of the constituent elements to be revealed. Unless there is appropriate space we cannot see the materials that make up the work. It is interesting to note that not only do the branches and flowers have shape, but so does the space that is created in ikebana. That space may be opening or containing, releasing or holding. Garry Reynolds in Presentation Zen observes that: “The Japanese perception of beauty is largely based on space, especially as it is found in nature”. The presence and importance of space in calligraphy is immediately apparent. However, it is also interesting to think about the use of space in the design of Japanese gardens. Therefore, in ikebana it is important that students learn to deliberately create ‘space’ so that through it they can express their intention. 

When I approach the task of teaching, I need to remind myself that students may have quite different ways of learning from each other. Some people learn from theory, others from doing and others from observing, and of course from combinations of these. Teachers can then use a variety of ways to demonstrate principles and techniques, and ought then be prepared to change their approach or use alternative strategies such as drawing, model making, or physical demonstration to assist the student’s understanding. However, ikebana is a practical art form and I consider it necessary for the teacher to demonstrate carefully and repeatedly. Students should also be required to practise basic techniques even when they become advanced. The teacher should be clear about what is being taught. In each lesson ask: what is the focus of the lesson? is it technique, placement, design principles, attention to colour, attention to the vessel or some other aspect?  

At the end of a lesson it is good to ask a student to recall one thing that they will remember from the class. This is a way of getting them to focus on what is important to them, which may be different to the teacher’s expectations. If there is a thing they have missed, the teacher can acknowledge what they have said and then remind them about what else is important.

In recent times, I have asked advanced students to set themselves goals for the coming year. This is a way to make them more consciously engaged in their own development and to be reflective about their practise. To encourage development in advanced students, ask them to analyse their own and other’s work. Many students work in a spontaneous or intuitive way, then fail to understand why an exercise has worked or not. At critique, I like to ask students: what was your intention? It helps me understand their artistic process. It is also important to encourage the development of the student’s own style. They do not need to become clones of the teacher. 

 I think it is most important to be respectful of other schools of ikebana. Teachers should have at least a basic knowledge of the main schools and be able to recognise their signature styles. 

All arts and cultures influence each other when they intersect. Therefore, teachers and their students should expose themselves to other forms of artistic expression, whether it be music, theatre, painting, ceramics, photography, sculpture. 

  1. Moriyama, Marie & Moriyama, Megumi. 1999. ‘A Comparison between Asymmetric Japanese Ikebana and Symmetric Western Flower Arrangement.’ http://www.scipress.org/journals/forma/pdf/1404/14040355.pdf
  2. Reynolds, Garry ‘Presentation Zen, 10 design lessons from the art of Ikebana’ (https://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2009/09/0-design-lessons-from-ikebana.html)

*Christopher James is the current Director of the Victorian Branch of the Sogetsu School and holds the Riji Teachers Certificate. In 2011 Christopher spent three months studying at the headquarters of the Sogetsu School in Tokyo as a recipient of the Norman and Mary Sparnon Endowment Scholarship. In his working life Christopher always worked in health care, including formal teaching roles over a number of years.