Monday, December 16, 2013

Memories of Japan: Taking Lessons

A Lesson in Flower Arrangement by
Theodore Wores, 19th-century American painter.
The arrangement isn't necessarily very ikekbana-like,
but Wores got the kimono right, as well as the
traditional way of sitting on the floor.
Today is Monday, December 16, 2013.

One of the facets of Japanese life that I learned a lot about, but never got the chance to participate in, except as a teacher, was the practice of taking lessons.  Any lessons.  In Japan, all kinds of lessons are offered.  

You can study one of the Japanese arts, such as ikebana (flower arranging), sumi-e (ink-wash painting), chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony, also called sa), how to wear kimono, how to play a koto or shamisen (traditional musical instruments), or how do a traditional fan dance (ougi).  You can learn any number of martial arts, such as karate (empty-handed fighting), kendō (bamboo sword fighting), aiki (fighting with harmonious spirit), ju(gentle way fighting), or kyūdō (Japanese style archery). Young single women often take lessons with the goal of becoming an accomplished shufu (housewife).  They can take lessons in traditional Japanese style cooking, including how to prepare the perfect rice, or learn Chinese cooking, party cooking, or how to prepare a box lunch (o-bentō).  And, of course, you can study English conversation.  

Lady Playing Koto, drawn by Settei Hasegawa in 1878
In spite of the fact that Japanese kids start learning English in junior high school and continue with required English classes throughout high school and college, few people can actually speak English with any degree of real fluency, because English is taught the way Japanese teach other school subjects: passively.  The teacher talks and the students listen, without asking too many questions, I might add.  Kids learn to read and write English, and to translate it, but not to speak it.  And part of that is the fact that the vast majority of "English teachers" in Japanese schools can't really speak English very well, either.  The ones who do speak English tend to do so very formally.  I was once playing Scrabble with a junior high teacher, a young man who was one of my private students.  He lost the game, after which he asked, "Must I... suffer defeat?"  It's interesting, actually, because all the other things you can take private lessons for involve active student participation.  I have no idea why the Japanese don't apply that same principle to English lessons.

One of my latest arrangements, done in October 2013.
This is a nage-ire (tall vase) hanging style from the
Ichiyō School of Ikebana.  Pine branches and
chrysanthemums in a tall silver glass vase set on a
lacquered wooden stand.

The one thing I wanted to do while in Japan was study flower arranging.  When I lived in Osaka, I had one English student, a doctor's wife, who was taking flower arranging lessons.  Every time I arrived at her house for a lesson, she had a different arrangement sitting on the kutsubako (shoe cabinet) in the entryway (genkan) area.  I often asked her about the arrangements, and she told me about the precise form of the various styles.  There are three main branches in every traditional arrangement, each branch positioned in an exact geometric angle with respect to the other branches.  The number and type of subsidiary branches and flowers was also highly prescribed, depending on the season.  I learned that there were a number of different "schools" of ikebana, each one established by a different master teacher.  Once you get used to looking at ikebana arrangements, you start to recognize the hallmarks of the various schools.  Popular schools include Ikenobo, the oldest school of ikebana, originated by a Buddhist priest over 550 years ago. The Ohara school, established 118 years ago, emphasises seasonal materials in natural arrangements.  The Sogetsu school, established 86 years ago, believes that arrangements can be made anywhere, using any materials, and that flower arranging should not be considered exclusively a facet of Japanese culture.  The Ichiyō school, one of the most modern, was founded in 1937.  It encourages personal interpretation, and was the first school to simplify the rules of arrangement for non-Japanese. 

While I lived in Tokyo, I found a specialty shop not far from where I lived that sold special vases for ikebana.  Other women buy shoes or clothes when they're depressed.  I bought vases.  Some of them even made it back to the United States in once piece, even though none has survived the the entire twenty-seven years I have been back.  That's not entirely surprising, given the number of times I have relocated since returning from my decade in Japan. 

I guess you could say that studying ikebana is one way in which my experience of Japan has been extended a bit.  I started to take ikebana lessons long after I moved back to the United States, thanks to, where I found an ikebana teacher a mere five-minute drive from my home.  She gives lessons in the Ichiyo school.  Although I no longer live in the Twin Cities (in Minnesota), I continue to study with her, scheduling lessons whenever I return to visit friends or family.  There are five courses, with twenty lessons each: primary, secondary, advanced, research, and instructor courses.  I have two lessons left to take in the basic course, after which I can get a certificate of completion.  If possible, I'd like to take all the courses offered, and perhaps someday I will be able to have a lesson with a visiting master teacher from Japan.  :-)

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