Haruko Crawford says, "I started taking ikebana lessons when I was 13 years old. I'm 80 now."
I lean back into my chair, close my eyes, and wonder how I got here, on the telephone with an 80-year-old Japanese woman talking about flower arranging. I hear my voice ask, "Where did you take your lessons?"
"In Japan," Haruko says, "at the Ichiyo school. Ichiyo is a modern ikebana school, established in 1937. During wartime I couldn't go for a couple of years. After the war I started taking lessons again, received a teacher's certificate in 19...50... something like that."
Ikebana, the dictionary tells me, is the "Japanese art of formal flower arrangement with special regard shown to balance, harmony, and form." There are many schools of ikebana. Haruko is a master instructor and president of the Ichiyo School of ikebana, San Diego chapter. The idea behind this conversation is competitive flower arranging -- Iron Chef flower arranging, if you will. I envision 50 testy, sweaty flower arrangers, each one creating a flower masterpiece under deadline pressure. I see seconds tick off the big digital clock on the judges' table. Now, flower arrangers flick rose buds, stroke tree branches in a last heroic push to the finish line. The audience is screaming, rooting on their favorites. Television cameras crowd the stage, judges speed write on their hotel notepads, tension is unendurable, and what's this? YES, YES...YES! Miss Daffodil wins by a NOSE! The auditorium goes nuts. Thrill of victory, agony of defeat. See you next week.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
According to the Ichiyo Center website, the Ichiyo school of ikebana "was founded in Japan in 1937 by a brother and sister, Meikof and Ichiyo Kasuya..." Hmm. I ask, "You took classes from Ichiyo's founder?"
"I learned from the master, Meikof. Long time ago," Haruko laughs. "Long time ago. And I received the first teacher's certificate from him. Before I left Japan I had an associate master's degree."
"Ichiyo was considered to be progressive when it began, right?"
"Yes," Haruko says. "During wartime, many things are destroyed, so some ikebana teachers stopped using the different containers approach. Meikof Kasuya used broken dishes, maybe he found some wild flowers growing. We learned formal, classical design, too, but mostly modern design. Abstract and freestyle. Sometimes forget what is the flowers. Just use color or shape of a flower."
"I'm trying to picture you as a student, in Japan, in 1938." I can't. "What was your school day like?"
"I started taking ikebana lessons from my grandmother, at home. The teacher came to the house and taught her. She taught me. After high school, I went to the teacher's temple. Teacher was a temple priest. I went to his place by streetcar to take the lessons, then come home and make arrangements. In Japan, at that time, very important for a good family's daughter to learn certain things -- ikebana or music or dancing -- those things very important and good for the future wife." Haruko laughs, "You know."
I make a soft grunt sound indicating agreement.
"Ikebana is seasonal material. Bring to the house. Western arrangement is mostly based on the flower material, blooming flowers, but ikebana is nature's scene brought to the house. That's why sometimes there are branches or stones or some landscape in ikebana containers." Silence. "Makes sense?"
After the war Haruko married an American civilian who worked with the U.S. military in Japan; eventually, the couple found their way to San Diego. "My husband retired and I started teaching. Navy wives want me at Coronado. My students were Navy commander and a general, two star. High-class people." Haruko laughs.
I ask, out of nowhere, "If you took a Japanese person and flew him over to San Diego and had him do an arrangement, and took an American in San Diego and had him do an arrangement, and they were both of equal skill, could you tell the difference?"
"Yes. Most Americans don't know branches, the yin and the yang. All branches facing sun, a little bit darker. Shady side is whiter. Those things...properly arranging it, American people don't know how to do it. Japanese people are very much lucky people; there are always greens in their gardens. Bushes and branches. So, before you study ikebana, you already know something. Leaves are showing upward or downward.
"Different materials in the way you do arranging. We use container; it's very important part. Western arrangement is large amount of flowers in the big base, but we do different. Big arrangements we do. We use weathered wood to make a big support; then we do branches and things and then the flowers."
I judge this to be sufficient foreplay. On to business, "Tell me about ikebana competitions. Tell me everything."
"We don't do judging. Ikebana International do not do judging. You just enjoy what they are and admire the beautiful materials."