Book Review: Keiko’s Ikebana (and Giveaway!)

Like with my last book review on Bountiful Bonsai, I have once again been given the opportunity to review a book. Courtesy of the folks at Tuttle Publishing, I will be able to select a winner to WIN A FREE COPY of their own! Read through to the bottom for instructions to enter to win.

The book I was sent to review this time is on a subject after my own heart: Ikebana. I’ve been studying and practicing the craft for just over three years now, and find it endlessly fascinating. I jumped at the chance to select some books on the topic to review.

Keiko’s Ikebana – A Contemporary Approach to the Traditional Japanese Art of Flower Arranging (by Keiko Kubo) arrived in the mail some weeks back. It’s full of glorious photos of some truly inspired arrangements, and gives a rudimentary explanation of the various tools and supplies that will come in handy, along with step-by-step instructions for using some of the tools and recreating a few of her arrangements.

Keiko Ikebana

At first glance it seems like a well-arranged book, and indeed it gives a good broad overview of the craft. One thing that was seriously lacking for me, though, is the tradition of “starting from the beginning” to learn the basics before taking artistic liberties. It’s not a book for the beginner, though that’s how it portrays itself. I don’t profess to be an expert in the craft, but I have had the privilege of studying under one of the first and most influential teachers and practitioners of Ikebana in the Western world. My sensei, Soho Sakai, brought Ikebana to City College of San Francisco as a new art in about 1970, and created the first college curriculum on the topic in the country. She has been, and still is, called upon by other colleges around the country to help establish Ikebana programs and help them formulate the curricula to do so. I don’t take what she teaches lightly.

The school of Ikebana I study is called Sogetsu. There are several (nine, if memory serves) different schools of Ikebana, many with traditions going back hundreds and hundreds of years. Some schools focus on mathematically-specific arrangements (actually, they all do at their root), some focus on creating altars and memorials, some focus on particular traditional plants, etc. Sogetsu is, purely speaking, the “newcomer” to Ikebana, having been created in the 1920’s. Soho was taught by the second headmaster of the school, indeed the son of the very founder, and today the third headmaster is the founder’s granddaughter. It’s the school that offers the most freedom of interpretation, and is the one that brought Ikebana to Western awareness in the 1950’s. The Eastern/Western “crossover” floral art school, if you will. You first have to spend a year learning the mathematics and traditions of Ikebana, but then are allowed the freedom to explore your own creativity. Once you’ve learned how things are done, once you’ve “built” the tradition, you can then break it down and reinterpret it to make it your own. Deconstructed Ikebana, in a manner of speaking. You’re no longer limited to traditional flower and plant materials, but now can incorporate anything that inspires you, from flowers to household items to trash to cars to whatever. Once you have the knowledge of the basics, the aesthetics of the “why and how” will always inform your creations. That’s what makes it the newcomer in a culture steeped with rigid tradition, and what makes it more easily absorbed by Western floral culture.

That’s where I found inner turmoil in reading Keiko’s Ikebana. I’ve spent actual classroom study time learning the traditions that are the basis for the practice, and appreciate the science of the art. This book is gorgeous and inspiring, but is a pie in the face to the tradition of Ikebana. There are things done in her arrangements that, from what I learned in school, literally never happen in Ikebana. For example, there are specific traditional arrangements where flowers are floating it water, but in no case would you ever have a flower half-submerged in water as she does. It’s subconsciously reflective of drowning, and is a sincerely held tradition that it’s a no-no in Ikebana. She has Nageire (vase-contained) arrangements where all the flower stems are touching the bottom of the vase (this is considered “Western” or “FTD” as a derogatory epithet, not as a compliment or nod to different traditions). She has plant materials spilling beautifully out of their containers, but with the ends lying on the table, which is also a no-no, traditionally speaking. She has live flowers with no water access, with their cut stems just lying there in the open air, meaning they will wilt and decay – and an arrangement that is designed to die in front of you while you watch is not what Ikebana is about. She references tradition only in the basic mention of history, and in showing (very clearly, I should say) how specific tools are used. There’s a chapter with twenty step-by-step arrangements, none of which uses the basic techniques that a beginner should know in order to understand what it is they are doing.

Maybe I’m too much of a purist. 🙂

Keiko Kubo has her MFA in sculpture, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and has also studied Western floral arranging. I think both of these are clearly evident in her arrangements. Given that she’s truly an artist, and is studied at practicing art, I think there’s a noticeable straying from tradition that comes from a background of understanding what the tradition is. I wish her book put more effort into explaining the tradition before straying from it. When an artist is doing something “out of the norm” they usually have a reason for doing so, such as challenging what history “knows” to be the way. This book does that in a very Western way, and I do want to appreciate it from that perspective. Approaching the book with the eyes of someone who’s studying the craft, you can take into account what you know and interpret her art as a challenge to tradition, and can even find inspiration in her unique approaches to the art. From the eyes of a newcomer, however, I think this book would do you a disservice if you’re looking to it to introduce you to a new art with intention of studying it: if you take classes you’ll need to unlearn what you’ve garnered from Keiko’s Ikebana and take many steps back in order to learn the tradition. Only then will you be able to fully appreciate her variances.


If you would like to win a copy of this book of your own, all you have to do is “like” this post and/or write a comment below about it or Ikebana, before Sunday, May 10, 2015, at 5:00pm Pacific. I will select a winner at random from those who’ve liked or commented, and announce the winner the next morning. I’ll contact you by email for your mailing address, and Tuttle Publishing will mail you a copy.

Feel free to share this post around with anybody you think would enjoy it!

7 responses to “Book Review: Keiko’s Ikebana (and Giveaway!)

  1. Interesting book! I’d love to win this for my mom.

    • Hi Laura! I got to it a bit late, but I just did the random number generator and you won! Send me an email if you could, to zann@[this website’s address] with your full name and address, and I’ll send it to the folks at Tuttle to mail you a copy.

  2. I have just finished book 4 in my Sogetsu study with my sensei, Kika Shibata. I love Ikebana and I love sensei Kika. Thanks for this interesting review.

  3. leahdavid420

    Zann, your review has peaked my interest, I will be finding ikebana books for my kindle and of course, I would love to have a physical copy as well.

  4. Great review! As a practioner of Ikebana, I’m always looking books that will help me expand my craft. This book is definitely on that I will check out.

  5. It is always fascinating how different people perceive the art of Ikebana in different ways. I tend to agree with your point of view though: tradition is what sets Ikebana apart and defines it as a separate art entity. Respect for the plant-beings is also quite central to Ikebana and I struggle with many modern interpretations of Ikebana, which are viable only for taking picture because the plants are left with no water supply. My teacher is also quite classic in that aspect although she is very open minded when it comes to the use of non-traditional, unconventional materials.

    Your review did provoke my interest and if the cover photo is representative of the rest of the book it could be a good source of inspiration for adventurous Ikebana artists.

    • That it could, for sure. I think it’s more inspirational if you have the background already and know the traditions. Then you can fully appreciate the challenges Keiko gives you.

      Good observation on the photography aspect, too. Some of these wouldn’t make it through a meal, even.

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