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Florist sees seeds of change in Japan

After 16 years, lines have blurred in ikebana but nation's environmental awareness needs work

by Tomoko Otake

Hans Damen came to Japan from his native Holland 16 years ago, attracted by the traditional aspects of Japanese culture, like “taiko” drumming and ikebana flower arrangement. After teaching flower design at a school in Tokyo for a year, he landed a job with the major flower retailer U.Goto Florist and has been with the company ever since.

Now chief designer at the company’s main store in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, the 45-year-old Damen juggles various duties, from handling customer orders to giving demonstrations at events to hatching ideas for the store’s huge window display, which changes every month.

He says he enjoys the creative freedom the store gives him to explore new designs.

Now residing in the art form’s birthplace, Damen says he has had numerous opportunities to collaborate with ikebana artists. Though Western-style flower arrangement is quite different from the basic forms of ikebana, which typically use longer stems and fewer flowers, their boundaries have blurred over the years, he says, with some of the modern Dutch flower designs featuring tall stems and parallel arrangements, much like the ikebana style.

“It’s really interesting, because (Japanese customers) see my arrangements and ask me, ‘You also do ikebana?’ “

Damen, who lives in the seaside town of Ninomiya, Kanagawa Prefecture, with his Japanese wife, a dog, two birds and some goldfish, says he enjoys the diversity of nature in Japan as well as the relatively mild weather.

On his days off, he likes hiking and riding bicycles with friends, as well as visiting art museums. All these activities provide him with fresh inspiration for his work.

But living in Japan means making compromises as well, Damen says, noting that when he first came here he was surprised by the long commute and long work hours endured by many people.

“In Holland, you have much more contact with people, including neighbors,” Damen says. “You go to birthday parties of neighbors and friends often. Here, birthday parties are not celebrated much. The way you live here is different. It’s much more stressful.”

Luckily, he has been able to adjust. He says it helped that he didn’t have such a crazy social life in Holland.

One thing he can’t get over, though, is the lack of genuine environmental awareness among many people in Japan, and the die-hard practice of retailers to overwrap purchases.

“Even when I go to a supermarket and I have my own bag, they would still put things in a bag,” he says. “Of course, there may be advertisements on the bag that they want to give, (but) in Holland everybody brings their own shopping bag.”

Likewise, the whole environmental boom in Japan, where everything is given an “eco” prefix, tends to be half-baked, he says, citing as an example the way many offices are cooled or heated with air conditioners to a degree that people have to wear sweaters in summer and T-shirts in winter when they’re inside.

“What irritates me is that nowadays they talk about eco, eco (all the time),” he says. “It looks good, but they are not really eco-friendly at all yet in Japan. They would have some event about ‘eco’ and they would have expensive fliers. They don’t use recycled paper and they use very fancy paper.”

Over the 16 years he has lived here, Damen has also observed dramatic changes in the way people approach pets — and the pampering that to him has gone too far.

“When I first came to Japan, dogs were not a boom yet,” he said. “Dogs were kept outside for security reasons, on a chain, in a hot summer or a cold winter. Some dogs were terribly treated. But now, it’s the complete opposite. They are spoiled.”

Whenever he takes his dog — a mixed breed he found abandoned on a mountain — to a local shopping mall, he feels as if his pet is “naked” because all the other dogs have some clothing on, he says.

Yet at the same time, some people treat their dogs as if they were “throwaway items,” Damen says, adding that people turn a blind eye to the fact that many of these cute puppies in pet shops get killed when they outgrow their appropriate size.

“The Japanese people don’t want to see the bad side; they want to see the cute side,” he says. “They don’t care that the dogs are going to be killed when they are not sold. They are blocking their own minds. Come on. Wake up.”