Koka Fukushima

by Vivienne Kenrick

“One day I came across a solitary white dandelion growing on a high stone wall. That was my first encounter with plants, and amongst my earliest childhood recollections,” said Koka Fukushima.

Since 1982, Fukushima has visited more than 40 countries to give demonstrations and workshops on the Japanese art of flower arranging. At home in Tokyo, she gives demonstrations for official guests from overseas at the headquarters of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana. A master teacher at the school’s headquarters in Tokyo, she also teaches its international class, and its headmaster class in Tokyo and Osaka. She is a director of the Sogetsu Foundation. With diverse experiences inside Japan, and outside from Bolivia to Saudi Arabia, Papua New Guinea and India, “Oh, yes,” she agreed, “I am very flexible.”

Born soon after the end of World War II, Fukushima was the sheltered only child of older parents. She was 14 when she began her Sogetsu ikebana lessons. With the joy of young life, she happily embraced the school’s nonconformist outlook, introduced by its founder, Sofu Teshigahara. At 19 she received her first teaching diploma, “not unusually young if you are interested and keep studying,” she said.

Her parents wanted her, as she graduated from the Foreign Language Department of the University of the Sacred Heart, to stay at home and prepare for marriage.

She wanted to work. Putting together her love of flower arranging and her fluency in English, she began to make her way to an outstanding career.

She found an opening to teach non-Japanese students at the famed Goto florists’ shop in Roppongi. She began her own class there. Until then, her only experience was in assisting. “I had no idea how to ask people to come to my class,” she said. However, the place was right, the time was right, and Fukushima was doing what interested her and associating with the congenial people she sought.

A dozen years later the Japan Foundation chose her to go on a lecture-demonstration tour of six South American countries and three Asian countries.

From her present pinnacle, Fukushima says she was not sufficiently well prepared then to give demonstrations with different materials in unfamiliar surroundings. Japanese Embassy ladies who were detailed at the time to look after her were, however, full of praise. She learned the characteristics of different flowers, appreciated their exoticism, and accorded them respect and dignity. She believes that each individual flower, like each individual flower arranger, has personality that should shine through.

She was sent overseas again by the Japan Foundation. On a separate tour she accompanied the charismatic Hiroshi Teshigahara, who succeeded his father as president of the Sogetsu school. Although making annual overseas trips became Fukushima’s routine, there was nothing routine in the conduct of each one. “Every time I was received very differently,” she said. “Some audiences had some basic understanding of ikebana. Some had never seen it.” Fukushima rose to every occasion, dealing with the unexpected, and joining in with anything going on. She learned to dance the flamenco. She liked to sing jazz. She practiced her Spanish and Italian. With Arab ladies, she dressed from top to toe in black robes. She was responsible for a flower show at Westminster Cathedral, London. Overall she sharpened her individuality, freely using other materials as accessories to flowers, and carefully choosing containers.

More than 10 years ago she gave a solo exhibition of iron containers. She designs her own glass receptacles. Recently she has become known as the artist who designs stainless and titanium flower vases, finding imaginative effects in her materials’ unique properties.

Some of her arrangements are huge, built in public places and outdoors. Some grace the displays in department store windows. She says she is “charmed by cloth, handmade Japanese paper and thread,” and incorporates them, as descendants of organic materials, in her arrangements. They have inner spirits, she says, but “plant material is the first for the arranger to think of.”

Once Fukushima taught an ikebana class of blind women. Their adjustments to life impressed her, and from them she learned a new vision for herself. “To touch with the eye, to taste with the eye, to sense fragrance with the eye, to catch sound with the eye — such an expression is the goal of my ikebana,” she said.