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Sunday, Dec. 4, 2005
Flower power at his fingertips
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Shogo Kariyazaki is one of Japan's most flamboyant and outspoken authorities on beauty.
Since starting to study ikebana at age 24, the Tokyo native has risen to fame through his penchant for a sensitively decorative, yet often extravagant, approach to the traditional art of flower arranging. Now a colorful fixture on the nation's TV screens, as well as in magazines, Kariyazaki has also aggressively extended his reach to incorporate music and fashion, by combining his talents with those of such artists as pop singer Tatsuya Ishii, guitarist Kaori Muraji and fashion designer Hanae Mori.
Memorably, at a recent opening party for his annual exhibit at Meguro Gajoen in Tokyo, Kariyazaki showcased his latest "collaboration with music" to the hundreds of guests. While an angelic young woman sang a classic tune beside him, Kariyazaki quickly "threw" flowers and branches into a gigantic vase, completing a gorgeous arrangement just as the final bars faded.
Now 46, the quick-tempered, fast-talking celebrity grew up by his own account as a shy, quiet boy in the northern suburbs of Tokyo. There -- he writes in his autobiography, "Kariyazaki Shogo: Hana wo Aishita Otoko (A Man who Fell in Love with Flowers)" -- his father was a local public servant, while his mother had worked in an office in glitzy downtown Ginza. From an early age, he says, he knew he had different tastes from other boys, who enjoyed things like baseball. But with his mother's encouragement for his preferred pastimes of playing the piano, gardening and cooking, he says he was able to find his "true calling" as a flower arranger.
During this recent interview at his Meguro Gajoen exhibition, Kariyazaki recalled his struggles as a youth, and how an encounter with veteran singer-songwriter Akihiro Miwa changed his life. He also openly shared his views on what some call the "feminization" of Japanese men -- as well as his own sexuality.
What is the theme of your exhibit this time?
This is my sixth year at Meguro Gajoen, and for this exhibition people in the city of Kasama in Ibaraki Prefecture have grown a whole variety of kiku (chrysanthemums) to be displayed. I'm helping the city too, by going there and making speeches. I'm friendly with the people of Kasama, and I'm trying to help the revitalization of the city.
I'm also featuring cymbidium, oncidium and moth orchids. I hope visitors will enjoy these great orchids. Berries are also prominently featured. Every room in the Hyakudan Kaidan (Hundred-Step Staircase) banqueting hall is very elaborately decorated and has a unique atmosphere, from wabi sabi (simple and antique) to kenran goka (gorgeous and dazzling). So I arranged flowers in a way that would fit each room. I also used a variety of glass vases that I myself made by hand, including ones that look like the face of a panda. I arranged flowers in a whole variety of styles, so it looks as though someone has turned a toy box upside down.
We have to rearrange the flowers twice a day -- in the morning and at night. Because the exhibit runs for two weeks, it's an enormous amount of work. I couldn't have done it without the help of my staff. I'm very thankful.
I understand you have your own ikebana school in Tokyo.
Yes, and also on display at Meguro Gajoen are works by my students, who number about 700. They come from all over Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, and also many students come from Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris and Shanghai for my lessons.
The motto of our school is, "A lifestyle that starts from flowers." But learning techniques alone is not enough. Aesthetic sensibilities, which are very important in flower arrangement, are nurtured through day-to-day activities, by going to movies and concerts, traveling, going for a walk and shopping. In those ways you can see and feel many beautiful things, through which you can polish your sense of beauty.
Why do you think some people lose their sense of beauty?
Many people waste so much of their time complaining. I'm saying, instead of wasting your time whining, let's find something beautiful; cultivate a mind that can feel beauty, instead of being preoccupied with jealousy. I think that people with jealousy and envy are losing so much in life.
I want people to know the power of beauty. Flowers are really powerful. Nearly 40,000 people will visit this exhibition. They have not only bought their tickets, but some of them have done shopping or had dinner here. Some will stay at this hotel, and others might feel like holding their wedding reception here in the future. Look at all the economic effect! See how economically powerful culture is!
People say the economy is bad, but the cure for recession is simple: It's culture; it's beauty. In this day and age, everyone is starving for beautiful things. I offer beauty to people young and old -- then they come en masse and loosen their purse strings. And many people are coming out of the exhibit feeling rewarded, happy, relaxed and rejuvenated. Flowers have that kind of power.
I am like a kyakuyose panda (a panda that attracts zoo visitors). I have been invited to stage exhibitions all over Japan, including at department stores. Why have I been privileged with such opportunities? Because I help their sales figures. They would not waste money on a project that they couldn't make money out of. I am fully aware of this.
You seem to have an extremely busy life.
Well, apart from my school, I also have my own flower-decorating business. In this economic environment, people say I must be having a hard time. But in our case, we are having a hard time because we get too many orders. Our staffers are overloaded. We arrange flowers for weddings, corporate parties and TV commercials. Then I have several exhibits every spring and summer. Plus I publish books at the rate of one every six months. I get all kinds of offers from publishers, even though the publishing industry is said to be in a recession. That's because my books have been best sellers. So, I have been helping the publishing industry, and people working in it are happy because my books sell and help them to earn income. To make all these people happy, I feel it's my mission to keep arranging flowers. And I believe flower arrangement is my calling.
How did you first become interested in flowers?
My parents loved gardening, and grew flowers in our garden. I naturally became interested, and picked up knowledge about flowers by watching my parents. During my high school and college years, I grew flowers as a hobby. Then after getting into college, I thought I might have a future as a flower arranger, and that's when my interest moved from growing to arranging. I started taking ikebana lessons. I enjoyed it so much I worked hard. That's how I started holding exhibitions, which led to various other opportunities. So here I am today.
But your success has not come without difficulties, has it?
That's right. I once thought that I wanted to study gardening at Chiba University, then I realized that my academic strengths were not in science but in liberal arts. I felt sad and felt like I failed. Then I failed to gain admission into college for two years in a row. I felt, "Why is it that things don't turn out the way I want them to?" Then, at another time, I aspired to become a pianist and worked very hard toward that goal. But then I realized that it would be impossible for me to become one because I started playing too late. Those are my failures, and back then, I agonized and felt sad about them. But on the other hand, I'm not the kind of person who frets about things -- I can "reset" myself and move on. It's the way I am.
How would you describe your personality?
I'm very emotional and very short-tempered, though I also have a tender side. I am very sensitive about what's beautiful. I'm very receptive. I am strong-willed about doing what I believe in. And I feel a keen sense of sympathy for those who are weak.
I understand you were heavily influenced by your mother. What kind of person was she?
My mother was just so kind. She was wonderful. Without her, I wouldn't have been born into this world, and without her help, I wouldn't be enjoying the success I am today.
Tell us about the singer Akihiro Miwa. I have heard you are his biggest fan.
Oh yes, Miwa-san. My mother was a big fan of his too, but when I was about 10 I saw him on TV, and I thought, "If I get immersed into this kind of world, which is so voluptuous, I would make my parents sad." After my mother passed away, I was feeling very depressed, and as I was wandering the streets of Shibuya I passed a place where a Miwa-san concert was being held. I couldn't get into the concert right then, but I went back a month later. That's when my association with Miwa-san started. Miwa-san taught me what life is, what beauty is. He still teaches me today. I think he saved my life. If I hadn't met him, I wouldn't be the Shogo Kariyazaki I am today. I admire him that much. It's thanks to him that I've made such a big break. He has taught me how to live naturally, without glossing things over, without trying to do something beyond your abilities. I know how difficult it is to do what you like and make a living that way.
There are so many people around me who are so full of jealousy and envy. I can't stand it if I have something that is not beautiful around me. Things like jealousy and envy are ugly powers. But somehow, I can turn ugly powers into positive powers. My will is very strong. I have my mission.
I also don't look back. I only look at the present and the future.
Some people say that Japanese men are becoming too feminized. What is your view on this?
They are becoming more beautiful. Men are exploring themselves. Of course, intellect and refinement from the inside are important. But appearances are just as important. It starts from washing your face and brushing your teeth to shaving, then evolves into taking care of your skin and eyebrows and hairstyles. It's definitely better to be beautiful. Who wants to be ugly? I think it's great that men are becoming more fashion conscious.
Some people might call it feminization, but that's not a bad trend. Femininity leads to gentleness and compassion. Well, some people might like the forceful roughness of a newborn lion. But I think the desire to be more beautiful is universal regardless of one's gender. Being fashion-minded makes you change, makes you live longer, creates new opportunities, leads to wonderful encounters with people. . . . I really think it's a key word for living happily.
In a Washington Post interview, you were depicted as one of Japan's "openly gay" entertainers . . .
That too. I thank the mass media. Because I'm on television nowadays, I can be open about myself. I used to hide it, and that was stressful. You feel like you are a social outcast. But now that I've come out of the closet, I don't have to pretend to be anything I'm not. I can be straight about it.
I've met a great partner, who is more than 10 years younger than I am, and we are living together. He is very earnest and wonderful. I introduced him to Miwa-san, who assured me that he has no hidden agenda and is just a great person.
Some people feel like they have to hide the way they are for work-related reasons, and that's OK. I think whether someone can come out is a case-by-case issue. There are lots of people who make a fuss about this kind of thing in Japan, though of course there are such people overseas as well. There are some people who discriminate. But in my case, coming out made me happy. I've committed no crimes, I haven't caused any trouble to other people -- and I am helping the economy. I'm ranked among the top taxpayers. I'm paying taxes more than anybody. So I don't worry about that at all.
But for you to be able to voice your opinions so frankly, does that mean that Japan has changed?
Yes, it has changed. But also, every one of us has something wonderful about ourselves. People can change by putting time and money into what they are good at, and becoming more confident about themselves. It's a lack of confidence that makes people cringe and worry about things. If you have one or two things that you are confident of, your life can change so much.
You yourself used to be very shy, right?
Yes. I've changed. So it's very important to be confident.
What's your philosophy when it comes to fashion?
Before, I used to wear black clothes only, because I thought as a flower arranger I should remain low profile and let the flowers speak for me. But Miwa-san advised me several months ago that I should wear bright-red underwear. Then I felt like dressing differently, and now I wear colorful clothes.
My fortunes have improved greatly since then. Good things come my way. The effect of color is huge. I realize more and more what a difference colors can make. Wearing brightly colored clothes makes you feel excited, and attracts people around you.
I hear that you are into feng shui as well.
Well, yes, I think it's better to try everything than not to. I try everything that people say is good. If it doesn't work, I quit it right away. If I feel good about it, I continue to believe in it.
And what about your hairstyle?
If you grow your hair long like this, it looks heavy. So the longer I've grown my hair, the more I've lightened the color. It's all calculated. It's all coordinated.
Where do you get inspiration for your work?
From everyday life -- going to movies, eating good food, taking a walk, going to a supermarket . . . through all of these activities I naturally pick out things that I find are nice, beautiful and interesting. They are naturally programmed into my brain. Then when I arrange flowers, I always play music -- ranging from classical to chanson, jazz and bossa nova. With the rhythm of the music, what is in the back of my mind comes out.
I don't create things intentionally. I guess my brain is wired in ways that are different from other people's. And I'm a multitasker. Like I said, I have various different businesses going on at the same time. I have mountains of work. I can carry out different jobs simultaneously. I realize I am very special in that sense.
Being so busy, how long do you sleep each night?
Well, I sleep about four hours. I'm trying to sleep more, up to six hours.
What are your hopes and fears?
I fear natural disasters -- like earthquakes, typhoons and accidents, things that I can't predict. As for hopes . . . I want to maintain my health. Because without health, I won't be able to live well. Remaining healthy is my ultimate hope.
How do you see your future professionally?
Right now I'm active in the fields of flower arrangement and cooking. But in the future I would like to expand my activities to include interior design, etc. And I would like to keep advocating a lifestyle featuring flowers.