Speaker: Mayuka Yamazaki

Ikebana: Letting Flowers Live to Restore Wholeness

***Please note the special time for this event, to accommodate the time zone of our guest and other Asia-based participants.

“In order to let flowers live, we need to calm ourselves and empty our mind — otherwise, we cannot listen to what flowers tell us.” 

To Mayuka Yamazaki, a high-level business executive, ikebana — the ancient Japanese art of floral creations — is not just about arranging flowers. It is about attuning to the wisdom and beauty of nature and enriching our experience of being human. As a master of the art, she explains that ikebana is a word derived from the verb ikeru (to bring alive) and hana (flowers), or combined, “letting flowers live.” For over 20 years, Mayuka has been letting flowers live, and most recently, she has brought this practice to help restore wholeness to schools, international organizations, communities, and most notably, corporations.

As a young child in Japan, Mayuka was drawn to “finding beauty in the small changes in nature and its seasons.” When she was 18, she began to learn ikebana as a hobby under Risen Kajikawa, a headmaster of ko-ryu shoreikai, one of the ikebana factions in Japan. After studying economics at Tokyo University and then working as a management consultant, her education took her to the United States, where she would graduate with honors at Georgetown University’s Graduate School of Foreign Service. On the outside, her life trajectory seemed clear. On the inside, however, Mayuka felt lost. 

Some years later, she found herself working at Harvard Business School (HBS) at a fortuitous time. HBS was trying to transform its education system and its new guiding principle was “Knowing, Doing, Being,” emphasizing the need to rebalance the head, hands, and heart. Mayuka realized that the heart, which ought to be her true inner compass, had been largely silenced by her focus on acquiring knowledge and skills. So she set about trying many things, from meditation practices to exploration circles with colleagues. What opened her heart the most was creating things — concrete things — like poems, stories, and paintings. This moved her from consumer to creator, from thinking to being. And one day, she had an epiphany that ikebana — which had begun as a beloved hobby but had over two decades become an art she would master — could be her career.

Ikebana is an art of great subtlety and sophistication. Simple floral arrangements in Japan date back as early as the 7th century, beginning as simple Buddhist temple offerings that symbolized paradise. Today, it is a popular and innovative “living art” that continues to engage the ikebana artist in deep conversation with nature and her energies, equally incorporating the forms and empty space.

In 2017, Mayuka launched an initiative called IKERU, with a vision of bringing the wisdom of ikebana into business and leadership development. Through IKERU, she offers individual and group sessions, inviting people to create harmony in themselves or their teams through practice of the art form. They also learn the challenge and beauty of creating something when they have no answers or directions.

Mayuka sees herself more as a co-learner than a teacher: “While I acknowledge the value of the [traditional] apprenticeship model as a way of teaching, it may not be my way. For me, those who come to my lessons and workshops are not ‘apprentices’ to whom I transfer what I know. I have learned so much from them and they are ‘friends’ who explore the wisdom of ikebana together. And this is why I started IKERU — to let people simply enjoy ikebana itself outside the system, as well as why I have managed the IKERU community as openly and flatly as possible.”

Prior to devoting herself to IKERU, Mayuka worked as Assistant Director of Harvard Business School Japan Research Center and visiting editor at the Harvard Business Review (Japan). With HBS professors, she co-authored over 30 HBS cases related to Japan, and played a critical role in designing and running the HBS immersive field course in the 3.11 disaster-affected Tohoku areas. She also worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company.

Previously only having lived in big cities, she moved in 2020 to Karuizawa, a small and beautiful town in the mountains, where she now lives with her husband and six-year-old daughter. She currently sits the boards of directors of three Japanese public companies.

Please join us in conversation with this artist and changemaker, and dare to allow beauty to open us up to transformation!

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