The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

The events of March 11, 2011, changed the lives of many, even those fortunate enough not to have been physically impacted by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Witnessing the ephemeral nature of existence moved many to reassess their lives. It led Mika Otani to open Atelier Soka, which provides Sogetsu ikebana classes at three locations in Tokyo.

At the time of the disaster, Otani was working as a web publisher. Nature’s reminder that life is short triggered her decision to pursue something she felt would be more rewarding. An ikebana master who has studied the art for nearly 30 years, Otani wanted to change perceptions of the traditional craft.

“Most people think of ikebana as simply a Japanese style of arranging flowers. Ikebana is much more than that, and is quite different from traditional floral arrangements in Europe and North America,” she explained.

So, she began offering classes at her home studio in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, near Soshigaya Okura Station on the Odakyu Line. With very little money to invest, starting out wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t know how to get students,” Otani said, “so I put my leaflet around [the neighborhood] and put my pamphlet in the newspaper. After that, I was standing at the station to give out my brochure.”

All this worked, and soon she had five students. That was enough to find out if the idea could be turned into a business.

“It was a lot of risk, but for my home studio [the business] didn’t have to pay rent, so I wanted to try,” she explained. “It took a lot of courage, but I wanted to go forward. I thought that I have to see for at least one year. And after one year, if I [have] just five students, I have to quit.”

One year later 50–60 students had signed up.

The key to quick growth for Atelier Soka was Otani’s connection to technology. Her experience as a web publisher naturally led her to embrace the Internet and social media. It was the perfect path to achieving her goal.

“I wanted to convey the beauty of ikebana to younger people and to foreigners, but the number of students in the ikebana world is going down. Younger people have a stereotype image of ikebana. They love more of a European type of flower arrangement. Their idea about ikebana is that their grandma was doing it at home.”

But Facebook, Instagram, and a talent for photography have come together to form the perfect tool for turning the tide.

“I wanted to convey correctly the beauty of ikebana to young people, so I picked up a new strategy,” she explained. “Using technology is not so new, but in the ikebana world—which is a really conservative world—it is.”

According to Otani, the key to getting young people interested in studying ikebana is the camera. “We need to show beautiful photographs,” she stressed. “There are so many good teachers who can make really creative, modern works, but they do not convey those to people. I upload beautiful photos of my work almost every day to Facebook and Instagram. And if people see my work and like my work, they will come to my class.”

The visual, social media-driven approach has paid off. In addition to her home studio, Otani’s Atelier Soka now has locations in Roppongi and Omotesando, on the famous Cat Street. And the student makeup reflects the approach: “Almost all the students in my classes are young—twenties and thirties. Normally, ikebana classes include students in their fifties and sixties.”

Embracing social media has also allowed better communication. “Young people don’t call anymore,” she said. “They text me. Maybe it is really comfortable for them. They never call me.” But that’s fine with Otani and, in fact, allows her to continue nurturing overseas students once they return to their countries. One student from the United States and another from Singapore are now teaching ikebana as a business back home. Otani keeps in touch with them via Facebook, and when they have questions she gives them advice via text messaging.

Otani’s online presence has also attracted attention from the tourism industry. She was asked by Airbnb, Inc. to develop an ikebana class for the San Francisco-based home-sharing company’s “Experiences” program. Tokyo-bound travelers can book the Exquisite Ikebana Experience when making reservations on the Airbnb website. The program brings guests to Otani’s home studio and costs ¥24,000 per person.

“Airbnb wanted to make a special tour—not touristy, but put the essence and philosophy of ikebana into it,” she explained. “I made a special class in which we get together for almost eight hours over two days.” The extended length of the program gives her a chance to share not just ikebana, but Japanese culture in general.

She also presents a class for Japanese travel agency H.I.S. Co., Ltd. The two-hour offering provides a sampling of ikebana for inbound tourists with limited time in Tokyo.

Otani’s collaborations with Airbnb and H.I.S. are examples of her driving philosophy: “say yes.”

Always open to trying new ways of bringing ikebana to the world, she has accepted the offers and challenges that have come her way. Her beautiful creations have become widely known, largely through word of mouth, and she has been asked by companies such as French jeweler Cartier International AG and Japanese sweets maker Toraya Confectionery Co. Ltd. to design for their Ginza stores.

She even created works of ikebana for a movie last year: Sangatsu no Raion (March Comes in Like a Lion). Based on Chica Umino’s manga series of the same title, the Toho Co., Ltd. film follows the everyday life of a 17-year-old player of shogi, or Japanese chess, and is scheduled to be released in two parts this spring, on March 18 and April 22.

From disaster can emerge beauty and success, as Otani has proved with Atelier Soka. For those considering a change of direction, those wanting to bend the entrepreneurial branches, her advice is simple: “It’s really scary and requires a lot of courage. You have a lot of excuses to avoid doing new things. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know. If you want to do something, go for it.”

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-chief of The Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.