TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japan's traditional, female-dominated art of flower arranging is returning to its masculine roots, for an entirely modern reason: it's become a way for male employees to prune away their stress.
Ikebana, or "the way of flowers," dates back more than 500 years and first blossomed among male artisans and aristocrats.
Aimed at creating harmony between man and nature as well as heightening the appreciation of the rhythms of the universe, arrangements are conducted in silence using only organic elements put together in a minimalist style.
And it's this creativity and spirituality that has attracted thousands of Japanese men to reclaim the art form that has more recently been associated with women.
"Nowadays there are a lot of people seeking something that makes them feel at ease," said Gaho Isono, a master ikebana instructor at Sogetsu, founded in 1927 and one of the first schools to offer flower arranging courses to men.
"There are many hobbies people can do now and there's no longer the preconception that men cannot arrange flowers. They are free to choose whatever they like and the number of men choosing flowers is actually increasing."
Japanese society has traditionally put much emphasis on hard work and employees regularly put in long hours in the office, which increases the risk of depression, mental health organizations say.
The nation, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, even has a term for death by overwork -- karoshi -- making stress-relieving activities such as ikebana all the more popular.
Flower compositions arranged according to the traditional principles of ikebana are said to represent the relationship between heaven, mankind and earth.
There are an estimated 3,000 ikebana schools across Japan with some 15 million enthusiasts, most of whom see flower arrangement as an antidote to their hectic lives.
"Each time when the class starts at first I feel tired from work," said male student Koji Takahashi, 45.
"But once I begin concentrating on how to combine the flowers and the vase, and I actually move my hands to create the composition, it's a change of pace."
Some men have spent years mastering the art form and now teach new students the therapeutic effects of ikebana.
Minoru Kagata, 61, an instructor at Sogetsu school who took up ikebana almost 20 years ago, said the art "gives life to flowers." It usually takes students more than two years to create beautiful arrangements with few natural elements, he added.
For many male students, stepping into the ikebana studio is rewarding enough, regardless of how skillful they are.
"Flower arrangement adds that unreal flavor to my life and lets my mind roam free," said Koji Otusbo, who has been studying ikebana for more than 15 years.
"At the same time, such an artistic hobby is like a bridge that connects me to the real world."
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)