Scientist earned top Japanese cultural award

Written By BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter Posted: 08/01/2014, 09:04am
Array Seiko Nakashima, a master of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, flower-arranging, classical dance and calligraphy, died July 8 at Presence St. Francis Hospital in Evanston. She was 87.

At Seiko Nakashima’s day job, she worked as a Chicago microbiologist studying tuberculosis, but in 2006 she was summoned to a palace in Tokyo, where she was decorated with one of the emperor’s top awards for her promotion of Japanese culture through her mastery of the traditional tea ceremony, flower-arranging, classical dance and calligraphy.

Mrs. Nakashima was recognized with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays. It’s “one of the highest” imperial accolades bestowed on a civilian, said Akane Hattori, a spokeswoman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

“It’s quite an honor,” said Shinju Karasawa of the embassy’s Japan Information and Culture Center.

Her selection followed six months of scrutiny by officials from the Japanese consulate who interviewed her and examined her credentials. Her student Donna Kobayashi accompanied Mrs. Nakashima to Tokyo to receive her award in a ceremony so moving that many in attendance wept. Mrs. Nakashima reported Emperor Akihito, slight and elegant, descended from a staircase in a lavender-carpeted room, wearing a dark double-breasted suit and white gloves. All of his attendants were male, and they were the same size as the emperor, Mrs. Nakashima said. He “spoke to each recipient, knowing their names,” Kobayashi said.

Over more than half a century, Mrs. Nakashima taught thousands of students the tea ceremony, and the flower-arranging known as ikebana. It traces its origins to the Ikenobos, a Kyoto family whose ancestors founded an art and discipline that goes back 45 generations and more than 1,500 years, according to Charles Harris, president of the Chicago chapter of the Ikenobo Ikebana Society. It uses asymmetry and empty space to convey beauty and harmony, according to the website Harris studied with Mrs. Nakashima for 25 years.

Her students addressed her with the respectful “Sensei” (Teacher).

Ira Abrams recalled her probing mind when he arrived at her class to study ikebana.

“Why are you here?” she asked Abrams.

“To learn flower arranging,” he replied, meekly.

He recalled her thundering back: “You are here to find out why you are here.”

She stood about 4-foot-9, he said, “but she could make a loud noise.”

“She became what each student needed,” said Abrams, a member of the Shambhala Meditation Center in Hyde Park.

Her formidable intelligence and focus led to her mastery of another Japanese tradition, Chado, “the Way of Tea.” “It’s really a way of life. You study tea your entire life, and tea is sort of a philosophy of life,” Harris said. The tea ceremony’s basic principles are harmony, purity, tranquility and respect, he said.

“It shows you how to treat guests and how to eat and savor food,” Abrams said.

Mrs. Nakashima, 87, died from age-related ailments July 8 at Presence St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, said her longtime companion, Ameer Ali.

She was born Seiko Kanbayashi in Hokkaido, Japan. At the age of 5, she began studying ikebana, said Harris. The Kanbayashis lost most of their wealth during World War II, Ali said.

The occupying army brought her a new path and life. As American soldiers occupied a family home in Kamakura, she met U.S. Army Sgt. Takao Nakashima, of Hilo, Hawaii, Harris said. They wed in 1950 and eventually settled in Chicago, where he taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He died 10 years ago.

Mrs. Nakashima graduated from the University of Illinois. She worked as a microbiologist at university hospitals and the Chicago Department of Public Health, according to Ali and Harris.

She continued to teach and lecture on traditional arts at the Japanese Culture Center, DePaul University, Loyola University, Oakton Community College, the University of Chicago and University of Illinois, and at demonstrations all over the U.S. and Canada, said Ali and Harris.

An entire floor of her Uptown home was dedicated to the instruction of flower-arranging and the tea ceremony.

Though she could be a demanding teacher, she had an eye for handsome younger men, and late in life, she would playfully introduce them as her boyfriends.

In her free time, she liked to read books about ikebana and the tea ceremony. She also enjoyed dining at Renga-Tei restaurant in Lincolnwood and Kamehachi in Chicago.

A celebration of her life is planned in September at the Chicago History Museum. For information, email It will include a tea ceremony, shared memories and a reception, Ali said. Her cremated remains have been interred next to her husband at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.


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