In Japan, the “flower and willow world” is a highly stylized and formal culture that places an emphasis on the retention of traditional Japanese arts, traditions, and codes of conduct. Many Westerners are familiar with one aspect of this world, the geisha tradition, but the practice is in fact much larger and more complex than this. As Japanese culture began radically shifting in the 20th century, some historians and Japanese raised concerns about the fate of high culture in Japan, fearing that Westernization may be the death of the flower and willow world.
Japan has thousands of years of history and insular tradition, and as a result, it has evolved an extremely complex and sometimes bewildering (to outsiders) world of formal arts and traditions. In addition to including geisha, the flower and willow world also encompasses traditional Japanese arts like painting and woodblock printing, tea houses, writing, dance, and traditions such as the tea ceremony.
Even when these formal practices played a bigger role in Japanese culture, they were alien to many Japanese. People could spend their entire lives specializing in a single aspect of the flower and willow world, such as flower arranging or the art of the tea ceremony, and trained consultants who were comfortable in many branches of Japanese tradition were highly prized. The rigid traditions also dictated many aspects of Japanese culture and society, from fashion to religious ceremonies.
When Japan was forcibly opened to trade by the West, its culture underwent many substantial and irreversible changes. Foreigners struggled to navigate the complexities of Japanese society, and at the same time, Japan became more casual, with less of a focus on ancient artistic traditions. The flower and willow world was often misunderstood among non-Japanese, and young Japanese in the wake of World War II often felt alienated by old-fashioned Japanese culture, turning away from tradition and looking to the future instead of placing an emphasis on preserving the past.
Appreciation for ancient arts and culture is still cultivated in the upper classes of Japan, but the flower and willow world is certainly on the wane. Some historians and traditional Japanese have suggested that efforts should be undertaken to preserve Japan's rich cultural legacies, rather than allowing them to fade away altogether, but many fear that it may already be too late.