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Norman James Sparnon (1913–1995)

by Alison Broinowski

This article was published:

Norman James Sparnon (1913–1995), Japanese linguist and ikebana (flower arrangement) exponent, was born on 26 September 1913 at St Kilda, Melbourne, youngest of six surviving children of South Australian-born Thomas Wills Sparnon, tramway employee, and his Victorian-born wife Christina, née Duncan. The family lived at St Kilda, where Norman went to school. Later he attended business college in Melbourne, where he was offered the chance to learn French. Instead, he asked the Berlitz School of Languages if he could learn Japanese. The school was unable to instruct him, but recommended a teacher, and so he began weekly evening sessions with Shigeo Yasuhara, the Melbourne manager of the Okura Trading Co. Ltd. In the mid-1930s he followed Moshi Inagaki’s weekly Japanese program on Australian Broadcasting Commission radio, using Oreste and Enko Elisa Vaccari’s kanji (character) cards and a booklet published by the ABC. He also took lessons with Ethel (Monte) Punshon, and, as her only student, he passed the Intermediate examination in Japanese.

Following the outbreak of World War II, the Department of Defence employed Sparnon in Melbourne from August 1940 as a Japanese language student. On 21 January 1942 he began full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces (Australian Imperial Force (AIF) from 1943). Commissioned as a lieutenant in April 1942, he was posted to the Australian-American Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, serving in Papua (1942–43), Queensland (1943–44), and the Netherlands New Guinea (1944–45). Captain Sparnon was mentioned in despatches for his leadership between April and September 1944 of the American 158th Regimental Combat Team Language Detachment. He went to Hong Kong for the Japanese surrender in September 1945. In Manila in November, he began a brief diary, including his experience as document officer at the trial for war crimes of General Tomoyuki Yamashita.

On 14 December 1945 Sparnon arrived in Japan for the first time and eagerly began exploring. From January 1946 he headed the British Commonwealth Occupation Force’s Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre at Kure, in the rank of temporary major (February). With his AIF appointment terminating on 12 June, he consulted his father about staying on in Tokyo. Thomas Sparnon, who died not long afterwards, encouraged him to take the chance, saying ‘everything in life is a gamble’ (AWM PR04750). He joined the headquarters of the supreme commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) as a civilian interpreter. The United States of America awarded him its Bronze Star Medal (gazetted 1948) for his services.

Living in Tokyo for twelve years, Sparnon participated in its postwar cultural renewal. In January 1948 he married American-born Mary Melissa Griest (d. 1989), a colleague at SCAP who also shared his growing interest in ikebana. In 1949 he began lessons in flower arrangement with Kobayashi of the Eishin school, and then with Hako Terai of the modern Sōgetsu school in Mita, where Sōfū Teshigahara was the iemoto (grand master). He was also taught at the traditional Ikenobō school, where Tadao Yamamoto was iemoto. In 1950 he first showed his work, at the Hibiya Park pavilion, and he went on to take part in more exhibitions than anyone from a Western country before him had done, including the All-Japan Ikebana Art exhibition and the One-Hundred Man exhibition; he also held a solo exhibition. He reached the most senior rank as a teacher of both Sōgetsu and Ikenobō. After he retired from SCAP in 1957 he attended classes with Yuchiku Fujiwara at Ikenobō, and often visited Teshigahara. He published his first book, Japanese Flower Arrangement Classical and Modern, in 1960.

Between 1958 and 1960 Norman and Mary Sparnon had travelled in Europe and the United States. Arriving in Sydney in 1961, they settled at Darling Point. As the director of the Sōgetsu school, he founded eight groups in Australian cities and four in New Zealand. He also demonstrated and exhibited in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. President of the Ikenobō Society in Australia, he was also an honorary advisor to Ikebana International. He revisited Japan several times, and wrote books and articles aimed at inspiring and instructing Australian flower arrangers in using local plants.

The first book in Sparnon’s three-volume series, Creative Ideas for Japanese Flower Arrangement, was The Beauty of Australia’s Wildflowers (1967). With E. G. Waterhouse, he then co-authored The Magic of Camellias (1968). The third was The Poetry of Leaves (1970). He also published A Guide to Japanese Flower Arrangement (1969), Ikebana With Roses (1974), and Creative Japanese Flower Arrangement (1982); translated Fujiwara’s Rikka: The Soul of Japanese Flower Arrangement (1976); and wrote entries about ikebana for Encyclopaedia Britannica and the English-language edition of Encyclopedia Japonica. Awarded an OAM in 1979, he was appointed to the fifth class of the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun in 1982 and received the Sōfū Teshigahara memorial award in 1991.

Described by Beth Higgs, a former student, as ‘light hearted in his approach but always very serious about his art’ (Herald Sun 1995, 54), Sparnon was ‘a serene, humourful man whose eyes [became] vibrant’ over ikebana (Tarrant 1993, 135). During a visit to Tokyo shortly after Mary’s death, he had a stroke; this resulted in his becoming unable to speak Japanese. ‘Fortunately,’ he wrote, ‘I was able to use my Japanese at a time when I needed it’ (AWM PR04750). He died childless on 19 June 1995 at Bondi, and was cremated. A bequest established the Norman and Mary Sparnon scholarship, which assists Australians to study at Sōgetsu.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. PR04750, Sparnon, Norman James (Captain, b :1913 – d:1995)
  • Broinowski, Alison. ‘A Long Journey on the Ikebana Road.’ National Library of Australia Magazine 8, no. 1 (March 2016): 20–23
  • de Crummere, Barry. ‘Norman Sparnon.’ Australian Sogetsu Teachers Association Inc., New South Wales Branch. Accessed 4 April 2017. Copy held on ADB file
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Seduced by Japanese Floral Art.’ 27 June 1995, 54
  • Murray, Jacqui. Watching the Sun Rise: Australian Reporting of Japan, 1931 to the Fall of Singapore. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004
  • Tarrant, Deborah. ‘Soldier’s Life Blossoms.’ Sun Herald (Sydney), 4 July 1993, 135

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alison Broinowski, 'Sparnon, Norman James (1913–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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