Ikebana (生け花, “living flowers”) is the Japanese art of flower arrangement, also known as kadō (華道, the “way of flowers”).
The practice of Tatehana, derived from a combination of belief systems including Buddhist and Shinto Yorishiro, is most likely the origin of the Japanese practice of Ikebana that we know today. During ancient times, the offering of flowers on the altar in honor of Buddha was part of worship. Ikebana evolved from the Buddhist practice of flower offerings combined with the Shinto Yorishiro belief of attracting Kami by the use of evergreen materials. Together they form the basis for the original purely Japanese derivation of the practice of Japanese ikebana. The first systematized classical styles of ikebana, including Rikka, started in the middle of the fifteenth century. The first students and teachers of Ikebana were Ikenobo Buddhist priests and members. As time passed, other schools emerged, styles changed, and Ikebana became a custom among the whole of Japanese society.
The Art and Meaning of Ikebana
A Presentation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan; 27-minute film made in 1973 by Sakura Motion Picture Co., Ltd.
Throughout nature and created by nature, bloom a profusion of flowers, each with a history and subtlety of its own. Even leaves and stems are incredibly different from one another. Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement begins with an emotional involvement in nature for selecting the ideal material from among this countless variety of plants.
Arranging flowers. It was Japanese who was first inspired with the idea of creating profound beauty with flower and foliage.
Here is an example of this floral art in which nature is idealized in a small space: a quality entirely different from producing a mere copy of nature.
How then Ikebana was born in Japan and nurtured to such a high level of refinement?
The history of Ikebana has its origins in ancient times when people expressed their faith in flowers. Even today, a branch of the sakaki tree, an evergreen, is offered to the shrine. The ancient Japanese believed that the divine spirit was present in all growing trees and plants.
They also thought the god of agriculture lived in all fruit baring plants. This belief is the basis of many local festivals in which people pray for bumper crops.
It was in the early years of the 6th century that Buddhism was introduced to Japan. People began to make floral offerings to Buddha. This was the beginning of Ikebana in which the people’s ancient faith in flowers was combined with the Buddhist idea of paradise.
Around the 14th century, aristocrats of the time enshrined Buddha images in their homes, gracefully arranging flowers before the alter. In those days, religious sentiments were still the basis for the floral offerings. Gradually, this changed until flowers came to be appreciated and viewed for their own inherent beauty. Later in the 15th century, the Tatebana or Rikka style, meaning standing arrangement, was established as the first stylized form of Ikebana.
The Rikka or standing style of arrangement grew larger in size during the 16th and 17th centuries as a result of changes in architectural styles which provided larger alcoves for the floral arrangements.
Rikka arrangements of that time glorified auspicious occasions such as weddings or the reaching of adulthood.
Rikka consists of 7 significant branches suggesting the hierarchy of the universe as conceived by Buddhists.
One characteristic of the Rikka style is that the base of the arrangement rises vertically from the container.
Since the 16th century, Ikebana has been so closely associated with the Tokonoma alcove that one is not complete without the other. Now, let us consider the emotional motives which led the Japanese of the past to evolve the art of Rikka style.
This structure is the Seiryo-den: part of the Kyoto imperial palace. And the reproduction of the Shinden style of architecture of the 10th century. Growing the small garden, a bush clovers indicative of Japanese love of nature; a love which eventually led them to bring nature even closer to their own personal lives.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, their passion for nature brought about the construction of many artistic gardens uniquely Japanese. It is said that these Zen gardens which symbolize nature provided the inspiration that gave birth to the Rikka style of arrangement.
The Japanese brought nature further inside; even into their own rooms where it was boldly incorporated as decor, as seen in these sliding panels.
Flowers, above all, were painted in all familiar household items such as lacquer ware, clothing and the like.
Another famous art form established during the same period as the Rikka was the Noh drama. A play’s heroine was often seen as a young lady representing a flower; both young ladies and flowers were considered symbols of beauty.
The popularity of the tea ceremony also kept base with the birth and the development of Rikka style of arrangement.
Flowers were also used as the decoration at the tea ceremony. But, in a more natural Nage-ire style, or thrown-in style, in stead of the rigid Rikka style.
Simplicity is the virtue of flower arrangements in the tea ceremony. People attended to express the beauty of the transient nature in lovely buds rather than in the profusion of flowers in full bloom.
This drawing depicts annual events in the life of the 17 century samurai worrier class.
Rikka once the exclusive possession of the privileged nobility had now become popular even among this lower samurai class. This glowing popularity resulted in simplifying the Rikka style. Now, ikebana arrange between the two different styles: Rikka, standing style, and Nage-ire, thrown-in style. It was the rise of the commoner class that proved instrumental in bringing about the new form of flower arrangement.
The art of Ikebana reached its peak of popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the 7 branches of the Rikka arrangement came to be symbolized by a three-point principle.
Here we see the Ikeguchi, the base of the arrangement. Ikeguchi, as viewed from the front is supposed to look as if only one stem were shooting upwards. In its most basic form, an Ikebana arrangement forms and asymmetrical triangle. The three principal branches of the triangle symbolize: heaven, earth and man, signifying the leading, subordinate and reconciling principles, respectively. This is considered to be the easiest way of achieving harmony in its simplest form.
While a number of different schools of Ikebana exist, they are all based on this fundamental principle. In another words, the essential point lies in the proportion of the branches that are to form the triangle.
The way of securing the base of the arrangement may differ according to the school. One may even increase the number of branches. Throughout, however, the basic form always consists of the three principal branches. This theory enabled anyone to learn this floral art easily. And, Ikabana thus came to be loved and practiced by the people in general.
Some Ikebana artists boldly bend and twist branched to realize an ideal expression of nature as they see it in their mind’s eye. It is also now the common practice to slant the plant material at the base of the arrangement. This style differs greatly from thrown-in, Nage-ire style.
The size of an arrangement is ruled by the dimensions of the Tokonoma alcove.
Some modern Ikebana arrangements are based on the classic Rikka style. One arranger can see the unique style using a pair of Ikabana scissors as the base fixture for the arrangement.
The end of the 19th century mark the emergence of Moribana, or the pile-up style as a result of Western cultural influence. The Moribana in this shallow container suggests a lovely view of Mt Fuji from the seaside. Moribana, as the child of traditional Ikebana which had already become excessively formalized preceded the advent of the 20th century Ikebana.
The great changes in modern life have released Ikebana from the confines of the Tokonoma to enliven the various settings of our daily activities. It should be recorded that Ikabana has survived different ages in its history, constantly transforming itself with the changing times.
Ikebana changes as the environment change, but the use of driftwood and colored materials is not necessarily unique to our times. They had already been used during the glorious days of Rikka.
Some may hesitate to call this Ikebana, but already in the 17th century there were works of the Rikka style of even larger size. It is not unlike the case of the 17th century in that such huge arrangements are attempts to add a new dimension to artistic expression.
Flower vases as such are not used, but rather individual water containers are carefully concealed within the arrangement. This allows greater freedom in the design and concept.
Ikebana arrangements are found everywhere today even in department stores. The use of various artistic containers is also the part of freedom and variety of today’s Ikebana.
These works appear to be products of the master sculptor, yet in actuality, they fall within the realm of modern Ikebana artist. The modern world has changed the material to be dealt with. Once accepting this idea, these sculpted pieces take on the image of the floral arrangement artistically transformed.
The real pleasure of Ikabana lies in doing it yourself. Urbanization has pushed nature far into the suburbs. To replace this loss, the cities of today provide the next best source: the well stocked florist.
Here, female office workers are learning Ikebana after completing their day’s work. They are trying to discover the secret of achieving profound form and harmony through the study of the traditional styles of Ikebana.
Today’s Ikebana can be compared to an orchard where many Ikebana schools are thriving in full bloom, alive to the present, but still relying upon the traditions of the past.
The traditional Tokonoma setting for Ikebana is disappearing from modern Japanese homes. Instead, Ikebana is finding a new role that is suitable to all times and all places: enjoying a growing international popularity, as interior decoration.
In flower arranging, one must consider the naturalness of the material, and one’s own thoughts and emotions. And, keep them in harmony with the container and the setting in which the arrangement is to be placed. Herein lies the secret for it expressing the true beauty of Ikebana.
The old tradition still survives in modern Ikebana. Today, when nature is being re-appreciated as having deeper significance, Ikebana which helps to incorporate nature more closely into our daily lives appeals to us all the more as unique form of art.