Ikebana, find out more about the world of Japanese flower arrangements

Photo bank by Majuni / Shutterstock
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Ikebana, or the Japanese tradition of flower arranging, has a long history dating back to the 7th century. “The Way of Flowers” ​​is a delicate and refined practice where nature becomes the foundation of sculptural works of art known for their simplicity. Using branches, flowers and leaves to create shape and character, ikebana can be used to express emotions.

While ikebana reached its peak in the 16th century, japanese flower arrangement is seeing a comeback, and more and more people are embracing the practice. Today ikebana is appreciated for the attention to color, shape and lines that allow practitioners to express their creativity. Traditional elements like bamboo grass and plum branches are often mixed with local and seasonal wildlife to create innovative new arrangements.

Find out more about ikebana, also known as kado, let’s learn a bit about the history and philosophy behind this art form, as well as the different styles of Japanese flower arrangement.

Japanese flower arrangement

“Ike Bana (Flower Arrangement) in the Ike-no-bo Style” by Suzuki Harunobu, ca. 1765 (Photo: public domain via Metropolitan museum)

The history of Japanese flower arrangement

As plants are an inherently important part of Shinto religion, there is a long tradition of appreciating seasonal varieties. Many were given special importance and it was common for flowers and plants to be left as a welcome gift for kami– spirits worshiped in Shintoism.

In the 7th century when Buddhism arrived in Japan, flowers were regularly left as an offering. The earliest flower arrangements were used as temple offerings, gradually becoming more symmetrical and symbolic. Towards the end of the 15th century, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa became a great supporter of the tea and ikebana ceremony. He believed that offerings to the gods required special consideration and began to codify the rules for these flower arrangements.

In the 16th century, various ikebana schools had been created and emerged from a strictly religious context. It was often practiced by Japanese generals, who believed it freed their minds and allowed them to make the right decisions on the battlefield. At that time, people also had special alcoves in their homes called tokonoma where they would place their flower arrangements.

Although ikebana declined in popularity after the 17th century, there are still over 1,000 schools of ikebana today, including Ikenobō. Based at the Rokkaku-dō temple in Kyoto, this largest and oldest ikebana school was founded by a monk in the 15th century.

Ikebana - Japanese flower arrangement

“Ikebana, or flower arrangement, one of the aesthetic arts of Japan.” The digital collections of the New York Public Library. 1910 – 1919. (Photo: Public Domain via General Research Division, New York Public Library.)

Principles of Ikebana

In Japan, flowers and plants are loaded with symbolic meaning. Therefore, strict attention is paid to the choice of materials used, which may vary depending on the time of year.

For example, the evergreen pine symbolizes eternity – as such, it is often used around the New Year. And on March 3, flowering peach branches are used in conjunction with the Girls’ Festival. In terms of symbolic meaning whatever the season, bamboo symbolizes the flexibility of youth while the flowering apricot branches bear witness to old age.

Ikebana - Japanese flower arrangement

“Suisen (Narcissus) Flower Arrangement in a Flat Green Dish” by Utagawa Toyohiro. Edo period. (Photo: public domain via Metropolitan museum)

The symbolism also goes through the shape of the arrangement, as well as the color. Due to the strong winds in Japan that occur in March, many arrangements made during this time will have branches curved to reflect the movement of the wind. White flowers are used in compositions intended for a housewarming party, as they symbolize water and keep away any possible fire in the house. Conversely, we would like to avoid red flowers in this situation, because they symbolize fire. The language of flowers, says hanakotoba, helps assign specific meaning to Japanese plants and flowers.

As ikebana has become a part of Japanese culture through Buddhism, many philosophical aspects flow from religion. Ikebana practitioners believe that arrangements should be made with patience and silence. This meditative aspect allows practitioners to gain a deeper understanding of their materials and an appreciation for the overall arrangement, which ultimately brings them closer to nature.

Ikebana - Japanese flower arrangement

Photo bank by Majuni / Shutterstock

It is important to understand that materials can be manipulated in order to showcase their innate beauty. The flowers can be removed and put back in a more aesthetic location or pruned to showcase the remaining flowers. The branches can be bent or straightened to create enhanced shapes. Dry, living materials are used, and are often cut or painted as needed.

There are many different schools and styles of ikebana, but a rule of thumb for many arrangements begins with the idea of ​​a scalene triangle where the main points symbolize the sun, moon, and earth; or, they represent heaven, man and earth. The choice of a vase is also very important depending on the school, as the amount of water used and how it is exposed to the air can affect the overall arrangement.

Ikebana styles

Like any art form, ikebana has undergone various stylistic changes throughout history. Many schools subscribe to one of the two main branches that developed early in the history of ikebana.

Rikka

Rikka, which translates to “standing flowers”, is a style that developed in the 15th century during the Muromachi period. It is said that the rikka is really what established ikebana as we know it now.

Ikebana Rikka style

Example of a rikka arrangement from “Rikka-zu narabini Sunamono”, 1673. (Photo: Wikicommons)

This formal style follows rigid rules and often uses wiring to construct harmonious and picturesque landscapes. The arrangements consist of nine main lines called yakueda which aim to reflect the character of plants. The height and position of each row is critical to arrangements, which are usually made in a large vase measuring 20 to 30 centimeters high (7 to 11 inches high) using a kenzan to hold the rods in place.

Modern fittings rikka shimputai the style, which was created in 1999, allows for a more creative expression and breaks with the rigidity of the more formal rikka shofutai. Instead of nine main lines, the shimputai arrangements are based on two contrasting parts used in a single vase. It can be a contrast in color, texture or material. These modern arrangements are known for their bright and striking appearance.

Swimming

Also known as heika Where nageirebana, this style has its basis in the secular world. While the emphasis is always on the character and meaning of plants and flowers, swimming is less rigid than the more formal rikka style.

This fluid nature is illustrated by the legend behind its creation. It is said that a samurai threw flowers into an open vase, the resulting arrangement gave birth to nageire, which means “thrown into it”.

The triangular composition and color harmony found in the rikka is only loosely followed in the nageire, and a kenzan is generally not used to hold the rods in place. Leaning compositions are typical of nageire, and these are subdivided into three categories: vertical (Chokutai), oblique (Shatai) and cascading (Suitai).

Next: Ikebana today and where to buy supplies including vases to start your next arrangement.



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Rosalie M. Dehner