The word “ikebana “is usually translated as “the Japanese art of flower arrangement,” but the materials of “ikebana “can include freshly cut branches, vines, leaves, grasses, berries, fruit, seeds, and flowers, as well as wilted and dried plants. In fact, any natural substance may be used, and in contemporary “ikebana”, glass, metal, and plastic are also employed. As one of the traditional arts of Japan, “ikebana “has developed a symbolic language as well as decorative concepts, and the use of natural, ephemeral flowers and branches makes the dimension of time an integral part of the creation. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“The relationship between the materials; the style of the arrangement; the size, shape, texture, volume, and color of the container; and the place and occasion for its display are all vitally important factors. In its 500-year history, there have been a wide range of forms, from modest pieces for home decoration to vast landscapes and innovative sculptural works that can fill an entire exhibition hall. Along with the enormous variety of contemporary work, traditional forms continue to be studied and created. In addition, the practice of “ikebana”, also called “kado”, or The Way of Flowers, has been pursued as a form of meditation on the passage of the seasons, time, and change. Its religious origins and strong connection to the natural cycle of birth, growth, decay, and rebirth can give “ikebana “a deep spiritual resonance.

The main idea behind art of flower arranging (“ikebana”) is to arrange the flowers to heighten the appeal of a vase in a tea room and use flowers to represent heaven, earth and humanity. The tea ceremony and flower arranging have traditionally gone together hand and hand, with the objective of both being to express purity and simplicity rather than creating something of elegant beauty. Flower arrangement seeks to create a harmony of linear construction, rhythm and color in which the vase, the stems, leaves and branches are part of the art form as well as the flowers. Unlike Western appreciation of flowers, which emphasizes quantity and color, Japanese flower arrangement is based on three main lines that symbolize heaven, earth and humankind. Broken leaves and dying buds as well as blooming flowers are all seen as objects that enhance the beauty of the arrangement.

Flower Arranging Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Ikebana International Ikebana International ; Ikenobo ikenobo.jp ; Ikebana Links users.telenet.be/ikebana ; Flower arranging classes in Tokyo JNTO

History of Ikebana

The art of flower arranging developed during the Ashikaga Period (1338-1573) along with the tea ceremony although its origins can be traced to ritual flower offerings in Buddhist temples, which began in the 6th century. In these early arrangements the flower and branches were made to point towards heaven as an indication of faith.

The diversity of Japan’s natural landscape and ancient, agricultural way of life set the scene for the development of “ikebana”. A decisive influence was the introduction of Buddhism from China in the 6th century, and with it, the custom of floral offerings (“kuge”) to the Buddha and the souls of the dead. The offering took the form of a simple, symmetrical composition of three stems, but by the early 17th century it had evolved into a style called “rikka”, literally “standing flowers,”created by Buddhist monks of the Ikenobo school. This elaborate art form was done in tall bronze vases and required a high degree of technical skill. The main branch, symbolizing heaven or truth, was usually asymmetrical, bending out to the right or left before its upper tip returned to the central vertical axis. Numerous other branches, each with its own symbolic meaning and decorative function, emerged from the central mass, the core of an imaginary sphere. As a whole, a work of “rikka “was a microcosm that represented the entire universe through the image of a landscape. The chief characteristics — asymmetry, symbolism, and spatial depth — were to exert a strong influence on later developments. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“In stark contrast to “rikka”, the austere chabana”, literally “tea flowers,” originated as part of the tea ceremony (“chanoyu”) in the 16th century. Composed of one or two flowers or branches in a small container, “chabana “became the basis of a spontaneous style called “nageire”, meaning “to throw in,” which was done in a tall vase with few materials, and employed subtle technical means to produce a simple, poetic evocation of natural beauty. “Rikka “and “nageire “define a kind of counterpoint in the subsequent history of “ikebana”. On the one hand, there was an emphasis on elaborate technique, large scale, symbolism, and fixed styles. On the other, there was spontaneity, simplicity, suggestiveness, and respect for the natural characteristics of the materials themselves. The tension between the two would lead to all future innovations in the art.

“During the Edo period (1603?1868), Japan enjoyed internal peace and steady economic growth. “Ikebana”, once the exclusive province of Buddhist monks and members of the court and aristocracy, came to be practiced more widely by “samurai”, wealthy merchants, and others, including women. During this period, the “rikka “style became rigid and formalized, and a simpler style called “seika “or “shoka “(both written with the same Chinese characters), meaning literally “live flowers,” emerged and gained increasing popularity. While still rather formal, “seika “employed a three-branch composition based on an asymmetrical, or scalene, triangle. Many new schools promoted their own versions, but the three branches in the composition came to be known as “ten “(heaven), “chi “(earth), and “jin “(human being), respectively.

“Variations of this form have become the basis of all “ikebana “instruction, even in the most modern schools. Another important development during this period was the emergence of literati arrangements (“bunjin-bana”), which reflected the sensibilities of Chinese scholars and painters. Japanese “bunjin-bana “arrangements had a strong influence on the “nageire “style which had developed from “chabana”. Since “bunjin-bana “was practiced as a form of personal expression, arrangements had an unorthodox, casual character that was quite different from the austerity of the tea house, or the formality of “rikka “or “seika”. In addition, the Chinese origins added a new richness of color and literary nuance.

“The opening of Japan to Western influence from the beginning of the Meiji era (1868- 1912) brought great changes to all aspects of national life. In “ikebana”, the style called “moribana”, literally “piled-up flowers,” created by Ohara Unshin (1861-1916), founder of the Ohara school, totally revolutionized the art. Whereas in all traditional styles the materials were gathered to emerge from the container at a single point, Ohara used various kinds of supports to arrange cut plants over an extended surface in wide, shallow containers called “suiban”, literally “water basin.” This allowed for the use of new, imported materials that could not be accommodated to traditional styles. It also permitted the creation of landscape styles, “shakei”, that depicted scenes from nature in a naturalistic rather than symbolic fashion. Another important innovator was Adachi Choka (1887-1969), who adopted “moribana”, and described his work simply as “decorative.”

“Innovations continued with the appearance of many other modern schools. Teshigahara Sofu (1900-1979), founder of the Sogetsu school, promoted “ikebana “as modern art that should encourage free, creative expression. In the postwar period, avant-garde works, or “zen-eibana”, vastly extended “ikebana”’s expressive powers, incorporating abstract sculptural and surrealistic approaches, and broadening the scale of works and range of materials employed. In addition, traditional schools such as Ikenobo, while maintaining their own classical styles and creating modern versions of “rikka “and “seika”, added more recent approaches, including “moribana “to their curricula.

Styles of Flower Arrangement in Japan

There are three main forms of flower arrangement: the classical Shogun Ashikaga style, the naturalistic nagarie style and modern moribana style. The arrangements have traditionally been displayed, in a “tokonoma”, an alcove in a traditional Japanese tea house or home intended for displaying a flower arrangement, a work of Zen-style art or a calligraphy scroll.

Some attribute the beginning of flower arrangement to Ononon Imoko, a diplomat who traveled to China in 607 and later became a monk who lived in a small hut near a pond, or “ike”, and called himself Ikenobo Semu. According to legend he originated the art form when he made an offing of flowers on a Buddhist altar to a statue of Buddha at Rokkakudo Temple in Kyoto. The Ikenobo School of flower arranging, founded in 1462, is named after him.


A more sophisticated style of flower arrangement, called “rikka” (standing flowers) emerged in the 15th century and this is regarded as the beginning of the formal art of flower arranging. The objective of rikka was to reflect on the magnificence of nature with an arrangement that depicting Mt. Meru, a mythical mountain in Buddhist cosmology and a symbol of the universe. For example, pine branches symbolize rocks and white chrysanthemums symbolize a river of small stream fond on Mt. Meru. The rikka style had its heyday in the 17th century. Today, it is considered out of date and is rarely practiced any more.

A more sophisticated form of flower arrangement was developed by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490). His palaces and small tea houses contained a small alcove where a flower arrangement or work of art was placed. During this period a simple form of flower arrangement was devised for this alcove (the tokonoma) that all classes of people could enjoy.

In the 16th century an austere and simple form of flower arrangement called “nagarie” (throw in) emerged as a facet of the tea ceremony. According to this style, flowers should be arranged in a vase as naturally as possible, no matter what materials are used.

In the 1890s, during the period of modernization and Westernization of Japan, a new style of flower arrangement called “moribana” (piled-up) flowers was developed. Influenced by the introduction of Western flowers and an opening of ideas, this style sought to reproduce a miniature landscape to garden scene within a vase. Also in the 19th century flower arranging became a popular way to teach women to be good wives and mothers.

Today there are four main styles of flower arrangement: 1) “rikka” (standing flowers); 2) “nagarie” (throw in); 3) “moribana” (piled-up); and “shokai” (living flowers). Within these divisions there are hundreds of schools, the most well-known being Ikenobo, Ohara and Sogetsu.

Ikebana displays were originally used with the tea ceremony. Now Ikebana is a big business. Their schools have millions of students, many of whom are young women who are expected to learn the art to catch a worthy husband.

Ikenobo is Japan’s oldest ikebana school. Ikenobo Yuki, the eldest daughter of Ikenobo Senai, is the 45th head of the Ikenobo famously and the first ever female ikebana grand master of the Ikenobo school.

Ikebana Today

The contemporary scene is dominated by three large schools — Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu — each claiming over one million members, but there are also thousands of other schools large and small. Major schools have established chapters and study groups all over the world, and Ikebana International, an umbrella organization representing many schools, was founded in Tokyo in 1956 and promotes the art on a global scale. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“”Ikebana “continues to be practiced by many ordinary people not affiliated with specific schools and is an intimate part of everyday life in Japan. Arrangements decorate homes throughout the year, and specific materials are associated with special occasions and festivals. Evergreen pine, symbolizing eternity, is the preferred material for the New Year, and is traditionally accompanied by bamboo, for youthful flexibility, and blossoming apricot branches, for venerable old age. On March 3, for the Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri), also known as the Girls’ Festival, blossoming peach branches are displayed with traditional dolls. Japanese irises, symbolizing male strength, are arranged on May 5, Children’s Day, and bamboo is part of the decorations for Tanabata, the Star Festival, on July 7. Japanese pampas grass, a typical autumn material, is traditionally arranged when people gather to view the moon (“tsukimi”) in September.

Ikebana Basics

Plants must have enough water to remain fresh for as long as possible. A number of techniques are used to preserve the freshness of plants. These include crushing, boiling, or burning the base of the stems and the application of various chemicals. However, the most common method is to cut the base of the stems under water (“mizugiri”) and use them immediately. To restore vitality to wilted flowers and leaves, they are cut under water and the stems left submerged for at least 30 minutes. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“Most contemporary “ikebana “are of two kinds: “moribana “and “nageire”. While “moribana “is arranged in a shallow container with a needle-point holder, or “kenzan”, nageire “is composed in a tall vase with a variety of methods used to keep the materials in place. When using a “kenzan”, thick branches are cut on a diagonal, and the cut end is split lengthwise so that it can be inserted easily into the needle-point holder. Flowers and other materials with soft stems are best cut horizontally, inserted directly into the needles in an upright position, and then slanted forward or backward to the desired angle. With materials such as grasses, which are thinner than the individual needles of the “kenzan”, an additional short piece of the same or a different material can be tied to the base for added thickness. For arrangements in a tall vase, the bending method of stay (“oridome”) is employed for a variety of materials. The stem rests on the mouth of the container, the bent portion is placed against the inside surface, and the base may extend to the bottom of the vase. The self-supporting method (“kiridome”) is used for flowers with thick stems. The base is cut on an angle and placed directly against the inside surface of the vase. In the crosspiece method (“yoko-waridome”), the base of the branch is split horizontally, and a stay is inserted at a right angle. The crosspiece should fit securely against the inside surface of the container. To use a vertical prop (“tate-waridome”), the base of the stem is split vertically, and a prop is secured within the split end. The base of the propped stem touches the inside surface or the bottom of the container.

“Choosing an Appropriate Container: In principle, anything can serve as a container. Traditionally, bronze and ceramic vases, lacquerware, sections of bamboo, and even dried gourds have been widely used. However, the container does not merely contain, but is considered an integral part of the work. When using a wide, shallow bowl (“suiban”), the subtle use of the surface of the water — its reflectivity and the cool impression it gives in summer — plays a major role in the success of the work. Containers made of stainless steel, glass, and various synthetic substances are common in modern “ikebana”, but when making an arrangement in a transparent glass vase, special care should be taken with the portion of the work visible within the container. Whatever kind of container one uses, the base of the arrangement should be neat and concentrated. When using a tall vase, avoid filling the entire mouth with materials.

“While the mastery of any art requires long practice with a trained teacher, there are a number of basic points on which teachers of all schools are in agreement. First, one must realize that what plants look like in their natural state is the starting point for any work. Once they are cut and removed from nature (or a greenhouse), they become the materials for a composition with its own unique character. When examining materials, look at the whole form rather than the captivating details. With camellias, for example, it is the entire branch, and especially the leaves, that are most important, not the flowers, which can be removed from their natural position and reattached at a place where they will be more effective in the overall design. Bending can give branches a pleasing curve, but can also serve to straighten curved branches. The removal of unnecessary details is an essential skill, and trimming branches should aim at emphasizing the beauty of the line. The removal of some blossoms from cherry, plum, or peach branches serves not only to reveal the line, but also to highlight the beauty of those blossoms that remain. All natural materials can be used as line, surface, color, or mass. A large leaf, for example, has a powerful surface, but can also be shown in profile to function as a line. All flowers have a “face” that is oriented in a specific direction. In placing the flower, one must consider whether to show it facing forward, in profile, or turning away from the viewer. Flowers are usually used with their leaves, but the leaves of an iris or narcissus are often separated from the stalk, reassembled into more pleasing groups, and then reunited with the flower to give an appearance that is both “natural” and effective as an element in the composition.

Modern Flower Arranging

Japan’s most famous modern flower arranger is Shogo Kariyazaki. Easily recognizable with his long dyed hair and glasses, he appears regularly on television, often from his garishly decorated home, and did flower arrangements for the 10th anniversary of the Emperor’s accession to the throne and U.S. President Bill Clinton’s trip to Japan in 1996 and often exhibits works in galleries, museums and famous temples and historical buildings. His motto is: “A flower is a vitamin for the heart.”

On doing the arrangements for an important event, Kariyazaki told the Daily Yomiuri, “I will arrange the flowers in a variety of styles. Some will have a sense of wabi sabu [the traditional Japanese notion of simplicity and serenity], while the other will diffuse the slightly imposing atmosphere.”

On his art Kariyazaki told the Daily Yomiuri, “It is just meaningless to employ read-made ideas when arranging flowers. Flowers are already complete in their natural beauty. You need to have originality and ingenuity when making beautiful arrangements with them...Arranging flowers can be compared to cooking, You can make tasty dishes once you are able to apply your own ideas to basic recipes.”

Kariyazaki often tries out new ideas and explores new themes such as flying with his work. “I will try to build on past exhibitions, presenting novel images if flowers,” he said, “to make people say of my arrangements, “That’s very Kariyasaki-like ,” while at the same time exploring new horizons, as an artist.”

Makoto Azuma’s Plant Art

Shoji Ichihara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Woods, flowers and vegetables--Makoto Azuma takes all types of plants and transforms them into radical art. A total departure from conventional ikebana and traditional flower arranging, his style has been attracting attention. His past works have all flown in the face of conventional thinking. For example, works that combine beef and carnivorous plants, a flower made from vegetables and a Japanese white pine packed in ice. [Source: Shoji Ichihara, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 16, 2012]

Describing Azuma at work Ichihara wrote: “Azuma puts down six or seven parlor palm leaves, which are often used as a serving sheet for sushi or sashimi. After cutting a leaf into six equal parts and folding them into a wavelike shape, he thrusts a wire into the center and sticks them onto a round sponge, one after another. In just five minutes, Azuma has created a large flower using only leaves and some sleight of hand. This type of arrangement is called "leaf work." Azuma began tackling leaf work about eight years ago, and has since boldly transformed the leaves of ordinary plants such as azalea, fatsia and pine needles into works of art.

“Most people's first impression of Azuma's work is that it is a bit bizarre. However, if they take the time to appreciate his style, they will be surprised at its beauty. Azuma's aim is very simple. "I want to make people strongly aware of the existence of plants," he said. Azuma deeplu respects the beauty of flowers blooming in a field. With this in mind, he said, "By passing things that exist in nature through my own 'filter,' I want to make more shocking works of art that appeal to the public.

“Born in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1976, Azuma became enchanted with flowers through a chance encounter. When he was 16, he started a high school rock band, and moved to Tokyo at the age of 21 to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician as his band's guitarist and vocalist. However, knowing that he could not fully support himself with music alone, he began to work part-time at a flower shop near his home--which turned out to be a major turning point in his life. "I became fascinated by the life of a flower, which changes every day. I couldn't have imagined becoming absorbed in this world," Azuma said.

“Working as a middle trader in the flower market, at the age of 25, Azuma opened his own flower shop, JARDINS des FLEURS in Tokyo's Ginza district (the shop later moved to the Minami-Aoyama area of Minato Ward, Tokyo.) Azuma did not display flowers in the store front. Instead, he only delivered plants at the request of his customers. He worked with a wide variety of floral arrangements, ranging from bouquets worth several thousand yen to expensive works of art.

“Azuma's crew of more than 10 staff members all say the same thing, "Mr. Azuma knows about the life of flowers." According to them, when Azuma and his staff separately select flowers of the same price at the same market, Azuma's flowers will often survive three times longer than those of the staff.

Influences on Makoto Azuma’s Plant Art

Shoji Ichihara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Azuma is a self-taught artist, as he believes conventional ikebana and flower arrangement have become too rigid. No matter how much one of his pieces was praised, for Azuma, it would become a thing of the past the moment it was made public. He felt he needed to continuously evolve as an artist. "In the case of ikebana, the speed of evolution is too slow and I get bored," he said. [Source: Shoji Ichihara, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 16, 2012]

“On the influence of music on his craft, Azuma said, "I make full use of my ears, rather than my eyes. When we feel different emotions, such as anger and sorrow, flowers can be seen quite differently. What I'm saying isn't a fantasy or occult story. When I listen to the murmurs of flowers, they give me an answer that makes them look most beautiful; sometimes they even tell me their life spans.

“Azuma has also been largely influenced by Japanese poets, such as Sakutaro Hagiwara and Chuya Nakahara. In one of his works--a pine whose roots were pulled out of the ground--he quotes passages from a poem "Take" (bamboo) by solitary poet Hagiwara. In the poem, Hagiwara describes bamboo with an almost morbid sense of delicacy. "Making invisible things visible--that's my mission. I nourish myself with not only music, but also literature," he said.

“In February, Azuma assumed the post of creative director for Suntory Holdings Ltd.'s "Midorie" environmental greening project. He brainstorms various plans, such as covering public facilities with greenery and using plants in reconstruction projects in areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. "[As creative director,] it would be great fun for me to be able to compete in larger fields than ever before. I hope to continue activities that place the beauty and strength of plants in the hearts of many people," he said.

Image Sources: 1) Diagram and illustrations, JNTO and Asian Art Mall; 2) pictures, Japan Zone (tea, Rikyu , Wikipedia (1st photo) , Ray Kinnane (tea house) , Nicolas Delerue (Flower arranging)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2012

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