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History and Spirit of Ikebana

by Wafu Teshigahara

Nature, Man and Flowers

Enjoying the beauty of flowers is common to all mankind. Ikebana finds its basis in the beauty and meaning flowers have for man, a perceived beauty which stems from the essential bonds of man and nature. Nature is not only the wellspring of man’s existence but also defines the vital spirit of beauty. Flowers, needless to say, represent such beauty.

Japanese ikebana is a creative art which brings indoors the charm and beauty of landscapes, the seashore or lakeside. Ikebana recreates nature on a reduced scale through the arrangement of all types of plant material gathered from nature – from gardens, rivers, valleys. Nature is thus always close by for us to learn of its essence. Flower arrangements thus do more than decorate our homes – they provide moral sustenance as well.

The Origin of Ikebana

The primal beauty of nature as represented in flowers naturally results in the desire to have flowers near at hand. The act of cultivating, picking, or even buying flowers for any occasion is the act of making them our own, of putting them to a new use. The relation between flowers and our lives is thus developed and deepened.

But since flowers are living things, cut flowers or branches will quickly wither unless proper steps are taken to allow them to last as long as possible. The flowers, true to the meaning of the word ikebana, “live” in the container.

The Emergence of Ikebana

Buddhism, introduced into ancient Japan from the Chinese mainland from the sixth and seventh centuries on, developed further in Japan, where it greatly influenced all aspects of life, culture and the arts.

Formal offertory flowers on the Buddhist altar combined with the aristocratic taste for floral decoration and fused into a refined form which evolved into ikebana.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when Buddhism spread among the common people, the architectural style wihch became prominent was one which included the tokonoma. In this “alcove” Buddhist scrolls were hung and the custom arose of placing flowers there as offerings. In time the tokonoma took on a decorative function, the Buddhist scrolls were replaced by scroll paintings, calligraphy, and by antiques, and with this change the flowers placed in the tokonoma lost their religious meaning, leading to the development of flower arranging as an art.

The Development of Ikebana

Ikebana then developed with the tokonoma as its stage. At first a place where Buddhist scrolls were hung and offerings of flowers were made, the tokonoma gradually became a place for works of art – including ikebana – placed there to indicate respect for guests and their artistic sensitivity.

In this way, the room with the tokonoma, or the tokonoma itself, came to be considered the center of the house, and was respected as a symbol. At the heart of arranging flowers was the goal of presenting flowers appropriate to the season for the pleasure of guests. Ikebana thus developed with a sensitivity for the seasons and seasonal change, and for human relationships, at its core.

The cultural preferences of each age were manifested on the stage of the tokonoma, and the tradition of ikebana formed through the years has continued through the present. This tradition is to be seen in the varieties of arrangement styles and in the different kinds of containers which are used.

Flowers That You Like – Suitably – In a Container That You Like

The basic nature of ikebana as an expression of the seasons and as a social form soon resulted in its becoming restricted by various conventions. Today, however, ikebana contains a freer ability for self-expression.

While a bunch of miscellaneous flowers plopped haphazardly in some pot may be an expression of nature, the social and human requirements of ikebana at the same time demanded an esthetic. A flower arrangement had to be pleasing, and at best, transcendentally pleasing.

From this has been derived the idea, “arrange the flowers that you like — suitably — in a container that you like.” “Flowers that you like” means you may arrange anything; your reasons may be that certain flowers are easy to obtain, or that you prefer certain flowers over others.

“Suitably” refers to quantity, as befits the place to be decorated and the container. An arrangement for a living room might contain many branches, but one for a writing desk might contain only one or two.

A “container that you like” means that an expensive or a specially crafted container is not necessary. There are many miscellaneous articles which may be used as ikebana containers. Arrange flowers in whatever you like.

To sum up, you must enjoy the process of arranging and the result must be enjoyable to those around you. This, the “flowers that you like — suitably — in a container that you like,” is the way of thinking of modern ikebana.


— from Japanese Flower Arrangement by Wafu Teshigahara
© 1966 by Kodansha Ltd.