Ikebana is a tradition of floral art, which dates back to more than
thirteen centuries. Japan received the floral art from China at the
beginning of the VIIth century. At that time, the Tang dynasty influenced
the whole oriental world and Japanese ambassadors brought back, with
Buddhism, the custom of floral offerings (kuge) to the Buddhist altars
and the stupa.
A name emerges here : that of the ambassador Ono no Imoko,
who became the priest Senmu and who was the first in Japan
to codify the floral art, preferring the Buddhist sobriety, and the
classic rigour of the trinitarian principle that we still find today
in many Japanese bouquets, to the Confucian exuberance. He specified
in fact that the offerings of flowers to Buddha should be composed
of three flowers : one tall and two shorter. We have there the origin
of the first vertical arrangement, named tatebana, which gave
later rikka and shôka. Nevertheless, Senmu also
disposed the flowers in another way : piling them up in a dish or
in a basket. This second arrangement formed the prototype of what
will become moribana.
Ike-no-bo (literally: the hut near the pool) was the little house
where Senmu retired to exercise his Buddhist ministry and to diffuse
the understanding of flowers. His descendants carried on his work
and created the school, which bears this name.
From the XIIth century, the Buddhist rites began to be celebrated
in private residences also. Bouquets migrated from the temples to
houses and spread from the ceremonies to feasts. The codification
went on and became more elaborated. The most ancient text in that
respect - the Sendenshô - assembled rules of mixed origins,
that the school Ikenobô gathered. It foresaw fifty-three arrangements
for all circumstances in life (marriage, majority of a boy, depart
of a warrior...)
Other text-books proposed rules : the Mon'ami Densho which explains
how to lay out arrangements and objects in or around the alcove of tokonoma,
the Senno Kuden, first manual of landscapes actually giving all
the possible variations of a unique landscape : that of the legendary
mount Meru of which the Buddhist texts speak and which symbolises the
Throughout the techniques, a spirit expressed itself. It could be shin
: strict, imposing, traditional, symmetrical, so : light, spontaneous,
asymmetrical, unforeseen, or gyo : between shin and so.
The history of Ikebana is marked by permanent oscillation between these
two poles : formal classicism (shin) and liberty (so). The bouquet proceeds
from a state of mind, which it wants to arouse in those who are contemplating
it. An important notion appears here : that of fûryû,
which implicates simplicity, discretion and love of natural beauty, without
ostentation. Fûryû turns away from exhibition and manifests
serenity. Zen fills an important role in the development of this spirit.
But this discreet power of suggestion, sought from the origin in the
Japanese bouquet, is difficult to attain and to conserve. At the end
of the XVIth century, Hideyoshi, lord and patron, paranoiac and æsthete,
gave the masters of flowers at his service, imposing and grandiloquent
means to express themselves.
That is how, on the occasion of a ceremony in honour of the great
Buddha of Nara, the flower arrangements rose as high as thirteen meters.
The master Sen no Rikyû, an intimate of Hideyoshi, fell
in with this megalomania by making monumental rikka to decorate
his palaces. Nevertheless this master reacted by creating the chabana (literally "flowers of tea") a simple arrangement, animated
by a spirit for which the Japanese use a very particular name : wabi.
The wabi is the refinement in simplicity, rustic elegance,
nobility without sophistication, beauty reduced, or rather brought
back to its essential simplicity. One simple flower perfectly disposed
in a discreet vase can express it.
One also attributes the origin of nageire to Sen no Rikyû.
One day when he and Hideyoshi were resting in the garden, the latter asked
him to compose a bouquet. Sen no Rikyû therefore cut some iris with
his dagger, attached them to it and sent the whole lot into a bucket.
The bystanders, tells the anecdote, went into ecstasies before the masterpiece.
The nageire (literally : cast, thrown away) was born.
During the XVIIth century, a political mutation affected the evolution
of Ikebana. This, like all the Japanese arts had up to then, come under
the influence of Zen Buddhism which had developed since its introduction
in the XIIth century. With the shôgunat of the Tokugawa and under
its impulse, Confucianism supplanted Zen. The Tokugawa encouraged it as
the philosophical foundation of their power, while at the same time they
relegated the nobility to Kyôto and occupied it with cultural activities,
which did not overshadow them.
Floral art entered the game of rivalries and court intrigues, and received
thereby the official name of Ikebana. The shôgunat at first committed
it to the care of a unique family, Ikenobô, but soon, competitors
surged up and other schools saw the day. The shôgunat canalised
them by establishing the hereditary transmission of the iemotos, still
in force these days. This epoch was marked by a decrease in the values
of intuition and spontaneity, which characterised the nageire in favour
of a codification, more and more complex of the rikka. In 1673 Rikka
arrangements of the Ikenobô school of Rokkaku-dô and his pupils
was published, in 1683 the Encyclopaedia of Rikka came out, and
in 1668 the Admitted styles of Rikka. Finally came the Images
of Hundred Arrangements in vases for the four seasons, which says "if the rules are not observed, flowers cannot be considered as a
valid decoration for the tokonoma."
No great masters, a lot of rules, and the snobbery of a lazy aristocratic
class trying valorise itself by sterile exhibitions, this is the harsh
judgement one could make concerning the Ikebana of the XVIIth century.
Nevertheless a new merchant class was in the throes of being born. It
began to interest itself in floral art, and with it began a democratisation
of its practice.
democratisation took place in the XVIIIth century. It concerned social
classes but also the sexes. Floral art, until then reserved to men,
was learnt by women together with music and the tea ceremony. This
brought about a simplification of the rules of rikka, a revival
of nageire and the birth of new more popular style, mixing
the characteristics of the two : shôka. This simple style,
of three symmetric branches, was organised according to a trinitarian
On the XVIIIth century, the number of pupils practising Ikebana increased
considerably, schools multiplied, flowers came into the houses and
covered kimonos and folding screens as they had never done before.
A reaction manifested itself against the snobbery of the aristocrats
and the rigourless facility of the new wealthy classes.
A group of creators who were seeking in Ikebana something else than
a frivolous decorative activity brought a second wind. These people
were well-read persons - bunjin - very sensitive to the models
that Japan had inherited from China and wishing to remake ties in
matters of art (poetry, painting, floral art...) with Chinese æsthetics.
They set up a style drawing its inspiration from this : bunjin
ike which broke away from excessive codification, seeking to recover
spontaneity, naturalness, but also the refinement of Chinese art.
In 1854, the American commandant Perry destroyed the isolating bolt, which
kept Japan, shut within its isles and opened it to commerce and to western
culture. The political and artistic incidences of this event were innumerable.
Concerning Ikebana, the arrival of new flowers inspired a master named
Unshin Ohara who, in addition, intended restoring ancient traditional
models such as landscape. Unshin Ohara founded his own school. Other creators,
like Nishikawa, tried to implant more profoundly the new freedom and to
renew with the spirit of wabi.
Towards 1920, a new wave appeared and a new freer style of floral arrangement
: jiyubana. Refusing the original Buddhist reference and traditional
codifications, the young revolutionaries Nakayama, Okubô, Shigemori...
published in 1930, a manifesto entitled Proclamation of the New Style
of floral Arrangement in which they intended to take some distance
regarding the floral artists of the past. Then, their war cry was : "Liberate
Ikebana from tokonoma !" From these tendencies, the Sogetsu School
was born, founded by Sofû Teshigahara. Then, others schools
appeared, with the result that in 1966, the Japanese Association of Ikebana
regrouped more than hundred and thirty of them. But, from 1930, the three
big schools, which dominate today the Japanese and worldwide landscape
of Ikebana - Ikenobô, Ohara and Sôgetsu
-, were in place.
text is translated from the book of Alain Delaye : Les
fleurs dans l'art et la vie (Ed. l'Originel, 5 passage de la
Folie-Regnault 75011 Paris) . To practice Ikebana in France, see : Centre
Ikebana, 26 rue d'Armaillé, 75017 Paris, tel 01 45 74 21 28