A woman arranges flowers

Anthropology: Ikebana Is the Japanese Art of Flower Arrangement

Ikebana is the Japanese art of arranging flowers. A tradition born during the ancient period and thriving since then, ikebana is also known as kadō (way of flowers.) The tradition started as floral offerings on altars. Later, the tokonoma (alcove) of a traditional Japanese home was adorned with beautifully arranged flowers. 

Along with chadō for tea and the tea ceremony and kōdō for incense appreciation, ikebana is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement. Reaching its first peak in the 16th century due to the influence of the Buddhist tea masters. It has grown over the years, embodying Japanese tradition and culture.

History of Ikebana

Early practices

‘Ikebana’ comes from the Japanese words ‘ikeru’ (to arrange or have a life) and ‘hana’ (flower.) Other possible translations include ‘arranging flowers’ and ‘giving life to flowers.’ The early Japanese aristocracy established the practice of viewing and appreciating plants and flowers through the four seasons. In the Heian period (794-1185), Waka poetry anthologies like the Man’yōshū and Kokin Wakashū had several poems regarding the topic of flowers.

When Buddhism was introduced in Japan, it became a common practice to offer flowers at Buddhist altars. In India, lotus flowers were commonly used at Buddhist altars. But in Japan, other native flowers were used, and they varied according to the season. In China, Buddhist priests themselves were the first instructors of flower arrangement, but in Japan, only the simplest or crudest elements were used during the early stages. For a long period of time, flower arrangement was done without any specific meaning or significance attached to it. Flowers were merely placed in vases without any meaningful structure or system and offered at temples and ancestral shrines.

A lady practising ikebana: Woodcut ukiyo-e print by Eishi
A lady practising ikebana: Woodcut ukiyo-e print by Eishi. credit@ Wikipedia

The first system of flower arrangement to be used was known as shin-no-hana, which means ‘central flower arrangement.’ In shin-no-hana, an enormous branch of pine or Sugi (Japanese cedar or Japanese redwood) would be in the middle, while three or five flowers depending on the season would be placed around it. The stems and branches would be placed in vases in simple, upright positions, rather than attempting to make artificial curves. Religious pictures from the 14th century indicate that the first attempts at flower arrangement were done in such a way that it appeared as natural as possible. It was an attempt to represent natural scenery. Distant scenery was indicated by the large tree in the middle, while tiny flowering plants in the front represent the foreground. The middle distance was represented by plum or cherry blossoms. In this type of arrangement, the lines were known as centre and sub-centre.

Tatebana to Ikebana  

A picture of the mitsu-gusoku arrangement.
A picture of the Mitsu-gusoku arrangement. credit@ Wikipedia

During the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Nanboku-chō periods (1336–1392), among the many types of Buddhist offerings, Mitsu-gusoku (traditional arrangement of three articles) became extremely popular. Many Buddhist scriptures took their names after flowers, like the Hokke-Kyo (Lotus Sutra) and the Kegon-Kyo (Flower Garland Sutra.)

When the shoin-zukuri architectural style (a style of Japanese residential architecture) was developed during the Muromachi period (1336–1573), scroll pictures (kakemono) and containers were displayed as art objects on two-levelled shelves (called chigaidana) and the oshiita alcove (a precursor to the tokonoma.) Flower arrangements in vases also accompanied these art objects. The flower arrangements began to influence the style of interior decorations, leading to more exquisite and simpler decorations as time passed. This style of adorning the interior was known as zashiki kazari.

The set of three ceremonial objects arranged at a Buddhist altar is known as mitsugusoku. The objects consisted of a censer, candles lit in holders and flowers placed in a vase. The earliest style in which flowers were arranged is called tatehana or tatebana, meaning ‘standing flowers.’ The arrangement was made of the shin (the longest branch) and shitakusa (under grass.) Historical research shows that tatebana developed from not one, but a combination of religious beliefs, including Shinto and Buddhism. The Shinto Yorishiro belief (in which an object is believed to be capable of attracting spirits called kami) played a central role in the origin, development and practice of modern ikebana. Buddhism and Shinto together formed the basis for ikebana- the original, purely Japanese derivation of arranging flowers.


Ashikaga Yoshimasa: The great patron of the arts.
Ashikaga Yoshimasa: The great patron of the arts. credit@ The Japan Times

The art of flower arrangement grew slowly, and towards the end of the 15th century, many schools came into existence. Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), the eighth shōgun, was a patron of the arts. He was the greatest promoter of the tea ceremony and ikebana. Later on, Yoshimasa abdicated his position and dedicated his time to the arts. He was the one responsible for developing the concepts that would become the rules governing ikebana. One of the most important rules of ikebana put forward by Yoshimasa was that flowers offered on ceremonial occasions and placed before the gods shouldn’t be mere loose offerings- these flowers and the arrangements must represent time and thoughts. It wasn’t just about sticking a few flowers in a vase- it was also about the person who arranges them.

Contemporaries of Yoshimasa were also great contributors to the development of ikebana. One of them was Sōami, a celebrated painter and friend of Yoshimasa, who came up with the idea that ikebana must represent the three elements of heaven, earth and humans. The principles of arrangements used today are rooted in this concept. Ikebana achieved its greatest development at Yoshimasa’s Silver Pavilion in Kyoto, along with the art of tea ceremony and incense ceremony.

Rikka and Nageirebana

The Kanō school’s artists, like Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506), Sesson, Kanō Masanobu, Kanō Motonobu (1476–1559), and Shugetsu from the 16th century, were all nature lovers. Their thoughts took ikebana a step further- it became more than a form of temple or room decoration. Greater importance was given to the natural beauty of the arrangement of flowers. Ikebana in this form was known as rikka.

The rikka arrangement.
The rikka arrangement. credit@ Linda Gammon

Rikka wasn’t the only development in Ikebana at the time. Another form of flower arrangement known as the nageirebana took root during the same time rikka developed. Nageirebana is associated with the story of a samurai. According to legend, it was a hot summer’s day and the samurai was bored. He started randomly throwing a few plant materials into a tall, deep vase in a corner of the room, thus creating a form of flower arrangement. The nageirebana is more spontaneous and fresh than the rikka. It does not follow the strict rules or principles of classical ikebana, like the triangular structure or colour harmony. Thus, it is less formal than rikka.

Nageirebana method of arrangement.
Nageirebana method of arrangement. credit@ Wikipedia

For centuries, popularity wavered between these two forms. During the Higashiyama period, nageirebana was favoured, but rikka was still preferred by many. It was in the Momoyama period (1568 to 1600) that nageirebana gained more popularity, as the tea ceremony attained its peak. The tea ceremony was a strong influence on ikebana since any practitioner of tea was also knowledgeable about ikebana.

Although it did enjoy a certain level of popularity, nageirebana was always associated closely with rikka. It was only in the 16th century that it finally broke off and gained its independence and popularity. Its style and line of beauty became more noticeable and distinct. The rikka and nageribana, despite having developed in the same period, reflect the styles of the period in which they were more popular. The rikka portrayed the Higashiyama period’s style and taste, while nageirebana was a reflection of the Momoyama period. Rikka lost some of its popularity in the Momoyama period, but it was revived during the early Edo period. In the Higashiyama period, rikka was only seen as a form of room decoration on ceremonial occasions but was now regarded as fine art. The upper class saw it as an accomplishment and pastime. Rikka attained its peak during the Genroku era (1688 to 1704.)

Popularity of ikebana  

Ikebana was considered a dignified accomplishment. Each one of Japan’s most celebrated generals practised ikebana, claiming that it soothed their minds and made decision-making on the battlefield much clearer. So ikebana became an art form that has a meditative quality. Arranging the flowers and materials into a design was supposed to be done in silence. This allows whoever is arranging it to observe and meditate on the loveliness of nature and attain inner peace. Seasoned designers identified not just the importance of silence, but also the significance of space. Contrary to popular belief, space isn’t something to be filled, rather, it is something created and preserved by arranging. Other principles of ikebana include minimalism, simplicity, shape and line, humanity, form, balance and aesthetics.

Ikebana and its principles were explored and written about from the Ken’ei (1206–1207) to the Genroku (1668–1704) eras. All the works basically dwelt on Sōami’s concept of the three elements. The first of these works to be published was the Sendenshō, now considered the oldest and most valuable work on the subject of ikebana. The second and another important text, published in 1661, is the Kawari Kaden Hisho. This was an instructive text, elaborating the principles and rules of ikebana in detail, complete with illustrations. Additionally, the text also illustrates how ikebana is enjoyed, which had by then spread from monks to warriors and then further onto the townspeople. There are also texts dedicated exclusively to rikka- the Kokon Rikka-shu (the oldest, published in 1672), the Kokon Rikka-taizen (the most famous work, published in 1683) and the Rikka Imayō Sugata (published in 1688).

During the Ken’ei era, rikka was simple and natural, but during its peak in the Genroku era, the lines attained complicated patterns. It followed the trends of artistic development and expression. This was because, during the Genroku period, fine arts were highly developed. Fabrics were printed with patterns and decorations. Thus, rikka was an embodiment of these developments. In the late 17th century, a famous artist named Korin heavily influenced ikebana with his exquisite designs. Thus, the combination of a pattern with lines following the natural growth of plants created the most graceful and pleasing effects in ikebana.

Ikebana: A combination of different principles

An ikebana vase in which the water is easily exposed.
An ikebana vase in which the water is easily exposed. credit@ Ikebana Dreaming

The art of flower arrangement arrived in Japan from China along with Buddhism. Hence, ikebana embodies Chinese and Buddhist philosophy. Ikebana’s roots are interlaced with the Buddhist desire to preserve life, thus playing a heavy role in forming the rules of not just flower arrangement, but also the shapes of the vases.

The shape of the vases helps to prolong the life of the flowers. It is more than just a mere vessel holding the flowers. While arranging the flowers, the surface of the water is always exposed and so is the surface of the earth from which the flowers spring. This creates the impression of the flowers growing in a natural environment. While gifting someone flower arrangements, the flowers used are always in the bud stage, so that the person who receives them may have the pleasure of seeing them bloom.


One of the central aspects of ikebana is its spirituality. Practitioners of ikebana believe that silence is apt while arranging the flowers, while some may feel this is unnecessary. But it is generally agreed that flower arrangement is a time to take in the aspects of nature which may be otherwise overlooked. Ikebana leads a person to become more tolerant and patient with differences in life and nature. It relaxes the mind, body and soul, teaching a person to recognize beauty in all art forms.

Ikebana, on the surface, is arranging flowers to create beauty. On a deeper level, it is a disciplined art form that brings nature and humanity together. It is not the arrangement of different flowers to create a multi-coloured bunch of blossoms. Ikebana equally emphasizes the other parts of a plant too- the leaves and the stem. The shape, line and form are emphasized. Even the materials selected and the method of arrangement indicate good and evil fortune. Another aspect of ikebana is minimalism. Only a minimal number of flowers are used in some arrangements, along with leaves and stalks.

Conveying different ideas through arrangements

The Japanese believe that there is no occasion that can’t be suggested by the manner of ikebana. According to Japanese philosophy, flowers have their own form of language, known as hanakotoba. Plants are given specific coded meanings, depending on the presence of thorns, the colour of the flower, the combination of flowers in a garland and the types of flowers themselves. For example, if someone is leaving home, then it can be announced through the particular arrangement of flowers. To bless or pray for someone’s long and happy life, auspicious materials are used, like willow branches. The same is used when parting with someone or to signify their safe return from a journey. Here, the branches are arranged to form a complete circle.

Red flowers are used during funerals. Hence, red flowers are considered unlucky, in addition to the fact that red symbolizes the flames of a fire. Arranging an odd number of flowers is lucky, while even numbers are the opposite. Hence, they are undesirable and never used while arranging flowers. In flower arrangement, symmetry and equal balance are avoided, keeping in mind that these two features are rarely ever found in nature. The artist’s intention is portrayed through colour combinations, shapes and lines. Without using words, emotion is implied through the arrangement.

When attending a house-warming, white flowers are used to suggest water quenching fire. This is because traditional Japanese homes are made almost exclusively of fire and are susceptible to fire. While celebrating an inheritance, all types of evergreen plants or chrysanthemums could be used. If not, any flower that lives long is an option to indicate that wealth or material possessions last for a long time. To express one’s condolences to someone who has lost a loved one, white flowers are arranged with dead leaves and branches.

Since ikebana combines the principles of Shinto religion, certain plants are used to attract good spirits. For example, evergreen plants like kadomatsu are used in traditional arrangements during New Year. These are then placed in front of homes to welcome the spirits of their ancestors or harvest.  

Seasonal variations

A low, broad container for summer
A low, broad container for summer. credit@ Pinterest

The flower arrangements are also an expression of the different seasons. Flowers are grouped differently depending on the time of the year. For example, if it’s March, then to show the prevalence of strong winds, branches are arranged into unusual curves. If it’s summer, then low and broad containers are used to hold the flowers, so that the water is visually predominant. This creates a cooling and refreshing effect.

Cultural significance in anthropology

Ikebana, or the Japanese art of flower arrangement, is an amalgamation of spirituality, philosophy, creativity and beauty. Rather than focus on the external beauty, it aims to project the inner qualities of the materials used and express certain emotions. Any occasion or season can be conveyed through the materials used and the method of arrangement. So ikebana prioritizes both seasonality and symbolism. Practising ikebana sensitizes one’s eyes to the materials and natural beauty that may otherwise go unnoticed in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Hence, ikebana isn’t just the art of flower arrangement, it is also the art of life.

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