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Ikebana – The Japanese Art of Flower Arrangement

It’s safe to say that Japanese culture has made its way around the globe. From manga and anime to origami to their delicious gastronomy, there’s a lot of Japanese presence in other countries and societies.

Among the Japanese customs that have become popular, there’s Ikebana. This is the Japanese art of flower arrangement, done to bring out all the flower’s features and qualities. Here’s a look at what Ikebana is and everything that it entails.

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What’s Ikebana?

Ikebana yellow flower

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arrangement, and it started centuries ago as a way to make offerings to Japanese temples. When someone practices Ikebana, they use the stems, branches, stems, flowers, and leaves as instruments to make art.

Different from what people usually do with flowers, a.k.a. put them in a flower vase and call it a day, Ikebana offers the opportunity to highlight the flowers in a way that’s able to communicate emotions and feelings.

Believe it or not, it’s a fairly detailed process to produce an Ikebana flower arrangement. This type of art takes into consideration things like function, form, color, lines, and type of flower to be able to make a good arrangement.

Interestingly enough, Ikebana isn’t an exact art. The results of every arrangement are diverse in size and composition. The reason for this is that you could make an Ikebana piece from either one flower or multiple ones, including different natural objects, branches, and leaves.

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Brief Overview of Ikebana’s Origins

Japanese ikebana flower arrangement

Historians attribute the creation of Ikebana to the Japanese ceremony traditions where people make offerings to honor the Shintō deities and the customs of making flower arrangements to offer them at Buddhist temples.

The first written record of Ikebana is from the 15th century. This text received the name Sendensho, and it’s a manual that instructs how to create adequate floral pieces for several occasions.

What’s more interesting in this first manual is that the instructions also detail that seasonality is imperative to how appropriate an arrangement might be. As a result, there’s a set idea that Ikebana prioritizes meaning and seasons in the creation of a piece.

Interestingly enough, Ikebana influenced the architecture of Japanese homes around this same time. Most houses had a special section called tokonoma where a scroll, art, and flower arrangements would rest.

This section was probably the only part of Japanese houses dedicated to art and colorful pieces. So, people deeply reflected on which pieces they would allow being at the tokonoma.

Due to the amount of consideration people took when it came to Ikebana arrangements’ placement in the traditional Japanese home during festivities and seasons, Ikebana received the status of an actual form of art.

What Are the Common Elements of Ikebana?

In Japan, more often than not, people associate flowers, trees, and plants with seasons and symbolic meanings. This is an important element for Ikebana, which prioritizes both of these aspects for the development of the flower pieces.

Some of the flowers and plants that are used according to the season in Ikebana practices are narcissus, peach branches, and Japanese irises for spring arrangements. The chrysanthemums are used for autumn arrangements.

Aside from the seasonality and symbolic meanings, many practitioners of Ikebana choose to paint the leaves or flowers another color; or cut, trim and rearrange the branches of the piece’s elements to look completely different from what they originally do.

Vases are common elements where practitioners may place the arrangement, but it’s not the norm. There’s also the fact that while you follow this process, you need to keep in mind that the objective is to produce a balanced arrangement.

Having beautiful materials as elements is always a big plus. However, what’s important in Ikebana is to use the materials to produce pieces of art out of flowers and plants. So, size and complexity aren’t inherent to a powerful flower arrangement.

Who Can Practice Ikebana?

ikebana flower

Anybody can practice Ikebana. It doesn’t matter if you’re starting out or already have some experience, you could be able to create a delightful Ikebana piece. But, it’s important to understand that one of the core principles of Ikebana is precision.

As with any hobby or skill, you’ll need to practice the basics to achieve beautiful Ikebana arrangements. There’s also a lot of experimenting you can do on your Ikebana journey to find out what your strengths are, and what you should work on more.

Some of the first things you might learn when going to Ikebana lessons are basic skills like trimming and cutting branches, leaves, and flowers properly, or how to preserve the natural materials while also maintaining a clean workspace.

Ikebana Positions

Another thing you’ll learn if you decide to try Ikebana is that most arrangements are guided by nine key positions that make up the basic components of the flower pieces. Buddhist monks developed these positions for flower arrangements.

The names of the primary positions are shin (spiritual mountain), uke, (receiver), hikae (wait), sho shin (waterfall), soe (supporting branch), nagashi (flow), mikoshi (back), do (body), and mae oki (front body.)

Basic Ikebana Styles

Ikebana Unbound-A Modern Approach to the Ancient Japanese Art of Flower Arranging
Ikebana Unbound. See it here.

1. Rikka

Early Ikebana arrangements used to make offerings at Buddhist temples in Japan had the intention of being a symbol of paradise and beauty. So, they were opulent and elaborate. These same characteristics are part of the Ikebana style, Rikka.

The reason for this is that people consider Rikka the first ikebana style. This style’s objective is to use and highlight the flowers and plants’ beauty to convey and represent the eminent concept of the universe.

In the Rikka style, the Ikebana practitioner needs to honor all of the nine positions. There’s the opportunity to express your own art view in a Rikka-style piece, so it’s important that they use the materials, positions, and elements to their advantage.

2. Seika

While Rikka style Ikebana pieces have a strict set of requirements you must follow to honor it, Seika style offers the possibility of arranging the flowers more freely as a consequence of its predecessor, which was the Nageire arrangement.

In Nageire arrangements, flowers and branches shouldn’t necessarily be in an erect position that’s achieved through artificial means. But rather, the flowers can rest and fall into a natural resting position.

So, Seika, focuses on the natural beauty of the flowers, and it uses three of the original positions shin, soe, and uke, to make the arrangements possible by creating an uneven triangle with the branches, flowers, and leaves.

3. Moribana

Moribana is a style that appeared during the 20th century, and it allows non-native flowers from Japan to be used in the arrangements. Aside from this big difference, one of the characteristic elements of a Moribana-style arrangement is the use of a circular container to contain the arrangement.

These aspects have made Moribana the go-to style for beginners, and it’s a style that Ikebana schools teach nowadays. Moribana arrangements usually have three stems and three flowers that create a triangle.

However, there are Moribana pieces that don’t follow this triangle composition, allowing the person to freestyle the arrangement to their liking. This approach is a modern development in the Ikebana tradition, allowing the practitioner to use their knowledge of Ikebana to create an elegant piece.

4. Modern Ikebana

Ikebana became internationally popular during the 50s, thanks to the efforts of Ellen Gordon Allen, who was an American that lived in Japan. While Allen was there, she studied Ikebana and thought of it as a way to unite people.

Since then, she founded a non-profit organization called Ikebana International that in turn helped develop the diplomatic efforts called “friends through flowers.” Aside from this, many western floral artists started to use Ikebana’s foundations to create freestyle pieces.

Nowadays, Japanese people refer to Ikebana through the term “kado”, which means “the way of flowers.” This is because people from Japan believe this word describes and captures the essence of Ikebana.

Wrapping Up

Ikebana is a beautiful art form that anybody could take up as a hobby. Its history is amazing, and the process to make an Ikebana arrangement in any style is complex but fascinating.

All of these make Ikebana more appealing to western people who have an interest in floral art.

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Juan Salazar Sanchez
Juan Salazar Sanchez

Juan Sanchez has been a freelance writer for years, with a particular focus on Mythology and History, especially Greek mythology. He has been a part of the Symbol Sage team for several years, and has contributed immensely to the team. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling and reading.