Ikebana, one of the traditional arts of Japan, has been practiced for more than 600 years. It developed from the Buddhist ritual of offering flowers to the spirits of the dead. By the middle of the fifteenth century, with the emergence of the first classical styles, ikebana achieved the status of an art form independent of its religious origins, though it continued to retain strong symbolic and philosophical overtones. The first teachers and students were priests and members of the nobility. However, as time passed, many different schools arose, styles changed, and ikebana came to be practiced at all levels of Japanese society.

When Buddhism Arrived In Japan
The beginning of ikebana can be traced to the 6th century introduction of Buddhism to the Japanese. Part of the worship involved the offering of flowers on the altar in honor of Buddha. In India, the birthplace of Buddhism, the flowers were placed very informally, and sometimes only petals were strewn around. However, by the time of 10th century Japan, the Japanese were presenting their offering in containers. The altar offerings were the responsibility of the priests of the temple.

The Origin of ikebana: Ikenobo
The oldest school of ikebana dates its beginnings from a priest of the Rokkakudo Temple in Kyoto who was so expert in flower arrangement that other priests sought him out for instruction. As he lived by the side of a lake, for which the Japanese word is Ikenobo, the name Ikenobo became attached to the priests there who specialized in these altar arrangements.

Evolution of Styles
Patterns and styles evolved so that by the late 15th century, arrangements were common enough that they were appreciated by ordinary people, not just the imperial family and its retainers. Thus began the development of an art form with fixed requirements. Texts were written, the oldest being Sendensho, a compilation covering the years from 1443 to 1536.

As time passed, ikebana became a major part of traditional festivals, and ikebana exhibitions were held periodically. Rules were prescribed, and materials had to be combined in specific ways. In these early forms, a tall upright central stem had to be accompanied by two shorter stems; the three stems represented heaven, man (sic), and earth. The specific Japanese names for these differed among ikebana schools. In 1545, the Ikenobo School, now well established, formulated the principles of rikka arrangements by naming the seven principal branches used in that type of arrangement.

During the Momoyama period in Japan, 1560-1600, many magnificent castles were constructed. During the same period, noblemen and royal retainers were doing large decorative rikka floral pieces . The rikka style was considered a most appropriate decoration for these castles.

Painting "Senko Ikenobo Rikka Makimono"
(Yohmei Bunko)

The Momoyama style was, in general, notable for its excessive decor. At this same time, however, the tea ceremony made its appearance. The tea ceremony's emphasis on rustic simplicity -- with acorresponding style of ikebana, designed for the tea ceremony room and called chabana -- contrasted sharply with Momoyama excesses.

Painting arranged by Kozan Okada, Headmistress, Kozan School

By 1600, the religious significance of ikebana had diminished, and the resulting floral arrangements gradually became a decorative lay art. In the Edo period (from the early 17th to the mid-nineteenth centuries), the simplicity of the chabana helped create the nageire or "thrown-in" style.

Painting Tokyo National Museum

It was this non-structured design which led to the development of the seika or shoka style, as it is called in the Ikenobo school. This style is characterized by a tight bundle of stems which form a triangular three-branched asymmetrical structure. The form is now considered classic, and schools that teach it are called the "classical schools".

Painting Tokyo National Museum

Starting in the late 19th century, merchant princes had increasing influence in society. Up until that time, the practice of ikebana had been only for men, but now women were taking lessons as well.

The Number of Schools Expands
At this time also, new schools began to appear. Each had its individual interpretation of seika. The first school of ikebana, Ikenobo, pointed the base of the stems directly down, using a komi or forked stick to hold them in place. The Koryu School placed the komi at an angle; the ends of the stems were cut at a slant and propped against the side of the vessel. The Enshu School exaggerated the curves of the branches by cutting slits in them, bending them, and inserting triangular plugs into the slits so that the branches held the desired curve.

moribana Style: The Ohara School
The turn of the 20th century presented a revolution in ikebana styles. Ikebana was by then a popular pastime, almost a requisite for the genteel Japanese woman. Mr. Unshin Ohara, an Ikenobo professor in Kobe, invented a form of ikebana done in a low bowl using some of the shorter stemmed western flowers that had been introduced at the beginning of the Meiji era. He asked the Ikenobo school to include this design in their curriculum. The school refused, but he was so highly regarded that they did give him permission to teach his new form in his own school -- if he could get pupils. It seems clear that they doubted that he could. However, his exhibition in a department store in Kobe was an immediate success, and the Ohara School was on its way.

Ohara called his new form moribana, meaning "piled-up", in the sense that it was not like the upright seika style. The moribana style became so popular that already by 1915, most of the ikebana schools had incorporated it into their own curriculum; it still remains popular today.

Other Modern Schools
Other ikebana schools arose. Koshu Tsujii, a follower of the new moribana, was invited to re-establish a flower school in the Daikakuji Temple in Saga, which still today operates his school as the Saga School. Besides ikebana, the Saga School teaches other Japanese arts such as calligraphy. Choka Adachi initiated an "Adachi Style", using the moribana form "to arrange flowers like flowers".

At about the same time, another style which translates as the "literati style" began to attract interest because of its free and colorful approach. Originated by Issotei Nishikawa, it led the way to free creative arrangements.

The chief exponent of this free style was Sofu Teshigahara, who founded the Sogetsu School in 1926. Others in this modern movement -- which resulted in ikebana being placed elsewhere than only in the tokonoma -- included the founder of the Ichiyo School.

The three schools that predominate at the present time are Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu, but more than two thousand different schools of ikebana are registered with the Japanese Ministry of Education.