History of Ikebana

tall glass arrangementThe custom of placing flowers on the altar began when Buddhism was introduced to Japan by way of Korea in about 538. In the Heian period (794-1192), apart from altar offerings, the practice of enjoying flowers displayed beautifully in a vase also became popular. Poems, novels and essays from that time contain many passages that describe the appreciation of arranged flowers.

In the Kamakura period (1192-1333), the samurai class seized governing power from the aristocrats, causing great changes in Japanese society as a whole. The shoin zukuri style of architecture first appeared at this time. The tokonoma (a small, sacred alcove at the side or end of the room for receiving guests) was an important new element in this architectural style. And flowers in a vase were often, if not always, the key decorative element in the tokonoma.

Not satisfied with merely appreciating flowers in a vase, Japanese people in the early 15th century tried to give wider meaning to placing flowers in a vase. An earlier attitude of passive appreciation developed into a more deeply considered approach. This approach forms the basis of what we call ikebana today.

Kao irai no kadensho Japan’s oldest existing ikebana textbook, dating from the late 15th century, in which 43 examples of ikebana style are introduced.

Kao irai no kadensho
Japan’s oldest existing ikebana textbook, dating from the late 15th century, in which 43 examples of ikebana style are introduced.


Folding screen with ikebana painting This folding screen (17th century) shows examples of rikka style ikebana.

Folding screen with ikebana painting
This folding screen (17th century) shows examples of rikka style ikebana.

Evolution of Styles

Ikebana patterns and styles evolved quickly. By the late 15th century, flower arrangement practice had become widespread and appreciated by ordinary people, not just the imperial family and the upper classes. That marked the beginning of an art form with fixed requirements. Rules were prescribed and materials were combined in specific ways.

Rikka Style

In 1523, the Ikenobo School formulated the principles of rikka arrangements by naming the seven principal branches used in that type of arrangement. During the Momoyama period (16-17th century), many magnificent castles were constructed. During the same period, noblemen and imperial retainers devoted much time to creating large decorative rikka floral pieces. The rikka style was considered the most appropriate form of decoration for Japan’s castles.

Chabana Simplicity

The Momoyama period was, in general, notable for its excessive decorative style. However, this period gave birth to the tea ceremony and an emphasis on rustic simplicity. This resulted in a new style of minimalist ikebana for the tea ceremony room called chabana that contrasted sharply with Momoyama excesses.

Nageire Style

By 1600, the religious significance of ikebana had diminished, and the resulting floral arrangements gradually became a decorative lay art. In the Edo period (17th-19th centuries), the simplicity of the chabana developed into the nageire or “thrown-in” style. This less-structured design led to the development of the seika or shoka style, characterized by a tight bundle of stems that forms a triangular three-branched asymmetrical structure, in a tall container; and to the “bunjin-bana” or literati arrangement, featuring containers and floral materials depicted in Chinese paintings and literature, and favored by elegant members of intellectual society.

Moribana Style

In the mid 1800s, when the centuries-old Shogunate system collapsed and Meiji-era modernization resulted in the overhaul of Japanese social, economic, political systems, the art of ikebana likewise was revolutionized. New, non-indigenous floral materials from around the world entered Japan’s ports, revitalizing the ancient art and stimulating the development of new styles, most notably the “moribana” style — an arrangement placed in a flat container, or “suiban.”

Free Style

World War I shattered social structures and ushered in the modern era, with artistic experimentation in virtually all fields, including ikebana. Free-style arranging appeared around 1925, influenced by the avant-garde art movement in Paris. Ikebana became a modern, abstract sculptural art, incorporating non-botanical materials, sometimes to the complete exclusion of plant materials.

Global Popularity

With the American occupation of Japan after World War II, ikebana underwent an enthusiastic embrace by non-Japanese people and its popularity spread globally. Ikebana schools became business enterprises and flourished. The formation of Ikebana International in 1960 was a revolutionary catalyst for mutually beneficial cooperation among the various, and previously fiercely independent, ikebana schools and master artists. Today, there are about 3,000 ikebana schools; about 25 have operations outside Japan, and three – Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu –dominate the world’s ikebana theory and practice.

Classic ikebana

Classic ikebana