The Japanese Art of Ikebana

Features Issue 81 Jul, 2010
Text by Nandita Rana

Flowers have been a favorite subject of artists, poets, writers and philosophers for cen-
turies. The celebrated works of William Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (also known as ‘The Daffodils’), van Gogh’s Sunflowers series and Monet’s Water Lilies all center around the theme of flowers and their prominence in human endeavors, moods and feelings. Even rituals of life from birth and marriage to death emphasize the importance of flowers and their symbolism. Most often flowers are associated with beauty, sensitivity, elegance and love which have a connection to divinity. Irrespective of any culture or religion, flowers hold a significant symbolic connotation.

Hindu  mythology, for example, places great importance on the lotus and deems it as the sacred seat of Lord Brahma, the Creator. The Romans worshipped the goddess Flora representative of the season of spring and of flowers. The white lily, symbolic of purity, is associated with the Virgin Mary in Christianity. In Buddhism Lord Buddha is represented by the lotus, a symbol of knowledge, while Chinese rituals, especially weddings, emphasize the use of orchids as a symbol for love and fertility. These beliefs and practices and their connections with flowers are almost synonymous. So, too, is another very popular floral culture—the ancient Japanese tradition of Ikebana.

Ikebana is a traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement that literally means ‘arranged flowers’ in the Japanese language. Among the arts, it is considered equivalent to painting and sculpture. The introduction of Buddhism from China in the 6th century led to the practice of Ikebana as floral offerings (also known as kuge) to the Buddha, and to the souls of the dead. This practice, which dates back more than 600 hundred years, has evolved over the centuries and comprises varied styles as separate schools of floral arrangement. Together with a deep spiritual and religious significance, Ikebana has developed as a decorative art form that uses both flowers and branches in different symbolic styles. It is based on the philosophy of developing closeness between Man and Nature.

Living materials such as the freshly cut branches, vines, leaves, grasses, berries, fruit and seeds, even wilted or dried plants, are essential elements in Ikebana. The container to place them in is also of significance. The relationship between the materials used their shape, size, color, texture and volume as well as their style of arrangement, and the place and occasion for its display, are all of vital consideration in Ikebana, where each aspect has its respective denotation. The practice of Ikebana is also a form of meditation that places high value on awareness in respect to time, especially the change and passage of seasons. Becoming ‘aware’ is the first step to involving oneself with the art.

The different schools of Ikebana are categorized by the characteristic styles and arrangement techniques of the flowers. The Ikenobo School, for example, is said to have originated from a priest of the Rokkakudo Temple in Kyoto who was an expert in flower arrangement. Since the priest lived by the side of a lake, referred to as Ikenobo in Japanese, that name was given to what is thought to be the oldest Ikebana school. Ikenobo incorporates two prominent styles, Rikka and Shoka. The Rikka style, which was developed in the early 17th century, is a formal upright style associated with the beauty of natural landscapes, while the Shoka style is a simple, graceful technique suggesting the characters and growth of a plant with regards to the environment. Shoka was developed in the early 1800’s.

The other schools include Chiko, which uses ornaments, flowers, fruits and other accessories to express harmony between floral and non-floral existence. The Ichiyo School accentuates personal interpretation and imagination. The Kozan School identifies the unique essence of each plant and flower. The Ohara School is one of the most prominent contemporary Ikebana techniques. It was developed in the 19th century and incorporates a style known as Moribana, which uses shallow containers and reflects a Western influence. The Ryusei-Ha, Saga Gory, Shinpa Seizan and Sogetsu Schools are other Ikebana schools that have their distinct styles of arrangement and their definite religious and symbolic representations, some of which are adventurous and some subtle.

The flower arrangement techniques in Ikebana essentially use asymmetrical form and empty space to represent a sense of harmony among the materials, the container and the setting. Earlier Ikebana practice was limited to the Japanese high priests, Buddhist monks, members of the court and aristocrats only. But, as it evolved through the centuries, Ikebana has become a universal practice and an important global asset in the floral art culture. With the emergence of its first classical styles in the 15th century, Ikebana has achieved the status of an art form independent of its religious origins; yet, it retains its philosophical and symbolic implications. In general, Ikebana arrangements use three elements at the most, which bear deep spiritual
connotations symbolizing the natural cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth. The different schools of Ikebana have varying symbolic resonance representing heaven, earth and mankind, and also sometimes the sun, moon and earth.

Earlier this year, from mid-February to mid-April, the Japanese Embassy in Kathmandu organized a first of its kind Ikebana class. Ramita Manandhat, instructor for the class, holds a license from the prestigious Ikenobo School. She studied the fine art of Ikebana floral arrangement from 1996 to 1999 in Japan under her teacher, Toshiko Nishizawa. Ramita, who is the founder-principal of the Sakura Flower Arrangement School in Lalitpur, has taught Ikebana in Nepal over the past nine years.  Ramita is among the few Ikebana practitioners in Nepal and also the first Nepalese professional and instructor with formal training in the art. “Ikebana is a delicate art form requiring utmost precision,” she says .

“The type of plant used, its size as well as the angle of placement and the occasions for which it is used each have varied meaning; so that is why one should have complete focus and presence while attending to the practice.” Although the practice of Ikebana has already gone global in popularity, in Nepal it is still a developing trend. Ikebana classes such as those  organized by the Japanese Embassy have proven helpful for the introduction of the traditional art to local enthusiasts and professionals in floriculture.

One of the class participants, Ruby Shrestha says, “It is a new art for me and I am very inspired by the philosophy of Ikebana as well as the sophistication of the art.” Another participant, Rekha Anup, on her first learning experience with Ikebana says, “I am very interested in flowers and gardening, and Ikebana came as a new concept on flower arrangement. The experience was very intriguing, especially the deep spiritual significance of the art.”

The wife of His Excellency the Ambassador of Japan, Mr Tatsuo Mizuno, was also present at the class. She shared her own experience in Ikebana and added that practicing the art helps to calm the mind and spirit. She also suggested the participants should try “to retain the feeling of calmness and peace you experience while practicing Ikebana and try to use the same feeling while performing other activities in life.” The Japanese Embassy is planning to hold Ikebana classes twice a year. The next sessions will run from July 28 to September 5, and during the winter from mid-January to mid-March, 2009.

Ikebana is a disciplined art form that helps one to appreciate Nature, her offerings and her connections with other living beings. Practicing Ikebana not only helps one to live ‘in the moment’ and become more tolerant and patient, but it is a form of meditation that enhances creativity and spiritual expressions.

For further information about the Ikebana classes, contact the Cultural Department of the Japanese Embassy in Pani Pokhari, Kathmandu. Phone 442.6680, ext: 232 or 272.
Ramita Manandhar can be contacted at the Sakura Flower A rrangement School in Patan. Phone 98412.25.122 or 98415.99.879.