A Brief History of Ikebana

Earliest Beginnings in Buddhism

ad 552–794: Asuka, Shinto, and Nara Periods of Japan

The beginning of ikebana can be traced to the sixth 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.

Arrangements in Containers

794–1192: Heian Period of Japan

By the time of 10th century Japan, the Japanese were presenting their offerings in containers. The altar offerings were the responsibility of the priests of the temple. The first teachers and students were priests and members of the nobility. But soon appreciation of flowers in a vase unrelated to religious worship became popular.

Influence of the Samurai

1192–1333: Kamakura Period of Japan

In the Kamakura period, the samurai, an elite warrior class, brought great lifestyle and fashion changes into the whole of Japanese society. At this time, it became fashionable to create a tokonoma, a small sacred alcove, in a zashiki or Japanese room. The tokonoma would contain a flower arrangement, incense and a candle. Because of the alcove space, the traditional styles of Ikebana were designed to be viewed only from the front.

A New Art Form is Born

1392-1573: Muromachi Period of Japan

By the end of the fifteenth century, ordinary people, not just the imperial family and its retainers, appreciated flowers in a vase.

At that time, a new attitude toward flower arrangements was also coming of age. Arrangers did not want to simply put flowers into a vase. They wanted to infuse the arrangement with some meaning or personal expression. And so, flower-arranging contests that sought to reflect a personal view of the universe became popular events.

A master arranger of that time was a priest from Rokkakudo Temple in Kyoto who specialized in altar arrangements that were filled with creative meaning instead of showing only the allure of flowers. He lived by the side of a lake, for which the Japanese word is ike. The word bo means priest. When combined with the possessive particle no, the master arranger became known as “priest of the lake,” or Ikenobo. Eventually, the name Ikenobo became attached to the priests at the temple who specialized in these altar arrangements. Soon, other priests sought them out for instruction. Thus began the development of an art form with fixed requirements. Today, Rokkakudo Temple is considered the birthplace of ikebana and Ikenobo its first and oldest school.

Rokkakudo Temple, Kyoto
Japanese woodblock print ca. 1890-1899