Floral Art of Japan
Floral Art of Japan
Written by
Issotei Nishikawa
Published by

First copyright 1936
Second copyright 1946
Total 109 pages

Japanese flower arrangement is an art that has been a contemplative practice for warriors, a necessary social skill for aristocrats, and an enjoyable pastime for ordinary people. The aesthetics of flower arranging are closely related to those of the tea ceremony, and generally prize natural simplicity over ornamental formality. There have been several schools of flower arrangement. Rikka, or standing style, often mixes different kinds of flowers and plants in a formal arrangement to create a scene. Ten-ti-zen emphasizes a triangular arrangement of tall (heaven), shorter (man) and earth (short) stems. The nageire (meaning “thrown in”) and bun-zin-ike or "new nageire" styles seek to display the natural beauty of the flowers and plants used without formal decorative techniques. In the majority of Japanese homes there is an alcove called a tokonoma where flower arrangements are displayed with calligraphy. Originally a place for Buddhist worship, the tokonoma is the peaceful focal point of a Japanese living room.

Please enjoy these excerpts from Flower Art of Japan.

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The concept of “furyu”

If an article is said to be huryu it is, as a rule, of imperfect shape or of poor and meagre appearance. When a branch of a tree is twisted or dwarfed instead of allowed to grow straight and luxuriant, or has but, few scattered flowers instead of bearing many fully blown flowers; or when a tree has become moss- covered, old and dying, such a branch or tree is said to be huryu. And if the term is used in describing household goods, you may be sure that they are' of a delicate nature, often crooked, and usually antiquated and frail.

Throw-in style in the 18th century

Throw-in style in the 18th century—Red plum blossoms and camellias arranged in a wooden pail

You may wonder what such things have to do with huryu. How could they be connected with the love of peace? The answer is to be found in the fact that their frailty impresses one, not with a feeling of dominating power, but with one of tenderness-; anything perfect or nearly perfect excites in one the desire for possession, and then, too, behind it thereis felt to exist a powerful personality ; a thing apparently poor in appearance and distorted or deformed, however, does not rouse any such desire or feeling in anyone. Wherever there is no covetous eye being cast, there is peace, and the beauty born of peace. And this beauty is that of huryu, the beauty of ikebana.
Therefore, huryu is servile in disposition, one might say, and negative its attitude towards life, which fact seems hardly compatible with that of the ever active and strife-loving Busido. But, curiously enough, this huryu has existed side by side with Busido in the life of the Japanese people, and it has even been nourished by Busido itself, since it has served as a safety-valve in tempering the nature of the Japanese.
The growth of the influence of huryu upon Japanese life can be clearly traced in the history of the nation. It was about the 15th century that the Japanese as a people began to understand and appreciate this peaceful way of living. For a long time there had been continuous civil wars in Japan, and the people had come to realize most acutely the evils of strife. The first man who upheld and encouraged huryu was no other than Asikaga Syogun, the chief of warriors and administrator of the country at that time. He was succeeded by two great heroes in the age of the civil wars, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi-Hideyosi. These two great men, also appreciating the life of huryu, gave preference to such men as Sen-no-Rikyu, the master of tea ceremony, and enjoyed to the full the pleasure of tya-no-yu and flower arrangement.
At the back of the gay, flower-like Busido, whose virtues are persistency, fidelity, endurance, bravery and activity, the poor, retiring huryu with its tender heart and negative attitude towards life has been highly valued by the people. Even in the days of continual warfare, those who did not understand this art of life were despised as being uncultured and vulgar men. But, on the contrary, one who knew and mastered it was highly esteemed, however low his social rank might be. A warrior, who should be concerned with bravery more than anything else, might find infinite joy and peace in the meanest flower set in a humble vase. The union of these two—Busido and huryu—may seem to some people to be one of the greatest inconsistencies in the life of any nation. Yet, as far as the actual life of the people is concerned, there has really been no inconsistency or contradiction between these two ways of living. This seems to be one of the most interesting characteristics of the Japanese people.


The aesthetic of imbalance

Flowers arranged in. a Nanban dish.

Flowers arranged in. a Nanban dish. (Facing page 35) Vase—Nanban (Spanish) dish.
Flowers—Plum and the rape.

A certain book on floral art says that what appears to be symmetry to the ordinary eye is of a lower kind, but that the symmetry which may be found in apparent irregularity is of a higher kind The Japanese seek to express this latter kind of symmetry not only in their flower arrangement, but m nearly everything in life. Take for instance the articles used in m the dinner service. In Western countries, uniformly made dishes or plates are used, as uniformity is the first requisite of beauty according to Occidental ideas.
On the Japanese table, however, will be found no such uniformity but much variety or irregularity: there are dishes of different colouring or plates of dissimilar shapes and of various sorts. Yet at such a confusing sight the aesthetic sense of the Japanese is not offended but finds gratification.
In a Japanese house there is a tokonoma or alcove in the room where guests are entertained. This alcove is regarded as the most important part of the room. Yet it is not placed in the front part of the room, facing the garden, but it occupies a corner, its two pillars facing each other, one of which is angular, the other round. How has this love of irregularity come about in the mind of the Japanese? It is, I think, born of their love of nature and of their intimacy with it.

Weeds and branches in arrangements


Rikka, the standing style of floral art, in the 17th or 18th century. (Facing page 65)

In Japanese flower arrangement there may sometimes be found, besides flowers of various kind, bare branches of trees, or branches bearing: fruit but having no flowers, and again withered trees or even weeds. Foreigners not accustomed to Japanese flower arrangement may wonder why the Japanese make use of such things as decoration, and the foreigner often fails to see their beauty.
The reason for the use of things other than flowers is that the Japanese put more emphasis upon the forms of nature and life than upon their colour. In other words, Japanese flower arrangement is intended to represent some phase of natural life. Like the drama which makes use of living men upon the stage to represent various phases of man's life in this world, Japanese flower arrangement purports to represent various phases of nature by utilizing flowers and other natural objects. In flower arrangement the actors and actresses are the flowers and trees, and the stage is the flower vase.

The birth of Japanese flower art

Those who have visited Japan are most likely to have seen a temple called Gingakuzi and its beautiful garden in Kyoto. As the temple is one of the most famous sights in that ancient capital, the guide will not fail to take you there, if you visit the city. It is built at the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of the town. Passing* by a dozen or so of the straw-thatched farmhouses standing' as of old on either side of the road leading to the grate, you will enter .the temple yards where you will behold some oil pine trees with their green needles, growing1 out of the clean white sand, upon which traces of the sweeper's broom are clearly seen. You will be impressed by the neatness of the ground and the artistic quality of the building, and may say to yourself, “This is certainly a silver pavilion!” This Ginkaku-zi Temple, or “Silver Pavilion” as it has been called by foreign visitors, is the birthplace of Japanese flower arrangement. Tya-no-yu, the tea ceremony; also originated here. When the mountain was the seat of the Asikaga Syogun's villa long, long ago, a small house of four and a half mats in size was dedicated to the memory of Buddha for the purpose of family worship, and this became, we are told, the first tea house in Japan. The temple itself was built by the eighth Asikaga SyOgun, or Asikaga-Yosimasa, who was a representative of the aristocracy of that time, as he was the head of the samurais as well as chief government administrator. But being tired of mundane affairs, and having abdicated his seat in the government to his son Yosihisa, he retired to this place and built a villa which included a beautiful garden and a three-storied temple, the ceiling* of which he ordered to be plated with silver. Hence it came to be known as the Ginkaku-zi, or the “Silver Pavilion.” The villa served the purpose of viewing the mountains afar, the gardens around, or the flower arrangement within; gatherings for the tea ceremony and incense-burning were also held there. The incense-burning was called kodo in Japanese, koh meaning “incense” and do “way,” the object of which was to burn incense and to enjoy its fragrance. The men who gathered here enjoyed themselves in these games—they are, indeed, hardly to be called games, so quiet is their nature,—for they loved so quiet a life. This was about the year 1478, or four and a half centuries ago.
A born Syogun, a high aristocrat, and the most powerful of all rulers, such as Yosimasa, might have given himself up to pomp and luxury, and have spent a life of debauchery. Such was, however, by no means the case. Forsaking all the affairs of the world, he retired to the lonely foot of the mountain, and contented himself with viewing such inanimate object as trees, stones.

Flower arrangement party in the 18th century

Flower arrangement party in the 18th century

The birthplace of floral art—the Ginkaku-zi Temple at Kyoto and flowers in the garden, or the mountains afar. One may wonder what led him to spend such a life as this.
As my home is not far from the Ginkaku-zi, I have often visited the/ temple. And when I look at the garden strewn with neatly-swept white sand, the three- storied pavilion as it is reflected in the water, or the blue mountains towering above, my imagination goes back four hundred years ago, recalling the life of this Syogun. On reading the history of Japan one will discover that this was the most troublesome of all periods in this country. Even by reading one can feel its poignancy and distress. How much more troublesome and unpleasant, then, this, period must have been for one who was born to be its ruler, to witness the petty feuds and bloody strife which took place almost every day among the lesser nobles or samurais. How relieved he must have felt when he retired to this villa and quietly sipped his tea in a room (about 9 ft. square), while looking1 at the mountains in the distance, the trees and stones in the garden, or the simple flower arrangement in the tokonoma!