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The wonderful world of Ikebana

Monthly Archives: December 2022

15 SYMBOLIC ORIGIN OF IKEBANA: TAO and the construction of Taiji.

For ikebana “enthusiasts”

As mentioned previously, the compositional rules of ikebana represent religious-philosophical symbols.

“Westernization” only enhances the aesthetic aspect of ikebana while at its origin, although this aesthetic aspect was important, the understanding of its symbolic content was a basic part of it.



Taoism classifies reality according to a binary system in which the opposing forces yang and yin are complementary and interdependent. Each of them contains the germ of the other, and they are constantly changing. This is characterised by phases of yang expansion, and yin contraction, followed by phases of yin expansion, with a concomitant yang contraction. This system is represented by the symbol of Taiji (or Taijitu).

This Taoist symbol can be found in ikebana since its first codified form – the Tatebana – and is even more evident in Rikka arrangements, which represents the Mount Sumeru (also Meru) with its yang side in the sun and its yin side in the shade.  See art. 22

The Rikka, very complicated to perform, during the first half of the Edo period was simplified into the Seika/Shoka, leaving only three main elements, elements that we find unchanged in the Moribana and Heika styles of the Ohara School.

In all the articles of this blog, for the theory explanations about Rikka we refer to the Shoka/Seika which has kept the basic structure of Rikka but it is much more simple and therefore easier to explain.

One of the symbolic representations in ikebana was the union between heaven and earth expressed by placing the three main elements of Rikka and Shoka on the symbolic Taoist line that joins heaven to earth


In order to understand the reason for the symbolic spatial arrangement of the plants in ikebana, it is necessary to understand the graphic representation of the Taijitu, its orientation and its symbolic relationship with the cardinal points of the compass.

Construction of the Taijitu



Two circles with diameters that equal the radius of the circle that contains them are drawn inside the circle that represents “the Whole”.






They are characterised by ‘opposite’ colours :

– yang colours, such as white or red (the colours of light or of the sun) in one of the two circles. The other is coloured with

– yin colours, “opposite” to those used in the other circle, such as black or blue.

So the white circle represents the yang side and the black circle the yin side.



In the centre of the two circles the colour of the opposite circle is left to emphasise that there is neither pure yang nor pure yin


To emphasise the fact that the two energies yang and yin are always in motion and are continually transforming one into the other, one extends the white and the black (indifferently to one or the other part of the sides that surround the two circles), but the yang part will remain the half of the great circle in which the white circle is inserted (completely white quadrant + quadrant with white semicircle and black “tail”) and not the one with the greater surface of white; the same is true for the yin part.





The Taijitu is positioned in different ways in many texts: the correct one, which associates it with the cardinal points and on which the construction of an ikebana is based, is only the one drawn above; the two examples shown below are not correct because not connected with the cardinal points.






South Korean flag


The correct placement of the taijitu, in order to understand the symbolism of ikebana and its relationship to the cardinal points, can be seen in the South Korean flag above: the important thing is the position of the coloured circle (and not its tail) red-yang towards the sky and blue-yin towards the earth.



Unlike the modern Western convention of putting north at the top and south at the bottom, in China, and consequently in Japan, people put south at the top and north at the bottom because the sun, in reality and when it is at its peak, associated with the south, is high above our heads and not below.


Above you can see a map of Japan with Portuguese inscriptions, dated 1585, where you can see that the south (SUL) is at the top above the inscription IAPAM, while the north (NORTE) is visible at the bottom







Above you can see a map of Japan with Portuguese inscriptions, dated 1585, where you can see that the south (SUL) is at the top above the inscription IAPAM, while the north (NORTE) is visible at the bottom














 The south at the top and the north at the bottom is also found today on the underground maps of Japanese cities, as in this example of Osaka city. m





We also find the south at the top in this medieval European cartography, see Tabula Rogeriana, the world map drawn by Brother Mauro and others











Above is above mentioned world map dated 1440 – kept in Venice. 










Map dated 1584 of the region of present-day Switzerland in which the lakes of Como (Larius), Lugano and Locarno (Verbanus) are at the top marked MERIDIES and German-speaking Switzerland is drawn to the north, at the bottom marked SEPTENTRIO below Basel, Switzerland’s northernmost city, and the Rhine River. 











We see the Taijitu from the north, as if we were looking at Italy from the north, so just as the sun/south, in relation to us looking, is high above Italy, so too in the Taijitu the sun/south is positioned at the top. 







Another difference between East and West is that in the West we consider the cardinal orientations north, west, south, east, whereas in the East they consider the entire quadrants north, west, south, east. 



Looking at the Taijitu we see that the southern quadrant, at the top, is yang, associated with fire, summer, the colour red, the phoenix (see 9th article).

If the south quadrant is yang, the north quadrant at the bottom is yin and is also associated with the “opposites” listed in the yang/south quadrant, which are: cold, water, winter, the colour black, the turtle.

Following the same logic we make the other combinations: the sun is born in the East and its light and heat increase, grow: the increase/growth is therefore a yang characteristic so this quadrant is considered yang, while the sun sets in the West, it weakens and the weakening is a yin characteristic so this quadrant is considered yin: in both quadrants we have associations with the elements, seasons, colours, protective animals and more.

We then have the circle of the Taijitu divided in two parts: yang (south and east quadrants) and yin (north and west quadrants) separated by a line A-A, inclined at 45° in relation to the observer and perpendicular to the line B-B, which unites the point of maximum-yang, where the sun is symbolically placed, with the point of maximum-yin. This line is also inclined at 45° in relation to the viewer.


Let us imagine drawing the symbol of Taiji on a table. The sun, which in western representations is positioned to the south, in oriental symbolism is positioned between the two east/south quadrants, at the point considered as maximum-yang. We look at the Taijitu from the north and the sun is behind the drawing, symbolically positioned on the line perpendicular to point B (maximum yang).

Since the Rikka is composed by many vegetal elements and its construction is difficult to be interpreted, for the explanations  and to highlight the symbolic position of the vegetals I use the scheme of the Shoka, (simplification of the Rikka, with only the three main elements named by the Ohara school shu, fuku and kyaku).

We see that these three main elements are all lined up along the BB line which symbolically represents the union between sky/sun.  The sun is at the point of maximum yang and the earth is at the point of maximum yin. All this is evident in the Rikka and Shoka of the Ikenobo school.


Each school of ikebana names the three main elements differently. It is customary to graphically indicate the main element (the shu of the Ohara school) with a circle, the second element (the Ohara fuku) with a square and the third element (the Ohara kyaku) with a triangle (but unfortunately not everyone follows this rule).

Please also note that the two main elements shu/fuku are on the yang side, in red in the diagram, while kyaku is on the yin side, in blue: consequently the plant material used for shu and fuku must be yang compared to the one used for kyaku. This is the reason why, still today in the Ohara school, in the traditional styles, the shu-fuku group is composed of Ki-wood material while the kyaku group is composed of Kusa-“grass” material,( see 2nd article “concept of strong and weak” )



It is interesting to know that also the space of Sen no Rikyu’s wabicha is divided into yang and yin sides like ikebana.

The above layout shows the subdivision of the 4 and a half tatami space dedicated to Chanoyu with the yang side where the host is positioned and the yin side where the guests are accommodated



In this diagram of Shoka, seen both from the front and from above, the symbolic sky-earth direction assumed by the three main elements in alignment is clearly visible:

the highest central element (the Ohara school shu): it starts from the centre, goes towards the sun and comes back towards the centre so that its tip stays on the orthogonal of the starting point

Soe (fuku Ohara school): goes towards the sun

Tai (kyaku Ohara school): goes towards the earth.

It is also evident that shu and fuku are on the yang side of the composition while kyaku is on its yin side.















You can see above the drawing of a Shoka Ikenobo made of only Aspidistra leaves: as in the scheme described above, shu and fuku are directed backwards to the left (towards the symbolic position of the sun at the maximum yang point of the taiji on our left) while kyaku is directed towards our right, forward, in the symbolic direction towards the earth at the maximum-yin point.

Along the BB line only the three main elements are aligned while their auxiliaries all assume different directions both backwards as well as in all other directions.

Another important rule (see art. 24) originating from Shinto is that:

shu looks towards the sun while all the other plants look towards shu.

In the drawing with Aspidistra it is clearly visible that the positive/yang/dark side of the leaves follows the above-mentioned rule and we see the composition, as a whole, from the north, “from behind”, as it faces the sun, positioned for the rikka and shoka of the Ikenobo School on the other side of the vase from us looking at it.



When only one plant species is used, as in the case with the aspidistra, it cannot be emphasised that the shu-fuku group, on the yang side, must be composed of “stronger” plants than the plants of the kyaku group, on the yin side of the composition.

This difference is evident in the Heika hongatte above in which the shu-fuku group, being on the yang side, is “stronger” wood material than the material used for the kyaku group, flowers which are yin, i.e. “weaker”, than the wood material of the shu-fuku group.

During  the Tokugawa period, Neo-Confucianism was preferred to Taoism, for which symbolically the Heaven is above and the position of the sun was changed from “behind” to ” the front” of the composition on the same side as the viewer of the ikebana and consequently  also the direction of the three main elements was changed: the composition was called Seika.







Shoka    Seika                                                             Seika



The only school that maintained the Taoist symbolism and did not change the directions of the three main elements was the Ikenobo, who called the composition Shoka.

The three main elements of the composition symbolically connecting heaven to earth remained in  Seika but was expressed in a different way. Changing from Taoist symbolism (yang-yin) to the symbolism of neo-Confucianism (preferred by the Tokugawa to Taoism) the position  of the elements  therefore changed

Looking from top to bottom in Seika (neo-confucianism) the heaven is at the top, the earth is at the bottom and the man between these two while in Shoka we find man, then heaven and hearth.


-in  Shoka, based on the Taoist scheme, this symbolic union is given by the alignment of the three elements on the BB axis where we find: fuku = sky, shu = man, kyaku = earth.

— in Seika, based on the scheme of neo-Confucianism, this union is from top to bottom, so that the highest element is called heaven and consequently the intermediate element is called man, while the lowest element remains the earth (shu=heaven, fuku=man, kyaku=earth).

see also art. 24: shinto and ikeba



Posted in Senza categoria |


Tradition attributes the creation of the Nageire to Sen no Rikyū (employed by Hideyoshi as a Tea Master from 1585 to 1591) and relates that, during a break in a military campaign, the kampaku ordered Rikyū to create an ikebana.

Rikyū, not having the material needed, used his dagger to cut iris flowers and leaves, tied them to the handle of the dagger and threw the whole thing into a small tub: the blade stuck at the bottom of the container, keeping the irises straight.

Hideyoshi congratulated him, saying:   “What a beautiful nage-ire (= thrown in)”.


Sen no Rikyū 1522 –  1591
nageire in a small tub


Historically, Nageire is mentioned about 140 years earlier than tradition has it, since the Sendensho (the oldest manuscript on ikebana that has come down to us, dated 1445) already uses this term for free compositions, not codified like the Tatebana.

Utamaro ( 1753 – 1806)


Codified and large

In high, metallic vases

Rich and symbolic

Used in formal and public events

Usually with evergreens

Represents stability, eternity



Free and small

In high and shallow non-metallic vases

Simple and spontaneous

Used in private homes

With  small, simple and humble plants

Represents impermanence


 Rikka represents the evolution of the Tatebana and has kept all the characteristics mentioned in the mirror above

Tipes of Nageire  from  Utamaro prints, 1793

So, by using the term NAGEIRE, we are referring to a more free form, compared to Tatebana, of composing.  Here plants with different characteristics from the plants used for Tatebana are “thrown in” in a high or lower vase

It is interesting to know that the first Ohara Moribana were called -Suiban Nageire- or Nageire (free composition) in a low vase (suiban), a name probably chosen to highlight the detachment and freer use of plants of the Ohara school, compared to the other schools still bound to the tradition of the time.


Currently the Ohara School uses the terms:





Hei= vase, implied: high + Ka= flowers, for compositions in a high vase, distinguishing them from low vase compositions, called Moribana.

So the word Heika refers to the kind of (high) vase used.





for high vase arrangements, which is the equivalent of HEIKA, although the composition is not free, as the term indicated when it was coined, but is subject to compositional rules equivalent to the compositional rules of Moribana.

So the word Nageire refers to the way of composing (free in the past, now codified).


Considering that the first name given to the Moribana (suiban Nageire) and the name Nageire used for high vase compositions, the Moribana and Heika Ohara should give the impression of naturalism, in spite of the obligation to follow the rules of composition.

Just like the vegetals were ‘thrown in’.


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Historical records show that ikebana, with a rule-based structure, was born during the Muromachi period (1333-1568) thanks to the patronage of the Ashikaga shoguns.

The third shogun Yoshimitsu, (1358-1408) promoted those arts that we know as ‘traditional Japanese


When he retired as shogun, he built and settled in the Golden Pavilion in Kitayama = yama/kyta hill/north. Suburb of Kyoto.

Regarding the period in which ikebana was born we have many traditional stories from the Ikenobo School. On the other hand, there is poor historical documentation on the subject because present-day historians, who still know little about ikebana, have so far dealt with the subject in a limited way

One of the characteristics of this period is the term basara (ostentation, excess, extravagance) and the beginning of ikebana starts with those basara samurai such as Sasaki Dōyo (1306-1373), Shugo in the service of the first shogun Ashikaga Takauji, who recounted in his diaries the refined entertainments of the warrior aristocracy. During these events, people exhibited the Tatebana, competed in quoting poetry or guessing the names of the perfumes burned in the incense burners. They also competed in guessing the origin of the various teas that were served along with sake and delicious food. Sasaki also wrote a book on Tatebana etiquette which is referred to as Tatebana Kuden Daiji (nowadays the kanji tatebana is read rikka). See Art. 54

His nephew, the 8th shogun, Yoshimasa (1443-1473) took these arts to their highest level and made them “typically Japanese”. When he retired as shogun, he too had a residence built: the Silver Pavilion, in the area of Kyoto called Higashiyama = Higashi hill/east


















The importance of these two shoguns, compared to the other 15 Ashikaga shoguns that followed one another in the Muromachi period, is such that the culture of this entire period is divided into only two parts that take their name from their residences, namely:

Kitayama culture, from 1333 to 1450, from the residence of Yoshimitsu.

Higashiyama culture, from 1450 to 1568, from the residence of Yoshimasa


In the military hierarchy of the time, it was not possible for a soldier below the shogun to be more educated than of the shogun himself in any field, so the Ashikaga had instead employed the dōbōshῡ (attendants).

These were mostly Buddhist monks of humble origins, who took vows but did not enter a monastery permanently and, even though they were monks, continued the way of life they had before withdrawing from public life (for example, if they were married, they continued to live in their house with their wife and children). They were secular monks and, although they had their heads shaved like other monks, were dressed in bright colours (whereas Buddhist monks were in black), could carry swords inside the shogunal palace and were the cultivated men and cultural leaders of the time.

At the beginning of the Ashikaga period, most of the dōbōshῡ belonged to the Ji sect, founded by the monk Ippen in the middle of the 1200s.  When the sect was founded, they had various tasks: accompanying the Daimyō in battles with the responsibility of treating the wounded, reciting prayers for the dead, communicating deaths to the clans and delivering the armor of the deceased. They were characterized by a name ending in AMI, in honour of the Buddha Amida see, for details, article 33: ikebana and history.

In times of peace they had other tasks: entertaining the samurai with poetry competitions, tea and incense ceremonies, organizing invitations and looking after guests.

As time went by, the tasks of “cultural entertainment” took precedence over the others and they became the exclusive attendants of the Ashikaga shogun.

The dōbōshῡ were the cultured men of the time, arbiters of taste and aesthetic advisers to the shoguns: each of them was an expert in the various art forms of the time, either as a poet or as a connoisseur of perfumes or as a painter or as an ikebanist or as a garden builder or as a curator and restorer of the precious objects of the shogunal artistic collection (such as the famous “three Ami”, grandfather-father-son Noami, Geiami, Soami).

Their culture, sponsored by the Ashikaga, became the dominant one and this fact allowed the samurai class to emerge from its cultural position subordinate to the Imperial Court, the only source of culture until this historical period.

Some dōbōshῡ were in charge of cataloguing the Ashikaga’s private collections, the majority of which were of Chinese origin, from pottery to lacquerware, paintings and drawings, and their tasks included preparing the banquet halls for the shogun’s guests, decorating them with “rare Chinese pieces” (karamono kara=China mono=things) from the shogunal collection

Painting showing the displayed some “karamono”, in which Chinese vases that do not yet contain any plants

Yoshimitsu’s passion for Chinese objects and the re-opening of the trade, inactive since the Heian period, with China to obtain them culminated in the fact that in 1403 he accepted to be a vassal of Yongle, third emperor of the Chinese Ming dynasty, who appointed him -king of Japan- probably because he did not know of the existence of an emperor



During the shogunate of the eighth Asikaga, Yoshimasa (1435-1490), receptions began to feature a triad of sacred paintings (kakemono) on the main wall where objects were displayed on shelves, The central kakemono always representing Buddha; at its feet was a small raised table (oshi-ita) with the “three sacred objects” (mitsugusoku): an incense burner, a candlestick and a vase with flowers (where the vase was much more important than the flowers).

This way of arranging the three or five kakemono had been done for a long time but only in a religious context: on the side, a drawing dated 1160 showing a chapel of the Shingon Buddhist sect, founded by Kukai (774-835) in which five kakemono are displayed with five small tables with incense burners in front of them. The dōbōshῡ brought this way of arranging the kakemono from a sacred place to the shogun’s secular residence.

It was from this practice, formalized in the second half of the 15th century under the patronage of the eighth shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, that ikebana with compositional rules began- The small table with the three sacred objects became the tokonoma and at the same time the vases with the flowers became more and more important and their vegetable content was more structured. From a single vase, there were now three vases.

Or five vases in more formal situations

As time went by, the incense burner and the candlestick lost their importance and were no longer placed in the tokonoma, leaving only the three vases whose vegetal content began to be structured according to the rules that still govern the construction of an ikebana today. In the beginning, the vases were important and were displayed for their beauty while the flowers played a secondary role; now it is the flowers that have taken on greater importance and the vases are chosen according to the plants: they are built specifically to contain the plants of the tatebana/rikka.



Right-hand composition/hongatte





Left hand/gyakugatte composition

As explained in the 5th article (Relationship between ikebana and environment), the definition of the “right-hand” (hongatte) and “left-hand” (gyakugatte) compositions is associated with their position in relationship to the central painting with Buddha in the tokonoma.


In this period there are many variations on the theme as can be seen from these drawings in which the importance/position of the three sacred objects varies.


As time went by, two more tatebana/rikka were added to the three sacred objects, forming what is referred to as “the five sacred objects” (gogusoku) up to even five tatebana/rikka, in very formal situations and in large tokonoma.

The importance of the “three or five sacred objects” (mitsu/go-gusoku) has remained in Japanese culture: for example we find them in this drawing entitled Formal arrangement of food for shoguns, daimyo, nobles and emperors dated 1630 in which the green incense burner is set back, the ikebana and the candlestick are central while in the foreground we see two small tables with large floral arrangements and at their sides two more candlesticks.

The earliest compositions were tatebana (hana=”flowers” tateru=erects, straight) and in a journal that has come down to us, dated 2nd April 1476, it is said that Yoshimasa ordered the doboshu Ryuami to “set straight” some peonies.



As time went by, the incense burner and the candlestick lost their importance, took a back seat, and then disappeared altogether, leaving only the two side vases whose plant content began to be structured according to the rules that still govern the construction of an ikebana today.

In the beginning, the Chinese vases were very important and were displayed for their beauty, while the flowers played a secondary role; later on, it was the plants that became more important: the vases were chosen according to their function and were no longer chosen at random, but built specifically to contain the plants of the tatebana/rikka.

As explained in the 5th article (relation between ikebana and environment), the origin of the definition of the “right-hand” (hongatte) and “left-hand” (gyakugatte) compositions is associated with their position in relation to the central painting of Buddha in the tokonoma.


This ‘birth’ of ikebana took place gradually in the second half of the 1400s. Placing flowers in front of altars is a common practice in all religions, but putting mainly branches with few flowers, structured and with rules, only happened in Japan. Flower offerings to Buddha occur throughout the Buddhist world and from the 16th century, when Buddhism was introduced in Japan, to the mid-1500s (i.e. for about 900 years) there are no historical sources describing flowers or branches arranged in vases with rules. The first “structured” forms of ikebana (tatebana) appeared only in the mid-1400s, at the same time as the appearance of the tokonoma: therefore ikebana was born in a “secular” context in the homes of the shogun and the warrior nobility, where the kakemono with Buddha was not used as an altar in front of which people actually prayed, but only to give importance to the objects on display.

Following the Japanese practice of religious syncretism, the Ashikaga shoguns personally adhered to various Buddhist sects in addition to Shintoism, without being bound to any in particular, and the various monks in their service were chosen not so much for the Buddhist sect they followed as for their skill in the various artistic fields of interest to the shogun.

From the union of the oshi-ita, raised tables on which the three sacred objects (mitsugusoku) are placed, the tokonoma was born at the same time as the ikebana it contained.



With the exception of the rikkas made up on the side of the Great Buddha of Nara by Hideyoshi (which after all were done in honour of himself and not of the Buddha – see the painting on the side with the proportions of the two Rikkas taller than the head of the statue – there are no descriptions that speak of ikebana on the altars of any Buddhist sect/current; even the Ikenobo never put ikebana in the Rokkakudo but their exhibitions always took place in other buildings.

Therefore historically demonstrated ikebana appeared and became an art mainly in the secular sphere of decoration and arrangement (kazari) of the precious objects (karamono) of the Ashikaga shoguns.



Posted in Senza categoria |


The origin of ikebana according to tradition was written in the second half of the 1700s by the Ikenobō, and relates the birth of ikebana with historical figures who really lived but whose involvement with ikebana is historically impossible.

In the Azuka period (552-710 A.D.) Empress Suiko was elected. She was the first woman-tennō of the eight empresses who reigned in Japan and she ruled from 593 to 628 A.D. see article no. 111


She appointed as Regent her nephew Prince Umayado (born 574 and died 622), known by the posthumous name of Shotoku Taishi = shining prince.

He was the second son of Emperor Yōmei, (in the two drawings together with two dignitaries drawn smaller than he to highlight his importance was).

He was an important figure who supported the introduction of Buddhism at the imperial court and, according to tradition, wrote the first Japanese Constitution of 17 articles. He also introduced the use of the Chinese calendar used in Japan, with a few adaptations, until 1873 when the Gregorian calendar was introduced.










Looking at the garments and hairstyles, the Chinese influence on the Japanese Imperial Court at that time is evident.







Tradition has it that Shotoku Taishi, an ardent Buddhist, always carried a statuette of the goddess of compassion, Kannon.

During one of his journeys, being very hot, he stopped to cool off by a pond but when he wanted to put his clothes on and leave, the statue had become very heavy. He therefore spent the night close to the pond and dreamt that Kannon wished a temple to be built there in her honour. Taishi had it built and, being hexagonal in shape, over the years it was called Rokkakudō = hexagonal temple.



According to the legend, the Rokkakudō was built in an area that was to be chosen for the new capital, the construction of which began around 794 and became the seat of the imperial court. The new capital was called Heian-kyō, today’s Kyoto.

Historians agree that the Rokkakudō was actually built in the capital more than 170 years after Taishi’s death -which occurred in 622-, when the new capital already existed

The Rokkakudō is the historical seat of the Ikenobō School.




Japanese banknotes showing both Shotoku Taishi and the Rokkakudō






At the head of two embassies to China in 607 and 608 was ONO NO IMOKO, nephew of the emperor Bidatsu (538-585) and cousin of Taishi. His return from the second embassy is historically documented but this is the last historical information about him: from his return from China onwards, he is no longer mentioned in any source









The Japanese imperial message, brought by Imoko to the Chinese Emperor Yang in the first embassy, started with:

“the son of Heaven where the sun rises (i.e. Japan) to the son of Heaven where the sun sets (i.e. China)………”

This message probably annoyed the latter because it equate the two emperors, while the Chinese imperial court considered the Japanese to be an insignificant and barbaric people.

When Ono no Imoko returned from the second embassy, Taishi was dead and at this point tradition states: Ono no Imoko took his vows and retired to Rokkakudō, becoming its abbot and taking the name of the Buddhist monk SENMU.

It is said that he began to create flower offerings to the altar of Buddha the way he had learned to do in China.Tradition states that he lived in a hut adjacent to the Rokkakudō located by the pond where Shotoku Taishi had cooled off. Hence the origin of the name Ike no bō (=hut by the pond).






Rokkakudō, Kyoto







According to tradition, the abbots who followed him at the head of the Rokkakudō continued to occupy themselves and develop this art, which in the Edo period was called ikebana.


From the second abbot onwards, as monks, they assumed names that all began with SEN, a custom that has survived to this day.

Historically, the name (Senkei or Senei) Ikenobō first appears in a diary of the Kyoto Buddhist monk, Hekizan Nichiroku, dated 25 February 1462, in which it is said that many people saw compositions in a golden vase performed by the monk Senei Ikenobō.

From the 608, the historical date on which Ono no Imoko returned from the second embassy (and retired, according to legend, to Rokkakudō, taking the name Senmu) until 1462, the year when the name ikenobō first appeared in the diaries, this name has never been mentioned in any other historical source that has come down to us.


With the aim of increasing or strengthening the prestige and legitimacy of the school, the Ikenobō, as well as associating the birth of their name with Shotoku Taishi, associated Senkei Ikenobō with the Ashikaga shoguns saying that he was in the service of Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun, and that in 1479 the latter named him: “Dai Nippon Kado no Iemoto” (he who originated ikebana).

Thus demonstrating Yoshimasa’s alleged preference for the Tatebana created by Senkei over those created by the dōbōshū of the Ji sect.

The dōbōshu were secular-monks in his employ, who first created the Tatebana; the association of Senkei Ikenobo with the shogun Yoshimasa is considered by historians to be untrue.


Although texts written on Tatebana appear as early as the 14th century (e.g. Sasaki Dōyo 1306-1373) and in various journals there is mention of “arranging/putting upright” (TATERU ) flowers, as for example in a record dated 20 April 1476.  In this it is said that Yoshimasa, on the occasion of his visit to the Imperial Palace, asked his dōbōshū Ryūami to ” put up rights” (TATERU) of peonies. The same action is also described on other pages with other flowers.


Tradition links the birth of Ikebana only to the Ikenobō School, but this tradition was written by the Ikenobō themselves in the Edo period at the request of the Tokugawa shoguns.

The dōbōshū see article 33 , the first “creators” and codifiers of the rules of the Tatebana, disappeared with the fall of the Ashikaga and the Ikenobō, now the only ones dealing with this art, began the hegemony in the field of ikebana that would last until the middle of the Edo period, when the other schools were born, all derived from the Ikenobō school.


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Written by Mauro posted online on March 8, Women’s Day

 The Japanese monarchy is the oldest institution of the globe. It is perpetuated almost in its totality by male hereditary line with the exception of a few cases in which became Tenno some daughters or wives of emperors or women relatives of the Imperial Family, and always only with the aim of preserving the throne in the family, never by free choice. The Imperial Family has no surname and all the Tenno are known only by their posthumous Buddhist name, given to them after their death.

The first 42 Emperors of which tradition tells us resided in as many seats about the size of a village; since Shintoism considers impure both blood and death, at the Emperor’s death the village, having become impure, was abandoned.

There were 8 female Tenno:




ASUKA 552-710.  Five Empresses: 1) SUIKO 2) KOGYOKU / SAIMEI 3) JITO 4) GEMMEI

NARA 710-794. Three Empresses: 5) GENSHO 6) KOKEN / SHOTOKU

HEIAN 794-1185

KAMAKURA 1185-1392

MUROMACHI 1392-1568

MOMOYAMA 1568-1600

EDO 1600-1868. Two Empresses: 7) MEISHO 8) GOSAKURAMAKI

Of the 125 TENNO in official history, eight were women and two of them were two times with different names; therefore, official Japan had Empresses ten times.

In Japanese mythology, there are mentions of queen-shamans who held power.

For example it was JINGO who led the first invasion of Korea, she was pregnant and to allow her son (future emperor OJIN) to be born in Japan, the pregnancy lasted 14 months and it is said that he “led” his mother from the womb in the battles, for this reason, at his death, OJIN was identified with HACHIMAN, god of war.



Figurine representing Jingo

Temple of Hachiman in Nara



The term TENNO ( 天皇 TEN=sky, 0=sovereign ) was first used by Shotoku Taishi in the missive for the Chinese Emperor brought by Ono no Imoko (to whom tradition associates the birth of ikebana through the presumed beginning of the Ikenobo dynasty see art. 12th) in reference to the 1st Empress Suiko (33rd Tenno of the official list, who reigned from 593 to 628), under whose reign began the diplomatic relations with China.

In the political Chinese concept, the Emperor was a Heavenly Mandate, meaning that his task was to ensure harmony between celestial forces, natural forces and human forces; he could carry out these functions only if endowed with virtues.

The Imperial Mandate was entrusted by Heaven and could be withdrawn from Heaven (and pass to another dynasty) if it proved not to possess these virtues. To avoid a change of the Imperial Family (as happened in China) the Japanese nobles claimed that the emperor was not by heavenly mandate but because he was a direct descendant of the kami Amaterasu, Goddess of the sun.


 ASUKA  Period  552-710


1st Tenno woman: in 592 UMAKO, head of the SOGA clan, had Emperor SUJIN assassinated and appointed his niece SUIKO, Sujin’s widow, to the throne; Another of his nephews, SHOTOKU TAISHI (= Holy Prince), was appointed Regent. He was a cultured and far-sighted man who favoured the introduction of Buddhism at Court and whom tradition associates with the birth of ikebana because, again according to tradition, Taishi built the Rokkakudo, the temple to which Ono no Imoko retired as the first Ikenobo abbot.

The tradition associates the “birth of ikebana” with these true historical figures, but their role in the making of ikebana has been supported by tales created by the Ikenobo almost a thousand years later in order to reconstruct an important past and give themselves legitimacy, when they became famous with Senkei Ikenobo, the first Ikenobo name that was mentioned for the first time in 1462 as the creator of a Tatebana in a gold vase. (See art. 13, the birth of ikebana according to historical sources)

2nd Tenno woman:  on the death of SUIKO, Emperor JOMEI ascended the throne, but on his death in 641, again due to political problems, his wife Princess TAKARA ascended the throne as the 35th TENNO under the name of KOGYOKU; she abdicated after three years in favour of her son Prince NAKA who, in order to be able to really rule behind the scenes, preferred to refuse the title in favour of KOTOKU, Kogyoku’s brother, who became the 36th Emperor in the official list.

The latter died nine years later and, for the second time, Kogyoku was raised as the 37th Tenno and took the name of SAIMEI, remaining Tenno until her death in 661.

3rd Tenno woman: in 690, after the death of Emperor TEMMU, became the 41st Tenno his wife with the name JITO. She was also known as a poetess, with her waka included in Manyoshu. She retired in 697 to allow her son MOMMU to assume the throne until 707 when he died. Being his son only 6 years old, his wife became Tenno with the name of GEMMEI.



GEMMEI  was the 4th Tenno woman and the 43rd Tenno. During her reign,  that lasted 8 years, the capital was moved to NARA and the KOGIKI (= history of ancient things), the first book on Shinto mythology and on the history ( mythicized) of the aristocracy of the Yamato, was completed. She abdicated in 715 in favour of her daughter Princess HIDAKA who became:

 The 5th Tenno woman, with the name of  GENSHO. She was the  44th Tenno on the official list  and reigned from 715 to 724. During her reign was written the NIHON SHOKI (= chronicles of Japan) which, like the KOGIKI, repeats (with variations) and extends the ( mythicized) chronology of the Yamato bloodline.

 KOKEN was the 6th Tenno woman, 46th in the official list, from 749 to 758 . She abdicated in favour of one of her sons when she became seriously ill; during her illness she was treated by a Buddhist monk – Dokyo – who healed her; she fell in love with the monk and engaged him as a counsellor.

Healed, she succeeded in ascending to the throne a second time in 764, taking the name SHOTOKU, 48th Tenno, and installed her lover-monk (who acted as if he were the Emperor) in the Palace, appointing him Head of Ministers. Fortunately for the Court she died in 770 and Dokyo was immediately removed. Because of the behaviour of the latter female Tenno, no other female Tenno was appointed for over 800 years. In fact, in the Heian, Kamakura, Muromachi and Momoyama periods there were no Empresses.  


EDO PERIOD 1600-1868

In 1629, the 7th Tenno woman was appointed, a little girl, who took the name MEISHO, 109th on the official list.

The second Shogun Tokugawa HIDETADA had given his daughter Kazuko in marriage to Emperor Gomizu-noo as a gesture of reconciliation between the increasingly powerful Shogunate and the decadent (penniless and maintained by the shoguns) Imperial institutions.

The Emperor, in order to collect some money, used to sell some privileges to the monks such as the permission to wear clothes of certain colours reserved to the nobility. The Shogun forbade this practice to the Emperor and he abdicated in favour of his daughter (and niece of the Shogun) Princess Okiko, only 6 years old, to put him in an embarrassing situation.  The Shogun, consequently, ended up having to submit (only in theory, but appearances were very important) to a child Empress and, moreover, his niece.  She was Tenno (under the regency of a Fujiwara) for 14 years, then abdicated in favour of her half-brother and became a nun.

The 8th and last Tenno woman, 117th on the official list, was GO-SAKURAMACHI. She ascended the throne at the age of 22 and held this position from 1762 to 1771.

She was the sister of Emperor Momozono who died at the age of 22 leaving behind a son of only four years. She held the throne until her nephew turned twelve and was appointed Tenno. Little is known about her, only that she was an excellent calligrapher.

Since then there have been no more Tenno women and in the 19th century the Imperial Household established that in the Imperial Family only the eldest male child could assume the role of Tenno.


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Please note: among the many homophone kanji pronounced KA one is:

KA ( ON reading ), hana ( KUN reading) = “flower

KA ( ON reading )  and  uta ( KUN reading) = poetry

therefore Ka-dō, written in rōmaji and out of context, can mean -the way of “flowers” – or -the way of poet


When the ikebanist has learned the basic rules of ikebana and is no longer worried about “making mistakes” while composing.

By doing a conscious choice he can use this art as a “way of emancipation” and consider what he does – composing an ikebana – from the point of view of Ka-dō, whose ideal aim is the attainment of a particular state of mind, of control of one’s body, of a discipline of behavior. All these characteristics, exercised and developed by practicing ikebana as Ka-dō, will enter into one’s daily life and will be put into practice also in other situations of our life.



In everyday life, we wear several masks and armours.


In learning to create an ikebana, various facets of our character emerge while performing the composition: shyness, aggressiveness, anxiety about not succeeding, fear of making mistakes, belief in having “good taste”, difficulty in accepting the teacher’s corrections, comparison with the works created by other pupils, eagerness to finish, disorder around the composition, etc.


Being aware of these aspects of our character is the first step on the way to change, to the Buddhist enlightenment (satori).


For a western-minded ikebanist, practicing ikebana in the spirit of Ka-dō is an attempt to achieve inner calm and learn to concentrate.

 As well as improving one’s personal ethics, so that even without achieving “enlightenment” one can improve one’s quality of life.



The “ideal” mental and physical attitude of the ikebanist who follows Ka-dō is the following:

– Put yourself in a state of inner peace; calm the turmoil by concentrating on what you are doing.

Staying focused and considering the time and the place in which you perform an arrangement, at school as well as at home, not to “competitively produce a beautiful ikebana” but to dedicate some pleasurable time to yourself.

To connect with the plants we use, considering them not as an object of possess, to be exploited, or as a tool to show off our “composing skills”, but as living plants that deserve all our respect.


– Consider all the single plants and elements, which must be in harmony with each other.

For example, do not be attracted by a single branch that we consider “beautiful” and try forcefully to adapt the rest of the composition to that branch, despite technical difficulties, but know how to sacrifice the exclusivity of a branch by replacing it with another in favour of the outcome of the entire composition.


Those who follow the Way live in harmony with the rest of the world and do not pretend to be the center to which everything and everyone must adapt.


– One of the first steps to take along the Ka-dō is to free oneself from constraints such as “I like this” or “I don’t like that”, occasionally overheard among those who follow the first ikebana lessons, both in relation to the plants used and to the compositions of the other students.


-Focus on what you are doing, forgetting to think about past or future daily problems. Important is the –here and now-.

 Important is what I do here, in this place and not what I have done or will do in other places, at home, at work, at the dentist’s, in the kitchen, in the car.

Important is the now, this moment and not what I did last time – for example a composition that did not satisfy me and the dissatisfaction, linked to its technical difficulties, that I bring with me – or what I will do next time – a wonderful composition that everyone will admire. Keeping the mind at the -here and now- is one of the steps of the Way.


– Those who do not follow the Way are focused only on the composition and forget to treat plants, objects and people, as they would like to be treated.





We usually give a great deal of consideration to the plants, or part of them, that are included in the composition compared to those we discard, considered bulky, troublesome, to be thrown away as soon as possible; in our eyes those used in the composition will be the reason for the praises we will receive while those discarded do not contribute to highlight our skills as ikebanists.


Who is following the Way consider both the plants that become part of the composition and those that do not in the same way.

He gives the same attention and care in not letting them fall down at random, in not stepping on them, in picking them up if they have fallen on the ground using broom and dustpan.


The plants in the composition will also end up being thrown away, but those were used to strengthen our Ego while the discarded ones were not used for this purpose and therefore are unfairly considered “useless” and treated accordingly.





The things we use deserve the same treatment as the plants, so those who follow the Way will be careful in the use of the various tools, taking care not to make noise by putting the scissors on the table – in Japan they use a cloth to put the scissors on so as to attenuate the noise -.

The table must remain clean around the composition as well as the floor, if their use is necessary, the broom and the dustpan must be used consciously.




Some novice ikebanists have a tendency to critically evaluate the compositions of their colleagues or, when the teacher is correcting the composition, they list their good motives for why that plant, which the teacher has corrected, was put that way. Explaining the good reasons on the student’s part does not change the reasons for the correction.


Gusty Herrigel in her book – Zen and the Art of Arranging Flowers – in her second lesson after the Master has removed the flowers from the vase and remade her composition, writes: “Why, I wondered, can’t the Master take into account the psychology of the European, who does not admit a priori that he or she is incapable of succeeding?”


Those who follow the Way are more merciful with the other students, refrain from making comments and do not perceive the correction as a “personal critique” but as a help offered to improve their technique and their understanding of ikebana.

He listens in silence to the teacher’s correction and explanation and will make good use of it in the future.



The teachings of Zen, and consequently those of Ka-dō, are transmitted through demonstration and very little through words.



Remember the “silent flower sermon”, considered the beginning of the Zen practice that Buddha gave on Vulture Peak: when asked by the followers to give a sermon, Buddha responded with a silent act, showing only a flower.


In Japan, the correction was performed without the Master giving explanations: it was sufficient to do the correction without either Master or student needing to speak.


Patience, humility, peacefulness, respect, and harmony are characteristics of those who follow the Way.


– Although it is difficult to maintain silence during the lessons, those who follow the Way try to do so; silence allows their own concentration and that of the people around us. Silence shows respect for oneself, for the teacher and for the other people present, and helps to emphasize the ” sacrality ” of what one is doing.


– Those who follow the Way are aware of how they use their bodies: they economize their gestures by leaving out the superfluous. The acts we perform in choosing the vegetables, measuring the appropriate length and inclination, manipulating them, taking and placing the scissors without noise, removing the superfluous, inserting them in the container must be precise. These movements are comparable to the katas performed in Martial Arts: consciously practicing to continuously repeat the specific movements makes them spontaneous and automatically executed.


These gestures, with the ideal characteristics described, are the result of a long careful observation of the plant, of an instinct educated to harmony but above all of the inner strength freed from the Ego.


If we are concentrated on what we are, doing nothing should fall on the ground; if this happens, for the ikebanist who follows the Way, cleaning has the same importance as the creative act of composing ikebana.


– The “dismantling” of the finished composition is an action equivalent to the destruction of a Mandala that reminds the ikebanist of the impermanence and transience of things and people: it is important to learn to “let go” without regrets what in any way cannot be held back.

It should be emphasized that this character-forming discipline, this path to personal fulfillment and liberation based on the practice of Zen, has nothing to do with religion as understood by a person of Christian faith.

Ka-dō can be followed regardless of the religion professed by the ikebanist, since the values it promulgates – concentration, economy of gestures, silence, harmony, respect, serenity, patience, humility, consideration of others – although shared by religions, are not religious in themselves.

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see also Art. 17


Feng-shui (wind-water) – hōgaku (direction-angle)

deals with the correct interaction of the human being with his natural environment and is the art of identifying and interpreting the action of Ki cosmic energies (electromagnetic, thermal and gravitational) that circulate in the human being and in his environment mainly through air (breath in man, wind in nature) and water (blood in man, rivers in nature).


In ancient China and Japan, nature was regarded as a living, breathing organism.



This kanji represents the vital energy that flows in the universe and enlivens every form of existence on the earth – including stones and rocks – and is written Ki (Hepburn transliteration system) or Ch`i (Wades-Giles system) or Qi (PinYin system).

See article 50 on the transliteration of the Japanese language.


Ki can be “good” or “bad”, stored, dispersed, channelled, and is responsible for all the changes in the universe and is expressed through the two principles Yin and Yang that control the universe, not arbitrarily or randomly but through unchangeable and humanly unfathomable laws.


This view of the universe may appear irrational and unscientific, but it has greatly influenced both Chinese and Japanese everyday life and culture.

For example, the vital force Ki has always been used to define an artist, since the Roppo (six cànons of HSIEH HO) places as the first and most important rule the fact that the artist expresses his Ki and that of his work. See article 7


One of the purposes of feng-shui is to locate the ‘dragon lines’ that carry the earth’s energy, i.e. to identify the earth’s energy lines that are comparable to the meridians of the human body considered by acupuncture. This helped to capture the beneficial energy of the chosen location and  to banish the malefic energy. Was used for example for indicating the correct location where and how to build a tomb, a house or a city.orretta posizione di una tomba o una casa o una città.

Chinese feng-shui masters searching for dragon lines (4th figure from right consulting a compass on a small table) late Chìng period (late 19th century)





The ancient capitals of Nara, Nagaoka and Heian-kyo – today’s Kyoto – were built according to the rules of Feng-Shui, as well as the Tokugawa castle around which today’s Tokyo was built, haphazardly and without following feng-shui.

Buildings such as the Imperial Palaces, the residences of the aristocracy and even all the elements that make up their gardens, from stones to paths to ponds to streams to waterfalls and trees, have been laid out according to these rules since ancient times.


The theory of Feng-Shui is very complex and is based on the Yang-Yin Theory, the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, the 5 elements (fire, wood, earth, water and metal) and the 64 hexagrams of the I-Ching.


The importance of Feng-Shui was such that, for example, it was thought that even if just one of the large stones in the garden was misplaced it would fail to protect the house from evil energies and this failure could cause illness or even the death of the owner.

Like everything produced by Japanese culture, ikebana has also developed in accordance with the rules of Feng-Shui, particularly those relating to the four protective Cardinal Deities and the avoidance of straight lines.





In ancient China, and consequently in ancient Japan, the stars of the firmament were grouped, according to the four seasons, into four major constellations: the tortoise, tiger, phoenix and dragon.



In the picture below the constellation of the Turtle with the Little Dipper and the Polar Star visible in the lower right-hand corner




The same animals, positioned in symbolic concordance (according to Tai-ji) with the orientations and colours, North black tortoise, West white tiger, South red phoenix and East blue dragon.

They have the task of “protecting” the person, the tomb, the house from evil forces.


Contrary to the West, which places the south at the bottom and the north at the top, in ancient times in the East the position of the two cardinal directions was reversed, so on maps and in Taoist symbolism the black turtle protecting the north is placed at the bottom and the red phoenix, protecting the south, at the top. (see article 15th )





            Western concept                                                                                                    Sino-Japanese concept



In China and Japan, south – corresponding to the sun – was considered the most important direction and therefore considered yang while north, its opposite and less important, was considered yin

For this reason in the ancient compasses used in the Far East, the magnetic needle (red tip in the picture) pointed south.





East is also considered yang because the sun, which is born in the east, rises in the firmament and radiates more heat. Rising and rising are yang characteristics. Its opposite west is believed to be yin, direction in which the sun decreases in heat and descends, decrease and descent are yin connotations.


In reality, the -person, house, tomb- must be facing south geographically surrounded by the four animal-symbols that protect it; both the type of animal and its position are consistent with Tai-ji.

There are two flying animals on the Yang/sky side (east and south) dragon and phoenix and two land animals on the Yin/earth side (north and west) tortoise and tiger.


Above is an example of the layout of a tomb protected to the north by the tortoise (high mountains), to the west by the tiger (hills), to the east by the dragon (medium height mountains) and to the south by the phoenix (empty space and water).












Sketch of a Chinese emperor’s sarcophagus with the four protective animals engraved on its walls.





In order for a building to be in a protected situation, it must ‘look’ to the south and there must be an empty space in front of it (the Red Phoenix), behind it to the north is a very tall building (the Black Turtle), to its right side to the west is a low building (the White Tiger) and to its left side to the east is a slightly taller building (the Blue Dragon).







Applied to a person, this person, in order to be protected, must have a high object to his left (symbolized by the Dragon) and a low object to his right (symbolized by the Tiger) free space in front (Phoenix) and a wall behind (Tortoise).






The ancient capitals Fujiwara (694-710), Nara (710-784), Nagaoka (unfinished and abandoned after 10 years) and Heian-kyo (794-1868) -the present Kyoto, map above- as well as the first shogunal capital of Kamakura (1192-1333) were built following the rules of Feng-Shui ( see Art. 17°) whereas present-day Tokyo was built haphazardly and without following the feng-shui rules.






Above is a map of ancient Edo (present-day Tokyo) with an apparently free space in the centre marked with the Tokugawa coat of arms (three leaves of Althea) where their residence stood, with the main daimyo dwellings – arranged on a north/south axis – to the south, one next to the other.

All this is surrounded by the rest of the city, which has grown haphazardly because Edo was not born as a capital city.





The two protective animals dragon and tiger were frequently painted on screens as can be seen in the painting below by Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539 – 1610)









or in sliding doors like the ones by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799) below









Two six-panelled screens:













Triptych by Kano Tsunenobu (1636-1713):











In the Edo Period it was fashionable to give a triptych with a drawing of famous people in the center, on its left side -yang side- the dragon -yang animal- and on its right side -yin side- the tiger -yin animal- protecting it.













Screens by Eitoku Kanō ( 1543 – 1590)









Or screens with the dragon and the tiger.


Since drawings on paper, on screens and sliding doors are “read” from right to left, the yang/ most important dragon is placed first on our right and the tiger/ yin -less important- is placed second, on our left.


A leopard was painted next to the tiger: in Japan, as only the skins of these felines arrived from abroad, the leopard was believed to be the female of the tiger-male.

Consequently :Tiger-male/yang, most important, drawn first in the view from right to left, leopard (wrongly believed to be the female/yin of the tiger), drawn second:

In the  double screen the dragon, being yang compared to the tiger, it is placed to the right of the screen with tiger and leopard, and is the first to be “read”.











Sliding doors by Kano Tan`yu 1630 circa




















In this depiction of Buddha’s death, at the bottom right-hand corner, among all the pairs of animals that have come to pay their respects, you can see the tiger/leopard pair.

See the detail below:














Above a Kimono of the late Edo-early Shōwa  period with the two protective animals yang, phoenix and dragon













Furoshiki cloth, Meiji period, with two protective animals in the centre, from the south -phoenix- and from the north -turtle-.








Hanakago: bamboo ikebana Basket dated 1926 with tiger and phoenix.












It is interesting to note that in this manga by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) taken from the book -Hokusai, le vieux fou d’architecture-representing an ancient Torii (nowadays composed of a single arch but in the past composed of four) the inscriptions at numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 indicate that it was spatially arranged in accordance with the four protective deities: 2 vermilion bird, 3 white tiger, 4 black tortoise, 5 blue dragon, with the main entrance facing south.





When the rules of ikebana composition were created during the 15th century, the feng-shui scheme already in use in everyday life was taken as a reference, so the measurements and positions of the plants were designed to be in accordance with its symbolism and in harmony with the positions of the four cardinal deities:


In the Rikka the main element (Shu for the Ohara school) corresponds to the person – house – tomb to be protected and is protected  by the  Fuku in the position of the Dragon on the east side and by a Kyaku in the position of the Tiger on the west side.

The composition is seen “from behind”, that is from the north (position of the Turtle), as it is customary in Ikenobo rikka and shoka (concept that will be explained in the following paragraphs).


At the beginning, when the first compositional rules of ikebana were formed, the Rikka was always in the style that the Ohara school calls “Vertical” i.e. with the Shu in the centre and vertical: the composition, “looking” to the south (the sun at its apex is ideally placed on the side of the yang culmination between the Dragon and the Phoenix ) and seen from the north (Turtle), is congruent with the rules of Feng-Shui: shu is protected on its left side by a relatively high fuku (Dragon) and on its right side by a relatively low kyaku (Tiger).




In the Edo period new types of ikebana appeared (see Art 15) deriving from a simplification of the Rikka and called shōka in the school Ikenobo and seika in the other schools: only three main elements are used but the respect of the laws of feng shui has remained unchanged, maintaining the protective scheme of shu with a fuku/Dragon high in the east and a kyaku/Tiger low in the west.


Also in the shōka, the sun is located at the point-maximum yang in the drawing.


From Rikka and shōka, that was the only structured style from the birth of ikebana until the first part of the Edo period, the Oblique and Cascade styles derive; in these styles the shu has changed position and the reference to the 4 Protectors no longer exists.


Shu è “protetto” da fuku/drago e da kyaku/tigre







The styles of the Ohara school derive from seika and the only style in which the influence of feng shui is still perceptible is the Alto style while it is no longer perceptible in the other styles as the position of shu and fuku have changed.









The rules about positions and heights in ikebana are also coherent with the four cardinal deities where shu (circle) corresponds to the person to be protected, fuku (square) corresponds to the dragon and kyaku (triangle) corresponds to the tiger.

The composition is seen ‘from behind’, i.e. from the north (position of the turtle), as is customary in Ikenobo rikka and shoka (a concept that will be explained in the next articles).





Feng-Shui views straight lines negatively because they facilitate evil energy to flow, while it prefers curved lines because they deflect such forces.

For example, roads, streams, canals, rivers flowing in a straight line bring evil influences; on the contrary, roads and waters with winding and curved lines are an indication of the presence of beneficial forces. In general, any shape with straight lines, angles and edges is considered virtually dangerous.



Even in ikebana (with the exception of the early Rikka with the straight Shu) all the Schools of the past have always used curved lines, arriving, only in the Edo period, at excesses such as the example of the Seika of the Enshu School that used curves that may appear to our eyes “extreme, exaggerated, unnatural, baroque, artificial”, with S-shaped bends, very accentuated and complex.



Bearing in mind this dislike of straight lines in Feng-Shui, even the ikebanist of the Ohara School must avoid them, apart from specific rare exceptions.


Plants in their natural state in Japan appear more “suffered” because the forces of nature are much more powerful than in Europe and therefore “leave their mark” on the plants; as European plants are less “marked” by nature than Japanese ones, they must be moulded by the ikebanist. This is even more evident when using plants grown in greenhouses or nurseries or other protected places which, unlike plants grown in nature, do not show (with their straight lines) the effects of the forces of nature (wind, rain, sun, cold, snow, drought). They must therefore be “manipulated” by the ikebanist in order to remove the rigidity of the lines to make them more natural and less artificial.


The “amount” of manipulation will be less on a “young” element and more on an “old” element because the “young”, in theory, has been exposed to the elements for less time than the “old”.









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All ancient cultures were based, in addition to religions, on a set of magical-religious practices, beliefs and superstitions which, even if they appear irrational and unscientific to our Cartesian eyes today, guided and permeated all aspects of daily life.



In Japan, as early as the Heian period (794-1185), such beliefs and superstitions were well established, as they were either part of the indigenous Shintoism or had been imported with Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.


For example (see article 50th )  in Japanese language, the avoidance of using


shi  the number four

comes from a superstition since the kanji for the number 4 in the on (educated, Chinese) reading is read shi and one of its fifty or more homophone kanji

is shi, meaning death

 so the sound shi means both 4 and death and for this reason it was avoided. To say the number 4, the reading kun (popular Japanese reading) is preferred, which sounds like yon.



Here you can see some lift panels where the number 4 does not appear

A photo of a market stall where the 4 is missing but also the number 9 kyū, too similar to the sound ku = suffering, pain.


The “Office of Omens”, created at the Imperial Court in 675 A.D., dealt with the study of good and bad omens in order to help both individuals and the government in its politics: the decisions “that made history” were also taken on the basis of what the Masters of Yin-Yang said.

It is interesting to know that there were temporary directional taboos so that, for example, on certain ‘unfavourable days’ an army could not march in the direction believed to be unlucky: so either it stopped, even for up to a month until these expired, or it took an alternative route to the unlucky direction which was certainly longer and wasted precious time.


Some examples from ” The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan” by Ivan Morris:


The emperor or dignitaries would cancel a journey if the direction that day was inauspicious.

Certain activities were forbidden according to criteria such as the age and/or the sex of those involved: for example, at the age of 16 one was required to avoid travelling in the inauspicious direction of north-west.

Other taboos were linked to the personal cycle of 60 days – based on the combination of the 12 animals of the zodiac (mouse, buffalo, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, pig) plus the five elements (water, wood, fire, metal, earth). Therefore some activities were, on a given day or at a given time, unlucky and therefore “forbidden”, such as cutting one’s hair, clipping one’s fingernails, taking a bath, starting a love affair, starting a medical treatment, going on a journey.

One day out of every 60 – The Monkey Day – no sleep was allowed because of the danger of evil powers attacking during the night.

At regular intervals the imperial guards on duty at Court made the strings of their bows vibrate to ward off evil spirits and the whole day at Court was set, we would say “limited”, by these beliefs, superstitions for us.

The Masters of Yin-Yang were held in the highest esteem maintained until the Edo period and demonstrated by the fact that they were allowed to use sedan chairs for travel, a means reserved only for the imperial and Shogunal aristocracy or high-ranking priests. Until the end of the Edo period, their divinations were requested by members of the Imperial and Shogunal court as well as by the emerging class of wealthy merchants and craftsmen.


Besides astrological calculations, the study of favourable and unfavourable auspices, directional taboos and the interpretation of dreams, the Yin-Yang Masters also dealt with: Feng shui (water-wind).


Feng-shui has also influenced ikebana, as we shall see in Article 9.

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The Chinese writer Hsieh Ho, at the beginning of 500 AD, wrote a treatise entitled:

 “Notes on the Classification of Ancient Paintings” in which he set out the principles of painting of his time in the form of six principles.


As time passed, its six rules were also used to judge the aesthetics of calligraphy and were later used in the judgment of all arts, i.e. these six rules formed the basis for aesthetic judgment of the artistic traditions of Chinese culture.


Imported in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) by Zen monks, the six rules were the basis of judgment for all traditional art forms (including ikebana).

The six rules are in descending order of importance, from the 1st (the one with the highest artistic value) to the 6th (the one beginners start with).



1st KI-IN-SEI-DO: state of mind, vital force, spiritual expression


The artist must sense the circulation of his own vital energy (Ki) and of the nature of the work, identifying himself with the work.


The concept of the artistic ideal is completely different from the Western one, since it states that if the work is not an expression of the spirit, it cannot be called a work of art.


2nd KOPPO-YOSHITZU: use of the brush “reduced to the bone”.


The artist must know how to capture the essential by highlighting the structural LINES, the bones, of the work, leaving out the unnecessary.

For the ikebanist it means thinning the plants, highlighting the lines and masses in a careful way.


The other four rules are mainly technical


3rd OHBUTSU-SHOKEI: give likeness in accordance with the object

The artist must draw the form in accordance with the nature of the work.

For the ikebanist it is the respect of the characteristics of the chosen plant, inserting it in the composition considering its natural growing position but also how this plant is represented in the Japanese imaginary and painting tradition.


4th ZUIRUI-FUSAI: use of color


The artist must apply colour in accordance with the nature of the work.

For the ikebanist it is the choice and color combination between the plants and between the plants and the container.



5th KEIEI-ICHI: spatial composition


The artist organizes the composition by placing the elements in the space available.

For the ikebanist it is the observance of the spaces of the Styles (which the Ohara school calls -kei, Kun reading of the kanji which is read kata in On reading) prescribed by the School and the balance between the masses and volumes of the various plants, the container, the place where the composition is set.


  1. DEN I-MOSHA: Transmission of the experience of the past by copying.


The beginner must start by copying the works of the masters trying to communicate the “essence of the brush” and the ways of the master, i.e. the copy must transmit the emotions and ideas of the master i.e. his Ki.

For the ikebanist it is the copying of the Styles (kata/kei) of the School.


Copying, in Western culture, is seen in a negative sense. For the ikebanist, copying the compositional schemes shown by teachers is important. This copying has several functions, both physical and psychological:

-it allows a gradual learning of the mastery of movements (use of scissors, anchoring techniques, modification and trimming of plants, etc.).-

The comparison with a model helps to diminish the expressive impetuosity of the pupil and, more generally, his presumptuousness.

-copying allows the pupil to incorporate the essential, the ‘vital breath’, the Ki of the original work.



In the Sung period (960-1279), still related to painting but applicable to all arts, the Six Canons were expressed by the:




1 The action of the Ki and the energetic work of the brush go hand in hand.

For the ikebanist, the use of the scissors goes hand in hand with the action of Ki.


2 The basic design must be faithful to tradition.

The ikebanist must be faithful to the kata, to the styles of his school (for the Ohara school these are the Chokuritsu-kei, Keisha-kei, Kansui-kei and Kasui-kei ).


3 Originality must not despise Li, the principle or essence of things.

For the ikebanist it is to respect the nature of the plant and its natural growth habit.


4 Color, when used, must be an enriching factor.

For the ikebanist, the compositional structure is more important but it can be enhanced by the plant colour of carefully chosen.


5 The brush must be held with spontaneity.

The scissors must be held with spontaneity.


6 Learn from masters but avoid their mistakes.


In painting, Ki is given by the “movement of the brush”, hippo in Japanese, in the hands of the artist.

In the Japanese tradition, a work of art was defined as such when one was able to distinguish the presence of the artist’s Ki in his work (in the composition in the case of the ikebanist).


On the other hand, if we think of the expressive form of Ukiyo-e – woodcuts from the Edo period that represent popular, theatrical and legendary life – we see that when it first appeared it was not considered a work of art by the cultured Japanese class. The reason for this lack of consideration was precisely the lack of recognition of the presence of Ki in this art form.

The educated class of the time believed that the artistic sensitivity of the brushstroke was lost in the carving of the wood of the mould.

Even if the carving was perfect, they saw only the shadow of the artist’s sensitivity and skill in the use of the brush in the matrix; therefore a work without a clear identification of Ki could not be considered a work of art. In addition, the themes dealt with by Ukiyo-e were considered too popular and therefore failed to meet the requirements of elegance and refinement demanded by noble taste.

Not being appreciated as an artistic form,  the Ukiyo-e woodcuts were used in the same way as we use old newspapers to package artefacts sent abroad: this fortuitous event led to the discovery of Ukiyo-e in the West.


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For Zen Buddhism, any human activity, especially manual activity, can be used as a “path”, a Way that leads to “awakening”/satori or enlightenment.

The purpose of the specific activity chosen as the Way is not the goal but the “process” that leads to it.

This means doing something not for the result but to commit ourselves because doing the specific acts of that activity helps to change ourselves in the ways indicated by Buddhism in general and Zen in particular.

If any manual activity can potentially be used as a medium to pursue this Way, even more

a discipline (artistic or ‘sporting’) can be used for this purpose.

Since the time of the first shogunate of Kamakura (1185-1333) a group of traditional arts have been influenced by Zen Buddhism and, in the Edo period, used by seculars as a Way ( Dō ) to enlightenment; these disciplines are recognizable by the suffix -dō (= Tao = way):


Martial arts:

Kyu-dō (way of the bow), Ken-dō (way of the sword), Karate-dō (way of the bare hand),

Ju-dō (way of yielding), Iai-dō (way of drawing the sword)


Performing arts:

Cha-dō (tea ceremony), Sho-dō (way of writing), Ka-dō (way of flowers or ikebana), Kō-dō (the way of scents)


Other artistic expressions, even if they do not have the suffix -dō, have also been influenced by Zen, such as: Nō theatre, Bonsai, Suiseki (stone collection), traditional Japanese architecture, Kaiseki cuisine, Kare sansui (“dry” gardens ), Raku pottery, Haiku poetry, Suiboku-ga (diluted ink painting).


How can the manual execution of an Ikebana be used as Ka-dō, that is, as a character-forming discipline, as a way of personal fulfilment, as a way of liberation?


To explain this to those who do not know Zen Buddhism, one can say that this is possible because the rules of ikebana composition are a “manual application” of the ideas that Zen promotes. By applying these rules consciously and repetitively while composing, they are assimilated and made their own by the ikebanist and become his or her ethical characteristics.


For example, the repetition of the manual exercise of “removing the unnecessary leaving only the essential of the branch” (for Zen, the concept “less is more” applies), if done with consciousness, is transformed into a spiritual exercise whereby one learns to “remove the superfluous leaving only the essential” also in other situations in one’s life.


The “making a space around the composition, around the plants and in the plants themselves”, leaving only what is necessary (always the concept of “less is more”), trains the ikebanist to “make a space” in his mind, that is, to let thoughts pass through, without being influenced, considering them only thoughts and nothing more.

The practice of considering relationships of “strength”, of measures, of volumes, by constructing an ikebana exercises the conscious ikebanist to give greater value to the relationships with people, animals, nature, objects, the environment, etc.

Attempting to create an Ikebana that is ‘shibui’ (austere, elegant, sober, refined, quiet) and ‘wabi-sabi’ ( refusing the ostentation, poverty as voluntary relinquishment), two qualities favored by Zen, exercises the ikebanist in ‘shibui’ and ‘wabi-sabi’ behaviour in everyday life. Pursuing this form of ikebana leads to actions that are poor in appearance but rich in meaning, simple but important, sober but effective, and this means that a formal refinement in the material execution of the composition (practicing the art of ikebana ) leads the ikebanist to an ethical improvement.



A poem by Constantinos KAVAFIS (1863-1933) expresses very well the Zen concept that ‘the goal is the path we take’. :




As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

angry Poseidon- don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon- you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

the sensual perfume of every kind-

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her, you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/ Phillip Sherrard


The poem is from



The birth of Zen, in tradition, is linked to a flower:


Buddha was once asked to give a sermon; he picked a flower (of a fig, according to Dōgen, as written in the Shōbōgenzō, but usually it is a lotus) and, in silence, slowly with his arm outstretched, showed it to his followers. Only one, the wisest (Mahakasyapa = Kasiyapa the great) sensed the “silent” message of the Master and smiled with understanding: thus was born the silent teaching of Zen. Mahakasyapa was the first of a series of patriarchs who brought Zen from India to Japan, where the shogunal nobility, already in the Kamakura period, preferred it to the other Buddhist currents practiced by the imperial nobility, because it was more in keeping with the warrior mentality.


Zen gave Ikebana the same characteristics given to the ideal lifestyle of the shogunale nobility. These characteristics were applied in all manifestations of daily life: from the way of building houses, to martial arts and other arts such as the tea ceremony, Nō theatre, calligraphy, Haiku poetry, dry gardens, Kaiseki cooking, Raku pottery and more.


These characteristics can be summarised in the following concepts, expressed by the Zen monk Shin’ichi Hisamatsu in his book “ZEN and the fine ARTS”:


General characteristics that apply to all arts                             Specific characteristics for ikebana


                         Simplicity                                                   In the choice of the vase and materials


                                                                                             All the redundant parts of the vegetals

                         Austerity                                                 are removed, leaving only the essential parts


                         Asymmetry                                                  In numbers, positions and inclinations


                                                                                                   Avoiding any signs of artificiality:

                       Naturalness                                                   the composition must give the idea that

                                                                                                      human did not intervene


                                                                                              The composition must radiate a sense

                      Subtle depth                                           strength and a remarkable power of suggestion

                       (Yugen)                                                         that suggests some hidden quality



                     Peace of mind                                               The composition must suggest a sense

                                                                                                               of deep  calm

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Position on the right/hongatte and position on the left/gyakugatte.





Ikebana was born in the 15th century in and with the tokonoma, the “sacred” and empty space of the traditional Japanese home, and the composition was placed to the right or to the left of the kakemono representing Buddha, in the adjacent photo it is placed to the left of the kakemono. It was only from the 1930s onwards that ikebana began to be placed outside the tokonoma.


At that time, (see art. 13°) it was customary to arrange the plants exclusively with the main element in a vertical position and in the middle of the composition. This approach corresponds broadly to the current Chokuritsu-kei of the Ohara School. There were therefore two possibilities for the placement of the three elements that the Ohara School calls Shu-shi; Fuku-shi and Kyaku-shi.



For this reason, the two types of composition – characterized by the different relationship of the three main elements – were called right-handed, the one to the right of the kakemono representing Buddha, and left-handed, the one to its left.


It is important to emphasize that the right or left we are talking about is not the one referring to the person looking at the composition but the one referring to the most important element of the tokonoma, which is the kakemono.   See art. 17)

With the time going by, the kakemono – which originally only represented Buddha – was first replaced by other religious characters and then became extended to secular ones, landscapes or drawings of any subject or phrases said by famous people, but it maintained its “sacredness” and remained the most important element of the tokonoma.


The terms left and right were retained even when the composition was removed from the tokonoma as it indicates the internal position/relationship within the composition between its three main elements.


Based on this concept used since the birth of ikebana, the Ohara School defines “right-side” or “left-side” moribana because of the position of the kenzan placed along the bisecting line of the vase.

Imagining a Buddha in the center of the vase and in relation to this the composition is right if to the right of the Buddha or vice versa. In the heika, we rely on the point of spread to the right or left of the mouth of the vase. We have seen that the term right side and left side (also called hongatte and gyakugatte) refers to an exterior element (Buddha) with respect to which ikebana is placed either to its right or left. However, this denomination also expresses the relationship within the composition between its three main elements Shu-shi; Fuku-shi and Kyaku-shi y (Yaku-eda of the Ohara School) See art. 16 and 17.

The right-handed arrangement is the most frequently performed: in Japan, too, the majority of the population is right-handed and this makes it easier to perform the right-handed arrangement, while left-handed people, who are in the minority, find it easier to perform the left-handed arrangement. This is why the right side composition is called HON-GATTE which means “katte= gate=normal and hon= situation”, considered as such because it is “most frequently performed”, believing that what the majority of people do is “the normality”. The left-hand composition is called gyaku-gatte because it is the opposite of the situation that is most frequently performed (gyaku= opposite).

In the kenzan, the scalene triangle formed by the insertion points of the plants in a hongatte composition is “mirror-like” to the triangle formed by the insertions of the plants in a gyakugatte composition.


Insertion points of the main elements in the kenzan in the Chokuritsu- kei in the Ohara School.



Insubstantiality, along with impermanence, is one of the basic pillars of Buddhism, the symbols of which we find in the rules of ikebana composition.

In ikebana, this concept of being in harmonic concordance with one’s surroundings is “putting into practice” the Buddhist concept of insubstantiality (every entity is always and necessarily made up of relationships, both on a biological and ethical level).

The compositions of the Ohara school based on a style (kei On-reading or kata Kun-reading) placed outside the tokonoma will be positioned in this way following what would have been their position in the tokonoma in relation to the kakemono, resulting also in coherence with their name (right or left).

The compositions of the Ohara school based on a style (kei On-reading or kata Kun-reading) placed outside the tokonoma will be positioned in this way following what would have been their position in the tokonoma in relation to the kakemono, resulting also in coherence with their name (right or left).


A hongatte (right-handed) composition will be placed to the right of an element with which it must match (painting, window, chimney, etc.) while if it is placed to its left it will be a gyakugatte (left-handed) composition; here are some examples: 












Please note:

In keeping with the current trend to simplify the rules and teaching of ikebana, since 2015 the Ohara School only uses the expression hongatte and gyakugatte and no longer the equivalent terms of right-hand or left-hand (see articles 16 and 17), 

because these terms create some confusion in ikebanists of western culture who take as their reference point the right and left of the beholder, whereas in ancient Japan the right and left is not that of the beholder but that of a more important person (or object) on whose right or left side the element being considered is located. See Article 17

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Buddhism, introduced to the Japanese imperial court around 552 A.D. as the salvific religion of the state, greatly influenced the compositional rules of ikebana also because these were created by Buddhist monks and moreover, in ancient Japan, every human manifestation had to be in accordance with the religions.

The first monks who created the first rules of ikebana were the dōbōshῡ (attendants) employed by the Ashikaga shoguns (most of them, at the beginning of the Ashikaga dominance, belonged to the Ji-shū Buddhist branch – founded in the 13th century by Ippen, a monk formed in the Tendai sect – who were later replaced at the fall of the Ashikaga shogunate by the Ikenobo, also belonging to the Tendai sect).


The compositional rules of ikebana reflect the Buddhist theory of interdependence (anatta), for which reality exists as a network of relations; these relations are manifest in ikebana both as in the relationship between the measure of the vase and that of the plants, both as a relationship of “forces” between plants and also in the relationship between the composition and the environment that surrounds it.

Let’s  analyze the relationship between plants.


By “optical weight” we mean the visual sensation of strength that a vegetable gives us and it is based on multiple factors such as colour, shape and volume.


Six-door screen. Pheasant and pine. Author Kano Koi (1569-1636)

Looking at this screen, three volumes (the pine tree, the water and the full moon) are immediately noticeable. They clearly have different strengths: the pine mass predominates, the water mass is less strong and the lunar mass is the weakest of the three.


The ikebanist, while constructing his composition, must refer to this concept so that the “optical force” (optical weight) of the three main elements ( that in the Ohara School are called shu, fuku and kyaku) must be well diversified and unmistakable: shu-shi must be rendered with an “optical force” greater than that of fuku-shi and in turn fuku-shi must be rendered with an “optical force” greater than that of kyaku-shi.

Even the chukan-shi  (Fillers) in the composition must have a lower optical weight than the vegetable of which they are auxiliaries: “the chukan-shi are subordinate to the vegetable of which they are auxiliaries”.




Another example to understand this concept is to see the first three awarded athletes on a podium: – the 1st (in the middle on the highest step) won because his “muscle strength” is greater than that of the 2nd (to the right of the first and on a lower step) which, in turn, has a “muscle strength” greater than the “muscle strength” of the 3rd (on the lowest step of the three).



In an ikebana arrangement the concept is similar: in the Chokuritsu-kei, hongatte composition, from which all the other styles originated, the three main elements are comparable, both in their position and in their “strength” to the three athletes on the winners’ podium. Using Ohara school terminology, shu-shi is in the middle and is comparable to the 1st athlete, fuku-shi, the 2nd athlete, is on his right while kyaku-shi, the 3rd athlete, is on his left; like the three athletes who have decreasing “muscle strength”, shu-shi, fuku-shi and kyaku-shi have decreasing “optical weight”.

Since all the other styles in Shikisai Moribana  and Heika all derive from the Chokuritsu-kei, even though the shu-shi position changes from the original Chokuritsu-kei, the difference of the “optical weight” of the elements used has not changed.


Also in bonsai the same concept is applied as in the design of the screen – pheasant and pine-. The construction and the optical weight of the three main canopies are based on the same concept of shu-shi, fuku-shi and kyaku-shi, both in terms of placement and optical weight. 


The bigger canopy in the centre, corresponds to the shu-shi in the Ohara School, the middle one on the right, corresponds to fuku-shi and the smaller one on the left, corresponds to kyaku-shi.




The ikebanist pupil is taught to measure branches and flowers according to the mass or shape of their corolla: the diagram below shows how plants, in order to maintain the same optical weight, are lengthened or shortened according to the shape of their corolla or inflorescence. 

In the concept of “optical weight”, measurements are only one of the components that determine it because many other factors such as colour, ” age” of the branches, ” youth” of the leaves, leaf/wood or leaf/stem ratio, the stage of development of the plants, and many others are taken into account.

Examples in which, despite being of equal size, element A is “optically heavier” than element B

To make B of “equal optical weight” with respect to A, this must be lengthened as in C

A and C now have equal “optical weight”.

ATTENTION: a vegetable can be weakened
– shortening or thinning it

– using scissors, but once cut or thinned it can no longer be reinforced; the only way to reinforce it is to add an auxiliary; therefore, before using the scissors, you need to think twice! If vegetable B has been cut, the only way to reinforce it and make it the same weight as A is to add one of its auxiliaries

now A and B have the same “optical weight”

Also important for the ikebanist is the rule that says:

what is “heavy” goes to the center of the composition, what is “light” to the periphery “.





The dark colors go to the center of the composition, the light ones to the periphery as, for example, in the traditional Moribana of Color with chrysanthemums in which the Color Band is composed of darker colors than the colors of the shu-fuku and kyaku group.









This concept is clearly visible in the famous drawing entitled -sei kaki-, attributed to the Chinese monk Mu Qi, late 13th century. in which the darker shades are in the center and the lighter ones in the periphery (see article 56 °: the six khaki of Mu Qi)


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For the religions and philosophies that have influenced the history of ikebana the importance given to the EMPTINESS is great so we find it in ikebana compositions expressed at various levels.

In Western culture emptiness has a negative value, of deficiency (empty mind, empty stomach, empty life, sense of emptiness) but in Japan and China it has a positive value and to understand this value it can be useful to shift the attention from the concept of emptiness, which can leave us uncomfortable, to the one we are more familiar with of SILENCE (i.e. emptiness of sounds), which for us evokes a feeling of peace, quiet, serenity, without noise or disturbances:


The call of a bird,

the quietness of the mountain becomes deeper;

the rumble of an axe,

the peace and quiet of the mountain grows

Chinese Zen poetry by anonimous



We find the EMPTINESS in ikebana :










That was traditionally placed on the Tokonoma, empty by definition, or nowadays in a place in the house with a void around it, i.e. free from any object that might distract attention from the composition itself.










(C) Ohara School of Ikebana



That not only allows  to see the individual components but also enhances concepts, so important for Buddhism, such as asymmetry, harmony and rhythm.  For Buddhism each element of the composition does not have its own consistency and meaning, but only acquires them in relation to the other elements.

The relations existing between the measures of plants, both among them and in relation to the measures of the vase, highlight the inter-dependence: for Buddhism no being or phenomena exists on its own, but only in relation to other beings or phenomena: everything in the world is revealed in response to certain causes and conditions.

Even in the no longer used system of calling Heaven-Man-Earth the three main elements of the composition in Shoka and Seika highlighted these relationships.




example with a maple branch


Remove the redundant material, starting from the side branches to the surplus leaves and flowers. In branches leave an irregular alternation between empty spaces (remove all the leaves) and filled spaces; the latter must have different volumes. 


The method of removing the superfluous in Ikebana is inspired by the method used in  paintings: in this detail of Eikyu Matsuoka’s (1881-1938) painting entitled  “Ladies of the Court in spring dresses” both the pine branches and the flowering ones are painted not as they appear in nature. Here we  can see that the pine  has only the new apical tufts without the old needles and the flowering ones have been painted  like they were ideally  “thinned” like we do in ikebana so that both the branch and every single cluster and every single flower are clearly visible



or as in this example of Ogata Korin, in which the azalea is not painted as thick as in nature but idealised by painting only the essential, without the superfluous, and maintaining an optimal balance of “forces” between branches/yang and flower-leaf/yin.


 Another example with branches



scuola Ohara













In Rikka and Shoka all the compositions emerge from a single central point (which will become central or lateral in Seika), leaving the rest of the vase mouth EMPTY.

The first centimetres of the plants emerging from the water are completely stripped of leaves and side branches.

see Art. 58
















Heika Chokuritsu style seen from the front, where the void is hidden by plants,

and laterally in which the void is evident.

scuola Ohara


In the Ohara School the empty space at the mouth of the vase, although not visible because it is covered by vegetables, has been preserved in the tall vases in which the vegetables emerge only from ¼ of the mouth leaving the other ¾ empty and is evident in the lower vases, although the surface area varies according to the seasons, to the styles and to the type of plant used.

In brief, the EMPTYNESS around plants highlights both the characteristics of the single plants and the mutual relationships that are important for Buddhism.

 As G. Pasqualotto writes in the Aesthetics of Emptiness:

Reducing the quantity of the elements increases the possibility and the intensity of perceiving their value, i.e. EMPTY produces quantitative deprivation to produce qualitative wealth.


The minimization of the elements corresponds to a maximized expansion of their qualities and, consequently, the conditions for a maximum of perceptual intensity are produced.

Examples of emptiness in drawings



Watanabe Seitei (1851-1918)




 Two screens by Maruyama Ōkyo   (1733 – 1795)

Ice with cracks, 1780


Ducks on the beach

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Western culture considers the universe separate from man, so life is perceived as a “war” between opposites (light against darkness, life against death, good against evil, beautiful against ugly, etc.); this vision implies a sort of idealism to cultivate the former, considered positive for our culture, and get rid of its opposite, considered negative.


For TAOISM this is not understandable because it would be like wanting the electric current from the positive pole without having the negative pole, i.e. the polarities are different aspects of the same system and the disappearance of one polarity implies the disappearance of the other.

  • – According to Tao “the only constant of reality is change, mutation” and he conceives the universe formed by KI energy ( see art. 50°), which is neither substance nor spirit but a “vital breath” that gives life and form to every kind of reality, both physical and spiritual. The Taoism accepts the laws of Nature for which there is always an alternation between the two polarities: day follows night, cold follows heat, death follows life, everything is created, then destroys itself and then regenerates itself.
  • Taoism explains the structure of the universe and the physical and moral constitution of the individual with the interaction of two opposing but complementary forces which it calls YANG and YIN (yō and in, in Japanese), governing the creation and the transformation of the cosmos.



      The yang ideogram indicates the sunny  side of the hill, the yin ideogram indicates the side in the shade.


      Being yang or yin is not an intrinsic quality but expresses the relationship between two entities: in this case the two sides of the hill.


      • Consequently, the following pairs are classified:
        • yang  light hot dry rigid resistant strong heavy male positive
        • yin    cold shadow wet soft compliant weak light female negative
      • The adjectives mentioned above are/were often used in ikebana and are equivalent to each other: for example, to define a strong or heavy, male, positive branch compared to a flower is to say that the branch is yang compared to the yin flower.


      These adjectives are used to define some relative characteristics such as:

      the side of the plant that grows in the sun is said to be positive while the one that grows in shade is said to be negative.

      • As far as the leaves are concerned:Positive side is Yang, dark, facing the sun.                      Negative side is Yin, pale, grows in shade towards the ground.                         In leaves the yang side is darker than the yin side  

        About the branches:


      the positive side or Yang, grows towards the sun and is frequently the concave part and darker in colour while the side grown in the shade, called negative or Yin, is convex and paler. If the branch has leaves and/or flowers, it is easier to tell which side is  Yang/sun facing  simply looking carefully at them.



      the flower when in bud is considered weak-Yin-female, the open strong-Yang-male, while the very open, older, flower is again considered weak-Yin-female


      Western ladies, when they read this weak-female-negative association, full of negative connotations compared to strong-masculine-positive, might think that Taoism is chauvinist. This is not so because the terms  do not have the same value that Westerners give them and Taoism considers yin-feminine weaker  more important than yang-masculine strong because the former allows change, an indispensable factor for the continuity of life. Remember that for Taoism “the only constant is change”.


      If we consider a branch with leaves and/or flowers, the wood is Yang compared to the leaves/flowers; they are both considered Yin compared to wood: in general, to obtain a balance between Yang and Yin, the ikebanist must prune it so that the wood/Yang is clearly visible. This is necessary because in nature generally it is covered by too many Yin leaves/flowers.

    • The hongatte/right-hand composition is considered strong-yang compared to the gyakugatte/ left-hand composition which is considered weak-yin. see art. 16°Above two Soka with the three main elements indicated, for simplicity, with the names used by the Ohara school.Before westernisation imposed its own botanical categorisation, the classification of plants was based on the yang-yin system:1-material KI-MONO (KI = tree, MONO = thing) which is yang and includes branches of trees and shrubs, i.e. everything that is wood. 2-material KUSA-MONO (Kusa = grass) which is yin and includes flowers, herbs, leaves.

      3-material TSUYO-MONO (TSUYO = common to…) which can be yin or yang depending on its role and on the plant to which it is associated. For example  bamboo, wisteria, peony, spirea, hydrangea can be yang if used  in the shu-fuku group associated with flowers in the kyaku group but can became yin if utilized in the kyaku group associated with Ki plants in the shu-fuku group.


      The yang/yin theory is symbolized by Tai-ji, a circle representing “the whole” divided into two equivalent parts, the yang part on the heaven/sunny side and the yin part on the earth/shady side.


      In the drawing the two parts are divided by two imaginary black lines: a darker one divides the yang part of the circle from the yin part, the other is perpendicular to the first and joins the maximum-yang point, ideal point of maximum light and ideal position of the sun, with the maximum-yin, point of maximum darkness.


      see art. 15th  on the symbolic origin of ikebana in which the construction of Tai-ji is explained.


      Please note:

      The yang part of the circle is not all white but the semicircle, above the imaginary black line, on the side of the sun and includes the “head” of the white part plus the “tail” of the black part while the yin part is the semicircle on the earth side, below the imaginary black line, including the “head” of the black part and the “tail” of the white part. The imaginary line separating the yang part from the yin is inclined 45° from the horizontal.   see art. 15°


      Tai-ji  symbol highlights:

      1- although opposites, the yang and yin forces are complementary

      2- nothing is completely yang or yin: the yang side contains a black seed of yin and the yin side contains a white seed of yang.

      3- yang changes into yin and vice versa. 

    • The styles of ikebana born before the westernization, represent the Tai-ji with the vegetal material i.e. the composition is constituted by yang plants (wood) in the part on our left of the composition (if this is hongatte) and by yin plants (herb-flower-leaves) in the part on our right.   


    • see art. 15: on the construction of Tai-ji

      • This subdivision is visible in Rikka and Shōka/Seika and has also survived in the styles (kata, KUN reading, kei, ON reading) of the Ohara school where the shu-fuku group is yang, wood material, while the kyaku group is yin, flower material, as in the above figure of a Moribana Chokuritsu style.


        • Generally speaking, the material used in the shu-fuku group must be “stronger”/yang than the material used in the kyaku group, which is composed of “weak”/yin plants compared to the plants utilized in the shu-fuku group.


        • During the Edo period, abandoning only in very special cases the Taoist symbology described above, Rikka and Shōka/Seika also began to be composed with only one species of plants, for example pine, maple, or with some specific flowers such as irises, lotus, chrysanthemums and narcissus.   see art.70°


      From the end of the 1800s onwards, ikebana also began to be composed with any type of herbaceous flower, no longer applying the rules of yin/yang which showed the balance of the universe in ikebana through the presence of yang/branches and yin/flowers. 


      • After the 1930s, as the influence of Western culture increased, many schools partially abandoned this symbolism in their new ikebana creations. The Ohara School has kept it in styles like Chokuritsu-kei, Keisha-kei, Kansui-kei and Kasui-kei while this symbolism has been abandoned (but occasionally reappears) in the Forms of ikebana created after the 1930s and codified after the Curriculum revision which took place in 2000 and 2020.  see art. 67°


      If the ikebanist wants to be coherent with the rules of the past, when using only herbaceous flowers he will remember that the shu-fuku group must be yang/”stronger” than the kyaku group and he will express this knowledge of the history/culture of ikebana using “strong”/yang colours or shapes in the flowers of the shu-fuku group compared to the “weak”/yin flowers of the kyaku group. 


      Interesting this composition of the Ohara school in which the concept “strong”/yang and “weak”/yin is not expressed according to the traditional rules using yang/wood for the main element and yin/flower for the secondary element. Here instead appears the use of an herbaceous/yin plant, but with leaves that are very large and dark green, which appears “strong” in comparison to the small, light green leaves of the maple branch/yang that appears “weak”, considering the volumes and colours.



      • It is important for the ikebanist to keep in mind which is the yang/positive part of each individual plant because in all styles of the Ohara school there is the rule that “all plants look – show their positive side/yang- primarily towards the sun (positioned roughly above the head of the ikebanist who os arranging ) and secondly towards the main shu element”.
Posted in Senza categoria |


Plants, in their whole and in their single parts, grow in nature in a harmonious way with respect to the plants that surround them. Once they have been picked and detached “from the natural harmony” in which they have grown and are arranged in a container, it is only through the compositional rules of ikebana that harmony between the plants is restored.

This happens because these rules derive from religion-philosophies (Shintoism, Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism) in which Man and Nature are part of the same entity (unlike Christianity which sees them separated) and therefore “governed” by the same principles; moreover, these rules (as in all Japanese Traditional Arts) have been “distilled” passing from one generation of Ikebanist masters to the other from the 15th century to the present day.

As happen with the grammatical rules, for those who learn a foreign language, which must be learned and “pedantically” applied by the beginner and then forgotten by those who speak the language fluently because they have acquired them, the rules of ikebana are not an end in themselves but serve to understand the guiding principles governing the relationships between the individual plants, the container, the place where the composition is placed.







The compositions since the 15th century (the period in which ikebana appeared) until the beginning of the Edo period were symbolic constructions that used plants to represent philosophical-religious concepts. These compositions expressed the harmony of the universe by referring not only to Shintoist and Buddhist symbolism but also to the concept of yin/yang. see art. 2


in fact:





° of the leaves, branches and flowers is considered:

– Yang the side that grows towards the sun (hi-omote) and

– Yin the side, that grows towards the ground (hi-ura)



ura= opposite, below


Front/Yang/Positive        Back/Yin/Negative




° of the whole composition one side was considered yang (containing yang plants: ki-mono, ki=wood) and the other one was considered the yin side (containing yin plants: kusa-mono, kusa=grass) see art. 15°: Ikebana’s symbolic origins

° the composition was composed by an odd number of elements (odd numbers are preferred because they are considered yang) with the only exception of number two which, although yin, like all even numbers, is used because it is considered the sum of yang + yin. see art. 62°


It was only during the Edo period (1603-1868 ), that both the cosmic and mystical vision of life and the sacred perception of nature, characteristic of previous eras, began to decline. At the same time a process of secularization of the arts in general, including Ikebana, takes place: the symbology on which the creation of the compositional rules of ikebana was based is considered outdated and, little by little, is partially forgotten: most of these compositional rules based on religious-philosophical symbols continue to be applied without knowing their symbolic origin.


The arrangements are now perceived in a different way and, consequently, they are identified with a new reading of the kanji. While at the beginning of the Edo period, they were read in On-reading shō-ka/sei-ka now they are read, in Kun-reading, ike-bana, highlighting the verb ikeru=giving life, i.e. plants are no longer seen for their symbolism but express themselves as living beings.  see art. 50°, about On-reading and Kun-reading and 54°, kanji reading and the evolution of ikebana

Despite this change in the overall view of compositions, the basic rules of composition remain those of the Rikka, even if simplified.

Still at the beginning of 1800 in the text “Enshū sōka ikō kadenshō” (oral transmission of the ikebana of the Enshū school), anonymous dated 1801, is peremptorily asserted:

-if in a composition you don’t find the principles of yin/yang, this is not an ikebana.

In Japan, religious and philosophical syncretism has always been practised, i.e. there has never been the need to choose one religion or philosophy while rejecting the others; from every religion or philosophy, people have always chosen what seemed most suitable or useful depending on the circumstances, be it in private or public life or for rites of passage such as birth, marriage, funeral.

Also ikebana reflects this syncretism because in its construction the symbols of different religions and philosophies are easily recognizable: the choice of plants and their association, their ideal position in the composition and their direction, the measures, all are based on the symbols of Taoism, Shintoism, Buddhism, neo-Confucianism and on magical-religious practices such as feng-shui.


Posted in Senza categoria |

00 Ikebana according to the Ohara school

references at the bottom of the page

The aim of this website is to arouse the curiosity of ikebanists by giving them a vision of Ikebana where its form is not separated from its meaning and to encourage the reader to go deeper into the themes presented here. Nowadays there is a general tendency in Western art  to appreciate the form for itself. The different compositions of ikebana are admired for the beauty of the plants used, forgetting that their position and direction, their choice and association, their size and their orientation, their thinning, all have a meaning because they are based on compositional rules that symbolize Shintoism, Taoism, classical and Zen Buddhism, feng-shui and neo-Confucianism.

Since the concept of divinity in Shintoism is found in natural elements, this allowed it to coexist with other value systems that have penetrated Japan from abroad: in the 7th century, Prince Shotoku Taishi, regent and nephew of Empress Suiko, said: “Shintoism is the trunk, Buddhism is the branches and Confucianism the leaves”.

Japanese culture has always shown a sort of syncretism by accepting the beneficial elements of different, and at times contrasting, religious value systems, making only the most convenient aspects of what was im The religious syncretism, is a characteristic feature of Japanese culture, we find it in ikebana because its compositional rules are based on symbols of various religions.

Only by knowing the history (and how it has influenced in the shaping of collective ways of thinking and in making some values something absolute) can we grasp the meanings of traditional Japanese arts in general and of ikebana in particular.

Otherwise knowledge will be shallow and limited to its exterior appearance.

Considering that most blogs or websites deal with the technique but not with the culture that underlies the understanding of an ikebana, the idea behind this blog is to give explanations that allow a deeper look at the many forms of ikebana, that is, an understanding of its structures and meanings. See art. 25°.

This site has been created to be consulted every time the ikebanist encounters a new theme that is little known to him/her or wants to deepen a theme that is known to him/her; by inserting words to be searched for in the white box at the top left, you can find all the essays concerning the theme searched for.


The author has no commercial interest in this blog.  Texts and images are personal or extracted from Internet; if their publication violates the copyright, the owner can communicate this by email and they will be immediately deleted.

Some references:


 Articles and seminar notes.

L’ikebana, filosofia, religione e teoria dei fiori

Ikebana pratico, together with Masanobu Kudō

Ikebana fiori viventi

Ikebana, quando i fiori diventano arte

Ikebana, l’arte meravigliosa di disporre i fiori

Corso di Ikebana, l’arte di disporre i fiori

By Jenny Banti-Pereira


Flower Arrangement, Art of Japan

By Mary Cokely Wood


The Mastery of Japanese Flower Arrangement

By Koshu Tsujii

The Masters`Book of Ikebana

By Sen`ei Ikenobo, Houn Ohara, Sofu Teshigahara


The Art of Japanese Flower Arrangement

The Way of Japanese Flower Arrangement

By A. Koehn


The Art of Flower Arrangement in Japan

By A. L. Sadler


The Theory of Japanese Flower Arrangements

The Flower of Japan and The Art of Floral Arrangement

By J. Conder


The Flower Art of Japan

Japanese Flower Arrangement

By Mary Averill


Japanese Floral Art: Symbolism, Cult and Practice

By Rachel Carr


Flower Arrangement: The Ikebana Way

By Minobu Ohi, Senei Ikenobō, Houn Ohara, Sofu Teshigahara


Paysage: un art, une école, un espace


By Martine Clément


The Joy of Ikenobo Ikebana 2011

Ikenobo Ikebana Basic Guide


Ikebana-related themes


Estetica del vuoto

Dieci lezioni sul buddhismo


By Pasqualotto Giangiorgio


L’ideale della Via,  Samurai, monaci e poeti nel Giappone medioevale

La cultura del Tè in Giappone

By Aldo Tollini


Il pensiero giapponese classico

By Massimo Raveri


Sources of Japanese Tradition, volume 1 and 2

By Theodore de Bary, D. Keene, George Tanabe, Paul Varley

Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art

By Ernest F. Fenollosa


Yin and Yang, l’armonia taoista degli opposti

By J. C. Cooper


Il Tao: la via dell’acqua che scorre

By Alan W. Watts


The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto

By Mary E. Berry


The World turned upside down

By Pierre F. Souyri


The Ideals of the East

By Akuzo Okakura


Samurai, i guerrieri dell’assoluto

By B. Marillier


Lo stile eroico, l’eroismo in Giappone

By Junyu Kitayama


La maschera del samurai

By Aude Fieschi


Zen and the fine Arts

By Shin’ichi Hisamatsu


Lo zen e l’arte di tirare di spada

By R. Kammer


The Japanese Arts and Self-cultivation

By Robert Carter


Bushido, l’anima del Giappone

By Inazō Nitobe


The Samurai and the sacred

By Sthephen Turnbull


KO-GI-KI, libro base dello shintoismo giapponese

By Mario Marega


Lo spirito delle arti marziali

By Dave Lowry


Lo Zen e la via della spada

By Winston L. King



By Kenji Tokitsu


La via del tiro con l’arco

By Paolo Villa


The Zen Arts

By Rupert Cox


Japanese Tea Culture, art, history and practice

Handmade Culture, Raku Potters, Patrons, and Tea Practitioners in Japan

By Morgan Pitelka


Rediscovering Rikyu and the Beginnings of the japaneseTea Ceremony

By Herbert Plutschow


An introduction to japanese tea ritual

By Jennifer L. Anderson


Tea culture of japan

By Sadako Ohki


Zen in the Art of Tea Ceremony

By Horst Hammitzsch


Lo spirito del Giappone

By Leonardo Vittorio Arena


Gli insegnamenti della pittura del giardino grande come un granello di senape

Edited by  Mai-Mai Sze


About Japanese aesthetics

By Donald Richie


La tradizione estetica giapponese

Dalla città ideale alla città virtuale  Estetica dello spazio urbano in Giappone e in Cina

By Laura Ricca


L’estetica giapponese moderna

By Marcello Ghilardi


Giappone, la strategia dell’invisibile

By Michel Random


I fiori del vuoto

By Giuseppe Jisō Forzani


The Origin of Japan’s Medioeval Word

Cultural Life of the Warrior Elite in the Fourteenth Century (Chapter 9)

edited by J.P. Mass  


Japan in the Muromachi Age

  1. by J.W. Hall and Toyoda Takeshi Ashikaga

Yoshimitsu and the World of Kytayama  (Chapter 12) By H. Paul Varley


Emperor and Aritocracy in Japan 1467-1680

By Lee Butler


The Japanese Way of the Flower: Ikebana as Moving Meditation

By H. E. Davey


Dizionari delle religioni: Taoismo

By Ester Bianchi


La mente giapponese

By Roger J. Davies e Osamu Ikeno


Themes in the History of Japanese Garden Art

Wybe Kuitert


Daimyo Gardens

By Shirahata Yozaburo


Book of Tea

By Kakuzo Okakura


TEA OF THE SAGES: The Art of Sencha

By Patricia J. Graham


San Sen Sou Moku, il giardino giapponese nella tradizione

By Sachimine Masui, Beatrice Testini


L’universo nel recinto, I fondamenti dell’arte dei giardini e dell’estetica tradizionale giapponese, І e 2

By Paola Di Felice


The Shogun’s City, a History of Tokyo

By Noël Nouët


Kaempfer’s Japan, Tokugawa Culture Observed edited, translated by B. M.

By Bordart-Bailey

The Origin of Japan’s Medioeval World

Courtiers, Clerics, Warriors and Peasants in the Fourteenth Century

Edited by Jeffry P. Mass



By Ernest Eitel


Modern Reader on the Chinese Classics of FLOWER ARRANGEMENT

By Zhang Qiande and Yuan Hongdao

Compiled by Li Xia


Cultivating Femininity  Women and tea Culture in Edo and Meiji Japan

By Rebecca Corbett


STORIA DEI SAMURAI E DEL BUJUTSU, nascita ed evoluzione dei bushi e delle loro arti nel Giappone feudale

By Roberto Granati


Storia del Giappone

By Kenneth Henshall


Senno (Ikenobō), on the Art of Flower Arrangement ( Chapter 5 ) in

Literary and Art Theories in Japan

By Makoto Ueda


The I Ching in Tokugawa Thought and Culture

By Wai-ming Ng


KAZARI Decoration and Display in Japan 15th-19th Centuries, 2002

edited by Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere


KAZARI L’arte di esporre il BONSAI e il SUISEKI, 2016

By Edoardo Rossi


Warlords, Artists and Commoners,

Japan in the XVI Century

edited by George Elison, Bardwell L. Smith


The politics of reclusion, painting and power in Momoyama Japan



Kire: il bello in giappone


Posted in Senza categoria |
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