Flower arranging in Japan became a cult: "Japanese historians claim for it an Indian and religious origin," Conder relates. "The same Buddhist doctrine which deprecated the wanton sacrifice of animal life is said to have suggested the gathering of flowers liable to rapid restruction in a tropical climate, and prolonging their life by careful preservation. The survival of such a theory would seem to show some form of art was first introduced [into. Japan] with the adoption of the Buddhist faith, and also as a pious pastime for priests. The religion of Buddha, as is well known, reached Japan through China in the VI Century, and certain Chinese priests are referred to as the first teachers of the art of arranging flowers in Japan. It also appears that the earliest native practitioners in this country were famous priests.
These primitive flower compositions were, however, of a more accidental and, at the same time, of a more extravagant character than those of the art as it became afterwards modified and developed. They partook more of the nature of a western bunch or nosegay, being crowded in arrangement and miscellaneous in substance, and without the severe conventionality of later methods.
An approach to symmetry was a governing feature of such compositions, the designers not having yet developed that less formal kind of balance discoverable in the modern style which is more in harmony with nature and admits of endless variety and form. Branches of blossoming trees or foliage were employed in their natural state without artificial bending or trimming to form a vertical central mass, and other flowers or bunches of foliage were disposed on either side in balancing groups.
The idea of imparting graceful and harmonious curves to the different lines of the composition was not yet developed. Unlike the later and more refined flower arrangements this early style was remarkable for the mixture of a variety of different materials. The lines of a composition, distinguished by such terms as centre, sub-centre, and support, were respectively formed of branches of different growth, some of which were in full leaf or flowers, and others purposely light and sparse in character.
Large leaves were used at the base or connection of these various branches, to hide their bareness below, and careful attention was given to the bends and curves of these leaves so as to reveal their front and back surfaces in a well-balanced contrast. Even in this comparatively early form of the art, the proportion which the floral composition held to the vessel which contained it was fixed by rule, a practice which was followed in all later arrangements. . . .
The arrangement of flowers has always been regarded in Japan as an occupation befitting learned men and literati. Ladies of the aristocracy have practiced it as they have other arts, but it is by no means considered an effeminate accomplishment. Priests, philosophers and men of rank who have retired from public life have been its most enthusiastic followers.
Mixed up with the theory of the art, and imparting to it at first sight an air of quaintness and mystery, is a considerable amount of Chinese philosophy, together with many traditional superstitions. Ideas of good and evil luck control both the selection of material and the manner of arrangements for special occasions. Various virtues are attributed to professors of the art, who are considered to belong to a sort of aristocracy of talent enjoying privileges to which they are not by birth entitled. Philosophical classifications are resorted to for the purpose of distinguishing the different parts of floral designs. Thus, Earth, Heaven, and Mankind are names given by some schools to members of a tri-lineal flower arrangement: Earth, Fire, Water, Metal and Wood being used in the same way to designate the parts of a five-lined arrangement. . . .
The lines or directions taken by the different stems or branches form the basis of all compositions. While European floral decorations are masses of colour, in which blossoms and leaves alone play a part, those of Japan are synthetic designs in line, in which every individual stem, flower, and leaf stands out distinctly silhouetted. . . . The surface of water in which the flowers are placed is technically considered to be the, soil from which the floral growth springs, and the designer here must convey the impression of stability and strength. However good the upper lines of the composition may be, a weak springing at the base deprives it of life and vigor, for it must be remembered that not flowers alone but floral growth and vitality are to be expressed in designs. The direction of the stems at starting need not be strictly vertical, but, if curved, the curves should be strong ones and all weak bends and angles should be avoided. As a composition consists of several main lines, there will be several lines of springing or origin. In some cases the springing lines are all united from the surface of the water to some distance above, after which they separate in tangential curves in different directions. In other cases each stem line is kept distinct, being separated from the others from the point of origin.
In the distribution of the principal lines of composition from the point of their separation, the artist studiously avoids an equal-sided or symmetrical arrangement but he obtains a balance of a more subtle kind, which is at the same time productive of a pleasing variety of form. Balance and harmony without repetition is a governing principle in this as well as in other Japanese arts. The lines of each stem, or in cases where numerous stems are combined, the central lines of each group of stems receive attention.
The Japanese strictly prohibit certain practices in arrangements. One is "cross cutting," in which two or more lines give the appearance of intersecting one another. Another is "parallelism," which occurs when two or more adjacent stems or branches are exactly parallel to each other. This fault is aggravated when the parallel stems or branches also are of the same length.
Lattice cutting," also forbidden, is an exaggerated form of "cross cutting," which appears when several parallel stems cross so as to suggest lattice work. Another fatal error is the "double streamer," or drooped branch, used on both sides of the same composition. Such rules are intended to prevent harsh, conflicting or redundant effects and to be productive of harmony of line.
When herbaceous plant material and woody plant material are used together, the Japanese forbid a specimen of one type to be sandwiched between two specimens of the other. For example, a single iris must never stand between a branch of azalea and a branch of camellia, nor may a branch of camellia or azalea be used between two irises. This ban is based on a combination of lore and logic, and apparently was prompted by a desire to avoid weak, insipid arrangements. The Japanese regard herbaceous plants as female and woody plants as male, since the former are weaker than the latter. A slender stem of a herbaceous plant, flanked by branches of a woody plant, would create an effect of weakness in the centre, while two stems of a herbaceous plant flanking a branch of a shrub or tree would produce an impression of too much strength at the centre and weakness at the sides. The correct grouping would be a stem of a herbaceous plant with two branches of a woody plant beside it, or a branch with two herbaceous stems alongside.