Bonsai in Japan



The Japanese Art of Bonsai has a long and varied history – one that is difficult to outline with any true specificity. But it is also one that may be traced to prehistoric origins and influences on the island nation of Japan. Although substantive historical written and pictorial evidence suggests that bonsai was imported to Japan sometime during either the Nara (710-794 CE) or Heian (794-1185 CE) periods via China as potted plants known as penzai, the modern-day Art of Bonsai is, in truth, intrinsically Japanese and ultimately developed through influences of Japanese prehistoric origins.

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The intrinsic love of nature often ascribed to Japan and its people is commonly attributed to the Shinto religion, a type of “nature worship,” though the roots of both Shinto itself and the poignant sentiment towards nature may be further and more accurately traced back in the nation’s history – more specifically to the founding of an agrarian-based culture in Japan nearly 2000 years ago. Shinto (“The Way of the Gods”) is considered the indigenous national religion of Japan and was likely engendered in conjunction with the transition of Japanese society from a primarily hunter/gatherer setting to a more sedentary, agrarian culture sometime during the Yayoi period (300 BCE – 300 CE), at or around the time of the introduction of rice farming from the main Asian continent.

With this transition to an agriculturally-based society, it can be assumed that “the customs (of the Yayoi period) were of a kind common to most settled agrarian people, whose worship is largely concerned with fertility and the preservation of crops and therefore with the propitiations of the powers of nature” (Sansom, p. 24). What began as crop-related rites and rituals performed in the earliest periods of Japan’s agrarian culture are widely regarded as the origin of what later developed into the Shinto religion, or the reverence/worship of natural elements, such as stones, waterfalls, trees, etc, as the abodes of deities. In fact, many of these crop-related rituals are still practiced in contemporary Japan, often in the form of festivals (matsuri) performed at various locations and times throughout the year. In addition, this “nature-worship” undoubtedly influenced the overall nationalistic sentiment of the appreciation of untamed natural locations of beauty, and later, the physical control and containment of nature as exemplified in bordered gardens as well as bonsai art.

During the Yayoi (300 BCE-300 CE) and Kofun (300-538 CE) periods, man-made bound ropes, known as shime-nawa, were often used to aid in the marking of territorial boundaries and were later used to delineate natural abodes of Shinto deities (even today, shime-nawa ropes can often be seen wrapped around trees and stones considered places of Shinto worship).  According to historian and long-time Kyoto resident Gunter Nitschke, these shime-nawa boundary ropes were likely one of the first mastered trades by the Japanese of the Yayoi epoch. He also attributes this early form of binding to the Japanese’ intrinsic love of binding and miniaturizing, particularly of plant material. “The Japanese fascination, indeed obsession with binding, manipulating and even crippling plants for gardens or miniature landscapes thus has its roots in a cultural phenomenon (shime-nawa rope binding) dating back literally thousands of years” (Nitschke, p. 18).

The practice of rope-binding was later used in the manipulation of plant material found in the gardens of the Heian aristocracy in early Kyoto (794-1185 CE). Branches were often bent and trained into various forms using rope and twine bound in the same manner as the Yayoi period shime-nawa ropes – a practice still in place in contemporary Japan. Not only were these techniques employed with larger garden material, but also with early bonsai art, likely dating from the same Heian period. In fact, the use of string and bound rope to manipulate branch placement on bonsai material was common practice until the 20th century when the advent of copper and aluminum wire replaced the need for rope and other such materials in bonsai design and maintenance.



The first written references to bonsai in Japan are found in the waka-style poetry of the Heian period (794-1185 CE). These poems were composed by Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto) aristocrats and typically dealt with the appreciation of nature, both in the untamed setting and in reference to the gardens contained within aristocratic residences around the city of Kyoto. “Such potted plants (bonsai) were also used for senzai-awase, a contest in which aristocrats competed at arranging wild plants and then composing waka poems in praise of their designs” (Conan). These poetry competitions became common practice during this particular period and were often held within the gardens of Heian-kyo aristocrats.

Japan’s relations with the Chinese continent stretch back to the Yayoi period (300 BCE-300 CE), as noted in the Wei Dynasty Chronicles of China.  It was during this particular period that new agricultural techniques and products, including wet rice farming, were imported to Japan.  Over the successive centuries, throughout the Kofun, Asuka, and Nara eras (300-794 CE), importation of mainland practices and products steadily increased, reaching an apex in the early Heian period (794-1185 CE).  It was during the Nara epoch and into the Heian era that plant material used for aesthetic purposes was first introduced from China to Japan – most notably, the importation of Flowering Apricot species (Prunus mume).  

At that particular time in Japanese history, anything and everything of continental (i.e. Chinese) origin was considered of a high-class nature and was adopted, in essence, without question.  Prunus mume were quickly taken up as the subject of poetry, particularly by the aristocracy, and were in fact even more highly regarded than the native Japanese Cherry species.  “The Manyo waka anthology, compiled during the Nara period, has 118 poems referring to apricots and only 42 referring to cherry blossoms” (Conan).  The significance of the importation of Flowering Apricot species is that other plant material cultivated for aesthetic purposes, including bonsai (pen-zai), were likely also imported to Japan via China during this same period.  

In fact, the introduction of bonsai art to Japan can be more accurately identified as having occurred sometime between the Nara period (710-794 CE) and the first 100 years of the Heian era (794-894 CE), as wholesale importation of continental materials and practices reached its zenith during this period.  This includes records of plant importation such as Prunus mume as well as imported Chinese garden design practices.  In addition, Japan officially severed relations with China and the mainland in 894 CE and effectively retracted into a 300 year state of isolation, during which all previously imported ideas and practices were, in essence, reinterpreted and redesigned based on intrinsically Japanese ideals.  The references to bonsai art in the waka-style poetry mentioned previously were also transmitted during this period of isolation between 894 and 1185 CE, thus further suggesting that bonsai (pen-zai) was imported to Japan prior to 894 CE.



Following World War II, periods of marked interest in particular species, styles, and sizes spawned renewed national interest in bonsai art in Japan. Aside from the satsuki boom of the 1960s and 70s, the late 70s and early 80s for example saw a major increase in the popularity of formal upright Black and White Pines. By the 1980s, the general interest in bonsai art had reached its peak, growing in concert with the economy that filled to bubble status by the late 80s and burst by the early 90s. The growth and expansion of Japan’s economy and the increase in popularity of bonsai led to major developments in bonsai design and maintenance techniques.

Why, you might ask?  Simply put – market competition spawned from the increase (of funds and number) of clientele during the bubble economy.  The growth in bonsai-related interest and business inevitably brought new entrants into the market.  This, in turn, forced the hand of product differentiation, which in bonsai art came in the form of an increase in (perceived) quality of design.  There were two notable changes in bonsai design during this period – the “Rolls-Royce” effect and the use of wire for detail and refinement.

The first of these design shifts was a direct reflection of the rapidly improving economic state of Japan.  With the increase in monetary fund availability in Japan came the inevitable notion that bigger is better.  In the bonsai art of the 1980s, this was reflected in the physical size of the plant material and, perhaps more interestingly, in the amount of foliage retained on any given plant when exhibited.  Many clients of this period preferred to exhibit their bonsai in a state of foliar capacity, almost as a representation or reflection of the “fullness” of the Japanese economy.  Bonsai, particularly Japanese White and Black Pines, were trained as large, singular foliage masses, lacking any design definition.  Many professionals in Japan refer to this as the “Rolls-Royce” effect, and although brief, it marked a definitive period in Japanese bonsai art.

The second of these shifts in design preferences, and perhaps the most notable and lasting, was that of detail wiring of plant material, particularly needled evergreen species, for exhibition during the 1980s.  If one compares, for example, the bonsai featured in the 50th Kokufu-ten Exhibition album of 1976 to those in the 60th album from 1986, there is a marked difference in the detail of styling and design.  Those in the former appear less kempt, and by some standards more natural, while the bonsai featured in the latter appear much more “detailed, streamlined, and perfect,” according to Minoru Fujikawa.  This visible change in the formality of design in the 1980s marked the shift into what is commonly referred to in Japan as “Gendai Bonsai,” or contemporary bonsai art.

Although this change in design approach was recent, particularly in comparison to the depth of bonsai art history, the styling of bonsai in modern Japan is shifting once again, as many contemporary artists are reverting to former styling approaches, seeking more “natural,” less formalized designs.  This shift in general “artistic tendencies” may perhaps be partly explained by the reduction of market competition and clientele as a result of the current domestic and global economic situation (i.e. an exact opposite reaction as to what occurred in the bubble economy of the 80s).  Of course, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact cause for these changes, though one certainty does exist – bonsai art in Japan will continue to see waves of change in tastes and preferences, indefinitely.



Japan’s Economy in the Twentieth Centry –

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