Bonsai: The Art of Miniature Tree Cultivation

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Over the last several decades, Japan’s global influence has only grown as people around the world have become increasingly interested in everything Japanese, from cuisine to a diverse art forms to even fashion. These aspects including anime and manga however, represent only a fraction of a culture that is infinitely rich and sometimes inexplicably complex. Travelers in Japan these days learn early enough that it is away from the bright lights, bustling streets and soaring skyscrapers of the big cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and places like Yokohama; that a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of Japanese culture can be found. One way to find that is through one of Japan’s more quaint and subtle art forms: bonsai.

Definition and Meaning

Bon-sai Japanese character

The word “Bon-sai” (often misspelled as bonzai or banzai) is a Japanese term which, literally translated, means “planted in a container”. This art form is derived from an ancient Chinese horticultural practice, part of which was then redeveloped under the influence of Japanese Zen Buddhism. The Chinese characters for their older dwarf potted tree landscapes were adopted to name the Japanese art-form. In short, the definition of Bonsai can be explained as:

“Bon” is a dish or thin bowl (“a modified vessel which has been divided or cut down from a deeper form”).

“Sai” is a tree or other growing plant which is planted – “planted,” as would be a halberd or spear or pike stuck into the ground.

“Bonsai” therefore means or denotes “a tree which is planted in a shallow container”.

Curiously enough, the term Bonsai depicts both the art form and the object of the art itself, which serves as the explanation so as to why all Bonsai trees are called that way. The primary purpose of the art of Bonsai resides in the practice of cultivating miniature trees in small containers and shaping and directing their growth in the long-term in order to make it aesthetically perfect to the eyes of the gardener. By doing so, the gardener seeks to elicit a sense of wonder and wholeness on both the viewer that contemplates the Bonsai tree as well on the self.

History of Bonsai

Although the word ‘Bon-sai’ is Japanese, the art it describes has its origin in the Chinese empire. By the year 700 AD, the Chinese had started the art of ‘pun-sai’ using special techniques to grow dwarf trees in containers.

In what is now called China,  shallow basins or flattened bowls – “pen” or “pan” or “pun” – had been made out of earthenware since about 5,000 years ago. A thousand years later during the Chinese Bronze Age, for religious and political ceremonies these were among the chosen shapes to be recreated in bronze. About 2,300 years ago, the Chinese Five Agents Theory (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth) generated the idea of the potency of replicas in miniature. By recreating a mountain, for example, on a reduced scale, a student could focus on its magical properties and gain access to them. The further the reproduction was in size from the original, the more magically potent it was likely to be. Two hundred years later, importations of new aromatics and incenses took place under the Han Emperor because of newly opened trading with its neighbors. A new type of vessel was created, incense burners in the form of the mountain peaks which rose above the waves and symbolized the abodes of the Immortals, the then-popular idea of the mythic ‘Islands of the Blessed’.

From about the year 706 AD came the tomb paintings for Crown Prince Zhang Huai, which included depictions of two ladies-in-waiting offering miniature rockery landscapes with small plants in shallow dishes. By this time there were the earliest written descriptions of these pun wan – tray playthings. The earliest collected and then containerized trees are believed to have been peculiarly shaped and twisted specimens from the wilds. These were “sacred” as opposed to “profane” because the trees could not be used for any practical, ordinary purposes such as lumber. Over the centuries, different regional styles would be developed throughout the large country with its many varied landscapes; earthenware and ceramic containers would replace the porcelain ones displayed on wooden stands; and attempts would be made to shape the trees with bamboo frameworks or brass wire or lead strips. Many poets and writers each made at least one description of trees and/or mountainous miniature landscapes, and many painters included a dwarfed potted tree as a symbol of a cultivated man’s lifestyle. After the 16th century, these were called “pun tsai” or “tray planting.” The term pun Ching (“tray landscape,” now called Penjing) didn’t actually come into usage until the 17th century.

Miniature landscape from Gothaer Penjing Album, Canton, c.1800

Miniature landscape from Gothaer Penjing Album, Canton, c.1800, for export to Europe.

It is believed that the first tray landscapes were brought from China to Japan at least twelve hundred years ago as religious souvenirs. The first graphic portrayals of these in Japan were not made until about eight hundred years ago. The Chinese culture fascinated the Japanese, and at some point, the Chinese Chan Buddhism was also imported and became Zen Buddhism in Japan. Finding beauty in severe austerity, Zen monks – with fewer land forms as a model — developed their tray landscapes along certain lines so that a single tree in a pot could represent the universe. The Japanese pots were generally deeper than those from the mainland, and the resulting gardening form was called hachi-no-ki, literally, the bowl’s tree. Everyone from the military leader shoguns to ordinary peasant people grew some form of tree or azalea in a pot or abalone shell. By the late eighteenth century, a show for traditional pine dwarf potted trees was begun to be held annually in the capital city of Kyoto.

Around the year 1800, a group of scholars of the Chinese arts gathered near the city of Osaka to discuss recent styles in miniature trees. Their dwarf trees were renamed as “Bonsai” (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term pun-tsai) in order to differentiate them from the ordinary hachi-no-ki, bon or pen now became shallower than the Hachi bowl and bonsai was now seen as a matter of design, the craft approach replacing the religious/mythical approach of tradition. Different sizes and styles were developed over the next century; catalogs and books about the trees, tools, and pots were published; some early formal shows were held. Copper and iron wire replaced hemp fibers for shaping the trees. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated the Tokyo area in 1923, a group of thirty families of professional growers resettled twenty miles away in Omiya and set up what would become the center of Japanese Bonsai culture; Omiya Bonsai village.

The long recovery from the Pacific War saw Bonsai become mature and cultivated as an important native art. Apprenticeship programs, greater numbers of shows, books and magazines, and classes for foreigners spread the knowledge. The use of custom power tools matched with an intricate knowledge of plant physiology allowed a few masters to move from the craft approach to a truly artistic-designing phase of the art.

Recently, Bonsai – seen too often as just a tired pastime for the elderly – now even has a version becoming popular among the younger generation with easy-to-care-for mini-trees and landscapes, unwired and wilder-looking, using native plants.

Bonsai Tree Care and Cultivation

One of the main aspects which is essential when it comes to cultivating and taking care of them, is that Bonsai are not and neither can be treated as just small plants. Bonsai are trees and therefore require different growing methods than plants. Bonsai gardeners are needed to focus on every aspect of their Bonsai trees, ranging from obvious ones like controlling the size and shape of the trees, to minuscule ones like the way the first seedlings and cuttings are to be shaped.

All Bonsai start with the acquisition of a source plant, which tends to be usually of a certain age in order for the Bonsai to show its renowned “aged” look in a reasonable amount of time. This source plant will need a special type of soil, as well as a small pot in order to start growing. Here are the most important aspects of growing Bonsai.

Bonsai Techniques

As mentioned above, one of the most important elements of growing a Bonsai is its style and its overall design. There are many techniques which can be used to give a Bonsai any particular style, and which gardeners choose from in order to fulfill their vision of how they want their Bonsai to look.

  • Leaf trimming: This signifies the removal of specific leaves or needles from the trunk and branches of the Bonsai.
  • Pruning: This technique is used to take care of all the elements of the Bonsai tree, including trunk, branches and roots.
  • Wiring: This is one of the most important techniques for growing Bonsai, since it is used by the gardener to define the overall form of the Bonsai, as well as to direct the placement of branches and leaves.
  • Clamping: Here gardeners use mechanical instruments to further control the shape of all the elements of their Bonsai.
  • Defoliation: This technique is used mostly on deciduous species in order to achieve the short-term dwarfing of their foliage.
  • Deadwood techniques: These are employed only by skillful deciduous gardeners and help the trees achieve a simulated maturity.

Bonsai Tools & Materials

The first material that one needs to get in order to start growing Bonsai is the tree specimen itself, followed by a clay pot and a specific type of soil. After those, the most important tools or growing Bonsai are:

  • A traditional leaf cutter with a long handle for pruning branches.
  • A long shear, for medium-sized branches.
  • Butterfly shear, for pruning small branches as well as roots.
  • A small shear for tree defoliation
  • Small and large knob cutter for creating deep, hollow wounds on the Bonsai
  • Small concave cutter that helps with the pruning of medium-sized branches.
  • Large Bonsai concave cutter to prune large branches.
  • Wire cutter.
  • Jin tool.
  • Rake w/ Spatula.
  • Root-hook that helps re-potting Bonsai trees.
  • Copper brush, for trunk cleaning.
  • Cocos brush, for cleaning ground surfaces.
  • Trunk benders.
Bonsai Tree Tools & Supplies

Examples of Tools Mentioned Above.

Bonsai Tree Style & Shaping

This size difference has a significant impact on a Bonsai’s maturation, nutrition, pest resistance and many other aspects of their biology, all of which in turn makes tending for their long-term health considerably difficult than  performing any other gardening task. This is why some special care techniques are necessary to grow a Bonsai. Here are some of them.

  • Watering: Watering must be done in regular intervals, but it will depend highly on the specific requirements of each Bonsai species.
  • Re-potting: This must be done at regular intervals as well, and in this case the frequency is to be dictated by the specific resistance and age of each tree.
  • Tools: Use of the appropriate tools when taking care of a Bonsai is essential.
  • Soil: Although soil composition is usually the same for the vast majority of Bonsai, some particular species require specific compositions, so gardeners are advised to learn about this beforehand.
  • Indoor survival: As is the case with the soil, while some species of Bonsai can easily survive inside a house, some that can’t, which makes it very important that gardeners learn as much as they can about their specific Bonsai trees.


The Aesthetics of Bonsai Trees

As has been mentioned already, the essence of Bonsai resides in its aesthetics and in what they try to convey to both the viewer and the gardener.

In the Japanese culture of old, to which the Bonsai owes almost all of its characteristics, the influence of Zen Buddhism was tremendous, and most of its philosophy filtered down to even the most menial tasks, which evident in the art of Bonsai. Two of the most important elements of the Zen philosophy to have heavily influenced Bonsai gardeners and their aesthetic style are the Japanese concepts of Mono no Aware and Wabi-Sabi.

The term ”Mono no Aware” was coined in the 18th century by the Edo period Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga who used it in his literary criticism of  The Tale of Genji and was later applied to other seminal Japanese works including the Man’yōshū. It became central to his philosophy of literature and eventually to Japanese cultural tradition. The phrase is derived from the Japanese word ”mono”, which means “thing”, and ”aware” , which was a Heian period expression of measured surprise (similar to “ah” or “oh”), translating roughly as “pathos”, “poignancy”, “deep feeling”, “sensitivity”, or “awareness”. Therefore, mono no aware has often been translated as “the ‘ah-ness’ of things”, life, and love. We can try to describe it as “a sensitivity to ephemera”, which denotes a sense of awareness for the fragility and impermanence of things. Awareness of the transience of all things heightens the appreciation of their beauty, which in turn serves to evoke a gentle sadness at their passing. In his criticism of The Tale of Genji Motoori noted that mono no aware is the crucial emotion that moves readers.

‘Birds and Flowers of Spring and Summer’ by Kano Eino; Suntory Museum of Art

On the other hand, ”Wabi-sabi” is a concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics constituting a world view which is centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. This concept is derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering,  and emptiness or absence of self-nature. . ”Wabi” originally referred to the loneliness of life in nature, remote from society, while ”sabi”  meant “chill”, “lean” or “withered”. Around the 14th century these meanings began to take a more positive form. Wabi” now denotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to anomalies arising from the process of construction, which in turn adds uniqueness and elegance to the object. ”Sabi”  is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs. Around 700 years ago, understanding emptiness and imperfection was honored as essential for the first step to satori, or enlightenment. In today’s Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to “wisdom in natural simplicity.” In art books, it is typically defined as “flawed beauty.” From an engineering or design point of view, ”wabi” may be interpreted as the imperfect quality of any object, due to inevitable limitations in design and construction, while ”sabi” could be interpreted as the aspect of imperfect reliability, or limited mortality of any object, hence the phonological and etymological connection with the Japanese word “sabi”, to rust.

Image result for wabi sabi garden

Wabi Sabi Garden

Together, both concepts define the aesthetic value of Bonsai as something imperfect and temporary, but beautiful because of that, which is exactly the feeling that Bonsai gardeners strive to convey with their miniature trees. Of course, with time this has translated more into a series of guidelines than into rules themselves, which is why even when complying with all of them, different gardeners achieve radically different-looking Bonsai, and not every time their specimen achieve their full potential. These guidelines are as follows.

  • Miniaturization: Bonsai trees should be small enough to fit in a small pot or container.
  • Proportion among elements: The proportions of a Bonsai should resemble those of a “traditional” tree.
    Asymmetry: Bonsai should not be perfectly symmetrical, since this is not the case in nature itself.
  • No traces: Gardeners should take care of not leaving any scar or sign of their intervention in growing the Bonsai.
  • Poignancy: As mentioned above, the Bonsai should convey a feeling of nostalgia and beauty.

The Importance of the Display of Bonsai

Displaying Bonsai is regarded by gardeners just as important part of the process as any other. The reason being that here is where they display their Bonsai’s’ aesthetics in the way which is a cause for pleasure to both them and the audience. It is the artist portraying his particular vision.

First of all,  Bonsai have a “front” side which gardeners try to emphasize when showing their Bonsai. Another aspect is the height at which it is displayed, which is quite essential. With this, gardeners will have to find the perfect balance of height in order to show their Bonsai in such a way that the viewers will have the impression of looking at a real tree from the distance. This makes the aspect of balance essential because placing the bonsai too high or low would cause its effect to be broken completely.

While displaying the Bonsai outdoors, gardeners have to take extreme  care in avoiding excessive amounts of sunlight, wind and water, as well as sticking to simple display components of either stone or wood. In similar fashion, the background and even the distance have to be considered.

In general, most experts agree that Bonsai should be displayed as any other piece of art would: devoid of any accessories or other redundancies and with appropriate lighting and in a clean, minimal and distraction-free environment.

Popular Bonsai Trees Styles and Specimen

While Bonsai in general can be a very straightforward discipline when it comes to its guidelines and principles, there is an unexpected variety of styles in which gardeners choose how to shape their Bonsai. Here are the most representative ones.

  • Formal upright (chokkan): A Bonsai with straight tapering trunk.
  • Informal upright (moyogi): A Bonsai that grows mostly straight upwards but that shows slight curves.
  • Slanting (shakan): These are Bonsai with trunks that are straight, but that come out of the soil already at an angle.
  • Semi-cascade and Cascade (han-kengai & kengai): Two of the most beautiful styles. Molded after trees that grow over cascades or at the sides of mountains. In these styles the tip of the Bonsai bends over and even falls below the base of the pot.
  • Raft (ikadabuki): Bonsai with sinuous or slanting trunks.
  • Literati (bunjin-gi): A Bonsai which branches have been reduced to a minimum.
  • Forest (yose-ue): As its name states, this style encompasses many trees, which together should resemble a small forest.

Other less common styles include the windswept style (fukinagashi), the weeping style (shidare-zukuri), the split-trunk (sabamiki), and the driftwood (saramiki) style.

Illustration of Major Bonsai Types – from Bonsai Empire

Bonsai in Japan

Of course we have only begun to scratch the surface of the unbelievably complex world of bonsai. Digging a little deeper reveals how aspects such as pot shape, color and size converge with what is known as negative, static and dynamic space to alter the overall aesthetic of different bonsai according to the desired effect.

There is probably nowhere better to experience the art of bonsai in Japan than the Omiya Bonsai Village. Located in the tranquil neighborhood of Saitama Prefecture, the village is just one hour from downtown Tokyo. Set up in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake when nurseries were forced to relocate from central Tokyo, the village is a collection of privately run nurseries which have been owned and maintained by the same families for generations.


The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum.


Bonsai at Kyuka-en. The largest bonsai in this photo are around 300 years old, and formerly owned by the Imperial family. ©TOKI


For anyone considering venturing into the wonderful art of Bonsai, all of the above should provide an idea of how much time, care and effort this discipline demands. However, the rewards for those who are willing to invest the necessary time and care can be priceless. This is particularly because the practice of growing Bonsai signifies far more than just the time and efforts invested, the same way as meditating means much more than just staying quiet.

Whether it’s in a famous garden or simply in a friend’s home, bonsai represents a unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Japanese culture, and even reflect on different cultures’ standards of beauty.

We hope that this short introduction to Bonsai has helped give you a new appreciation for a widely known, but perhaps not clearly understood Japanese tradition.




Daryl (pseudonym), Senior Editor & Co-founder at Nihonden. Working behind the curtain mostly; doing quality checks and editing articles, but his efficacy at writing full-blown research pieces cannot be veiled.