The Art & Philosophy of Bonsai

We all know what to think of when we hear the term bon­sai: dwarf trees. Or so Shi­nobu Noza­ki titled his book, the very first major pub­li­ca­tion on the sub­ject in Eng­lish. Dwarf Trees came out in the 1930s, not long after the Japan­ese art of bon­sai start­ed draw­ing seri­ous inter­na­tion­al atten­tion. But the art itself goes back as far as the sixth cen­tu­ry, when Japan­ese embassy employ­ees and stu­dents of Bud­dhism return­ing from sojourns in Chi­na brought back all the lat­est things Chi­nese, includ­ing plants grow­ing in con­tain­ers. By six or sev­en cen­turies lat­er, as scrolls show us today, Japan had tak­en that hor­ti­cul­tur­al tech­nique and refined it into a prac­tice based on not just minia­tur­iza­tion but pro­por­tion, asym­me­try, poignan­cy, and era­sure of the artist’s traces, one that pro­duces the kind of trees-in-minia­ture we rec­og­nize as art­works, and even mas­ter­works, today.

It hard­ly needs say­ing that bon­sai trees don’t take shape by them­selves. As the name, which means “tray plant­i­ng” (盆栽), sug­gests, a work of bon­sai must begin by plant­i­ng a spec­i­men in a small con­tain­er. From then on, it demands dai­ly atten­tion in not just the pro­vi­sion of the prop­er amounts of water and sun­light but also care­ful trim­ming and adjust­ment with trim­mers, hooks, wire, and every­thing else in the bon­sai cul­ti­va­tor’s sur­pris­ing­ly large suite of tools.

You can see a Japan­ese mas­ter of the art named Chi­ako Yamamo­to in action in “Bon­sai: The End­less Rit­u­al,” the BBC Earth Unplugged video at the top of the post. “Shap­ing nature in this way demands ever­last­ing devo­tion with­out the prospect of com­ple­tion,” says its nar­ra­tor, a point under­scored by one bon­sai under Yamamo­to’s care, orig­i­nal­ly plant­ed by her grand­fa­ther over a cen­tu­ry ago.

You’ll find even old­er bon­sai at the Nation­al Bon­sai Muse­um at the U.S. Nation­al Arbore­tum in Wash­ing­ton D.C. In the video “Bon­sai Will Make You a Bet­ter Per­son,” cura­tor Jack Sus­tic — an Amer­i­can first exposed to bon­sai in the mil­i­tary, while sta­tioned in Korea — shows off a Japan­ese white pine “in train­ing” since the year 1625. That unusu­al ter­mi­nol­o­gy reflects the fact that no work of bon­sai even attains a state of com­plete­ness. “They’re always grow­ing,” say Sus­tic. “They’re always chang­ing. It’s nev­er a fin­ished art­work.” In Nation­al Geo­graph­ic’s “Amer­i­can Shokunin” just above, the tit­u­lar bon­sai cul­ti­va­tor (shokunin has a mean­ing sim­i­lar to “crafts­man” or “arti­san”), Japan-trained, Ore­gon-based Ryan Neil, expands on what bon­sai teach­es: not just how to artis­ti­cal­ly grow small trees that resem­ble big ones, but what it takes to com­mune with nature and attain mas­tery.

“A mas­ter is some­body who, every sin­gle day, tries to pur­sue per­fec­tion at their cho­sen endeav­or,” says Neil. “A mas­ter does­n’t retire. A mas­ter does­n’t stop. They do it until they’re dead.” And as a work of bon­sai lit­er­al­ly out­lives its cre­ator, the pur­suit con­tin­ues long after they’re dead. The bon­sai mas­ter must be aware of the aes­thet­ic and philo­soph­i­cal val­ues held by the gen­er­a­tions who came before them as well as the gen­er­a­tions that will come after. Wabi sabi, as bon­sai prac­ti­tion­er Pam Woythal defines it, is “the Japan­ese art of find­ing beau­ty in imper­fec­tion and pro­fun­di­ty in nature, of accept­ing the nat­ur­al cycle of growth, decay, and death.” Shibu­mi (or in its adjec­ti­val form shibui) is, in the words of I Am Bon­sai’s Jonathan Rodriguez, “the sim­ple sub­tle details of the sub­ject,” man­i­fest for exam­ple in “the appar­ent sim­ple tex­ture that bal­ances sim­plic­i­ty and com­plex­i­ty.” Looked at cor­rect­ly, a bon­sai tree — leaves, branch­es, pot, and all — reminds us of the impor­tant ele­ments of life and the impor­tant ele­ments of art, and of the fact that those ele­ments aren’t as far apart as we assume.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

This 392-Year-Old Bon­sai Tree Sur­vived the Hiroshi­ma Atom­ic Blast & Still Flour­ish­es Today: The Pow­er of Resilience

Kintsu­gi: The Cen­turies-Old Japan­ese Craft of Repair­ing Pot­tery with Gold & Find­ing Beau­ty in Bro­ken Things

The Philo­soph­i­cal Appre­ci­a­tion of Rocks in Chi­na & Japan: A Short Intro­duc­tion to an Ancient Tra­di­tion

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

Dis­cov­er the Japan­ese Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed to Col­lect­ing Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

Watch Japan­ese Wood­work­ing Mas­ters Cre­ate Ele­gant & Elab­o­rate Geo­met­ric Pat­terns with Wood

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Peter Kings says:

    Thank you
    You have giv­en me won­der­ful insight into the art of Bon­sai.

    Peter Kings

  • Jon says:


    1. Bon­sai is not an art form
    2. If you have a basic knowl­edge of plants and pot­ting them, then you are on your way.
    3. Buy a pot, get a plant, give it a go.
    4. You will not end up with an ancient trea­sure, but you will enjoy it.
    5. I have been doing bon­sai for more than forty years, they look good and I enjoy them.
    7. Have fun involve your fam­i­ly enjoy.


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