What Makes the Art of Bonsai So Expensive?: $1 Million for a Bonsai Tree, and $32,000 for Bonsai Scissors

Dur­ing the past year’s stretch­es of time at home, quite a few of us have attempt­ed to intro­duce more plant life into our sur­round­ings. By some accounts, indoor gar­den­ing ranks among the most cost-effec­tive ways of increas­ing the qual­i­ty of one’s domes­tic life. But those of us who get too deep into it (aggres­sive pur­suit of inter­ests being a known char­ac­ter­is­tic of Open Cul­ture read­ers) may find them­selves get­ting more than they bar­gained for, or at any rate pay­ing more than they intend­ed to, espe­cial­ly if they go down the road of bon­sai. Though it has its ori­gins in the Chi­nese prac­tice of pen­zai, one must look to Japan to find the prac­ti­tion­ers who have made the great­est invest­ments in the art of grow­ing pro­por­tion­al­ly impec­ca­ble dwarf trees — invest­ments of time and mon­ey both.

Buy­ing a mature work of bon­sai can cost up to near­ly one mil­lion U.S. dol­lars, accord­ing to the episode above of Busi­ness Insid­er’s “So Expen­sive” series. That was the price of one tree at the 2012 Inter­na­tion­al Bon­sai Con­ven­tion, but oth­ers have received val­u­a­tions near­ly as impres­sive. This reflects the enor­mous amount of labor a prop­er bon­sai demands: not just dai­ly water­ing, but “years of prun­ing, wiring, repot­ting and graft­ing,” as the nar­ra­tor puts it.

“Many of these tech­niques require years to mas­ter, and any errors made can result in per­ma­nent­ly ruin­ing the shape, or even killing a plant that has been grow­ing for cen­turies.” The work of bon­sai is the work of gen­er­a­tions, a fact embod­ied by Chieko Yamamo­to, the fourth-gen­er­a­tion bon­sai mas­ter shown explain­ing the pur­suit in which she’s spent more than half a cen­tu­ry.

Even Yamamo­to’s rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple-look­ing bon­sai have tak­en fif­teen, per­haps 25 years to take their shape. When exe­cut­ing a new idea, she must wait about five years just to see how it turns out, and the out­come isn’t always to her sat­is­fac­tion. “There are no imme­di­ate answers,” she says, “so I need to live a long life to see the results.” Bon­sai has on its side the famous longevi­ty of the Japan­ese pop­u­la­tion, as well as the equal­ly famous ded­i­ca­tion of Japan­ese civ­i­liza­tion to cul­ti­vat­ing mas­ter crafts­man­ship. But even so, the now-dimin­ish­ing num­ber of bon­sai busi­ness­es aggra­vates an already severe lim­i­ta­tion of sup­ply ver­sus demand, and the trade itself has cer­tain for­mi­da­ble bar­ri­ers to entry. “The bon­sai parts and the tools are often hand­made,” says the Busi­ness Insid­er video’s nar­ra­tor, “and can cost thou­sands of dol­lars them­selves.”

In the case of Sasuke scis­sors, pro­filed in the Great Big Sto­ry doc­u­men­tary short just above, they can cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars. In his shop of that name out­side Osa­ka, black­smith Yasuhi­ro Hira­ka — a fifth-gen­er­a­tion scis­sor­mak­er, and the last of his kind in Japan — works for a week or longer, ten hours a day, just to make one pair. A stan­dard mod­el runs about $1,100 and a deluxe one costs more than $32,000, but a full-fledged bon­sai mas­ter can­not set­tle for less. “I nev­er thought I would be able to have them,” says one such adept, Masakazu Yoshikawa, of his first Sasuke scis­sors. “It was very emo­tion­al.” But the mere act of tak­ing them in hand, he adds, “makes me want to make good bon­sai.” For Hiraka’s part, he says, after 50 years of scis­sor-mak­ing, “I final­ly think I am start­ing to reach my peak.” As we West­ern­ers say, you can’t rush qual­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art & Phi­los­o­phy of Bon­sai

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

A Dig­i­tal Ani­ma­tion Com­pares the Size of Trees: From the 3‑Inch Bon­sai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

Daisu­gi, the 600-Year-Old Japan­ese Tech­nique of Grow­ing Trees Out of Oth­er Trees, Cre­at­ing Per­fect­ly Straight Lum­ber

See How Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Car­pen­ters Can Build a Whole Build­ing Using No Nails or Screws

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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  • David says:

    As an employ­ee at Herons Bon­sai nurs­ery, its not dif­fi­cult to see why some of the old­est bon­sais can be so high in price. They are not expen­sive, they are sim­ply priced fair­ly for the amount of time, effort, knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence that goes into mak­ing them. Just take a look at some of the tuto­r­i­al videos on our web­site and you may appre­ci­ate the work that goes into cre­at­ing one tree! https://www.herons.co.uk/Video-Tutorials/

  • CP JOLLY says:

    Kind­ly make it con­ve­nient to favour me with more details via e. mail


  • CP JOLLY says:

    Required more details / infor­ma­tion please.

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