Kids Web Japan

What Is Bonsai?

The Big Joys of Growing Bonsai

Bonsai are trees and plants grown in containers in such a way so that they look their most beautiful – even prettier than those growing in the wild. Cultivating bonsai, therefore, is a very artistic hobby as well as a traditional Japanese art. It's also a good illustration of the gentle respect Japanese have for living things and an expression of their sense of what is beautiful. It's much more involved than growing potted flowers, and requires a much bigger commitment – physically and emotionally.

The word "bonsai" was first used in a mid-14th century poem, but earlier bonsai culture can be seen in picture scrolls dating as far back as 1309. It became more widely enjoyed around three centuries later, during the Edo period (1603–1867).

A beautiful Kuromatsu on display (Nippon Bonsai Association)

In ancient times, bonsai were usually enjoyed by aristocrats, priests, and other high-ranking people, but commoners also began delighting in them from the Edo period (1603–1867) onward. Later on, during the Meiji period (1868–1912) bonsai came to be appreciated as objects of art, and people began growing bonsai not just as a hobby but also as an artistic pursuit. Large-scale bonsai exhibitions also began to be staged, and scholarly books on growing techniques were published.

Today, growing bonsai continues to be a hobby enjoyed by anyone. It's also regarded as an important part of Japan's cultural and artistic tradition, nurtured over the years by the nation's climate and people's love of nature.

Caring for bonsai is no longer just a Japanese pastime. More than 1,200 people from 32 countries attended the World Bonsai Convention that was held in the city of Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, in 1989. The convention helped launch the World Bonsai Friendship Federation, which has been a driving force in popularizing bonsai around the world. The World Bonsai Convention has been held every four years following the exhibition in Japan, and has been hosted by the USA (Orlando), South Korea (Seoul), Germany (Munich), the USA again (Washington D.C.), Puerto Rico (San Juan) and China (Jintan) before returning to Japan (Saitama City) in 2017.

Types of Bonsai

All sorts of trees and shrubs are used as bonsai. In essence, any plant that can be grown in a small container can be cultivated as a bonsai. The most popular varieties include a type of pines called shohaku; maples, whose leaves change their color in autumn; flowering trees, like the cherry and plum; and fruit-bearing trees, like the quince and persimmon. In countries other than Japan, varieties that are best suited to the local climate are used. The trees can grow as tall as 1 meter (3.3 feet), or be small enough to be fit in one's palm.

Bonsai often used to decorate the tokonoma.

There are several basic styles of bonsai. Chokkan style bonsai trees have a trunk that grows straight upward and branches that extend left, right, forward and behind in a well-balanced manner; shakan style trees have a slanted trunk that leans to one side; moyogi style trees have a curved S-shaped trunk. Fukinagashi style describes a tree that is shaped by strong winds, with bent trunks and branches growing in one direction, and kengai style describes a tree that curves downward, which can be found in areas with steep slopes such as cliffs. While all types of bonsai trees have a tree shape that tends to suit them best, the most important thing to keep in mind is to allow the tree to express its individuality freely, without forcing it to fit any particular category, and to help it achieve its most beautiful, balanced form.

Just as people choose clothes in which they look good, choosing containers that best suit the trees in terms of size, shape, and color allows the bonsai to be seen in the loveliest light.

Chokkan style (Tsuyama Hinoki/Japanese cypress)
Shakan style (Ezomatsu/Yezo spruce)
Moyogi style (Japanese white pine)
Fukinagashi style (Japanese white pine)
Kengai style (Japanese white pine)

A Little Love Goes a Long Way

The process of raising bonsai requires controlling the kind of shape the trees take. Sometimes you need to bend branches with wires or to cut them off altogether. You might think that's cruel, but these steps are essential for the tree to remain healthy in a pot. The trees have a life of their own, of course, and grow in accordance to the laws of nature, so they can never be completely controlled by humans. The key is not to force your will on them but to appreciate the dignity of each living plant and treat them with love and respect. Bonsai that have been watered and lovingly looked after day by day can make a deep and lasting impression on the viewer – particularly when such trees are centuries old and have been handed down from one generation of bonsai lovers to another.

Unlike other works of art, there are no such thing as "finished" bonsai as long as the trees are still alive and growing; they must continue to be tended to on a daily basis. That's why bonsai growing is sometimes called an art without end. For many enthusiasts, though, it's precisely this timelessness that makes raising bonsai so rewarding and worthwhile.

Daily care is important