History of the Japanese Bonsai


Bonsai is the art of keeping miniature trees in small pots. The trees are styled to resemble the curved and gnarled branches of an older tree growing in extreme conditions. Although not native to Japan, the art of bonsai is most strongly associated in the West with Japan. Bonsai has evolved a number of styles ranging from a single trunk formal upright, informal upright, or literati style to multi-trunked groves or complex informally styled trees.

Importation of Bonsai

The exact date of the introduction of bonsai to Japan is difficult to pinpoint. Some sources place the introduction as the Heian Period (794 to 1191 A.D.). Other sources place it later, during the Kakamura Period (1185 to 1333 A.D.). Whenever it was introduced, it was established in Japan by 1185 A.D., when the first textual reference to bonsai occurred.

Early Sources of Bonsai

Bonsai transferred to Japan with the transfer of Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Early cultivators of bonsai in Japan were monks and monasteries. By the Kamakura period, bonsai was also grown by the aristocracy. A Kamakura period scroll reads "To appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity." By the 1300s, bonsai was an accepted art form that had been established and practiced for many years.

The Spread of Bonsai

By the end of the 14th century, bonsai was practiced by a number of different Japanese classes, not just the upper class. Pots of the period were deeper than modern bonsai pots, with the art evolving to involve removing all but the most important parts of the trees. Closely associated with Zen, bonsai became an embodiment of the simplicity and austere functionality of Zen design.

Peak of Traditional Bonsai

Traditional bonsai growing and styling reached its peak in the 17th and 18th centuries. A number of trees from this period survive, including a tree that survived the bombing of Nagasaki. As time went on, bonsai began to return to the Chinese habit of creating miniature landscapes, rather than growing a single, simple tree. In some cases, miniature people and buildings were added to these miniature landscapes.

Introduction to the West

In the West, bonsai is more closely associated with Japan than China. This is in spite of a longer history of cultivation in China. This association can be traced to the opening of Japan and bonsai exhibitions in Europe afterward, especially the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. Bonsai remains as popular today in Japan as it was hundreds of years ago. As salaries increased and the cost of bonsai decreased, bonsai is practiced at almost all levels of Japanese society.

Keywords: history of bonsai, bonsai cultivation, Asian history

About this Author

Although he grew up in Latin America, Mr. Ma is a writer based in Denver. He has been writing since 1987 and has written for NPR, AP, Boeing, Ford New Holland, Microsoft, RAHCO International, Umax Data Systems and other manufacturers in Taiwan. He studied creative writing at Mankato State University in Minnesota. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, English and reads Spanish.