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No.2 ,Culture  Sep 28, 2010

THE MEANING OF BONSAI: TRADITION AND THE JAPANESE ESTHETIC

The Ōmiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama, opened on March 28 in Saitama City, not far from Tokyo. It is the first publicly run institution in Japan dedicated to the art of bonsai. The museum is located in an exclusive residential area known as the Ōmiya Bonsai Village. The Bonsai Village developed in the years following the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, when a number of established professional bonsai cultivators moved here from Tokyo, drawn to Ōmiya by its clean air and the prospect of spacious premises suitable for use as bonsai nurseries. In the years that followed, Ōmiya grew into an important suburb under the influence of the “garden city” philosophy of urban planning then prevalent in the commuter belt around Tokyo, making it a place of considerable interest in terms of Japanese social history.

Photo : Omiya Bonsai Art Museum
The building and grounds of the recently opened Ōmiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama. (C)Ōmiya
Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

Despite the survival of the name, however, it is undeniable that today’s Ōmiya Bonsai Village has lost some of the vitality it formerly enjoyed as a major center of the bonsai industry. A pamphlet titled Ōmiya’s Famous Bonsai Village published early in the Showa era (1925-89), shows fifteen bonsai nurseries in the area; just five of these are still in business today.

Several factors can be put forward as explanations for this decline. One is Japan’s unusually high real estate inheritance taxes, which make it extremely difficult for the owner of a bonsai nursery to hand down the premises intact to a successor. Deteriorating economic conditions in the years since the end of the bubble have meant smaller numbers of the people who might otherwise have been interested in collecting expensive high-class bonsai trees: affluent people with a certain kind of traditional esthetic sensibility and taste. This in turn has made it increasingly difficult for the children of bonsai nursery owners to find sufficient satisfaction and promise in the business to make up for the stresses and strains inherent in running a bonsai nursery.

The idea behind the Ōmiya Bonsai Art Museum was to halt the decline of the Ōmiya Bonsai Village and restore a sense of vitality to area, reviving Ōmiya as a tourist destination of historical interest. At the same time, Saitama City hopes that the museum will act as a catalyst for reviving the Ōmiya bonsai industry and enabling the nurseries to continue as viable businesses into the future. I was appointed as the museum’s first director on a part-time basis. In my regular job, I am a member of the faculty at one of Japan’s national universities, where I teach classes on the history of Japanese art, craft and design, and the development of Japan’s traditional plastic arts.

Photo : Omiya Bonsai Art Museum2
Interior display area at the museum.
(C)Ōmiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

Photo : Omiya Bonsai Art Museum3
A museum employee explains the displays
to visitors. (C)Ōmiya Bonsai Art Museum,
Saitama

None of the above should be taken to suggest that the Japanese bonsai industry as a whole or the number of people practicing the art as a hobby is in inexorable decline. Japan’s biggest annual bonsai show, the Kokufū Bonsai Exhibition, continues to attract huge numbers of visitors, while the Bonsai Festival draws tremendous crowds to the Bonsai Village from all over Japan during the Golden Week holidays in May every year. A lot of people think of bonsai as an expensive hobby indulged in by prosperous people in their autumn years, but the truth is that bonsai’s appeal is far from limited to the older generation. While some people born into bonsai families may feel uneasy about continuing the family business, their numbers are more than made up for by newcomers to the industry, young people from ordinary middle-class backgrounds who have grown up with no connection to bonsai. These people suddenly fall in love with bonsai one day and resolve to look for creative work with plants, moving from the horticultural industry to landscaping and finally arriving in the bonsai trade, often entering a nursery as an apprentice in their mid-twenties. In fact, this phenomenon is well illustrated by the staff at the Ōmiya museum. In addition to three curators with doctoral degrees, we have three professional bonsai growers on staff as full-time specialist bonsai curators. All three are young people in their thirties who grew up without any particular connection to the bonsai world.

Similarly, it would be mistaken to assume that all bonsai enthusiasts–the people who appreciate and study the art, though they may not grow trees themselves–are all in their later years. As a matter of fact, when the museum was still at the planning stages, some people did suggest its appeal would be limited to a small number of dedicated enthusiasts, most of them elderly, and that visitor numbers would sooner or later start to decline. People expected that a museum like ours would have a much more limited appeal than a regular museum, botanical garden, or park. In fact, though, since we opened we have had positive coverage in popular young people’s magazine, glamorous women’s monthlies, and TV, describing the museum as a stylish and revitalizing place well worth visiting. Our visitors these days include many men and women in their twenties, people with young families, women in their thirties and forties, and middle-aged couples.

The Three Kinds of Bonsai Fans

Looked at on a national level, therefore, it would be wrong to think of bonsai as being in a state of decline. The next generation of bonsai enthusiasts is growing all the time. But it certainly true that this new generation sometimes has interests and priorities that differ from the traditional esthetics and tastes that prevailed in the past. The answers to our visitor questionnaires suggest that, broadly speaking, bonsai enthusiasts today fit into three main categories.

The first group is made up of people who visit the museum looking for a kind of bonsai completely divorced from its stuffy, old-fashioned cultural context. Many of them think of bonsai as a touch of greenery to brighten up a room. These people often leave the museum disappointed. Their idea of bonsai is limited to commercial versions that fit the bright, Western-style spaces of their modern interiors: relatively easy-to-cultivate small potted trees, seedlings in balls of moss, and assortments of plants and flowers in pots. They are looking for something soothing and stylish, and tend to be turned off by the dignity and gravitas of traditional bonsai–large and aged trees of the kind that well-to-do families used to put on display in imposing gardens or in Japanese-style rooms on special occasions. There is significant crossover between this group and the young women who decorate their rooms with the little moss balls and other so-called “bonsai” they pick up on their way home from work at railway station concourses or gardening supply shops.

The second group comprises people who initially visit the museum expecting the same kind of ersatz bonsai as the first group, but end up being overwhelmed by the beauty of the traditional bonsai and write vividly in their comments of their excitement. The people in this group tend to be men and women in their thirties and forties, and almost without exception they seem to visit one of the privately run bonsai nurseries directly after leaving the museum.

The third group is made up of people who really have come to the museum to see the noble old trees and great masterpieces of bonsai, painstakingly cultivated by generations of famous bonsai masters. These people will typically spend several hours here, taking their time and appreciating the traditional Japanese esthetic as it is expressed in the trees. Many people in this group are hardcore enthusiasts who raise trees themselves, though some simply enjoy looking are not involved in growing the trees themselves. Also in this group are visitors from Europe and the Americas with a keen interest in traditional Japanese culture and esthetics. Most of the Japanese visitors in this group are in their forties or older, but it is not unusual to see people in their twenties among the overseas visitors.

One last thing I should mention in this respect is the reaction to the museum of tourists from China and Korea. The truth is that ever since the museum opened, visitors from other countries in East Asia have been an extremely rare sight in the museum. We have pamphlets in six different languages and scripts: Japanese, English, Spanish, traditional and simplified Chinese, and Korean. The piles of Chinese and Korean leaflets are not getting smaller at all.

Although increasing numbers of rich Chinese have started to visit bonsai nurseries in this country to buy Japanese bonsai as investments in recent years, by and large people in China seem to take it for granted that Japanese bonsai developed from Chinese penjing. By this logic, China represents the headquarters of the mainstream tradition–so why should Chinese people bother to visit an upstart tradition in Japan? And in recent years people in Korea have started to claim that in fact the origin of both bonsai and penjing lies in the Korean peninsula.

But if Japanese bonsai is merely a local variation on a continental tradition, then what is the “traditional Japanese” esthetic that so many of our middle-aged Japanese visitors and people from Europe and the Americas find in Japanese bonsai? Can it really be the case that bonsai is nothing more than an offshoot of Chinese penjing?

Chinese Penjing and the Beginnings of Japanese Bonsai

In fact it is not known for certain when Chinese penjing was first introduced to Japan. The late Iwasa Ryōji, formerly professor emeritus at Chiba University and one of the pioneering historians of bonsai history, believed that Chinese-style penjing were being produced in Japan as far back as the Heian period (794-1185). This was based on illustrations in emaki scrolls depicting daily life in the Heian period that showed small trees and stones in pots. But subsequent research has pushed back the dating of the scroll in question to the latter part of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), and most scholars today discount Iwasa’s thesis.

There is no question, however, that by the Kamakura period at the latest, people in Japan were making and appreciating potted displays of small trees and stones in the style of Chinese penjing, and it seems reasonable to assume that this practice continued unbroken into later epochs. From the late Edo period (1603-1868) into the Meiji era (1868-1912), there was a wave of enthusiasm and respect for Chinese culture and a obsession with emulating the Chinese literati. This was the context that gave rise to a new style of bonsai that later came to be called known as bunjin, or “literati,” bonsai. From historical sources we know that many of these were collections of small trees and stones, suggesting that the literati bonsai was yet another style that inherited the traditions of Chinese penjing.

It was only in the nineteenth century, toward the end of the Edo period, that a new style of bonsai differing from Chinese norms began to emerge. In this new style, miniature trees were planted in pots alone without stones, so far as we can tell from written records and from pictorial sources such as ukiyoe prints. The most reliable source we have from this early period is Sōmoku sodategusa (On the Cultivation and Care of Plants) by Iwasaki Kan’en, written in 1818, the second volume of which describes a technique for growing a small pine tree in a pot and describes how to use wire to shape the pine and give it a naturally aged appearance–in other words, how to achieve something just like what we think of as “bonsai” today. The first volume of Iwasaki’s treatise contains the oldest documented appearance of the term “bonsai” (盆栽). (Incidentally, though, the pronunciation of the new term is glossed not as “bonsai” but as “hachiue,” the ordinary word for potted plants.)

Photo : Omiya Bonsai Art Museum4
This ukiyoe print from the nineteenth century shows people comparing flowering bonsai. (C)Ōmiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

The problem is that the word “bonsai” was not used to refer exclusively to miniature trees grown in pots, their shape deliberately manipulated. In the late Edo period, all potted displays of plants and flowers–such as the seven grasses of spring or morning glories in the summertime–were referred to as “bonsai” (or “hachiue,” which may be considered to have been synonymous at the time), and there was no distinction between potted trees and conventional kinds of potted plants and flowers. This can be seen from ukiyoe prints in which a plant seller displaying his wares is seen offering ordinary potted trees and plants alongside what we would think of as “bonsai” today. Additionally, as late as the first decade of the twentieth century, it is not unusual to find tips on growing regular potted plants and flowers in pots in books supposedly about “bonsai.” However, there is no doubt that with time the term came increasingly to refer specifically to miniature potted trees whose forms had been deliberately modified by human hands.

In light of this, we can see that in fact the origins of Japanese bonsai date to an era not too far removed from the present. The history of Japanese bonsai as it exists today is actually quite short, going back just 200 years or so. As is well known, one of the characteristics of many of Japan’s traditional arts is the iemoto system, by which the traditions of a particular school are handed down from generation to generation via a formalized and often hereditary hierarchy. Bonsai is different. Although it is often grouped together with the other “traditional arts,” bonsai does not really have any strict “schools” or an iemoto system. The reason for this is clear enough given the historical development of the art as I have just described it. For art forms like the tea ceremony and ikebana, and traditional performing arts like nō and kabuki, the framework of the art forms as we know them today was in place by the end of the sixteenth century at the latest. Once an art form has come to maturity, a certain amount of time is required for the various schools and the iemoto system that controls them to form. But in the case of bonsai the modern age, spurning “schools” and the iemoto system as feudalistic, arrived before sufficient time had passed for the system to be fixed in place.

The Importance of Form

Nevertheless, many people both inside and outside bonsai circles continue to think of bonsai as belonging to a traditional Japanese esthetic. The reason is that like other Japanese artistic pursuits–traditional Japanese gardens, ikebana, tea ceremony, calligraphy, traditional Japanese-style painting, nō, kabuki, and traditional dance and music–bonsai sets extremely high value on established “forms.” Within this system of forms, an individual bonsai master devotes the techniques he has refined over many years of practice to the pursuit of beauty. It is a characteristic of Japanese culture as a whole that the most important step in learning any new technique is to attach oneself to a teacher and dedicate one’s efforts to a faithful study of the teacher’s example, thus acquiring a command of the “forms” that represent the definitive norms that need to be followed. This approach is not limited to the traditional arts: It pervades everyday life, from the correct way of exchanging greetings to the expected norms of behavior and performance within a company. The life of a person who has perfected the accepted forms of everyday etiquette is esteemed socially as an exemplar of beauty. What is of crucial importance is the acquisition and practice of a beauty of form. The expression of individuality and creativity, and with the esteem of others, comes later.

Unlike other traditional arts, bonsai has never developed well-defined schools or an iemoto system to transmit the accepted forms and evaluate whether an individual practitioner has mastered them sufficiently. What takes its place in the world of bonsai is the modern social phenomenon of the exhibition, imported from the West in the Meiji era. It is by continually holding exhibitions that bonsai has found a way of transmitting the forms and evaluating skills, and of assessing the creativity of a practitioner as expressed in the way he or she uses those forms. It has therefore succeeded in performing its role as a “traditional art.” The best-known exhibition of all is the annual Kokufū Bonsai Exhibition, first held in 1927. As can be seen all too readily from the appearance of its cities, modern Japan has consistently preferred repeated cycles of destruction and rebuilding to a sustained effort to maintain the old. Within this cultural context, the art of bonsai, nearly two hundred years after it began, and with an exhibition itself already more than 80 years old, has managed to carve out an impressive tradition indeed.

However, one thing that is important to remember in the context of bonsai exhibitions is that although it is not unusual, particularly in recent years, for a cultivator or nursery to receive evaluation on the merits of a particular bonsai, generally speaking the highest praise at exhibitions and other public venues goes not to the person who actually grew the bonsai but to its owner. In bonsai circles in modern Japan, the most important criterion is assessing the value of a bonsai is its ownership history–ideally consisting of several generations of socially and historically important figures, particularly if they happen to have been influential in political or economic circles. By taking temporary custody of the tree and looking after it on a daily basis, the individual cultivator or nursery is able to bask in the reflected glory of the tree’s superior pedigree. In an extreme case, even a tree of no particular merit might be praised as a masterpiece if it comes from a sufficiently impressive lineage. This is reminiscent of the way that tea utensils are evaluated by connoisseurs of the tea ceremony.

Formation of a Uniquely Japanese Art

What, then, is the quintessentially Japanese “traditional aesthetic quality” of bonsai, which are created with such great emphasis on form?

The first step in creating bonsai is to take a young sapling, or even a small tree that has grown for some years in a natural setting, and transplant it to the pot where it will be raised. At this stage the heart of the craft lies in the artisan’s ability to envision clearly what form he would like the tree to take as a mature bonsai, decades or hundreds of years later, and to shape the tree toward that end. In order to realize the future tree thus imagined, the artisan nurtures and protects the tree from day to day. But it is the sense for form developed during the training phase that provides the model for the shape the tree will take eventually. Building on this beauty of form, the grower must display a creativity allowing him to adapt the various elements of the creation most appropriately to craft the final form of the tree. The presence or absence of this creativity is what decides whether the grower has true talent in this art.

Photo : Omiya Bonsai Art Museum5
“Higurashi” goyō-matsu (Japanese
five-needle pine) Ōmiya Bonsai Art
Museum, Saitama

Photo : Omiya Bonsai Art Museum6
“Uzushio” goyō-matsu (Japanese
five-needle pine) Ōmiya Bonsai Art
Museum, Saitama

In order to achieve the bonsai’s final form as it has been envisioned, the grower must display highly polished skills to match the life force within the plant. There is a fundamental difference between the art of bonsai, which took shape in the late Edo period, and simply growing potted plants. This difference lies in the bonsai grower’s use of artificial techniques to prevent the plant from growing wildly into its natural shape–to carefully nurture the tree while keeping its natural growth in check, shaping it toward the envisioned form. This is, of course, an approach also seen in the creation of traditional Japanese gardens. Interestingly, its echoes can also be discerned in the thinking that parents and teachers bring to bear on the raising and education of Japanese children.

Thus far, there is little difference between the Japanese-style bonsai and China’s version of bonsai, the planted-tree penjing. In both China and Japan, aficionados appreciate the beauty of the tree’s form, its fascinating aspects, the vitality and age of the tree that create these qualities, and the technique of the grower that rivals this natural force. But a careful comparison of Japanese bonsai with Chinese penjing reveals three important differences that must not be overlooked. It is in these differences that the unique qualities of Japanese bonsai lie.

The first of these points is the importance placed on the aesthetic quality of shukkei, or miniaturized landscapes, in the Japanese tradition. From the beginning of the twentieth century in particular, people increasingly viewed bonsai not just as creations to be nurtured in outdoor gardens, but as decorative objects to be placed in the home’s tokonoma, or ceremonial alcove, in the same way that ikebana arrangements were. I believe the rise of the bonsai as a reduced-scale landscape is connected with this. The maximum size and weight of a bonsai, including its pot, was likely defined in terms of what could be carried into the home and placed in the tokonoma space, and it is thought that this standard size eventually came to serve as the standard for bonsai put on display in exhibitions. Chinese penjing creations tend to be larger than Japanese bonsai–indeed, in some cases the term penjing is applied to full-sized trees growing in containers the size of a child’s wading pool. The character of these two traditions is fundamentally different.

An even more fundamental reason for this desire to reproduce beautiful landscapes in miniature, however, is the presence in Japanese culture of an affinity for the little, adorable things and condensed forms of beauty. As described by the Korean critic Lee O-Young in his book Smaller is Better: Japan’s Mastery of the Miniature, this is an innate Japanese taste: a form of cultural DNA that to this day informs Japanese people’s creation of products like miniature figures of anime characters and the trinkets they attach to their mobile phone straps.

It should be noted that shukkei denotes more than simply reproducing on a small scale an actual natural vista or a scene from a historical tale. These are not re-creations of real natural views that one has seen at some point in the past, or that one could enjoy by traveling to an actual place. Rather, they are stylized expressions of ideal scenery–visions of beauty that could come to mind for any Japanese asked to imagine such a scene. In other words, the pursuit of shukkei in bonsai is akin to the creation of condensed imagery relating to places or scenes that are famous purely in the world of image, such as in waka poetry. Here is the second point differentiating bonsai from penjing: this focus on the beauty of mitate, or the simulacrum. Mitate–a way of expressing a well-known scene or event metaphorically via a different medium–is a quintessentially Japanese expressive technique that took root in the Edo period in the literary arts, on the stage, and in painting. A completely different aesthetic principle is at work in mitate than in the realism found in Western and Chinese art. Bonsai falls squarely within the artistic lineage of this principle. This makes the Japanese tradition, which seeks to create new forms, decisively different from Western topiary gardening, with its focus on re-creating existing imagery, despite the similarity of the practices as activities that aim to shape living plants toward artistic ends.

Photo : Omiya Bonsai Art Museum7

Ezo-matsu (Yezo pine) group planting Ōmiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

The third key difference between bonsai and penjing lies in the aesthetic quality of omission, or blank space. In Chinese penjing, while the focus is on the trees, those trees are surrounded in their pots by painstakingly lifelike portrayals of scenery constructed with rocks, sand, and other materials. A considerable number of these penjing arrangements flesh out this natural scenery with tiny models of bridges or roosting cranes in an effort to portray an idealized image of a classical hermit’s or writer’s abode. But this overly explicative approach is rejected in Japanese bonsai, which to the greatest extent possible does away with extraneous decorative elements, at least inside the container. The goal is not to visually express absolutely everything, but rather to make the area surrounding the tree empty, thereby presenting viewers with the opportunity to imagine the content of that peripheral space–in short, the scenery–for themselves. In this sense Japan’s bonsai, while resembling reality to some extent, are not precise representations of it. By stripping away as much detail and decoration as possible, they create beauty of a highly abstract flavor. This facet of bonsai bears a striking resemblance to similar qualities seen in Japanese arts like ikebana, nō theater, and traditional painting.

Looking to the Future of Bonsai

As seen thus far, the bonsai found in Japan is by no means an imitator of the Chinese penjing tradition. The Japanese art form does indeed have its roots in penjing, but after receiving the tradition from the mainland Japanese artisans departed on their own path, developing the art along lines that matched the Japanese sensibility more closely and creating forms and expressions that meshed with Japanese aesthetics. As a result, Japan’s bonsai came to have its own unique characteristics. We might describe this as the greatest property of Japan’s culture: the talent that has existed since the Heian period to import culture or objects from other lands, gradually give them a Japanese flavor, and create a uniquely Japanese thing whose like is seen nowhere else. The art of bonsai falls squarely within this pattern.

The characteristically Japanese aesthetic quality of bonsai, however, formed in the late Edo period, and as such bears a strong stamp of the early modern and modern eras. Even so, this represents a history of nearly 200 years, and if the art has been handed down without cease to the present day, it can certainly be classed as a full-fledged tradition in its own right. Viewed in this light, bonsai is an unmistakable, proud part of Japan’s traditional culture and plastic arts.

There are certain nationalistic bonsai aficionados who take this as reason to assert loudly that “bonsai was invented in Japan and can only be found here,” or to posit China’s penjing, Korea’s bunjae, or even Vietnam’s hòn non bộ as “enemies” somehow of the Japanese tradition. These people also treat the art of bonsai growers in Europe, North America, Australia, South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa as “offshoots” of the original traditions of China’s penjing and Japan’s bonsai. These statements are as foolish as they are wrong, though. Today every region of the world is seeing the rise of unique forms of bonsai that match the cultural spheres and traditions in which they are developing. We should all accept this rich diversity and view it as a cause for celebration.

At the same time, there is no need to reject or sneer at the “light” forms of bonsai that young people and women often prefer these days. These forms, after all, may one day provide fresh vigor and direction to what we today consider to be traditional bonsai. If a tradition cannot display the courage and vitality to accept new, external stimuli, constantly adapting in response to this input, then it will not be able to continue as a tradition.

Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo Web. [September 2010]

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