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The Affect of the West on the Improvement of Japanese Bonsai

Latest articles counsel that Japanese bonsai originated in the course of the late Edo interval (1603-1868), lower than 200 years in the past. (1) Extra surprisingly, one other Japanese writer credit Western influences for the change in the best way that potted vegetation have been skilled in Japan throughout that very same interval. (2) That is believable as a result of, in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed a fleet of steamships into Edo Bay, concluded the Treaty of Kanagawa, and opened Japan to commerce with America (and subsequently Europe and England).

These authors particularly counsel [1] that the affect of naturalism derived from Western concepts and literature led to the design of extra natural-looking potted timber (bonsai) and [2] that Japan imported the concept of exhibitions from the West and utilized this to bonsai. The final level is vital as a result of bonsai doesn’t have a proper iemoto system (a formalized, typically hereditary college) frequent to conventional Japanese arts akin to tea ceremony, ikebana, Noh, calligraphy, conventional Japanese dance, conventional Japanese music, to call a couple of. Whereas after all there are skilled organizations that promote bonsai and an apprentice system for individuals who want to change into bonsai professionals, it’s via holding exhibitions that the bonsai world transmits information of the accepted types of the artwork and evaluates the talent and creativity of the practitioner.(1) What then is the proof that Japanese bonsai was influenced by cross-cultural change with the West?

Concerning the W­­ord Bonsai

The time period “bonsai”, as we perceive it, got here into frequent use in Japan towards the top of the Edo interval. (1,3) Previous to that, the time period “hachi-ue” was represented by the identical kanji characters and referred merely to potted vegetation. There was additionally a time period hachinoki (potted tree) referring to a single tree planted in a container.

Norio Kobayashi, a famous Japanese authority on bonsai and one of many founders of the Kokufu-ten exhibit, defined, “A bonsai is to be distinguished from an peculiar potted plant (hachi-ue). In its broad sense a bonsai is little doubt a sort of potted plant, nevertheless it undoubtedly differs from the latter in being a murals…A bonsai could also be outlined as a tree or timber cultivated via…synthetic dwarfing, in a small tray like vessel, in order to be admired for the impact it’s supposed to provide, -which is to create an aesthetic sentiment by suggesting a chunk of surroundings. In distinction to this, a hachi-ue is a plant cultivated in a pot in order to be admired for the fantastic thing about its flowers and leafage…” .(4)

The oldest documented look of the time period “bonsai” is discovered within the first quantity of the Sōmoku sodategusa (On the Cultivation and Care of Vegetation) by Iwasaki Kan’en, which was written in 1818. (1,3) However once more, the time period was used at the moment to confer with peculiar potted vegetation in addition to vegetation that we might think about bonsai right this moment. The timing of the looks of the time period “bonsai” helps the concept Japanese bonsai as we all know it originated within the 19th century.

Late Edo Interval Bonsai

In keeping with Okuma Toshiyuki , “It was solely within the 19th century, towards the top of the Edo interval, {that a} new model of bonsai differing from Chinese language norms (penjing) started to appear in Japan. (1) On this new model, miniature timber have been planted in pots alone with out stones…”. On the identical time, Japanese appreciation of Chinese language literati tradition led to the extra improvement of bunjin or literati model timber in Japan (2).

Nonetheless, there was additionally a pattern in Japan in direction of designing timber in a extra summary, twisted model that dates again to the late Kamakura interval (1185-1333) however that was developed additional in the course of the Edo interval (1603-1867) when timber with extraordinarily distorted shapes have been created.(2) This model was referred to as tako-zukuri or magemono-zukuri (with tako = octopus and magemono = bending) (see Figs under).

Bushes styled on this manner and planted in deep containers have been a few of the earliest bonsai seen by western guests to Japan and have been additionally proven in exhibitions in Europe and America. Laurence Oliphant accompanied the Earl of Elgin on his mission to Japan on behalf of the English authorities in 1858.(5) In 1860 he wrote of seeing, “venerable forest timber in flower pots…twisted as if writhing…[with] unnatural branches unfold out laterally just like the fingers of a deformed hand”.

This was not an opinion restricted to foreigners. In 1950 Norio Kobayashi wrote, “… in these days [the 1850s] the overall tendency was to set retailer by bonsai which represented rugged, gnarled, improbable timber; timber dwarfed even to grotesque misproportion” including, “however luckily this unnatural curiosity in “crippled” timber step by step disappeared”. (4) After all, types and tastes naturally evolve, however was contact with the West after the 1850s partially answerable for this modification?

Photographs reprinted from: Del Tredici, P, “From Temple to Terrace: The Outstanding Journey of the Oldest Bonsai in America”, Arnoldia 64(2):2-30, 2006. The picture on the backside of this grouping was from Illustration of Japanese dwarfed vegetation displayed on the Common Exposition in Paris in 1878. From “Essai sur L’Horticulture Japonaise” by E.-A. Carrière revealed in Revue Horticole. (6)

Japanese Crimson Pine, Pinus densiflora, from the Japanese Assortment, the Nationwide Bonsai Museum, Washington, DC. Image taken in December, 2022. The small signal reads “Present of the Imperial Family Japan, 1976. In coaching since 1795”.


Inside a couple of years of Commodore Perry’s visits to Japan, Japanese arts, crafts and vegetation (together with potted timber) have been exported to and exhibited in Europe and America. We all know that imported woodcut prints by masters of the ukiyo-e college had a profound affect on European artists, remodeling the work of James McNeill Whistler, Van Gogh, and lots of the impressionists and post-impressionists. (7) The time period “Japonisme” refers to this passionate curiosity in Japanese tradition and artifacts that swept via Europe at the moment.

Parisians noticed their first formal exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts when Japan sponsored a pavilion on the World’s truthful of 1867. (7) The Centennial exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876 featured a Japanese pavilion with a minimum of one dwarfed tree in a pot. (5) The primary intensive show of dwarfed timber exterior of Japan occurred in Paris in 1878 on the well-known “L’Exposition Universelle” (see above photographs). (6). What impact did Japanese participation in these exhibitions have on the event of Japanese bonsai?

In keeping with a program held on the Omiya Bonsai Museum in 2019, exhibitions of bonsai have been the realm of hobbyists throughout tea ceremony gatherings or shows at conventional retailers up till the beginning of the Showa interval (1926-1989). (8) Norio Kobayashi mentions a grand bonsai exhibition held at Hibiya Park, Tokyo in 1928 with successive occasions held yearly. (4) In one other instance of western influences, Hibiya park, created in 1903, was Japan’s first public park based mostly on European designs. Its designer, Dr. Seiroku Honda studied forestry in Germany. (9)

With the adoption or acceptance of the Western idea of “Superb Artwork” in Japan, some bonsai lovers promoted the concept of holding bonsai exhibitions at artwork museums. Dubbed “Bonsai Artwork Campaigning”, these efforts have been led by bonsai collector Toshio Kobayashi with assist from sculptor Fumio Asakura. Asakura is usually referred to in Japan as Asia’s Rodin and thought of the daddy of western-style sculpture in Japan. (10) Their work resulted within the Kokufu-ten exhibit being held in 1934 on the Tokyo Prefectual Artwork Museum (now the Tokyo Metropolitan Artwork Museum). (8)


I’ve tried to indicate that there was each ample alternative for contact with the West to affect the event of Japanese bonsai in the course of the late Edo (1603-1867), Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) intervals and additional that there’s proof that this did certainly happen. A lot of our scholarly writing about Japanese bonsai focuses on its introduction to the West, whereas the introduction of Western concepts into Japan and their results on bonsai has been largely ignored till comparatively just lately. This essay just isn’t supposed to decrease Japanese bonsai in any manner, however moderately to generate a fuller and extra full understanding of this excellent artwork type.

References / Additional studying

(1) Toshiyoki, Okuma. “The Which means of Bonsai: Custom and the Japanese Aesthetic”, Japan International Coverage Discussion board, September 28, 2010., accessed 6/2017

(2) Toro, Yoda. “Bonsai as Minuscule Backyard”. Japan International Coverage Discussion board, September 16, 2022., accessed 11/2022.

(3) Iwasaki Tsunemasa (aka Iwasaki Kan’en, 1786-1842)   Sōmoku Sodate-gusa (Rising Bushes and Vegetation / Cultivation and care of vegetation) ; 1818.  Two volumes.  This normal work on horticulture, which mentions bonsai, describes and illustrates varied strategies of plant cultivation and care. 

(4) Kobayashi, N. Bonsai – Miniature Potted Bushes, twelfth ed. Japan Journey Bureau, Tokyo, 1963.

(5) Elias, T., “Historical past of the Introduction and Institution of Bonsai within the Western World”, in Proceedings of the Worldwide Scholarly Symposium on Bonsai and Viewing Stones, Might 2002, Nationwide Bonsai Basis, 2005, p28.

(6) Del Tredici, P., “From Temple to Terrace the Outstanding Journey of the Oldest Bonsai in America”. Arnoldia, 64(2):2-30. 2006. ,accessed 1/2023

(7) Japonisme, accessed 1/15/2023

(8) Omiya Bonsai Artwork Museum, Saitama, Japan. “Beginning of the Kokufu-ten Bonsai Exhibition Collection: Early Showa Bonsai Aiming for Artwork Museum Standing”, Jan 31-Mar-12, 2019., accessed 1/18/2023

(9) Honda, Seiroku, accessed 1/18/2023

(10) Asakura, Fumio , accessed 1/18/2023

Copyright 2023, Walter J. Scott

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