Bonsai world’s ‘black sheep’ aims to inject ‘cool’ into traditional art form



For one man, upholding the Japanese bonsai tradition dating back over a thousand years in this rapidly advancing world is a task that should suit the times.

That is why budding bonsai craftsman Masashi Hirao readily accepts his role as the black sheep bringing something cool to a world resistant to change. He is, as the Japanese proverb goes, a stake that sticks out and gets hammered down.

A late bloomer as a bonsai craftsman, Hirao began his career at the age of 22, and it was by pure chance that he decided to explore the world of bonsai — the miniature landscape of ornamental trees.

One day while visiting the Hojo Garden designed by architect Mirei Shigemori at Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto, Hirao was deeply impressed by its beauty. It was then that he decided to devote himself to preserving this aspect of Japanese culture.

“I don’t even know from what point I started calling myself a bonsai craftsman,” he says. “I’ve just turned 35 and that’s really young in my industry. I must seem like a whining baby to the active craftsmen who are in their 80s.”

Those who are born into bonsai families normally begin their careers after high school, but Hirao joined Mansei-en in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, after graduating from Kyoto Sangyo University.

He was paid a pittance for his labor and allowed precious few moments to even touch a bonsai tree at the garden formerly run by the renowned master Saburo Kato, who died in 2008.

After five years in an apprenticeship and an additional year as a managed trainee, he embarked on his chosen career path.

“For the first time in my life I was able to do something I enjoyed, so I never thought about quitting bonsai,” he says. “What I don’t enjoy is having to deal with difficult people in the industry.”

Because Hirao is considered a maverick, breaking the rigid mold with his flamboyant style, including performing bonsai while grooving to live music and speaking out about what he think needs to change with the ancient Japanese art form, he has his share of detractors.

He reluctantly admits that he was not invited to participate in the World Bonsai Convention in Saitama in 2017 due to “politics,” though he doesn’t appear crushed by the fact.

“I came out of nowhere and did a lot of things to stand out in Japan, so I’m a black sheep in the bonsai industry. I know there are people out there who don’t think well of me,” he says.

His detractors notwithstanding, Hirao aims to flock with the elite in the near future. The “World Cup of Bonsai,” as he calls it, which began with the inaugural competition in Japan in 1989, is held every four years.

“My turn to shine will come eventually. Hopefully the convention will be held again in Japan one day,” he says. “For now I’m going to keep my feet planted on the ground and focus on creating a new bonsai wave.”

Hirao believes bonsai, literally translated as “tray planting,” is not as popular outside the country as some Japanese might think. He has traveled to more than a dozen countries, and based on his own research believes the lack of successors in the craft to be a universal problem.

“While science and technology is progressing at an unbelievable rate, bonsai is quite the opposite — it is slow, time-consuming and troublesome. That’s why I feel like I have to do something to make bonsai cool,” he says.

“Cool,” for Hirao, means collaborating bonsai with the fashion and music industries. By the time he turns 40, he hopes to fulfill his dream of decking out the Paris Collection catwalk with his bonsai trees.

Hirao spent half of 2015 overseas, but for the next few years he plans to remain based in Japan. He hopes to see bonsai attract the attention of young people, especially women and children, and shatter the image that it is only for the old and rich.

How is the price of a bonsai tree determined? Its value is generally decided by age and shape, explains Hirao. A 50-year-old naturally grown tree can be reproduced into a small-scale structure and create an illusion of a mature tree through skill and patience.

After the art of tree miniaturization was brought to Japan from China, it became a popular pastime for the wealthy with big yards in the Edo Period (1603-1867). But today, says Hirao, it’s possible for people in tight living quarters to start a “green art” hobby.

“I’m not an artist. I’m a craftsman,” says Hirao, a distinction likely lost on the average person. “I want to place bonsai trees where people will least expect them, like in a bar or a club. A bonsai has the power to change an atmosphere. I want people to feel that strangeness.”

Hirao is scheduled to take part in the Setouchi Triennale, which gets under way on March 20 across the islands in the Seto Inland Sea — the body of water that separates the three main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu.

He is also busy preparing to open his own bonsai garden in Sashiogi in Saitama Prefecture in April. He is rebuilding an old wooden shack by himself, and renovating the first floor into a bonsai-cum-interior shop and the second floor into a workshop space.

“The problem with most bonsai gardens is that they don’t have price tags. It’s not fair if customers don’t have an idea of how much they cost, even though price doesn’t mean much. What you get out of a bonsai is a lot more than what you pay for,” he says.

Hirao, who plans to hang prices on his craftwork, advises a beginner to start by visiting a bonsai garden. No need for questions, he says, just wait for your eyes to be drawn in by a bonsai.

Prices might range from ¥1,000 to ¥100 million, but leave the decision on which to buy to your gut, not your wallet.

“If you feel a spark, take it home. That’s the one for you,” he says.

Buy a pair of trimming scissors to care for the bonsai at home. The environment it is placed in is important, says Hirao. The tree should be examined daily until you are comfortable knowing how much sunlight, shade, air circulation and water it requires.

It will take at least a full-year cycle — spring, summer, fall and winter — to become acquainted with your bonsai.

Once you have grown attached to it, you would be remiss to leave the bonsai unattended while you are away from home for more than a day. But Hirao even has an answer for this problem.

“I want to start a bonsai hotel, like a pet hotel. I want to start a service where I pick up bonsai and take care of it while the owner is traveling. It’s risky for you to neglect your bonsai.”

What is most important, says Hirao, is to experience growing a bonsai and seeing the rewards for yourself. His one caveat: be prepared for the responsibility as “the parent” before welcoming the baby tree into your home.

Unlike ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement using cut stems, leaves and flowers, bonsai deals with life: the Sandai Shogun no Matsu (“third generation Tokugawa pine”) has reportedly been passed down through the imperial line for more than 500 years.

Unlike ikebana where cut branches can be moved around in a vase, bonsai trees cannot be forced to grow branches at will.

“Bonsai is for life,” Hirao says. “As long as you take proper care of it, it will live longer than a human being. It can be handed down to your child, your grandchild, and further down the line. There is no end.”

The spring portion of the Setouchi Triennale 2016 will take place at various locations from March 20 to April 17. Masashi Hirao’s piece is scheduled to appear on Megijima Island. For more information, visit