Japan rediscovers joy of bonsai after tiny trees put down roots in global affections

by Michio Watanabe


After years of withering in obscurity, the art of creating carefully cultivated bonsai potted trees is starting to show green shoots of renewal.

“Recently I see signs of reviving popularity, particularly among women,” said Kaori Yamada, a prominent female bonsai artist.

She said this contrasts with the dark days for the art form that followed the implosion of the bubble economy in the early 1990s.

The twist is that the rediscovery of bonsai’s allure is coming after gardeners worldwide have discovered the joy and beauty of nurturing and viewing the tiny trees.

There are bonsai associations in Britain and the United States, while Italy has a technical school for would-be bonsai artists. A number of bonsai museums have opened in Europe, the United States and Australia.

Japanese have been encouraged, too, by the constant streams of foreign visitors to bonsai museums in Japan.

The revival will get a further boost when the World Bonsai Convention, a quadrennial snip and tuck jamboree, takes place in the city of Saitama in 2017, for the first time in three decades. The gathering was first held in 1989 in Omiya, now part of Saitama, and has since been held in the United States, South Korea, Germany, Puerto Rico and China.

Bonsai’s popularity also nicely dovetails with the government’s “Cool Japan” initiative to boost Japan’s image and status globally and to promote its export and tourism industry by tapping the international popularity of manga, washoku cuisine and other things Japanese.

Bonsai thrived from the late 19th through mid-20th century in Japan among men who dominated the corridors of power. Senior statesmen like former Prime Ministers Shigenobu Okuma, Shigeru Yoshida and Nobusuke Kishi nurtured tiny trees. A wide range of ordinary people, too, enjoyed the art of meticulous pruning.

However, recent decades proved to be autumnal for bonsai as its staid image had no appeal to the generation growing up. The post-bubble economic stagnation added to the slump by sapping appetite for purchases of expensive bonsai trees.

“In my youth, I thought growing bonsai was a pastime for old men and there was nothing chic about it,” Yamada said.

But when she traveled in Europe for the first time, Yamada said, she felt something strange with the way flowers and plants are grown in public parks there and began to see bonsai in a new light.

To broaden bonsai’s popular appeal, Yamada has opened a bonsai class. She initiates novices, mostly women, into the world of bonsai through exercises in creating works as small as her palm.

Yamada, 37, is a fifth-generation owner of Seikoen, a bonsai garden in Saitama. There is a cluster of bonsai gardens in the city founded by artisans who moved there from downtown Tokyo after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

Yamada’s bonsai were highlighted in a special spring exhibition in March at the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in the city.

The museum, which opened in 2010 as the world’s first public bonsai museum, draws bonsai fans from around the world, and counts around 3,000 foreign visitors a year.

“It is not easy to take bonsai trees out of Japan because of quarantine problems,” said Rumiko Ishida, a curator of the museum. “That’s apparently all the more reason why coming here is an invaluable experience for visitors from abroad.”

Elsewhere, Kunio Kobayashi, a noted bonsai artist, raised ¥1 billion to build the Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, which opened in 2002. The museum attracts around 10,000 foreign visitors a year.

In addition to displaying bonsai, the Shunkaen museum holds seminars. One in March was attended by people from seven foreign countries.

Occasionally, non-Japanese can be found among the resident apprentices at the museum honing their skills under Kobayashi’s tutorship. A Briton who trained there for seven years went on to become a professional bonsai artist after returning home and won a grand prize in a European bonsai contest.

Kobayashi, now 67, made up his mind to become a bonsai artist at age 28, when he encountered a breathtaking pine tree at a bonsai exhibition.

“I was impressed by the strength of the trunk, the fragility of its branches and the character of the whole tree,” he said. That tree was a masterpiece that had won a prime ministerial award, an honor that Kobayashi would later receive four times for his own bonsai works.

Since being invited to speak before bonsai enthusiasts in Italy in 1996, Kobayashi has visited nearly 20 nations, including the United States and China, to lecture on bonsai. Just last November, more than a thousand aficionados flocked to a pruning demonstration session he led in Taipei.

Shigemi Horikoshi, the owner of a bonsai shop in Tokyo’s Ginza district, is also seeing a fresh wave of interest in bonsai.

“As bonsai’s popularity abroad is having an impact, the Japanese have rediscovered bonsai and many young people also come here,” he said.