A garden culture developed out of Chinese origins into a distinctly Japanese form of artistry

By Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University

Prince Li Xian, Bonsai (0706)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Origin of Bonsai

The origins of bonsai are thought to lie in the Chinese tradition of miniaturized gardens. Tang dynasty wall paintings in the tomb of Prince Li Xian (653–684) are the earliest extant evidence of miniaturized gardens. These images show a 1300-year-old tradition of appreciating grasses and trees planted in ceramic containers. The underlying impetus behind the creation of these miniaturized gardens was the traditional belief that Daoist immortals resided in mountains. These gardens were made to resemble Mt. Penglai, a mythical mountain where immortals were thought to dwell. They were brought to Japan by Chinese Sui and Tang dynasty envoys as part of a wave of advanced Chinese culture that entered Japan during the early Heian Period. Later, Japanese scenery and aesthetic sensibilities were incorporated into the cultivation of these gardens, and they eventually developed into a distinctive form of Japanese cultural expression.

Kasuga gongen genki e, Bonsai (1870) by Reproduce: Takao Itabashi and Original: Takakane Takashina(Picture), Mototada Takatsukasa and others(Poetry)Original Source: National Diet Library

With the political stabilization of the country, Heian-period (794–1185) Buddhism prompted attention to shift towards internal pursuits, and Buddhist monks sought places in the mountains and forests where they could practice. In this way, the element of nature and the belief in immortals was brought into the Buddhist establishment, which was later manifested in the form of gardens. Bonsai developed further during this time, and was enjoyed as a refined cultural activity by high-raking monks, nobles, and warriors. The oldest Japanese painting that depicts bonsai is the thirteenth-century Saigyō monogatari emaki (Illustrated Scroll of the Story of the Priest Saigyō). As in another scroll entitled Kasuga gongen genki e (Illustrations of the Miracles of the Kasuga Deity), it is rendered in the style of what is now known as “bonsai with rocks.”

Plum party in spring dusk, Bonsai (1747/1752) by Utagawa Toyokuni IIIOriginal Source: The Omiya Bonsai Museum, Saitama

In the Edo period (1615–1868), competition over who could present the rarest plants to garden-enthusiast shoguns spurred a gardening boom among daimyo, shogunal retainers, lower-ranking vassals and warriors. During the late Edo period, it became popular for commoners who did not have gardens to cultivate potted plants; gardening thus became an activity that crossed social borders and could be enjoyed by anyone from the shogun to commoners.

盆栽 《黒松》 (貴重盆栽) by 盆栽職人: Masahiko KimuraArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Contemporary bonsai forms became standardized during the Meiji period (1868–1912) when the concept of “art” was brought to Japan from Europe and North America. During this period of the “civilization and enlightenment” movement, in which Western ideas were brought into Japan, figures such as Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) and Okakura Tenshin (1863–1913) sought to reconsider the value of Japanese art; “art bonsai” emerged as part of this movement. During the Taishō period, a decorative method which reconstructed nature known as “natural beauty bonsai” developed, and was further established into the style that exists today.

盆栽 《もみじ「出猩々」》(部分)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Tachiagari (lower trunk)

In a bonsai tree, firmly attached roots express vitality, making the tree appear as if it grabbing the soil. A well-distributed balance among eight points provides a sense of stability to the tree. The section of the trunk extending from the top of the roots to the first branch of the tree is called the tachiagari. From here, the tree spreads upward and outward, exerting power as if it were a large tree. The type of bark on the tree differs between species; one highly valued feature of pine bonsai is bark that is appears layered and fissured with age.

盆栽 《もみじ 「出猩々」》Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Edakubari (distribution of branches)

Edakubari refers to the placement of branches that extend from the trunk, particularly their directional orientation and thickness. There is, however, no bonsai that is fortunate enough to have the ideal branch distribution. Skillfully cultivating a tree with whatever type of branches it may have is a marker of the gardener’s skill.

盆栽 《もみじ「出猩々」》(部分)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Kokejun (tapering of the trunk)

Kokejun refers to the tapering of the trunk as it extends upward. A tree with good kokejun appears as if it is a large tree viewed from a far distance. As the eye travels slowly upward from the base to the tips of the branches, a moment arrives when the tree is experienced as a huge, colossal presence.

The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama, BonsaiOriginal Source: The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

This art museum opened in 2010, and is the first ever to be public museum dedicated to bonsai. It is adjacent to Omiya Bonsai Village, the so-called ‘holy land’ of bonsai. Works from the former Takagi Bonsai Art Museum form the core of the museum’s collection, but the systematic collection and display of well-known and superior bonsai, bonsai pots, stones appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, visual artworks such as ukiyo-e that feature bonsai, as well as historical and ethnographic information related to bonsai are also a focus of the museum.

Japanese White Pine “Thousand-year Pine”, BonsaiOriginal Source: The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

Japanese White Pine “Thousand-year Pine”

This bonsai from the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum is 1.6 meters tall and over 1.8 meters wide, and holds a place of pride as the largest tree in the museum’s collection. The protruding root base firmly grasps the soil, the massive trunk writhes upward, and the massive canopy of lush needles spreads over the whole; all of these elements combine to convey the robust life force of this tree.

Credits: Story

Information provided by The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, SaitamaText written by Kawasaki Hitomi

English Translation by Hillary Pedersen

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Exhibition created by Sumiya Momoko Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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