Bonsai: a Microcosm of the Japanese Character

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Bonsai: A Microcosm of the Japanese Character

Bonsai basically means “a plant growing in a container” (Norman 8). Nevertheless, it’s not just a mere potted plant as it is concerned with growing miniature-scale forms of mature trees. Furthermore, the various developments it has undergone and is still going through as well as the forms it takes on are reflective of the Japanese character.

The history of bonsai traces its roots back to China where it was originally known as penjing (Norman 10) or pun-sai (Olsen, “Bonsai Tree Meaning”). Usually, these earlier versions of potted plants were naturally stunted, weather-beaten and had little foliage (Olsen, “Bonsai Tree Meaning”).

It was during the Chin dynasty in China while Kamakura period in Japan when cultural exchange became eminent between the two countries especially with the introduction of Buddhism from Korea (Norman 10). It was Buddhist monks who brought Bonsai to Japan as it was initially utilized for ceremonial purposes (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”; Norman 10; Olsen, “Bonsai Tree Meaning”). The activity of growing bonsai, especially the ideals and the philosophy which it hopes to encapsulate, has evolved greatly since it came to Japan. In its early stages, bonsai plants, with their less than aesthetically appealing form, were thought of as aberrations in nature while some contended that they were manifestations of positive things like harmony and peace despite its deformity (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”; Olsen. “Bonsai Tree Meaning”).

In fact, it is written in an ancient Japanese scroll from the Kamakura period that the deformity of bonsai is the actual root of appreciation and pleasure in bonsai-growing (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”). With this in mind, it was inferred that the elites of Japanese society held bonsai-growing as an ordinary activity (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”; Olsen, “Bonsai Tree Meaning”). Thereafter, engaging oneself with bonsai-growing became tied with the notion of being wealthy since the common man’s opinion would yield negative or uncaring remarks about gnarly dwarf plants since he had his livelihood to worry about. Consequently, bonsai became a sort of sign of prestige and this function is echoed in an ancient document called the Saigyo Momogatari Emaki, which is about a priest named Saigyo who used bonsai as a status symbol (Norman 11, Introduction). Nevertheless, with the advent of bonsai becoming available to the Japanese commoner, bonsai lost its elitism (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”; Olsen, “Bonsai Tree Meaning”).

Another use of bonsai was discovered in the Kasuga Shrine records that detail the Kamakura and Heian periods. The documents describe household activities of ancient Japan involving the care and careful placements of potted plants at homes whether indoors or outdoors for decoration (Norman 11). In the 17th to 18th centuries, new developments in training and pruning techniques emerged to attend to the bonsai’s needs if it were displayed at the indoor or outdoor environment (Olsen, “Bonsai Tree Meaning”). Subsequently, this also led to and evolution of understanding and refinement attached to bonsai growing since the techniques call for the reduction of the plant to its vital constituents that ties in with the concept of minimalism (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”). These developments further pushed bonsai-growing into recognition as a highly refined art form (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”).

In the 19th century, the changing times and landscapes of Japan after the country emerged from years of isolation would also shape new ideals, techniques and philosophy in the art of bonsai-growing (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”; Olsen, “Bonsai Tree Meaning”). Another consequence of this significant event was that bonsai gained more popularity as it entered the international scene, which led to a great increase in its demand (Hubik, “A Detailed...
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