Bonsai: a Microcosm of the Japanese Character Essay

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 History of Bonsai”). Eventually, the supply of naturally stunted trees could not keep up with the demand.

The solution to the shortage was the commercial production of bonsai where instead of looking for rare naturally stunted trees, young plants were trained and pruned to look like one and became a new kind of bonsai (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”). Profiting in the growing bonsai market also rose in the form of the increasing number of nurseries, which are like production lines slash day care-centers for bonsai. Another was the development of a wide variety of plant types, growing and maintenance techniques that enabled bonsai-growing in various climates wherever the buyer may reside (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”).

In addition to these developments, a tradition called the New Year tokonoma was started (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”). A tokonoma is a niche in the Japanese home where bonsai is exhibited that used to be where a cherished property was placed (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”). Bonsai today has become popular around the globe. It has served as a source of income for some while it is a recreational project for others. A few even have it as their collection while there are also those who apply the conventional purpose of bonsai as decoration.

Bonsai has undergone so many changes and it has somehow come to symbolize the Japanese character. The numerous developments in the art of bonsai are demonstrative of the Japanese characteristic of being able to inculcate various influences and evolve them into something they could call their own (Nakamura 46,). This tending to dwarf trees started in China but it realized a different form in Japan as time went by since more techniques were developed and more plant types were added to the species convertible to bonsai.

According to the BBC website, the earlier statement about the techniques applied in growing bonsai that aim to reduce the plant to its barest elements at the same time convey a profound impression is representative of the Zen idea of minimalism (“Japanese (discovered by west in 16th century”). In addition, the aim of bonsai-growing in making the plant, the pot and other elements to be complementary of each other is reflective of the Japanese religious belief to be in harmony with nature (Earhart 2).

In is also noteworthy that Zen Buddhism believes in the importance of the parts and the whole having an indivisible correlation that is reminiscent in bonsai where every single element of the plant is shaped and placed in such a way to contribute to the whole but is pregnant with meaning by themselves (Nagatomo). Also, it has been said that bonsai-growing is a relaxing activity, an effect that is in congruence with the aim of Zen Buddhism of achieving a state of calmness (“Top 5 Reasons Why You Should Grow Bonsai”).

Furthermore, the very activity of bonsai-growing is an arduous task that requires much patience and great attention to detail, reflects the characteristic discipline of the Japanese (Olsen, “Geeks Turning to Bonsai to Combat Stress”). This great amount of discipline the Japanese are famed for stem from the belief in the teachings of Confucianism, which values organization that is a highly important in order to convey the stylistic straightforward and unified beauty of bonsai (Earhart 3; Norman 22-23). In conclusion, bonsai is a kind of miniature representation of the Japanese character.

The changes this art form has undergone, mirrors the various shifts in preferences and times (Hubik, “A Detailed History of Bonsai”; Olsen, “Bonsai Tree Meaning”). Bonsai is no longer just a stunted tree of certain species transplanted from nature to a pot. It has presently taken on an assortment of forms due to the vast improvements of techniques in caring for, beautifying or structuring the plant as well as the usage of a greater array of plant species. Lastly, the meaning attached to it has greatly evolved and runs parallel with how bonsai-growing is done today.

Works Cited

: BBC. co. uk. “Japanese (discovered by west in 16th century)”. Oct 2007. Web. Dec 15, 2009. •Earhart, H. Byron. “Chapter 1: Introduction. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity, 3rd Edition”. California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982. •Hubik, Dan. ”A Detailed History of Bonsai”. n. d. Web. Dec 14, 2009. •Nakamura, Hajime. “Some features of the Japanese Way of Thinking”. Monumenta Nipponica. Vol 14, pp. 32-72. •Norman, Ken. “The Bonsai Handbook: A complete guide to the selection, cultivation and presentation of miniature trees and shrubs, with a comprehensive plant directory”.

London: Southwater, 2006. •Nagatomo, Shigenori. “Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed. ). Jun 28, 2006. Web. Dec 15, 2009. . •Olsen, Erik. “Bonsai Tree Meaning”. 2008. Web. Dec 14, 2009. •Olsen, Erik. “Geeks Turning to Bonsai to Combat Stress”. 2008. Web. Dec 14, 2009. http://www. bonsaigardener. org/bonsai-against-stress. html> •“Top 5 Reasons Why You Should Grow Bonsai”. BonsaiTreePlaza. info. Hawaii. n. d. Web. Dec 18,2009.