The art of bonsai began in China more than 1,000 years ago, reportedly during the Han or Tang Dynasty, and was originally known as “penjing,” or tray planting. The goal of the penjing artist was to recreate a natural landscape in a container that included dwarfed trees and miniature hills, valleys, rivers, and lakes.
With the arrival of Zen Buddhism in Japan during the Kamakura period between 1185 and 1333, bonsai was introduced to the Japanese aristocracy as a symbol of prestige and honor. The Japanese quickly became masters of growing these twisted and dwarfed trees in containers, and bonsai became a highly developed art form, especially during the 17th and 18th century. The tradition soon trickled down to the general population.
In the mid-19th century, travelers to Japan brought bonsai to the rest of the world. The third Paris World’s Fair in 1878, along with additional exhibitions London, Vienna, and Paris increased western interest in bonsai. And by the end of World War II, the art of bonsai grew even more popular. Soldiers returned to the U.S. with bonsai trees, and the Japanese-American population at the time helped teach bonsai cultivation to Americans.
Bonsai exhibitions in Japan also increased international interest in the tradition. In 1943, the first Kokufu-Ten bonsai display was held. This annual eight-day event is held every February at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and is the oldest ongoing public bonsai exhibition in Japan. The Kokufu-Ten is the most prestigious exhibition in the world, sponsored by the Nippon Bonsai Association (NBA). During World War II the display did not take place for four years.
During the 1950s, books on bonsai art began to be published in English and other languages. In 1952, Yuji Yoshimura, the son of an expert in the Japanese bonsai community, collaborated with German author and diplomat, Alfred Koehn, to give demonstrations and offer the first formal bonsai courses in Tokyo. Yoshimura’s 1937 book, Japanese Tray Landscapes, was published in English, and in 1957 he wrote The Art of Bonsai in English with one of his students. This book, which discusses both bonsai cultivation and propagation, came to be known as the “classic Japanese bonsai bible for westerners.” More books in English, Japanese, and eventually other languages, were also published over the next several decades.
Bonsai nurseries and clubs also became more common outside Japan. Individuals and groups went to Japan to study at Japanese bonsai nurseries, and brought back their newfound expertise to local clubs. In 1967 the American Bonsai Association was founded, and in 1970 a World’s Fair-Expo ’70-was held in Osaka. A large bonsai display was part of this event. As the 1970s continued, three monthly bonsai magazines were founded: Bonsai Sekai, Satsuki Kenkyu, and Shizen to Bonsai. In 1980, the first World Bonsai Convention was held in Osaka during the World Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibition. Suiseki is the Japanese art of stone appreciation; these stones often resemble animal or human figures or landscapes.
Today, bonsai conventions are held around the world. Bonsai trees, pots, tools, and gardening supplies are available not just from Japan, but also at specialty nurseries worldwide. There are more than 1,000 books on bonsai and related arts, dozens of magazines, and clubs that celebrate the art of bonsai.
By Andrew Kozlowski