Bonsai: A Living Tradition in Japanese Culture

  • 3 min read


Bonsai: A Living Tradition in Japanese Culture

What comes to mind when you hear the word bonsai? Miniature trees? Stylish pottery? Maybe older men with small shears and a lot of time on their hands? While some of those might be true, bonsai is an art and pursuit that enjoys a long, respected tradition in Japan — a tradition that continues to thrives to this day as a practice that both encapsulates the ideas of beauty and the love for nature that is so intrinsic to the heart of Japanese culture.

The exact origin of bonsai isn’t known, but some believe it is a tradition that was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks traveling from China in the 6th century. With their short statures, some believe early bonsai were even meant to resemble the Buddha in seated meditation. Despite the uncertainty about its origin, bonsai has a clearer history dating back nearly 700 years to the Kamakura and Muromachi periods of Japan. It wasn’t until the Edo period (1608-1868) that bonsai became a regular part of popular culture. From merchants to samurai, most people owned and cultivated bonsai, and the craft became closely linked to other forms of art and tradition like the tea ceremony and writing haiku.

Bonsai: A Living Tradition in Japanese Culture

However, popularity and the practice of bonsai would see its ups and downs in the following century. During the Meiji restoration, when Japanese culture and politics underwent massive upheavals, traditional arts like bonsai fell in popularity. Thankfully they would rise again in the wake of World War II, and now bonsai can be seen not only in home gardens but decorating public spaces as well.

Like many traditional arts, bonsai is considered a craft with rules, methods, and ideologies, but as opposed to an art with defined schools like ikebana, there’s more flexibility in one’s expression. That is because above all, bonsai is a way to celebrate the beauty in nature and the changing of the seasons on a miniature scale. It is an that can be used to express one’s own aesthetics, but also the simple beauty of aesthetics in the natural world. Still, knowing some of the guidelines and techniques can make it easier to enjoy and appreciate the beauty and skill involved.

Bonsai: A Living Tradition in Japanese Culture

To lay out some basic steps and tips, you’ll first want to decide on which plant you want to grow. This will help you to find a suitable bowl or vessel to grow it in as well as the right type of soil mixture to maintain the correct amount of moisture and rigidity for growing roots. Once your plant is growing and developing, then it’s time to do research on how best to tend to the roots, trimming them and arranging them as necessary, as well as how to prune and shape the branches. Of course, this differs from plant to plant and your own environment, so research and consistency of care are key!

Ultimately, bonsai remains a thriving and incredible art in Japanese culture. There are communities and groups around the world practicing together and inventing new trends and fashions. If you’re interested and have a green thumb, bonsai just might be a perfect gateway to a deeper appreciation for Japanese culture.


About the author:

Kevin KilcoyneKevin Kilcoyne

The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!


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