The Influence of the West on the Development of Japanese Bonsai
Recent articles suggest that Japanese bonsai originated during the late Edo period (1603-1868), less than 200 years ago. (1) More surprisingly, another Japanese author credits Western influences for the change in the way that potted plants were trained in Japan during that same period. (2) This is plausible because, in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed a fleet of steamships into Edo Bay, concluded the Treaty of Kanagawa, and opened Japan to trade with America (and subsequently Europe and England).
These authors specifically suggest  that the influence of naturalism derived from Western ideas and literature led to the design of more natural-looking potted trees (bonsai) and  that Japan imported the idea of exhibitions from the West and applied this to bonsai. The last point is important because bonsai does not have a formal iemoto system (a formalized, often hereditary school) common to traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, ikebana, Noh, calligraphy, traditional Japanese dance, traditional Japanese music, to name a few. While of course there are professional organizations that promote bonsai and an apprentice system for those who wish to become bonsai professionals, it is through holding exhibitions that the bonsai world transmits knowledge of the accepted forms of the art and evaluates the skill and creativity of the practitioner.(1) What then is the evidence that Japanese bonsai was influenced by cross-cultural exchange with the West?
About the Word Bonsai
The term “bonsai”, as we understand it, came into common use in Japan toward the end of the Edo period. (1,3) Prior to that, the term “hachi-ue” was represented by the same kanji characters and referred simply to potted plants. There was also a term hachinoki (potted tree) referring to a single tree planted in a container.
Norio Kobayashi, a noted Japanese authority on bonsai and one of the founders of the Kokufu-ten exhibit, explained, “A bonsai is to be distinguished from an ordinary potted plan (hachi-ue). In its broad sense a bonsai is no doubt a kind of potted plant, but it definitely differs from the latter in being a work of art…A bonsai may be defined as a tree or trees cultivated through…artificial dwarfing, in a small tray like vessel, so as to be admired for the effect it is intended to produce, -which is to create an aesthetic sentiment by suggesting a piece of scenery. In contrast to this, a hachi-ue is a plant cultivated in a pot so as to be admired for the beauty of its flowers and leafage…” .(4)
The oldest documented appearance of the term “bonsai” is found in the first volume of the Sōmoku sodategusa (On the Cultivation and Care of Plants) by Iwasaki Kan’en, which was written in 1818. (1,3) But again, the term was used at that time to refer to ordinary potted plants as well as plants that we would consider bonsai today. The timing of the appearance of the term “bonsai” supports the idea that Japanese bonsai as we know it originated in the 19th century.
Late Edo Period Bonsai
According to Okuma Toshiyuki , “It was only in the 19th century, toward the end of the Edo period, that a new style of bonsai differing from Chinese norms (penjing) began to appear in Japan. (1) In this new style, miniature trees were planted in pots alone without stones…”. At the same time, Japanese appreciation of Chinese literati culture led to the additional development of bunjin or literati style trees in Japan (2).
However, there was also a trend in Japan towards designing trees in a more abstract, twisted style that dates back to the late Kamakura period (1185-1333) but that was developed further during the Edo period (1603-1867) when trees with extremely distorted shapes were created.(2) This style was known as tako-zukuri or magemono-zukuri (with tako = octopus and magemono = bending) (see Figs below).
Trees styled in this way and planted in deep containers were some of the earliest bonsai seen by western visitors to Japan and were also shown in exhibitions in Europe and America. Laurence Oliphant accompanied the Earl of Elgin on his mission to Japan on behalf of the English government in 1858.(5) In 1860 he wrote of seeing, “venerable forest trees in flower pots…twisted as if writhing…[with] unnatural branches spread out laterally like the fingers of a deformed hand”.
This was not an opinion limited to foreigners. In 1950 Norio Kobayashi wrote, “… in those days [the 1850s] the general tendency was to set store by bonsai which represented rugged, gnarled, fantastic trees; trees dwarfed even to grotesque misproportion” adding, “but fortunately this unnatural interest in “crippled” trees gradually disappeared”. (4) Of course, styles and tastes naturally evolve, but was contact with the West after the 1850s partially responsible for this change?
Images reprinted from: Del Tredici, P, “From Temple to Terrace: The Remarkable Journey of the Oldest Bonsai in America”, Arnoldia 64(2):2-30, 2006. The image at the bottom of this grouping was from Illustration of Japanese dwarfed plants displayed at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878. From “Essai sur L’Horticulture Japonaise” by E.-A. Carrière published in Revue Horticole. (6)
Japanese Red Pine, Pinus densiflora, from the Japanese Collection, the National Bonsai Museum, Washington, DC. Picture taken in December, 2022. The small sign reads “Gift of the Imperial Household Japan, 1976. In training since 1795”.
Within a few years of Commodore Perry’s visits to Japan, Japanese arts, crafts and plants (including potted trees) were exported to and exhibited in Europe and America. We know that imported woodcut prints by masters of the ukiyo-e school had a profound influence on European artists, transforming the work of James McNeill Whistler, Van Gogh, and many of the impressionists and post-impressionists. (7) The term “Japonisme” refers to this passionate interest in Japanese culture and artifacts that swept through Europe at that time.
Parisians saw their first formal exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts when Japan sponsored a pavilion at the World’s fair of 1867. (7) The Centennial exhibition held in Philadelphia in 1876 featured a Japanese pavilion with at least one dwarfed tree in a pot. (5) The first extensive display of dwarfed trees outside of Japan occurred in Paris in 1878 at the famous “L’Exposition Universelle” (see above images). (6). What effect did Japanese participation in these exhibitions have on the development of Japanese bonsai?
According to a program held at the Omiya Bonsai Museum in 2019, exhibitions of bonsai were the realm of hobbyists during tea ceremony gatherings or displays at traditional shops up until the start of the Showa period (1926-1989). (8) Norio Kobayashi mentions a grand bonsai exhibition held at Hibiya Park, Tokyo in 1928 with successive events held annually. (4) In another example of western influences, Hibiya park, created in 1903, was Japan’s first public park based on European designs. Its designer, Dr. Seiroku Honda studied forestry in Germany. (9)
With the adoption or acceptance of the Western concept of “Fine Art” in Japan, some bonsai enthusiasts promoted the idea of holding bonsai exhibitions at art museums. Dubbed “Bonsai Art Campaigning”, these efforts were led by bonsai collector Toshio Kobayashi with aid from sculptor Fumio Asakura. Asakura is often referred to in Japan as Asia’s Rodin and considered the father of western-style sculpture in Japan. (10) Their work resulted in the Kokufu-ten exhibit being held in 1934 at the Tokyo Prefectual Art Museum (now the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum). (8)
I have tried to show that there was both ample opportunity for contact with the West to influence the development of Japanese bonsai during the late Edo (1603-1867), Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods and further that there is evidence that this did indeed occur. So much of our scholarly writing about Japanese bonsai focuses on its introduction to the West, while the introduction of Western ideas into Japan and their effects on bonsai has been largely ignored until relatively recently. This essay is not intended to diminish Japanese bonsai in any way, but rather to generate a fuller and more complete understanding of this wonderful art form.
References / Further reading
(1) Toshiyoki, Okuma. “The Meaning of Bonsai: Tradition and the Japanese Aesthetic”, Japan Foreign Policy Forum, September 28, 2010. https://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/culture/pt2010092816052974.html, accessed 6/2017
(2) Toro, Yoda. “Bonsai as Minuscule Garden”. Japan Foreign Policy Forum, September 16, 2022. https://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/culture/pt2022091614565812474.html, accessed 11/2022.
(3) Iwasaki Tsunemasa (aka Iwasaki Kan’en, 1786-1842) Sōmoku Sodate-gusa (Growing Trees and Plants / Cultivation and care of plants) ; 1818. Two volumes. This general work on horticulture, which mentions bonsai, describes and illustrates various methods of plant cultivation and care.
(4) Kobayashi, N. Bonsai – Miniature Potted Trees, 12th ed. Japan Travel Bureau, Tokyo, 1963.
(5) Elias, T., “History of the Introduction and Establishment of Bonsai in the Western World”, in Proceedings of the International Scholarly Symposium on Bonsai and Viewing Stones, May 2002, National Bonsai Foundation, 2005, p28.
(6) Del Tredici, P., “From Temple to Terrace the Remarkable Journey of the Oldest Bonsai in America”. Arnoldia, 64(2):2-30. 2006. https://arboretum.harvard.edu/stories/from-temple-to-terrace-the-remarkable-journey-of-the-oldest-bonsai-in-america/ ,accessed 1/2023
(7) Japonisme https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jpon/hd_jpon.htm, accessed 1/15/2023
(8) Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama, Japan. “Birth of the Kokufu-ten Bonsai Exhibition Series: Early Showa Bonsai Aiming for Art Museum Status”, Jan 31-Mar-12, 2019. http://www.bonsai-art-museum.jp/en/exhibition/exhibition-2320/, accessed 1/18/2023
(9) Honda, Seiroku https://prabook.com/web/seiroku.honda/3718617, accessed 1/18/2023
(10) Asakura, Fumio https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumio_Asakura , accessed 1/18/2023
Copyright 2023, Walter J. Scott