The Meaning of Bonsai [Origins, History, Influences, and More]

Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) was first known as “Punsai.” This is the practice of growing single specimen trees in pots to mimic mature trees. 

“Bonsai” is a Japanese term that translates as “planted inside of a container.” This art form derives from an ancient Chinese horticultural technique, which was partially redeveloped by Japanese Zen Buddhism.

Bonsai in the Beginning

Japan Art of Bonsai Earliest Proof
Image Credit – Collection of Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan (706 AD)

Bonsai was primitive in appearance and had few leaves. The trunks were also very gnarled. These trunks looked like birds or dragons.

Many legends and myths were created about them, which made them highly sought-after. 

Bonsai consists of two words: “Bon” and “Sai.” The term “Bon”, which means “tray,” and “Sai,” which refers to “growing” or planting, are two words. The words together translate to “tray growing” and “tray planting.”

Artist: Kitagawa Utamaro 喜多川歌麿 (1753-1806) – Image Credit Smithsonian

When they hear the word, people often associate Bonsai with a specific type of tree. 

Bonsai can be used to grow many species of trees, including Juniper and Pine. Bonsai is about making the tree look old, which is achieved through training.

Bonsai in China

Sun Kehong Ming Dynasty Bonsai Art Blossoms
Artist: Sun Kehong (1532-1610) Ming Dynasty Bonsai Art

Chinese Bonsai originated approximately 1300 years ago. Bonsai was originally only practiced by elites of ancient China. The miniature trees were given as gifts and considered a luxury. The Bonsai was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks around 1100 AD. 

Bonsai, also known as “Penjing” in China, is thought to have its origins during the Han Dynasty. Legend has it that an eccentric Emperor built a spectacular courtyard with hills, rivers, and lakes. This was to represent the empire he ruled over. 

His landscaping plan was meant to give him a view of his empire from his private home. 

Sun Kehong Ming Dynasty Bonsai Art
Artist: Sun Kehong (1532-1610) Ming Dynasty Bonsai Art

The Emperor considered his courtyard a valuable possession and issued a decree that anyone found with a miniature landscape like his would be executed.

 Another Chinese legend states that Bonsai dates back to the 4th century. It was planted by Guen-ming, a Chinese poet and civil servant at that time. 

Many believe Guen-ming started growing Chrysanthemums with clay pots after he retired. This is what historians believe was the start of Bonsai. 

This same practice was observed 200 years later, during the Tang Dynasty. The legend may be true, but it was amazing to discover the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, who ruled the Tang Dynasty between 618 and 901 AD. Two wall paintings from the past depicted servants with several plants and were proof of the Bonsai.

The first historical reference to penjing is a scroll from 800 AD documenting a well-developed art form that can be traced back as far as the Han and Qin Dynasties (221 BC to 220 AD). 

Matthaei Botanical Gardens

One of the paintings depicted a man carrying a miniature scene, while the other showed a servant carrying a small pot with a tree.

Bonsai in Japan

Early Japanese Print of Bonsai (Uma zukushi)

Japan was introduced to Bonsai during the Heian period (794-1191) by Zen Buddhist monks. The Japanese adopted many of the cultural marks from China and quickly influenced the art that made Japan so popular.

The Bonsai trees grew beyond their monastic status as Buddhist monks or monasteries and became an emblem of honor and prestige. 

Bonsai’s philosophies and ideologies changed drastically as a result. The Bonsai is often associated with ancient Japanese beliefs, while Eastern philosophies consider Bonsai to be a harmonious link between the soul and the natural world. 

Meiji Period Bonsai Ceramic (1868-1912 Japanese Art)

Many believe that the Kamakura period saw Bonsai being grown in Japan. 

The belief stems from a translation of an old Japanese scroll which reads: “To love and appreciate curiously curved potted tree is to love deformity.” With the Chinese invasion of Japan in the 14th century, Bonsai became a sophisticated art form. 

Bonsai in a Japanese Garden
Bonsai in a Japanese Garden

Bonsai were used to decorate homes and sit on specially-designed shelves. 

The Bonsai at that time was still a wild tree and had not been trimmed or pruned. They were very popular until the 18th and 17th Centuries. The majority of this tree was taken out to improve its appearance. This was by the Japanese philosophy of simplicity and beauty. 

We know that early Bonsai masters were influenced by China because the characters used for Bonsai represent the same characters in Japanese as in Chinese.

Bonsai in Korea

The Bonsai, also known as “Punjae” (in Korea), was introduced from China during Silla and Koguryo kingdoms in the 1st Century C.E. 

The “Three Kingdoms of Korea” saw the Korean peninsula divided into three distinct empires.

These were between the 1st to the 7th Centuries C.E. The Bonsai was popularized during the Lee Dynasty in 1392 C.E. 

Mugo Pine Bonsai

The Suseoks tradition – Korea’s Unique Bonsai Perspective

This art form captures natural phenomena that were also created at this time. It used miniature stones to create landscaping. The Bonsai is still valued in Korea today. Korea has a number of Bonsai associations, including the Korea National Bonsai Association.

Bonsai Throughout the World

In the middle of the 19th century, Japan began to share bonsai with the rest of the world. The Bonsai was eventually displayed in Paris, London, and Vienna. It finally made its way to the 1900 Paris World Exhibition. 

This was the time when the Bonsai was fully exposed to the public.

People fell in love with the Bonsai just like the Chinese and Japanese for many years. You can see that Bonsai became a hugely popular item, and people were eager to own one. 

The naturally stunted trees were hard to find, so commercially produced trees were created. 

Blooming Japanese Wisteria Bonsai
Blooming Japanese Wisteria Bonsai with pink flowers (Wisteria floribunda)

These young plants were trained by horticulturists to resemble the Bonsai. The experimentation resulted in a variety of styles, including wire and bamboo skewers. By the end of World War II soldiers returned from Japan with information about Bonsai, sparking further interest in the west. 

Some soldiers brought trees with them, but most of the Bonsai died soon after. 

These Bonsai survived long enough to be fascinating and interesting people. This was the first time that most Americans had ever heard Bonsai.

Now, they have a new respect for Japan’s amazing art form. The Japanese saw the value in capitalizing on the interest of the rest of the world in Bonsai. New nurseries were created to grow, train, and export Bonsai trees. 

Ficus Retusa Bonsai

It was found that different regions of the globe have different climates, and not all trees thrive in the same area. So, different plants were used to make Bonsai accessible to everyone. Because of the variety in tree species, the methods used to raise them must be compatible with their specific tree. 

The Japanese prefer to use only native species for Bonsai, despite all the trees available. You would typically see Azaleas and Maples here. The Bonsai is evolving so that there are now many different varieties and practices. 

The Bonsai, a symbol of Japan’s culture and ideology, is still powerful. Every New Year, Japanese homes will create a Tokonoma. This is where precious ornaments and treasured possessions are displayed. The Bonsai is a key part of this display. 

You can find Bonsai trees in your local nursery, gardening center, department shop, or nursery. Most Bonsai trees are young starters or cuttings and do not produce true Bonsai as the masters. Many Bonsai that are not authentic Bonsai are known as “Pre-Bonsai”, and they are used to begin the process of growing bonsai.

Early Bonsai Exhibitions

The first bonsai public exhibitions in the west were held at international expositions and world fairs. However, these temporary displays lasted only six months to one year. 

London’s Royal Botanical Garden

One of the first public displays in a botanical garden was likely to have been at Kew, London’s Royal Botanical Garden. In a March 3, 1900 issue, The Gardeners Chronicle mentioned a collection of miniature trees at Kew. It is possible that this was a temporary display and not a lasting one. 

San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden

This commercial venture was started by M. H. de Young (a San Francisco businessman) after he visited the Japanese exhibit at the Chicago Columbian Exposition. 

Young’s Japanese Village was so popular that it was permanently installed in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. 

Water Jasmine in Bonsai Garden

Makoto Hagiwara took over the operation of this village and transformed it into a Japanese Tea Garden. He was an artistic and talented person who appreciated Japanese gardens.

He began to import Japanese garden items, including lanterns and other art objects. 

Hagiwara’s efforts were stopped in 1900 when the state transferred Golden Gate Park from San Francisco to him. Hagiwara’s participation was terminated after he and the city could not agree on terms. Hagiwara established a rival operation near the city. 

The operation of Hagiwara was very successful, while that of the city was not. Hagiwara and Hagiwara reached an agreement in 1910 to allow Hagiwara the Japanese Tea Garden. 

He constructed a house in Japanese style and managed a successful concession. The gardens were further developed and improved with ponds and an arched bridge. These amenities were acquired at the 1915 Panama International Exposition in San Francisco. 

Hagiwara continued to import bonsai and garden items until he died in 1925. Goro Hagiwara and his family ran the garden until World War II. During the war, the Hagiwaras had to close their home and business in order to relocate to a camp. The Tea Garden was renamed the Oriental Tea Garden in wartime.

Brooklyn’s Botanical Gardens

Brooklyn Botanical Garden White Pine Bonsai
White Pine Bonsai (100+ Years Old) – Image Credit Brooklyn’s Botanical Gardens

The Brooklyn Botanical Garden, also known as the “BBG”, was established in 1910 by New York City’s Borough of Brooklyn. The new institution was soon followed by the designation and construction of a traditional Japanese garden. 

Ernest F. Coe, a Connecticut plantman, may have been inspired by this development to donate his 32 Japanese bonsai collection, which included 21 species of trees or shrubs. 

The Elm City Nursery was located in New Haven Connecticut. Mr. Coe was the President. The bonsai he had purchased from Japan in 1911, probably from the Yokohama Nursery, was likely imported by him. 

Coe’s initial 32 bonsai, which he donated, were not displayed for many years (Scholtz 1979). This garden started to pay more attention to them after the Second World War. 

George Avery (1965), Director at the BBG, credits a lot of the public’s interest in bonsai to the many American servicemen who went to Japan right after the war ended. After their return, people in New York City began to inquire about bonsai maintenance every week. 

The garden published a 12-page article on bonsai in their summer 1950 issue of Plants and Garden. This paper was written by Mr. Kan Yashiroda (a Japanese horticulturist who also owns a nursery in Japan). 

George Avery invited Mr. Yashiroda in 1951 to edit the BBG’s first bonsai handbook. Avery and Frank Okamura (curator of the Japanese garden, bonsai collection) taught their first bonsai class on January 1954. Their class enrolled 86 people. The BBG’s bonsai collection grew and is now one of America’s most prominent bonsai collections.

Early Influential Bonsai Artists

Traditional arts, such as bonsai, were just a few of the many contributions the Japanese and Chinese made to America and other western countries. Here are a list of early bonsai artists that helped shape the bonsai art in the world.

Frank Fusaji Nagata

Frank Fusaji Nagata

Frank Fusaji Nagata was an artist in bonsai and lived in Los Angeles before the war. Kay Komai, his daughter, says that Mr. Nagata and Morihei Furuya placed bonsai along with a friend on a curb near their home. They then tried to sell them. 

Nagata was permitted to bring his entire family to Santa Anita Race Track. His family rode on a bus to make it easier for him to transport more. 

Frank brought several of his bonsai, including some of the most prized ones, to Camp Amache in Colorado near Granada. Some plants that were not sold were donated to Frank’s Caucasian friends, who kept them safe by planting them in the ground. 

Morihei Furuya was a friend of Nagata and also lived in Los Angeles. Nagata was one of the first bonsai leaders of Southern California and was open to teaching others. 

John Yoshio Naka

John Naka with Granddaughter with his Bonsai “Goshin”

John Y. Naka is why bonsai’s rapid growth in North America and other western countries. John Y. Naka’s extraordinary talents as a bonsai stylist, teacher, and leader have created new generations of bonsai leaders and artists. 

He inspired and encouraged thousands of people to learn bonsai and published two books highly regarded and widely used in West. 

Naka is the only American immigrant or American who has had such an impact on bonsai and received international and national recognition. Naka, the third child born to Yukino Naka and Kakichi Naka, was born in Fort Lupton, Colorado, on August 16, 1914. His parents sent him and two siblings to Japan in November 1922 to care for Kakichi’s dad. Sadahei, John Naka’s grandfather, strongly influenced John Naka’s education in Japan. 

Sadahei shared with his grandson his love for nature and bonsai knowledge. Sadahei advised John Naka to not force trees into something they weren’t, but to accept them as is. John was able to learn the basics of bonsai at this time. 

Naka, aged 21, returned to Colorado and worked on Watenburg’s farm with his brother. John married Alice Toshiko Mizunaga, and they started a Colorado family for the duration. John started working in landscape gardening after the Naka family relocated to Los Angeles in 1946.

 He also began bonsai during this period. Sam Doi was also in Los Angeles during the war years. He spent his time in the interment camp in Granada, Colorado. 

John found him and continued to study with Doi until Doi’s return to Japan in 1948. Doi introduced Naka and other bonsai enthusiasts to him, including Frank Nagata and Morihei Furuya. John Naka signed up for the Japanese language Bonsai Magazine. It was edited and largely written by Norio Kobayashi.

He also bought many books about bonsai in Japan. John started exhibiting bonsai at horticultural shows in 1950 when he first displayed some trees at Pasadena’s Fannie F. Morrison Center. In 1951, he and four other people formed the Southern California Bonsai Club.

 He and four of his friends entered bonsai specimens at the Pasadena Flower Show in 1954.

Eventually, Naka wrote Bonsai Techniques I. Naka’s Bonsai Institute of California published Bonsai Techniques I. The demand for the book was so high that there were many reprints. He co-authored a book entitled Bonsai Techniques For Satsuki Azaleas in 1979. 

Naka recognized that his students became more skilled in art and needed more instruction. 

In 1982, Naka published 73 of his Bonsai Techniques II. This was a massive 442-page book. John Naka also illustrated this book with hundreds of line drawings.

 His Bonsai Techniques I was translated into several languages by 1987. The first lecture by Naka and his demonstration trip to South Africa lasted most of October 1980. He amazed the audiences in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town. 

This was his first trip to the country. John Naka, bonsai master of the west, was the most admired and loved bonsai artist in the 1980s. 

John Naka donated “Goshin,” one of his finest bonsai specimens, to the National Bonsai Foundation, Washington, D.C. on March 7, 1984. This tree was the first to be donated to the North American Pavilion at U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C. Naka’s well-known gift of leadership in a bonsai style led to many outstanding specimens being gifted by Americans. 

The Japanese government conferred the most prestigious award on Naka. Taizo Watanabe from the Consulate General of Japan, Los Angeles, informed Naka on October 7, 1985 that he would be receiving the Fifth Class of the Order of the Rising Sun. 

This award is the highest that can be given to a citizen from a country other then Japan. John Naka was also given national recognition in the United States. 

On July 31, 1987, Washington, D.C. announced that the new North American Pavilion at National Bonsai & Penjing Museum would bear the name Naka. John Naka was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts on May 26, 1992. 

This federal agency recognizes select folk artists from the United States each year. This award was given to him because he displayed the highest level of performance in bonsai, his art form. John Naka was awarded the Japanese American National Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award on March 5, 2004. John Y. Naka kept practicing bonsai into his 80s. 

John could rely on his wife Alice’s support and dedication throughout his career. Alice was there to support him behind the scenes and help him achieve the recognition he deserved. John Yoshio Naka, the greatest bonsai master of North America during the nineteenth millennium, will be remembered for a long time.

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