Bonsai and the Cult of Cute

In 2012, an International Bonsai Convention in Takamatsu, Japan, made headlines when an 800-year-old pine tree sold for 100,000,000 Japanese Yen (around $1.3 million USD based on exchange rates at the time). With its thick, contorted trunk, gnarled bark and densely bulging canopy, the perfectly proportioned Japanese white pine looked exactly like the kind of magical tree you might find in a prehistoric forest. But with one small exception – the bonsai measured less than a metre tall.

The 800-year-old Japanese white pine which sold at auction for more than $1 million USD at an International Bonsai Convention in Takamatsu, Japan, 2012. Image sourced from Setouchi Explorer

Our obsession with all things tiny is evident across society; from miniature pet breeds to portraiture, microgreens to bite-sized burgers. Japan in particular is enamoured by ‘cute culture’, celebrating the sub-culture of Kawaii かわいい, an aesthetic of all things cute and adorable, like pastel colours, anime and fluffy creatures. But long before Marie Kondo, the Tiny Houses network or Hello Kitty graced our vernacular, the ancient practice of Bonsai was teaching us a thing or two about minimalism and respect for the micro.

Practiced in China for over two thousand years as pun-sai (now called penjing), bonsai as we know it today came into being in Japan a thousand years ago, after Chinese monks migrated east and influenced spiritual practices like Zen Buddhism, particularly its perception of the natural world.

Bonsai growers talk about the intention of their craft as an exploration of life’s greatest questions – truth and death, humanity and heaven, perfection and reverence for nature – through the expression of a tree’s inner beauty.”

Using techniques of wiring, pinching, pruning and grinding, the bonsai handler bends and twists the small tree into a well-proportioned, prematurely aged version of itself that appears to the naked eye both flawless and untouched. Every 2-10 years (depending on the species, its age and size) the trees have their roots cut (to prompt new growth) and are re-potted to maintain their small, healthy stature. It’s a process that requires daily commitment and complete devotion from the grower, as without their attention, the tree will quickly die.

It’s hard to tell with bonsai where the lines between horticulture, art, philosophy and poetry begin and end. Perhaps this is why it inspires such a cult following, with hundreds of thousands of bonsai enthusiasts each year attending club meetings, workshops, symposiums (like this one), art galleries and specialised bonsai nurseries; while others devote years to the study of the craft, and a select few masters surrender their life purpose to the pursuit of bonsai knowledge.

And yet, as deeply spiritual and significant as bonsai is to so many, there is also something unsettling about people expressing their power over nature in this way. The trees, which live their entire lives at the hands of the grower – stylised, wired and pruned into place, existing as a miniature version of themselves – are completely dependent on the intention of their owner. Depending on how you look at it, the pursuit of perfection in the name of beauty can bring to the surface questions of power, control and obsession.

Courtesans looking at bonsai tree, by Kikugawa Eizan. 1800-1842, Japan. Image provided to Wikimedia Commons by Rijksmuseum.

So, what is it about these tiny trees that inspire such large obsessions? Enthusing groups of loyal devotees to start up clubs and conferences in the name of bonsai; inspiring others to head on pilgrimages to China and Japan, where years of their life are spent practicing the art; whilst a select few end up dropping a million dollars at an auction just to claim ownership of a miniature tree specimen.

Though much of it certainly has to do with the respect and fascination we hold for the bonsai craft, is it also possible that it’s because bonsais are small, and well… cute?”

Scrolling through forums, there is an interesting undercurrent of voices arguing against bonsai, or at least questioning the motives behind the practice, and why the obsession exists. The arguments range from stunting the trees from their true potential, to interference with Mother Nature, man’s dominance over wilderness, and even that bad bonsai = bad Feng shui.

One poster asks: Is bonsai cruel? To which they received the reply: Trees shouldn’t be stunted in tiny pots. They should be growing wild and free in the forest.

Another says: I can’t sleep at night because I can’t stop thinking about my bonsai. It can’t possibly be normal to lose sleep because you’re obsessively thinking about miniature trees, could it?

And another: I’ve inherited my father’s old bonsai collection but I have no idea what to do with them. There’s over 50. Help!

Image by Daniel Shipp

Regardless of where you sit on the ‘to bonsai, or not to bonsai’ fence, there is no denying the deep fascination we each share with the craft – which is kind of admirable when you consider how small the trees in question are. Like all good art, and gardening too, bonsai creates a space for conversation and differences of opinion.

Where those that would argue bonsai is about dwarfing trees that should be growing freely in the wild, the bonsai grower would retaliate that by the same logic, all gardening in pots could be considered a representation of man’s force over nature. And where bonsai deniers would argue the practice is all about control, dominance and obsession with the tiny, the bonsai grower would respond that the practice is about ritual, discipline, a reverence for small moments in nature and yes, obsession too. And maybe in the world of Bonsai, that’s kind of a necessary element.

What the argument comes down to, is more a matter of whether bonsai is done well, with the right level of respect for the craft and with the health and wellbeing of the tree always in mind.”

So, if you’re someone who is new to bonsai and thinking this life of devotion to the small might be for you, here are a couple of things to check in with before launching straight into the deep end.

Having a bonsai is like having a baby. Bonsais require DAILY care. Don’t think you’ll be able to check in on them every Sunday and then forget about them for the rest of the week. Due to the restrictive conditions they are grown in, bonsais rely on the care and discipline of their owners to survive. Establishing a routine early in their life is important.

They’re also not for the avid, or even weekend, traveller. Unless you employ the assistance of bonsai babysitters. Which do exist, by the way.

Bonsais growers must be interested in the pursuit of knowledge. Regardless of how much respect/love/obsession you feel for the craft, if you don’t first learn the basic techniques (of which there are quite a few), your bonsai won’t survive. This is why apprentice growers studying beneath Masters in Japan spend between 6-10 years learning the basics of bonsai, repeating seemingly simple steps over and over and over.

There’s an entire new language you’ll need to conquer, which includes terms for techniques, tools, styling and history. Tapering, wiring, deadwood, defoliation, Ishisuki, Yose-ue, Misho, natural trunk-line, air layering, bending, apex design, concave cutter, twig shears – these are just some!

And that’s way before you’ve learned how to employ those skills in your bonsai practice.

The pot matters. Bonsai translates as ‘tree in a tray’, meaning the pot the tree is growing in is essential to the overall piece. As a general rule, the depth of the pot should be the same diameter of the trunk at soil level, with the length of rectangular pots 2/3 the height of the tree and round pots 1/3 the height of the tree. Evergreen trees should only be potted in unglazed pots, while deciduous trees should appear in glazed pots.

There’s a reason bonsai are sometimes referred to as ‘Art without end’. Bonsai can live as long as they are being cared for – meaning the Moreton Bay Fig you’ve just wired for the first time could still be in your family six generations down the track. This is why some bonsais, like the 800-year-old white pine which sold at auction in Takamatsu, are so rare and priceless. At the Crespi Bonsai Museum there is a Ficus retusa Linn which is estimated to be 1000 years old!

People who have inherited grand collections that were once nurtured and cared for by bonsai devotees don’t always have the skills/commitment/time to keep the trees alive. This can often result in the premature death of the family bonsai collection – and is probably responsible for much of the bonsai criticism out there. If you are lucky enough to find yourself the sudden caretaker of a bonsai, you’ll need to recognise pretty quickly whether you have the potential to be a dedicated bonsai grower, and if not, find a nursery or museum where you can donate the plants into good, caring hands.

Bonsai attract thieves. Just ask this couple from Japan, who’s seven bonsai were stolen from their home, including a four-hundred-year-old shimpanku juniper that was estimated to value at least six million yen (approximately $55,000 USD). This is why many nurseries or bonsai growers will never reveal the location of their bonsai headquarters to the public. It does add to the mystique of the craft though…

There is support out there. Losing sleep over your bonsai? Aren’t sure what pests to check for? Not sure what aspect to face your trees? If the bonsai life is feeling a bit too much, join a local or online group, visit a bonsai nursery or drop your trees off at a bonsai babysitter so you can have a bit of a rest.

A healthy level of obsession is necessary. There’s no getting around it. If you’re going to be a bonsai grower, you’re going to have to be disciplined, devoted and more than a little obsessed with the smaller things in life.