Bonsai as a language

Here’s a little idea I had the other day somewhat in response to hearing the team at Mirai wondering if a new word was needed other than Bonsai to not pre-label the art into the Japanese concepts/aesthetics/etc. In short, the word bonsai can be seen as language. Now, languages evolve. Once a colony become independent of the mainland (for example the US from the UK) the language in the US started to evolve on its own - like all culture and like biological evolution too where isolation leads to speciation. The issue with Bonsai as a language is that having been introduced into the west not long ago in relative terms, only recently started its natural divergence from the “mainland” Japanese version of Bonsai. Like languages, different dialects share common words, and so in Bonsai we can continue to use widely used and understood words like nebari, jin, shari, yamadori, etc - without the risk of falling into Japanese aesthetics. Like language too, one can learn “American Bonsai” directly without having learnt “Japanese bonsai” and still speak to a Japanese speaker of Bonsai. Still like languages, in the former “colonies” there are still people that defend the purity of the original language (as a frozen version of the language as it was at the moment of separation) and don’t accept that even in the Mainland (Japan) the language also evolves. So there you go, both in Japan as in the West the language (aesthetics) of Bonsai evolves and in both places there are puritans (with no disrespect) that prefer the original language but it is natural that it evolves, like all culture. This post is not to stir any heated debate though. As a good friend of mine here mentioned, ultimately, for most of us it is a hobby and all that matters is to have fun with it, whatever dialect of Bonsai aesthetics one speaks. Happy bonsai.


Woah, this is awesome. Never thought of this! Thank you!


Sometimes I refer to the art simply as “microarborism” but Mirai seems to be spearheading a departure from the classical style into what some may call a post-microarborist movement.


This is awesome! I totally agree. I like this departure from the status quo that is happening in America and at Mirai. You can see Ryan’s avant garde style shine through although you can tell in his stream that he is still leaning on things he learned in Japan and using Japanese design ideas mixed with a style that is unique from that see in traditional bonsai.

I think it is entirely possible that a new term apart from bonsai could emerge as America’s bonsai styles depart from traditional Japanese styles, but that will be far in the future. It would be similar to the relationship that Penjing has with the word Bonsai.

Very interesting discussion point, thanks Rafi


I can’t tell you how many times during training that I have heard Ryan say, “Let’s speak Bonsai.”


During a Pine Level II class we were digging heavily into design and Ryan suggested that a new term may develop during the pursuit of a new aesthetic. Being new to bonsai I was instantly sold on the term “American Bonsai” which I had heard frequently from the Artisan Cup onward. I was content with the term up until that class and since then have wondered what this new term would be. It was just idle musing, really, because as @risco so deftly pointed out, it took many years for the term Bonsai to form out of it’s roots in Penjing and all the will be left of me at such a future date will be some miniature trees in pots.


Interesting discussion; I agree that it would be nice to have an American name for the artform–as the American approach is unique in spirit and approach. Building on missouri.grant, I think we can wordsmith something.

Penjing (盆景: potted scenery)and bonsai(盆栽: potted planting)have similar meanings; perhaps–because pot has a specific additional meaning–a suitable translation might be container arborcraft. One of the most transformational concepts that Ryan has drilled into my head is craftsmanship. Art, science, craft.

Just thinking.


I constantly dummy down the conversation when interacting with bonsai enthuasiasts.
Ryan mixes it up… What he rambles into IS important.
Bonsai is a 1500+ years old hobby. Thy history and language are important.
I DO what I can. We all lean to atropy.
I aspire to Informal upright… Myogi!

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In my humble opinion, I ask why do we need to separate from the traditional. Because a person uses a different species, or looks at aesthetics from a different angle means they’re not practicing bonsai? I have to wonder why we need to rename/separate from the traditional when it was the traditional that enticed us in the first place. A craft will inevitably evolve with time, this is just the way it is, but beneath the new tools, the use of local species and the different view on aesthetics are we not all still developing a small tree in a container? Is the essence of bonsai still not instilled in the most basic fundementals we use. I practise Goju-ryu, a form of martial arts developed in Okinawa in the late 1800s. Although I train in Canada and some of what I’ve been taught here differs from that in Japan, I’m still a student of goju-ryu. In my opinion, from 10 years in the tattoo industry, 27 in martial arts and 15 in bonsai, people of this era and especially the western world are far too quick to forget where they came from and too eager to make something theirs. I think it’s important for individuals who practise any craft or art form to not only remember where they came from, the people who did it before them and the reason it’s even possible for them to be a student of the craft, but also, to a certain extent preserve the essence of that craft. I fully understand the differences in western and Japanese practises of bonsai and the reasons behind discussing a name change. Its plain to see the contrast in the two. But in a video in the archive Ryan speaks of how the repetition and militant drilling of techniques over his 6 years of an apprentice gave him an unconscious, natural backbone to his application of knowledge and techniques that he still falls back on today. How he systematically works his way from the bottom up for example. So I ask, even with his drastically different approach aesthetically, and his evolution of some of the traditional techniques and thinking, at the core of it all. In his unconscious, natural application of knowledge and techniques, is he not still practicing bonsai? Food for thought. This is my take on the topic.


The only problem are the people who themselves don’t accept that bonsai is all that and only traditional is acceptable. Usually people without any eagerness to create but only to copy and repeat.

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Do you know how excited I am to have something I can substantively contribute on the Mirai forum?

Like most language problems, this is fundamentally a conflict between prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. In a nutshell:

  • Prescriptive linguistics (e.g. prescriptivism) is about creating rules for language; prescriptivism attempts to define how language should be;
  • Descriptive linguistics (e.g. descriptivism) is about observing how people use language; descriptivism attempts define how language should be in terms of how it’s actually used.

Both approaches, in isolation, have their problems. Prescriptivism can devolve into William F. Buckley-grade honking about how People Ought To Be (tone-deaf, not exactly persuasive); descriptivism dissolves if you look at it too hard (for example: if it’s about how people actually use language, which people? when? and who decides?)

So what about bonsai? Well, we’ve got a central conflict:

  • Bonsai (and penjing) were created in Japan (and China), where it was practiced without significant export for more than a thousand years;
  • Bonsai achieved international popularity after World War 2, and while international bonsai practice is deeply informed by Japanese (and Chinese) practice, there are substantive and growing differences between Japanese bonsai and international bonsai.

Where do prescriptivism and descriptivism come into it?

Because there’s a conflict between “bonsai prescriptivism” – think: bonsai is exclusively defined in Japan, by Japan, and through historical Japanese practice – and “bonsai descriptivism” – think: bonsai is whatever anybody says it is, and who cares what everybody else says?

Ultimately I don’t think the answer is to create a new word. Why? Two reasons:

(1) Like it or hate it, bonsai practice IS deeply rooted in Japanese and Chinese practice, tradition, and cultural and historical precedent;

(2) Nobody wants to learn a whole new set of words for concepts that already exist. (There are TONS of examples of this, but just one that I’m familiar with: Israel has a national language academy for creating/deciding on words for new concepts in modern Hebrew, and their recommendations are frequently ignored, because by the time the academy recommends a word, people have pretty much settled on something else instead – and it’s often a loan-word.)

For better or worse, love it or hate it, I think we’re going to be talking about bonsai and jin and shari for the foreseeable future.

That said: I think there’s value in talking about bonsai-by-country (e.g. American bonsai, Japanese bonsai) or bonsai-by-area (e.g. international bonsai, Japanese bonsai) because that creates a new and useful distinction. Which I think is why I hear lots of folks talk about American bonsai, Japanese bonsai, international bonsai, etc. – it’s useful!

Which is also ultimately the way to resolve most linguistic problems: blend the prescriptive approach and the descriptive approach until you get something that works for most people most of the time. :slight_smile:


Coda: I haven’t heard many people in the bonsai community talk about cultural appropriation***, but I think any attempt to create non-Japanese words for bonsai terms is almost certainly going to end up offending somebody – and rightfully so; bonsai doesn’t belong to Japan (or China), but it IS deeply rooted in those countries’ histories and cultures.

*** Which might just be the people/communities I spend time with. Maybe lots of folks are talking about this and I’m just not hearing it? Also, cultural appropriation in context of Japanese cultural exports gets Pretty Weird in context of post-WW2 efforts in Japan to sell Japanese cultural objects (both conceptual and actual) to the western world. Look no further than the relative value of objects stamped “Made in Occupied Japan”; here is deep and turbulent water.


I’m really happy that we are having conversations like this on this forum. For me, Bonsai is so much more than when to fertilise and when to chop.
Language IS important, because when we can speak Bonsai, we can think Bonsai which leads to Bonsai knowledge and wisdom.
I have no problem using Japanese terms. English has a rich history of thieving from other languages, but also, internationally, we can use these terms and be understood. Using the Japanese terms also pays homage to the cultural lineage of the practice.
Our Bonsai language is already changing however, with much credit going to Mirai (in a podcast, Peter Warren jokes about how you can spot Mirai students from the way they talk!). Change in language is inevitable, as is the change in Bonsai aesthetic, but I feel both are most effective when they occur organically. How many growing seasons do any of us have left to be reinventing the wheel?
The trees don’t care if we practice Bonsai, so it is up to us to reflect on our reasons and the thoughts behind what we do. And we shouldn’t forget, that as we grow and bend our trees, they too, are shaping us.
P.S. Can we have a “Philosophy” topic button on the forum?


Heerrrre we go now it’s getting juicy!

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I think @AndyK is right when he says that “change in language is inevitable, as is the change in Bonsai aesthetic, but I feel both are most effective when they occur organically.”

I’d actually go a step further and say that they can only happen organically. People are going to use language and engage art in whatever ways they find most useful and fulfilling. The most any Bonsai Prescriptivist can do is hope that a community authority (John Naka, Young Choe, Ryan, etc. etc.) nudges a critical mass of people in their preferred direction.


To reproduce a prior result is not art. It can be considered a craft like making a leather wallet at summer camp, or doing a paint by number kit. It requires skill and technique, but should not be considered as art. IMHO