To Bonsai or not Bonsai, that is the question. Or, semantics, just semantics. Important and not, at the same time

For a long time I concern myself with Bonsai not being seen as a Japanese art form, without ever diminishing the contribution that Japan gave to the evolution of the art form. Still, this influence is so strong and it makes so many people approach bonsai not as an art but as a craft that follows the aesthetics and the concepts developed in Japanese bonsai that it led me to wonder, like Ryan himself many times pondered about, if the word bonsai itself ought to be used or something new. I even suggested the word Artree that works in other languages too, Artbol (spanish), Atrbre (French) and possibly others. Another consideration for a new name would be also the question of cultural appropriation. Are we even allowed to do what we do with trees and call it bonsai? As bonsai is in a large extent a representation of the culture, are we not if we do not follow the craftsmanship rules from Japanese Bonsai, not doing bonsai but if we do follow these rules and call it bonsai, we’d be appropriating of their culture? Are we even able to despite our best efforts?

In any case, I came across an interesting post by Michele Andolfo in facebook where Michele discusses the Japanese aesthetic principles related to Yugen. In his words, as translated by facebook from Italian:

" Even if the term can literally be translated as ′′ slightly dark ", it doesn’t only serve to describe the charm of things in the dark or not clearly manifest that you don’t fully understand the limits and particulars, but it’s also used with wider sense, to indicate what, being dark, is unfathomable, mysterious and inscrutable.

The limitless vision created in fantasy far exceeds anything you can see more clearly, recreating this concept in bonsai art denounces a great sensitivity and humility.

Letting go, intuition, not showing plateally but disguising or clouding an element of aesthetic or emotional interest will be difficult to accept and put into practice, but it will center the Yugen’s goal, making it more fascinating.".

I have been thinking about this post for the past two days. Here is what I think. First of all, I love the discussion but it made me think that it is impossible that this concept is not used in art and in life elsewhere. In fact, when you think about it more generally in the context where hiding details is more expressive and suggestive than showing every detail, this is a commonly used concept in western art and even in advertising. I was thinking then, why is it that we don’t have a word for it. The Japanese seem to have a word for every concept. I think that this is a consequence of the way that the Japanese language works as opposed to western languages. Because of the kanji logographic alphabet (I know it is not the only one) and how it is used to represent concepts. So there is a natural way of creating sounds that represent concepts. In western languages we don’t usually do that - or at least not anymore. Except for German where they simple glue together 20 long words to create a new even longer word that represents one concept but lets not get into that… Anyway, the question now is, do we have all the concepts, are there concepts that only the Japanese people express? I don’t know but I doubt it, because we are all humans with the same basic senses and brains to process information. I think this is a deeper discussion involving biology, language and culture that is much deeper than my knowledge. In any case, like the Japanese invented the word Miriko for Milk that didn’t exist in Japan before the Americans arrived after WWII, perhaps we ought to adopt words from Japanase and save ourselves the trouble of inventing new words. This would not be a matter of cultural appropriation but instead a nod to their contribution to the modern interconnected world. Most notably among these words, the word Bonsai itself. So this long post is simply to say that it is ok to refer to what we do as Bonsai. You could could have saved yourself 5 minutes of your life by not reading this long post. Sorry.


I’m all for finding a new word for whatever it is we are doing with our trees now.

The best idea I’d heard previously was “treemaking” from one of the AUS folks (I think it was Hugh?) on a podcast at some point.

I think artree is perhaps even better. Its simple, still somewhat of a compound word from two of the primary concepts we are working towards, and it does work similarly in multiple languages.

I imagine it will be tough to gain widespread agreement and start actually using any new term at conventions, clubs, and events. Many people I know doing “bonsai” do it in part because of its long history and the ties to the Japanese culture.

1 Like

I think your suggestions are ignoring the pot - and the translation of the word ‘bonsai’.
This discussion reminds me of the many words for ‘snow’ in northern aboriginal cultures.

1 Like

for sure the containement of the roots is important but it doesn’t have to have a container (think kokedama moss ball), much less a pot but you’re correct that it is more general than the crucial point of containment of the roots.

1 Like

Here’s a thought:

Artistic Representation of Nature (A.R.O.N , A.R.N or AR.R.O.NA)

Does not roll off the tongue… but it can cover kusamono and suiseki too and any new additions

to the art of bonsai.

1 Like

Paintings are also artistic representations of nature…

1 Like

A painting you could say is more of a depiction rather than a representation because it not part of “nature” in the sense a rock and a tree is.
But you could add “dynamic” to represent the ever changing nature of the art based on the tree developing etc, or “living” in the acronym to make it more accurate.
Or this acronym is just not a good idea after all

1 Like

very interesting point. I like the nuance you highlighted.

1 Like

In this discussion, we are perhaps forgetting that the Japanese assimilated “bonsai” from the Chinese, who had been practicing “penjing” already for hundreds of years. The words translate the same in both languages: “Tray Plant” from Chinese (per Google) and “Tray Planting” from Japanese (per Wikipedia).

Japan took a Chinese tradition and made it their own, with new approaches, techniques, and styles, yet they didn’t change the name (beyond applying a translation into their own language). They didn’t worry about whether they were “allowed” to do it. They liked growing and caring for little trees, so they did it, and did it well.

Today, “we” (Americans? Mirai students? What group are we talking about here?) are not practicing bonsai so radically differently than the Japanese are practicing bonsai, so why would we change the name? Particularly when the name of the practice (“bonsai”) is already well-recognized internationally (whereas “penjing” was not when the Japanese began practicing the art, explaining why the Japanese would have adopted their own translated name for the practice that people in Japan could recognize and understand).

I agree with @rafi 's conclusion that it is 100% okay to refer to what “we” do as “bonsai.” It is cultural appropriation, but what isn’t these days? It’s not bad to be inspired by something beautiful from another culture. It’s how virtually all art has come to be, throughout all of history.


I don’t think about it that profoundly. I’m just running a bunch of science experiments and happen to try to make them look pretty.


One advantage of using the Japanese terms is avoiding the mistranslations… I’d rather exchange with foreign practitioners using terms like mekiri, metsumi, hasukashi, nebari, neagari, sentei than worry about how it was translated in their respective language or if they know how it’s called in English. It’s why the terms aren’t translated in martial arts, for example I can say uchikomi-geiko to any kendo practitioner in the world and he will be ready for the activity.

Also many of the horticultural abominations of old school western bonsai were caused by mistranslation of bonsai soil names… akadama was translated as red loam, kanuma was translated as “sand and loam mix”, and so on in the 1967 “Master’s book of bonsai”. This was then sourced as authoritative soil compositions in the western bonsai books that followed.

Similarly, “moyogi” somehow got translated as “informal upright” even tho it means “patterned tree” and is as a formal tree style (unlike bunjin/literati which is an informal style or shakan which is a semi-formal style). This mistranslation becomes very problematic/confusing once you’re trying to understand the logic of kazari.

Miruku - not miroko - is just the phonetical transliteration of milk… it’s known as a gairaigo (foreign loan word). The native word for milk is nyuu, specifically gyuunyuu for cow’s milk.

Miruku is used mainly for coffee creamer, non-animal milk (soy, nut, oat, …) and compound words like mirukuse-ki/mirukusheiku (milkshake), mirukupan (milk bread, but gyuunyuupan is also used), kondensumiruku (condensed milk), konamiruku (powdered milk), mirukuho-ru (milk hall, an old style milk bar).

The use of miruku is older than you think: the first documentation of its use was when the first mirukuho-ru opened in 1897 in the historical Kanda ward of Tokyo.

The cultivation of small trees in pots has been happening in many different Asian cultures and seems to have spread in parallel to buddhism. In some early Chinese art showing potted trees, the trees were in the hands of persons wearing foreign style clothes.

The Japanese version of penjing is bonkei, it is a landscape in a pot/tray. Bonsai is the Japanese version of Chinese pensai, a tree planted in a pot/tray.

The “making it their own” in Japan is actually very recent. The modern Japanese bonsai forms were originally codified at the start of the 19th century, but they actually only became widely applied in the 20th century. There were many reasons for that, so I’ll focus on the techniques side. Until metal wire became available (1910 for galvanized steel wire in Japan), and affordable in the case of copper (1920s), the trees were shaped through a mix of clip&grow, pinching, bamboo fiber or thin brass guy wires. Trunks were coiled around bamboo stakes, and attached with thin brass wire or bamboo fibers. Most mallsai mass-produced in South-East Asia are still made with those techniques (using galvanized wire). The results weren’t exactly very aesthetic and the trees couldn’t be sold quickly. No documentation of Japanese bonsai being wired before 1910 has been found to date.

Tei’ichi Katayama (founder of the Nippon Bonsai Association and the Keido school of kazari) went as far as repeatedly writing that it was only the improvement of techniques post-WW2 that allowed the creation of very natural, almost ideal forms in bonsai.

If you want to dive into that rabbit hole, there are pictures out there of the “bonsai” shown in the 3rd Universal Exposition (1878) and subsequent exhibits until WW1. Those tress have very little in common with what we now call bonsai, apart from being a tree in a pot.
From a thread somewhere else :slight_smile:
Bonsai in 1878 (it’s a “tako zukuri” pine… a style from the Tokyo area at the time)
Note that the pot on that pine is quite deep, which possibly means it’s a pre-akadama tree.
Bonkei in 1878
A Thuja obtusa (now Chamaecyparis obtusa) from the Japan-British Exposition of 1910, which somehow won best in show:

For fun… here’s the oldest occidental book on bonsai from 1902. There is apparently an updated version of it in English from 1908.


The thing is that very few Japanese bonsai practitioners would call themselves artists. I recall an interview where a bonsai master was asked explicitly if he saw himself as an artist or an artisan, his answer was that it wasn’t up to him to decide if he was an artist. Younger bonsai masters are crossing the line between “shokunin” and “artist”, leaning more on the “artist” side and pushing boundaries, but still call themselves “shokunin”.

It’s not like the division between shokunin and artist is cut and dry anyways. The spirit of shokunin is the pursuit of perfection in what you are doing. The pursuit is hard and the journey is never ending. But you love what you do in spite of the hardships.