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.

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.

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.