by Elaine Lies of Reuters website
The tiny trees used in the Japanese art of bonsai may live for centuries, but the ancient traditions that produce them are being given a modern twist by female artist Kaori Yamada.
Bonsai — the art of cultivating miniature trees — has long been seen in Japan as a hobby only for elderly men. But Yamada, who hails from a family of bonsai artists with a history spanning more than 150 years, has managed to make it trendy.
“When I started this job, we were a bit worried about whether the art of bonsai would last since the people who took part in it were dying off,” she told Reuters.
“I thought things about bonsai were really being wasted — that it was seen as a hobby for old men. There should be a way to reach out to women and young people too,” she added, speaking at the family nursery, Seiko-en, in Saitama, just north of Tokyo.
Yamada, 29, originally hated the idea of joining the family business and wanted to become a stewardess instead.
But the lure of the bonsai she grew up with, many of them centuries old, proved too strong.
After graduating with a degree in marketing, she turned down a job offer and began working with bonsai, applying some modern business techniques to the trees.
Many of the practical skills she needed she had already picked up by following her grandfather and father over the years.
“The trees were like teachers to me,” she said. “You have things around that are 100, 300, 500 years old, and realize that man only lives at most 100 years. These trees know everything.”
Traditional vs. Modern
Yamada’s first achievement was fleshing out one of her father’s ideas for a new form of bonsai which led to “saika bonsai” which is designed to appeal to women and young people.
Bonsai — literally “potted planting” — became popular as a way of bringing nature inside for many Japanese whose small houses made gardens impossible.
Traditional bonsai growing, introduced to Japan from China between 1185-1333, keeps the trees small enough to be grown in a container. Various techniques, including painstaking pruning and wiring, are used to give the trees a mature appearance.
It can take decades to complete one tree, meant to symbolize a scene from nature, and they can then survive for centuries.
By contrast, saika bonsai — meaning “colorful flower” bonsai — use flowers and grasses along with the trees, usually in a container small enough to be held in two hands to make it easy for women to handle.
“What we wanted was to take traditional Japanese plants, scenery and spirit, and express it in a single pot,” Yamada said.
Though based on traditional bonsai principles, saika bonsai can be completed more quickly and are easier to care for than traditional bonsai, which often need careful tending.
The inclusion of flowers and grasses also gives a softer appearance than that of often austere tiny trees.
During the past eight years, saika bonsai has become popular through Yamada’s efforts. She has written books and hosted a weekly television series, as well as teaching classes in Saitama.
During a recent class, Yamada eyed seedlings and gave pruning advice. Sometimes, she took up tiny clippers to trim sprigs.
“A 100 or 200 year bonsai is beyond the reach of most people, but something like this that you can do relatively quickly is really good,” said 66-year-old student Fusa Tabata. “Traditional things make you pull back, but this is modern.”
But traditional bonsai artists view the trend warily. “I’m not sure it’s really true bonsai,” said Setsuko Masumi at the All Japan Shohin-Bonsai Association.
All forms of bonsai appear to be undergoing a bit of a boom over the past few years, Masumi said, with the Internet helping to boost interest among younger people.
Yamada also sees a change, saying that young people now visit the bonsai nursery on dates — unthinkable when she was a child.
“Now, I often hear young people say ‘how cute’ or ‘how cool’ when they see bonsai, and this makes me feel very happy.”