Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
If I’m not mistaken it was the dean of expatriates, Donald Richie who wrote it somewhere: a construction crew changed the engineer’s plans and left a “window” open in its fencing wall so they wouldn’t need to cut the branch of a nearby tree. The story was mentioned as characteristic example of the Japanese thought as pertains to nature the respect the Japanese grant it and truth be told, wherever there are trees, they are treated with special care. Still, I would find it hard to say that the Japanese truly respect nature; perhaps they did a long time ago (Richie lived here for almost 60 years) but I think that their ideas for nature are better expressed through bonsai (and even more through their gardens): nature is good as long as it complies with our wishes.
In contrast to what many think, the bonsai (盆栽) don’t belong to some particular species: any tree can become a bonsai if it goes through the time-consuming and tortuous (both for the tree and its creator) procedure of pruning and tying with wires and casts so they can come to the shape and size the artist wants –yes, it is an art and this is how it is exhibited and appreciated, at least in contemporary Japan. The interference with the plant’s development is so extended and so long lasting that the result, the “tree that grows in a tray” as the name goes, while natural is at the same time absolutely unnatural and although I have to admit I am still impressed and charmed every time I see even a half-done bonsai, I can’t think of it as something real. Perhaps because I never got involved in its creation.
Although they are Chinese in origin (of course), bonsai became synonymous with Japan to the point that they are considered today one of the most characteristic elements of its culture; undoubtedly their popularity and perfection of their cultivation by the Japanese played some role in that but I believe this is also a consequence. The real reason that led to their popularity in the first place was that the Japanese saw on them an idealized image of nature, the same nature they have been trying to tame, rather unsuccessfully for the last thirty millennia. Books on the subject are filled with mentions of Zen, the principle of wabi-sabi, asymmetry and all those wonderful things that make up classic Japanese aesthetics but personally I still believe that if one goes behind all that, they will find one more example of homeopathic magic of those naturally occurring in a culture based on paganism. Not that this lessens the charm of the bonsai themselves in any way, of course…
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.