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Thursday, October 22, 2009

What if 'Traditional 'Bonsai Style did not exist? - English

 Published at
Art of Bonsai Project under  'Eristic'

What if 'Traditional' Bonsai Style Did Not Exist?
by Walter Pall

A few observations have made me to conclude that there is no such thing as THE traditional bonsai style. Traditional is used as synonym to classical very often.

Let?s look at "classical" bonsai as they were shown over times. Where can we do this? Well, it can be done by looking at issues of the Kokufu-ten books over the years. If you ever have a chance to look at one from before the war it will strike you that the majority of trees shown in there don't look at all like what most see as "classical" bonsai today. In fact a majority would be considered inferior today. Then one moves on to editions after the war. One finds that in the late fifties and mid-sixties the bonsai exhibited often look like what is seen as "Classical Traditional Bonsai Style" today by quite a lot of people in the West (but not in Japan!). Going on in time the bonsai have a different feeling again. And in editions of the past ten years they look very much different again.
What most would call THE classical trees is really the trees of the late seventies to end-eighties. Compared to other art forms this is very recent for being called "classical". But for some it is already dated.

Look at what people create who were trained in Japan very recently. Does this look like what we have learned to be "traditional" bonsai style? Most of the times it does not. I am not even speaking of the youngsters who have studied with Kimura. And I am not speaking of those who try to be very contemporary. I am speaking of those who insist that what they have learned and what they are practising is "traditional" bonsai.

I have had the pleasure to interview Kimura in public on stage two years ago. One question went into the direction "what is so different in your style than what we have learned to call traditional?" Kimura insisted that what he was and is doing is "traditional". He insisted that he is in the classical line and all there is to it is may be more attention to detail, to refinement. Well, I don't think so at all.

But what is "traditional, classical" bonsai if it comes in so many radically different appearances? And it even dares to change, to progress.

Traditional, classical means something stable to most. Something to look back and up to, to admire forever. How come what used to be called top classical masterpieces is changing all the time. It is not supposed to. Or is it?

How come that there is definitely a different look between what is created in the West (outside of direct Japanese influence) and called "traditional" and what is coming out of Japan nowadays and also called "traditional"?

I think we can see quite a few more or less radically different styles under the heading "traditional".

I at least see clearly two: The Western Traditional Style and the Japanese Traditional Style.

If this comes as surprise to you, you are in good company. It surprises me too.


  1. Walter, could you add some pictures of the styles you speak about? it would be very nice to ilustrate yours thoughts.

  2. Walter, doesn't this sound very similiar to what the French did to protect their wine industry. They created so many rules that it stifeled creativity to the point that wine growers can't compete with the newcomers in the Industry. If i recall my reasearch correctly, the Chinese only had 25 Rules to abide by, but when the Japanese became involved, the list of rules grew to 300. It sure sounds as if someone was intending to control an industry, which in Japan, it is an industry in the sense that many people make their livelyhood from it. I originally thought that growing Bonsai was a well guarded secret, but as you aptly replied it is "Art Form 80% and 20% agriculture". I thank you for opening my eyes and i am re-thinking about which direction my furthur research should go.