Apprenticeship and a “Bonsai Japanese” Crash Course

One cold winter day, an ignorant new apprentice conversed with his sensei.  “Watashino hey wa sugoku samuei desu” said the apprentice.  The sensei hit the floor with laughter leaving the student confused.  Turns out, instead of saying “My hands are really cold!”, I said “My farts are really cold!”.  Tey is the word for hand…..  In this particular instance, I was entertaining and kept the mood light.  There have been other instances where it was not such a fun experience.  There is absolutely nothing worse about apprenticeship than when you need to communicate something to save your ass but you have no idea how.  A basic understanding of the Japanese language is important to survive in Japan.  Having worked with Spanish-speakers for 15 years, I knew the importance of at least making an effort to learn Japanese.  The native speakers definitely appreciate it.

As a side note to anyone considering becoming an apprentice, being an apprentice means you’re wrong in every situation.  Answering incorrectly, discourteously, or too slowly = Wrong.  Correcting your sensei when they are wrong = Wrong.  Answering correctly somehow also equals wrong, but in a sort of humbling sort of way.  You can’t appear proud or say “i already knew that” or “you’ve asked me / told me that 500 times”.  Best to say you understand and continue to work on swallowing your pride.  Apprenticeship is a multi-faceted challenge not just for your body, but in my opinion more for your mind.  I liken it to the residency of a doctor running on no sleep after three shifts, but having to be on point with his diagnosis of an obscure disease.  The situations are not so dire in bonsai, but when you are an apprentice in Japan, it can sometimes feel that way.  The actual work may not be always be the challenging part, but quickly learning all the nuances of styling or caring for a given tree and accounting for all this stuff can be very difficult.  When was it repotted?  Which technique needs to be applied and why?  My favorite learning experience is the on-the-spot analysis of a new bonsai.  You’ve seen the tree for maybe half a minute as you carry it to the benches and are accosted with very pointed questions like “Where is the best viewing point and trunk angle?” or “What style of container would be ideal for this bonsai?”.  Your answers must be fast and accurate; an excellent training tool.

This post will not be full of nice photos, but will certainly be useful to anyone traveling to Japan to see bonsai, working with a Japanese speaking teacher, or doing a short-term study / full-blown apprenticeship in Japan.  I would recommend learning the words you feel that suit your goals.  Shortly before leaving for Japan Bjorn Bjorholm was kind enough to write me list of bonsai terms and it was very helpful.  In that same spirit of “paying it forward”, I’ve written a list of my own for anyone who’s interested below.  Spelling will reflect how to say the words phonetically.  Any words that have an interesting history that may shed light on their meaning will be elaborated on.  This particular post will be updated with more photos and definitions as I remember or learn useful terms.  This would be considered a crash course in  “Bonsai Japanese” and not something to start with if learning the language : ).  I recommend making flash cards as the language has no Latin heritage and it will be wrote memorization.  If anyone has vocabulary to add that relates to bonsai, please comment on this post.  My translations are not perfect in every case, but the general meaning or feeling is correct.  It is important to note that the order you use words in can change their meaning a great deal.  There’s also IN-TO-nation to consider, but that’s a rabbit hole I will not go down on a simple blog post.  If you don’t care about learning Japanese bonsai words, time to stop reading.

I’ve excluded common names on purpose as they can be confusing.  “That’s a cedar”  Oh really?  : ).  Learn the Latin names of any species you train and better yet, find out what species are related to it.  Knowledge of any plant’s lineage can be helpful with it’s care.  I wanted to exclude common names, but oh well.  Feel free to read my list, but I recently received a link to this site: HERE  Thanks go to John Romano; a fellow fan of bunjinji bonsai  Below the plant names are other useful terms and vocabluary.

Japanese Plant Names / Latin Names:

  • Icho, Chi-chi  –  Gingko biloba  – Gingko
  • Ichii –  Taxus cuspidata  –  Japanese Yew
  • Karamatsu  –  Larix kaempferi  –  Japanese Larch
  • Tosho  –  Juniperus rigida  –  Needle Juniper
  • Tsugi  –  Cryptomeria japonica  –  Japanese Cedar or Cryptomeria
  • Kuromatsu – Pinus thunbergiii  –  Japanese Black Pine
  • Akamatsu  –  Pinus densiflora  –  Japanese Red Pine
  • Goyomatsu  –  Pinus parviflora  –  Japanese White Pine
  • Kaede – Acer burgerianum (Kaede comes from an evolution of the words “kaeru no te”, or “frog hand”).  –  Trident Maple
  • Momiji –  Acer palmatum  –  Japanese Maple or Mountain Maple
  • Gyo-ryu  –  Tamarix chinensis  –  Tamarix
  • Chirimen kazura  –  Trachelospermum asiaticum var. Nana  –  Dwarf Star Jasmine
  • Tekka kazura  –  Trachelospermum asiaticum  –  Star Jasmine
  • Egonoki  –  Styrax japonica  –  Snowbell /  Styrax
  • Shimpaku  –  Juniperus chinensis var. Sargentii (oddly enough, this is a bonsai only term)  –  Shimpaku Juniper
  • Binan kazura  –  Kadsura japonica (bi means “beautiful”, nan means “man”, and kazura means “climber” referring to the use of this vine’s sap to slick back the hair of samurai during the Edo Period)  –  Katsura Vine
  • Suikazura  –  Lonicera japonica  –  Japanese Honeysuckle
  • Konara  –  Quercus serrata  –  Not sure
  • Kobushi  –  Magnolia kobus  –  Kobus Magnolia
  • Kuchinashi  –  Gardenia jasminoides  –  Gardenia
  • Murasaki shikibu  –  Callicarpa japonica (Named after Lady Murasaki, the author of The Tale of Genji)  –  Beautyberry
  • Ezomatsu  –  Picea glehnii  (Picea jezoensis is also called Ezomatsu)  Both are from Hokkaido and the surrounding small islands.  –  Ezo Spruce
  • Hinoki  –  Chamaecyparis obtusa  –  Hinoki False Cypress
  • Gamazumi  –  Viburnum dilatatum  –  Arrowwood Viburnum
  • Piracan  –  Pyracantha  –  Pyracantha / Firethorn
  • Nishikigi  –  Euonymus alatus  –  Winged Euonymus /  Burning Bush
  • Mayumi  –  Euonymus hamiltonianus subsp. sieboldianus (I had to look this one up)  –  Spindle Bush?  /  Siebold’s Spindle?
  • Buna  –  Fagus japonica  –  Japanese Beech
  • Ume  –  Prunus mume  –  Japanese Flowering Apricot (even though it’s from China and elsewhere)
  • Yamazakura, Sakura –  Prunus jamasakura  –  Mountain Cherry
  • Chochubai  –  Chaenomeles japonica ‘Chochubai’  –  Chochubai Quince
  • Omoto  –  Rohdea japonica  –   Sacred Nippon Lily
  • Schotssuba  –  Pyrossia spp.  –  Pyrossia
  • Gumi  –  Eleagnus spp.  (kind of a bulk name; there are a number of species and cultivars)  –  Eleagnus / Silverberry
  • Tsuge  –  Buxus microphylla  –  Littleleaf Boxwood
  • Chosen Tsuge  –  Buxus sinica var. insularis  –  Korean Boxwood
  • Niyoi Kaede  –  Premna japonica (name means smelly / stinky maple)  –  Stinky Maple / Premna
  • Haze  –  Rhus spp.  (another bulk category for the genus)  –  Sumac
  • Karin  –  Pseudocydonia sinensis  –  Chinese Flowering Quince
  • Boke  –  Chaenomeles japonica  –  Flowering Quince
  • Sanzashi  –  Crataegus spp.  (seeing a pattern here?)  –  Hawthorne
  • Mizuki  –  Cornus kousa  –  Kousa Dogwood
  • Hanamizuki  –  Cornus florida  –  American Dogwood
  • Tosamizuki  –  Corylopsis spicata (and possible C. pauciflora too)  –  Spike Winterhazel and Buttercup Winterhazel respectively
  • Sonare  –  Juniperus procumbens  –  Procumbens Juniper
  • Sawara  –  Chamaecyparis pisifera  –  Sawara Cypress
  • Tsuta  –  Parthenocissus tricuspidata  –  Boston Ivy
  • America no Tsuta  –  Parthenocissus quinquefolia  –  Virginia Creeper
Here are some descriptive terms for plants:
Zouki  –  Deciduous trees (also kind of gray for stuff like Eleagnus and other broadleaf evergreens)
Shouhaku  –  Conifers
Arakawa  –  Literally means  “Rough Bark”
Ara-ki  –  From the words Arai (rough) and Ki (tree)  referring to rough stock that is not a bonsai yet.
Nishiki  –  Means “brocade” and used to describe variegation of leaves or corky bark.  I’ve found some names with nishiki that had neither so a matter worth investigating.
Isai  –  Flowers when very young
Hime  –  Small or Dwarf;  generally referring to the whole plant
Ko  –  Small or Dwarf;  generally referring to a certain aspect like flowers and / leaves
Yabu  –  of the forest or “wild” (for example, Yabai refers to wild Prunus mume)
Yama  –  of the mountains
Chosen no  –  Korean (North)
Chugoku no  – Chinese
Yatsubusa  –  selection that forms many buds
Fu-ii-rdi  –  Variegation
Sashiki  –  Rooted cutting
Toriki  –  Air layer
Plant Anatomy:
Happa, Hasho, Ha  –  Leaf / Leaves
Kawa  –  Bark
Ne  –  Root
Nebari  –  Root spread
Hana  –  Flower
Eda  –  Branch
Mi  –  Fruit
Jiku  –  section of shoot between main branch and foliage?
Doughbuki  –  Inner Buds
Atama  –  Head (apex)
Jin  –  dead branch (that you wanted to use in the design)
Shari  –  dead section of trunk or main branch
Ki  –  Tree
Shokubutsu  – plant
Kareru  –  verb for “die” (referring to plants and branches)
Tachi agari  –  rising or movement of trunk above root base
Decriptive Terms:
Nagare  –  Movement (as in dominant feeling of direction)
Kangi  –  Feeling  (“This tree feels heavy, myterious, etc)
Eee  –  Good
Waruii  –  Bad
Hosoi  –  Thin
Futoi  –  Thick / Fat
Hiroi  –  Wide
Nagai – Long
Mijikai  – Short
Sugoku  –  really _____ (really heavy, really strange,etc.)
Mezurashi  –  rare
abunai  –  dangerous
______-sugi  –  too  ____ (For example, nagasugi means “too long”)
Bonsai Garden Terms / Tools and Products:
Jimusho  –  Office
Ocha no heya  –  Tea Room
Shigotoba  –  Work Room
Tenjijo  –  Storage Room
Hausu  –  Greenhouse
Tana  –  Bench
Tabeluga  –  Table
Isu  –  Chair
Kaitendai  –  turntable (for working on bonsai and display)
Tsunoko  –  Bamboo shoot mat used for display
Jiita  –  Burl wood slab
Shoku – Stand (for bonsai or other display)
Shoku-no-hako  –  Wooden box for display stand (you just learned the word box too….)
Hoki  –  Broom (this one is super important)
Takeboki  –  Bamboo broom
Komi  –  Dustpan
Pinsetto  –  Tweezers
Hashi  –  Chop Stick
Yattoko  –  Pliers (like Jin Pliers)
Hasami –  Scissors
Harigane Kiri  –  Wire Cutters
Mata Eda, Eda Kiri  –  Concave Cutter
Hamma –  Hammer
Tawashi  –  Scrub brush
Zokin  –  rag
Dasukin  –  dust rag
Yogozai  –  Lime Sulphur
Tsubaki abura  –  Camellia oil
Pests and Diseases:
Mushi  –  Insect
Ari  –  Ant
Abura mushi  –  Aphid
Dango mushi –  Roly Poly
Namekuji  –  Slug
Kamekiri mushi  –  Asian Long-horned Beetle
(be really sure before you tell someone you’ve seen this one.  Kill first, ask questions later)
Kaigara mushi  –  Armored Scale
Danii  –  Mites (kind of a catch-all)
A few words you will definitely need to know:
Sumimasen  –  I’m sorry, excuse me, or just what you say if you do anything as an apprentice : ).  You probably did something wrong recently….. This word can be used in many situations from prefacing a question to entering a private residence.
Hai  –  Yes
Baka  –  Dumbass
Wakarimash-ta  –  I understand.  This one is super important.  Saying this signifies you are listening and can be held accountable for the order or request given.
Wakarimasen  –  I do not understand.  Try not to say this too much ; ).  This phrase was uttered many times my first few months here shortly followed by a facial expression full of confusion, fear, frustration, and embarrassment.
In the morning, other people arrive.  You say:  O-high-o Go-zai-mass
Thank you =  A-ree-gatoo Go-zai-mass
@ the end of the day You say:  Shit-sureE-shi-mass (means “I disappear”).  If you want to get really snazzy you say “Osaki-ni Shit-sureE-shi-mas” (means “I disappear before you do”) which boils down to they are staying at work later than you and that is admirable.
Sometimes, a person will come back from being away and say:  Tah-daie-mah.  This means “I’m back”.  You are supposed to say:  Oh-kah-ee-ree-nah-sai.
That will be a good starting point.  Again, don’t be shy with the terms.  I’ll continue to update the list.
Thanks for reading.