There is very little that really gets me fired up when it comes to bonsai discussions. Generally, a person’s opinion about something as subjective as art is just that; subjective. However, I feel the issue of “Bonsai Groomers” or “Bonsai Hair Dressers” needs to be addressed. I’ve been hearing about this for a few years now from bonsai artists and hobbyists outside of Japan. A lack of understanding I fear, is the issue.
My past feeling on the issue of bonsai ownership was that to call it “your’s”, you needed to create and style it yourself or at least own it a year or so. Looking back I now know this stems directly from my ego and need for validation. A few years before moving to Japan, I came to the realization that my method of thinking was extremely short-sighted and “mono-generational”; if it’s not a word, you get the idea : ). There are many bonsai in Japan that are older than the concept of the United States of America. Keeping bonsai going as an art form is a priority here in Japan. In America, things are getting started. That is not to say there are not some really impressive bonsai in the States, the EU, etc. etc. You just can’t compare Japan to the Western world yet.
So, what is the argument? Styling and maintaining some of the best bonsai on the planet is akin to styling hair? This leaves me confused. Yes, I’ve heard mumblings that Kouka-en is a “groomer” before. Kouka-en does do exhibition preparation for clients. We also care for clients’ trees here at the nursery for long periods of time. I think it is difficult for some to understand the different dynamic of bonsai in Japan. This is a business. Caring for clients’ bonsai brings in steady income and gives the bonsai the best possible chance of achieving true greatness. Much like other art forms like painting and sculpture, patronage by wealthy clients is what allows bonsai artists to contribute to the cultural fabric. The average customer here does not have training for technical wiring, in-depth knowledge of the best maintenance practices, or space to care for a ton of bonsai at their home.
Many current bonsai refinement techniques (those developed in about the last 30-40 years) exist to a large extent due to professionals’ specialization in differerent species, styles, and sizes of trees. In Japan, there are clearly defined roles that different businesses take. Businesses do evolve of course, and this will be touched on later. There are mass production field growers, smaller specialized field growers, yamadori collectors (yes people still collect in Japan), and container growers as well. The next step up are rough stock whole-salers and cheaper retail shops. There are middle level bonsai gardens, people who specialize in initial styling etc. etc. Collectors’ trees bounce in and out of the mix at all levels as collections are bought and sold. The most serious collectors appreciate the value of a bonsai that has had multiple owners, an interesting story or two attached, and the obvious prestige or value of owning something culturally important.
Many of the famous bonsai gardens people know internationally are at the top of this food chain. The best bonsai gardens in Japan deal in often very old, immaculately refined, and highly priced bonsai with well documented histories. This high-end business model has been around in Tokyo for at least 100 years. It really gained prominence during the Bonsai Boom (about 1984 to 1992) when the value of good bonsai, pots, stands, and suiseki skyrocketed. Demand increased, so competition between businesses led to better and better refined trees, implementation of some new techniques, and higher quality standards. Over the course of Japanese bonsai history, there have been multiple booms and busts. Whether it was formal upright black pines, satsuki azaleas, or the fabled “giant green blob style” where all you saw was a nebari, these booms directly influence bonsai world-wide.
At Kouka-en, there are trees that were started from seedlings and still here that have received Kicho Bonsai, or Important Cultural Masterpiece status. Fujikawa-san and I have looked though Kinbon and exhibition books together and this nursery has owned a number of famous trees at one time or another.
Kouka-en started as a grower of roses, perennials, and field-grown bonsai. Then, transitioned into the satsuki azalea trade by collecting rough stock and refining it. Next, the focus shifted to deciduous and broad-leaf evergreens. Now, there is a mix of just about everything here. Many other top bonsai gardens like Shunka-en started out as a grower before evolving into the current business model. With such a diverse history of creation, refinement, and maintenance, the monicker of groomer is wrong. Being at the top of the food chain is an honor, and refinement work requires knowledge of the preceding steps needed for bonsai creation. I look forward to the day when bonsai is highly specialized in America and abroad.
My friend Glen Lord said it best “there’s something romantic about a single-species nursery”. It will truly be a wonderful day when we have that level of sophistication. Thanks for reading. I’ve got a mani-pedi to do on a Stewartia monadelpha, so I’m signing off : ).