Beautiful, Bombproof Bonsai

by Susan Spann

Most people have seen a bonsai tree, and most of us know they come from Japan–or at least, that the techniques and art form are Japanese in origin.

14H22 bonsai(pd)

But many people don’t realize how ancient the art of bonsai really is, or what amazing stories some of its oldest living specimens can tell.


The oldest bonsai trees in the world are more than 1,000 years old. Most of them now reside in museums, but each has a documented history of more than ten centuries.

One of the most remarkable bonsai lives in the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C. The tree is a Japanese white pine, known as the Yamaki pine after its cultivator, bonsai master Masaru Yamaki. It was 400 years old, and living at Yamaki’s home in the city of Hiroshima, on the morning of August 6, 1945. At 8:15 a.m., the atomic bomb fell on the city–and exploded less than two miles from Yamaki’s home. “A large stone wall” shielded the pine, and several other bonsai trees, from the explosion. The tree’s survival is nothing short of a miracle.

This white pine is merely one of millions of bonsai trees “in training” around the world. Many are only a few years old; some count their age in centuries. Regardless of age, all bonsai owe their starts to an art which originated in China and moved to Japan between the fifth and seventh centuries.


14H22 Woman with Bonsai (1777)The earliest Japanese written references to trees raised in pots and cultivated to take on curious shapes (which reflected the Japanese sense of beauty in nature) occurred before the year 1000.

The art of bonsai cultivation (then called hachi-no-ki or “the bowl’s tree”)  grew in popularity during Japan’s medieval period, when images of bonsai trees began showing up not only in literary works but also on painted scrolls.

A famous Noh drama (Japanese traditional play) involves a man who burns his beloved bonsai trees to warm a traveling monk on a winter night.

People began referring to these special trees, and the art that creates them, as “bonsai” during the 19th century. The term derives from the Chinese word “penzai,” which was the original name for the art of cultivating trees in small containers.


Japanese artisans and bonsai aficionados have written books, articles, and treatises on the various methods and techniques of bonsai cultivation for many centuries. Techniques are passed down from master to student, and the best and most dedicated bonsai masters, like Masaru Yamaki, create living masterpieces which are admired around the world.

The art of bonsai grew from Japanese appreciation of natural forms, beauty and the strength of living trees. Bonsai attempts to cultivate age and strength in miniature, along with a sense of balance, peace, and serenity. These qualities are all too often missing in our busy lives.   

14H22 Bonsai (1800s)

One of the best parts of bonsai, for me, is the fact that you don’t have to be a master, or dedicate your life to the art, to raise and enjoy these special trees. Anyone with the time and patience can raise a bonsai tree, and bring a bit of ancient Japan into even the most modern, urbanized life.


Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

* All images copyright Susan Spann (2013).

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