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Understanding The Bonsai Language

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Understanding Bonsai Language

Some people don't see the Bonsai Language as important to learn and would rather just use western terms and language to portray a style, technique or saying when it comes to Bonsai. I on the other hand understand how this can not only be helpful to understand but also respectful to the culture that brought Bonsai forward into the every day lives on the Hobbyist and Enthusiasts.

You may be thinking straight away " Why does he understand the importance?"

I practise a Japanese Martial Art called Shorinji Kempo and within this Martial art we don't have Western Names for techniques or anything for that matter that is related to the art itself.

When we are taught this art we practise using the traditional Japanese names for techniques, There are 2 advantages straight away here by doing this

1. When learning it really makes you concentrate and take notice which helps you learn quicker

2. We can train at any Shorinji Kempo Dojo around the world no matter what their native language is as we all understand the same language when it comes to practising Shorinji Kempo.

So then how does this Translate to Bonsai? It is much the same, if we all understand a universal Bonsai Language then no matter where you are appreciating Bonsai or even practising you can have a basic understanding of what is being shown. Even if it is as simple as pointing at a root base and saying "Nebari" with a smile and thumbs up this translates pretty easy to the fact you like the work that has been done on the root base. If one person speaks Italian and another speaks German and 1 person says " Nice Root Base " in their language this is much harder to translate.

But this is just 1 example of how this can benefit you, As mentioned if you have to study new words you take more notice of what those words represent as the words begin to take residence in your mind you will reflect on the technique or part of the tree that correlates every time you hear it.

We also have demonstrations. I have been to a few demonstrations where the demonstrator uses traditional Bonsai Language which is what most professionals are used to and even something as simple as them talking about "Jin" always raises a hand with the question " Whats a Jin". This is perfectly fine as we want every body to be able to ask questions but if you know all of the basic terms you will have a much better time sitting and enjoying the demonstrators work.

Now then lets get into a list of the Most Common Bonsai Terms you will hear with a brief description of what it translates too..

Lets Start With The 5 Basic Styles Of Bonsai

CHOKKAN : Informal Upright ( An upright trunk with side to side and back and forth moment but the apex lands back vertical with the base of the tree ).

MOYOGI : Formal Upright ( A trunk with little to no movement where the apex lands back vertical with the base of the tree)

SHAKAN : Slanting Style ( A trunk that slants to either the left or right with the Apex landing outside the rim of the pot, usually a good slanting tree will have compressed roots on the side the tree is leaning towards and long stretched roots on the side the tree is leaning away from giving a feeling that the roots are holding the tree stable)

KENGAI : Cascade ( A trunk that exits the soil and almost immediately descends downwards, A full cascade tree's tail will reach the bottom of the pot and the pot will be tall and upright)

HAN-KENGAI : Semi-Cascade ( A trunk that will Exit the soil and make a slow decent downwards or that will have the directional branch ( Shashi Eda ) Make the decent. Semi-Cascade trees pass the top lip of the pot but don't pass the bottom of the pot, The main foliage mass lives in between the wall thickness of the pot )

Most people refer to these styles with their western names E.G Cascade, Informal Upright etc etc. But they are still useful to know.

Now what about some Terms that use the Traditional Japanese Names more then the Western Names.

MOCHIKOMI : Referring to the old age of a Bonsai and the length of time it has been grown in a Bonsai Pot.

BUNJIN : This is referring to a tree that represents a literati style Bonsai but with subtle nuance of Wabi Sabi in its branches ( Imperfect Or Unfinished ). This style is often argued over and it is hard to properly define a Bunjin Tree.

NEBARI : This refers to the root spread at the base of a tree. A tree with a good Nebari is high in value among Bonsai Enthusiasts and some people put many years into developing a good Nebari on their trees.

NEAGARI : This refers to a tree that has Exposed roots. Think of a tree that is elevated up in the air by its roots system allowing you to see through the base. You could think of this style like a root over rock tree that has suddenly had the rock taken out leaving negative space in between the roots.

TACHIAGARI : This refers to the area between the Nebari ( Root Base ) and Ichi Eda ( First Branch ). This is a very important part of the tree as it draws a lot of attention and is the hardest place to fix imperfections.

JIN: This refers to a branch that has been stripped of its bark and painted with Lime Sulphur to give it a Bone White appearance. Jin helps add the illusion of age and the story of a hard life to the tree telling story's of hardship and perseverance.

SHARI : This refers to the dead parts of a trees trunk. Shari can be natural or man made and is often painted with Lime Sulphur to give it a Bone White appearance and help to stop the wood from rotting.

KUSAMONO : This refers to an accent plant that is shown in a 3 point display with the Main Tree and a scroll. There are other types of display but this is the most common. Kusamono are generally planted with grassed or small flowering plants.

KABUDACHI : Refers to a style of Bonsai that has multiple trunks from the one spot. This is more then just a twin trunk but 2+ Trunks from the same spot. This is commonly referred to as a Clump Style Bonsai.

SASHIEDA : This refers to the direction branch on the tree which is usually the branch that give the most flow and direction to where the tree is moving. This can be the first second or even third branch on the tree.

ICHINOEDA : This refers to the lowest branch on the tree or the first branch ( Ichi Meaning 1 in Japanese ). Also as a side note Generally in the context of Bonsai Eda Refers to Branch In Japanese.

TANUKI : This refers to a tree that has been tied to or grown around another piece of wood giving the illusion of a thicker trunk and older tree. The word Tanuki is from a Japanese Animal that is a Racoon Dog and they are thought to be very mischievous and deceiving. You can generally see Tanuki statues situated at the doors of Japanese Store to bring good luck.

URO : This refers to a hollow section within a trunk. Uro can give a tree the illusion of vast age.

YAMADORI : This refers to trees that are collected from the mountains. This is a common term used in western Bonsai for any collected material even if it is not from the mountains.

MAME : This refers to Bonsai that are generally in a 2" Bonsai Pot and are very small Bonsai at around 2-3" in height.

PENJING : This refers to the traditional Chinese style of Bonsai which is generally a tray planted landscape. The trees that are used in Penjing are also generally not wired but more or less clip and grow.

TOKONAMA : This refers to the area where Bonsai are Displayed either in the home or at a place of business. There are different types of Tokonama and there are also different ways to display Bonsai within a Tokonama.

These are Common Bonsai Terms and obviously there is a whole glossary of terms for Bonsai in Japanese but we are just for now wanting to get you familiar with things that you might hear other artists or demonstrators say and have you be familiar with the terms so you can soak in the techniques being taught.

I hope this article has helped add some new words to your Bonsai Language and will help you with your future Bonsai Endevours.

Until Next Time

Enjoy Your Bonsai Journey.

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