Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hello Arthur, hello Walter

Hello Walter,

I was most grateful to see your latest response posted Sunday morning. The conversation on the IBC forum regarding subjects you and I are discussing in this open correspondence had once again become hostile and was spiraling downward into off-topic personal conflict. It was discouraging to see that happen again. On top of that, in the period after I posted my last message to you I felt somewhat disappointed by what I had written, because it pulled me too far in a direction I did not mean to go. I had intended to give just a brief nod in the direction of the whole "Why Bonsai Is Not Inherently Japanese" rabbit hole and the next thing I knew I had jumped head first into it and was hurtling into the abyss. It is not that what I wrote was in any way an inaccurate account of what I think, but rather that by now I should know better than to try to explain my view on that particular topic. The folks who are currently immersed in bonsai and identify it as a Japanese entity, whether they do so consciously or not, do not want to hear about it. And you, of course, do not need to be told of it. I was trying to figure a way to get out of my lamentable situation and back onto the true track when I read your most recent post.

Aside from the fact that your response affirmed much of what I was saying, which is never expected from you but always welcomed, you said something that was a revelation to me. Until you pointed it out, it never occurred to me that the way bonsai established itself and first progressed in the US was not also the way it happened in Europe. I admit it strange that I assumed it should be so, but I did.

In the US the dominating early forces of bonsai appreciation were Yuji Yoshimura and John Naka (and in a lesser way Toshio Saburomaru) and so much of what happened with bonsai here can be traced back to these men. Yoshimura was Japanese born and moved to the US as a middle-aged man, and Naka was American born of Japanese extraction and spent time growing up in Japan. Yoshimura set up shop in New York and spent more than 3 decades traveling all over the US teaching bonsai, while Naka was based in California and also ended up being an influence all across the country. Although each man espoused a vision of bonsai that was larger than any simple expression of Japanese culture, both of them used their Japanese heritage as a foundation for their authority in bonsai. The end result is that in the US the founding fathers of bonsai quite literally have Japanese faces. Even today, long after the original bonsai teachers grew old and passed away, in the US the most respected mark of authenticity in bonsai is some bona fide claim of connection to the Japanese fountainhead. The more direct the connection, the greater the respect. Here in the US the primary association with bonsai remains very strongly the Japanese model, and this is true among the professional class as well as the hobbyist class, and it is perhaps most true among the general public.

Look at the situation with professionals: Currently the best resume piece for any American who wants to make a living in bonsai is to have been apprenticed to a Japanese professional, and there is a clear pecking order among the professionals as to importance, with Masahiko Kimura seeming to be the unquestioned cock-of-the-walk. On one hand this makes complete sense, as Japanese bonsai professionals certainly must be acknowledged as belonging in the front rank of training, experience and commercial credibility, and Kimura is universally recognized for his artistry. There is no doubt that those who undergo the rigors of an apprenticeship in Japan receive bonsai technical training of the highest quality. They also receive, at no extra charge, total indoctrination in the Japanese brand of bonsai. Make no mistake, those who seek out the bonsai apprentice experience in Japan go there already convinced of the superiority of the Japanese product, so they are very willing recipients of the indoctrination. When they return home and set up shop their hard earned technical knowledge is a great asset to their professional aspirations. Of at least equal importance is the fact that the knowledge was hard-earned in Japan and that these former apprentices have been to the very center of the bonsai world, and there they learned secret stuff that is simply unknowable by those who have never been to the holy of holies. Among American bonsai professionals who have not been apprenticed in Japan, many if not most of the older ones have direct lines of connection to either Yoshimura or Naka, or both. Additionally, these people typically have spent periods of time studying in Japan, if not apprenticing, and maintain active contacts with the professional scene there. It seems almost mandatory for any bonsai professional in this country to have some aspect of Japanese bonsai pedigree on which to stake their claim of legitimacy.

Look at the situation with hobbyists: One cannot blame the US bonsai professionals for playing up their Japanese bona fides, because their primary market - the bonsai hobbyists - demands it. Among those people who actively pursue bonsai as a pastime, a great many revel in the exotic nature of bonsai as an expression of the Japanese mystique. It seems to be the very foreign-ness of bonsai when it is "correctly" done that makes it attractive to this audience. It is for this reason we find that many bonsai hobbyists also enjoy creating Japanese gardens in their home landscapes, keeping koi, collecting netsuki and ukiyo-e, and favoring Japanese cuisine. Younger ones may also have a taste for anime. Many middle-aged American bonsai hobbyists will cite "The Karate Kid" movies as the reason they became interested in bonsai. This film series is nothing more or less than a Hollywood fantasy wherein the Japanese mystique is embodied by the character of Mr. Miyagi, a karate expert who dispenses sage advice in the form of cryptic sayings and does bonsai on the side. It is the hobbyists who choose to display their bonsai at shows in a way meant to approximate the effect of a bonsai on display in a traditional Japanese tokonoma. This calls for display tables that are either made in Japan or made by people consciously copying Japanese designs, and the use of scrolls and other accessories that fit the same description. The hobbyists are the ones most inclined to learn and use Japanese terminology to describe things for which they could just as well employ words of their own language. Hobbyists of this stripe want their bonsai information to come from those who are certified as being of the genuine source - Japan. And as most of them will not likely be able to go there to study with one of the big name professionals or be apprentices themselves, they bring Japanese teachers here as guests, or they study with non-Japanese professionals who have been apprenticed in Japan, or at the very least they turn to those who have studied there and learned the secret stuff. I know all this I am saying sounds very judgmental to some people (mostly bonsai hobbyists), but I think it is an accurate description of a strong current that runs through the bonsai community in the US, at least to the extent I have come to know it over the last twenty-something years. Let me also note that many people of this description are friends of mine and some have been strong supporters of my work at the NC Arboretum, so I do not judge them. I merely say out loud the conclusion any objective observer might come to upon surveying the existing paradigm.

Look at the situation with the general public: This I know for a fact - the average person in the US who does not have any active interest in bonsai, who has at best a severely limited idea of what bonsai is, will almost always begin with the idea that bonsai means “little Japanese tree”. Why should they think otherwise? If they happen to go to a public bonsai show they will almost certainly see bonsai presented as a Japanese artifact. If they talk to a bonsai hobbyist they will very likely hear foreign (Japanese) terms being used, or they may well be told about how "the Japanese do this", or "the Japanese say that". If they find their way to a bonsai nursery they will see a selection of Japanese Maples, Japanese Black Pines and Japanese Azaleas offered for sale as bonsai, they will see pots, tools and other materials from Japan featuring packaging with Japanese characters or a label saying "made in Japan", a calendar on the wall showing great old Japanese bonsai, and likely some other more kitschy Japanese or pseudo-Japanese collectible items. The sign on the business may have lettering that uses a font meant to suggest the look of oriental characters, the same font used on signs for Asian restaurants, which, by the way, was the same font used on the flyer to advertise the bonsai show. Just about everywhere you see bonsai here this Japanese identity is reinforced to the public, blatantly or subtly. The good news is that the very tiny percentage of the population that is attracted by the exoticism of things Japanese will find all this appealing. The bad news is that the much greater percentage of the population, those who feel ambivalent about or disinterested in the Japanese mystique, will look at bonsai presented this way, shrug and say "meh". And then walk away.

Dear Arthur,

[quote="Arthur Joura"]So tell me please, if you are up for it, how is all this different in Europe?

At present the majority of the European bonsai scene sees bonsai as a Japanese art form. The general public very much so, just as in America. Only the strong tendency to worship Japanese education, rules and submission to Japanese culture in respect of bonsai is not very strong. It is helpful to claim to have studied in Japan or under a Japanese master in Europe, but it is not as decisive as in the USA. People much more will look at what the man (it's always a man) is producing than where he learned it from. Many big names did not have 'one master'. They have studied here and there and picked whatever they liked.

Here a few numbers. I warn you, this is very rough and necessarily judgmental (if you want to hear my opinion you should not blame me for being opinionated) but probably an educated guess:
There are a few hundred 'artists' in bonsai in Europe, probably 500 or up to 1,000. Of these around one hundred were trained in Japanese schools in Europe. Only a handful were trained directly in Japan. There are about 50 big names in Europe. My guess is that only ten percent of them were trained directly in Japan. The overwhelming majority of these 50 big names never was in Japan.
In Europe the big thing is Noelanders Trophy, as everybody knows. This year, for the first time in something like 15 years there were Japaneses masters on stage. Up to that point all the judging, preparation etc. took place without ANY Japanese involvement. This is radically different from what did happen and is happening in the USA.

Looking at what kind of bonsai people are actually producing brings another surprise. The big shows which are leading the art contain almost 100 % trees in clearly Japanese style, mainly Modern Bonsai Style. More than 50 % of all trees shown are of Japanese origin. For Europeans it is quite easy to purchase Japanese specimen trees and import them. So they dominate the shows and win the awards. Being myself right in this scene since decades I feel that the big names by and large are not even aware of this. They often do not want to copy Japanese style. They think it is their European style. They think they are doing bonsai 'right' – and are not aware that this is only one way to do it. For them it is THE way. They think that they are at least as good as the rest of the world including Japan anyway.

The big names who go for the awards MUST do Japanese style in Europe. A rebel like me, while tolerated or even respected will not win an award and subsequently cannot earn a living. If you have to make a living with bonsai you better do what the market wants. And the market wants Japanese bonsai in Europe.

Very different is what the general bonsai person does and likes. They like to admire the trees in Modern Bonsai Style at the shows and on the net. But the majority of them does Neoclassical Style Bonsai (this is what Naka and Yoshimura taught – in essence state of the art of 1960) – very much like in the USA.

However, compared to America I see a much stronger will to do your own thing, to find your own style. Young people in general are much more ready to forget about the cultural and historical burdens and do bonsai in a new way. Even when they are directly or indirectly trained Japanese they often have the desire to be different, is my feeling.

I see a whole new generation of bonsai people growing up and questioning the status quo – as they should. They understand much better than the old guard that there are many more ways to do it. And these ways are just as 'right' as the classical one. There are more and more folks who understand that it is NOT like a religion. You do NOT have to make a decision. You can do classical one day, neoclassical the next day, modern and naturalistic on there days. You can invent a new way every day. And be happy and an integer artist.

I can see that in a few years the main shows will be very different with much more variety of ways to do bonsai. The neoclassical masters have disappeared fifteen years ago, The modern masters will disappear in ten years. The postmodern masters are still in the making. I foresee a much wider diversity.