It's All Mr. Yoshimura's Faultby Vance WoodIllustration by Will Heath
In 1957 Yuji Yoshimura published his book "The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes." So began the dissemination of the bonsai art to the masses, at least in the USA. One major thing Mr. Yoshimura did was to set down a list of categories describing and, more or less, defining the different styles in bonsai as it was being practiced in Japan at the time. He also described the rules and concepts for branch placement with the do's and don'ts. All of this became both a blessing and a curse.
For better or worse his work has for the most part defined how bonsai should be styled and set down guidelines that should be followed. I am remind of Moses, who came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Where in the Hebrews rejoiced because they now had a clear set of guidelines to follow that would be pleasing to God and ensure their success. The curse was that the commandments became a taskmaster that regulated and controlled their lives. In seeking to find a method to please God they became slaves to the method they thought would free them.
Much of what Yuji Yoshimura did has fallen into the same category of creating a taskmaster. Everything bonsai has been till now viewed, created and judged according to those things set down in this groundbreaking book. Most books that followed more or less parroted the principles identified by Mr. Yoshimura and few, until recently, have strayed much beyond this vision.
A few respected bonsai artists have pointed out that those who claim to follow the traditional style do not realize that the traditional style from fifty years ago is not the same traditional style that is demonstrated today. It really can be argued that the traditional style is for the most part copying what the Japanese are doing on a daily basis. These same artists, in their work, redefine bonsai as a changing art form and not a static intractable process that necessarily has to be defined by the above principles set down by the late Yuji Yoshimura.
This is not meant to defame or impugn the memory or legacy of Mr. Yoshimura but to chastise those who hold on to the principles recognized and forwarded by the late master, as being engraved in stone. In Mr. Yoshimura's later years he started experimenting with some pretty outrageous designs and drew a great deal of criticism for them. I think he recognized that in the United States, his adopted home and the site of his work, that bonsai had become stagnate and boring. Of this I can only draw conclusion from what I read and observed.
Bonsai in America has indeed reached a crossroad where we are attempting to create bonsai that reflect American images and styles. In doing so we have in essence started a sort of civil war within the bonsai community where neither side of the debate wants to acknowledge the good points of the other. There are those who follow what they perceive to be the classic, traditional style and are quick to judge anything that does not follow the design principals set down by Mr. Yoshimura years ago.
There are those who believe that an American bonsai should seek to violate all of these rules. Ironically, in doing so, the beauty that has made bonsai recognizable as the art it is, has been cast to the winds and the results produced are less than pleasing. The images made through this principal are not really American or beautiful; they are more an adventure in iconoclastic bombast.
If I have said this once I have said it a thousand times, a bonsai must be first and foremost beautiful. What Mr. Yoshimura set down, I believe, was not meant to be both the alpha and omega of bonsai, but a starting point as gleaned from the bonsai of fifty years ago. Thousands of years ago some person discovered how to make fire. It started with creating friction, then by striking a spark from pyrite and flint.
Today almost every bit of technology we enjoy is because of fire. One thing is for sure you don?t see someone rubbing two sticks together to start fire anymore, but if we didn't start there and build upon that principle we would still be sitting in the dark and not having this exchange of information. So too in bonsai, it is time to move on and do things better and more beautifully. In America it seems we are still rubbing two sticks together as far as bonsai is concerned.
Realize that those old principles are at the foundation of the art but not the limit of it. Have the courage to go beyond, over and around them if the results are beautiful and natural in appearance. Many people that have been doing bonsai for less than twenty years have been taught by these basic principals but too few have taken the time to ask where they came from or to think beyond them. Some, who have, have had their results criticized for not following the rules and some that have purposely sought to do differently have come up with some pretty ugly trees. There is really only one philosophy that should be followed in bonsai and that is a pragmatic approach to bonsai where in the end (being beautiful and natural) justifies the means (how you got there). The end product should not be defined by any rule but one: It must be beautiful.