Market Reports

Bonsai to the World - Can bonsai also join the Cool Japan boom?

Picture the scene. Giant (an anime character in Doraemon) hits the baseball into someone's garden, breaking a bonsai plant pot in the process. Nobita goes to fetch the ball but ends up getting a severe scolding from the house's owner. This scene may be familiar to readers of Doraemon, but for many younger people nowadays, manga is the only point of contact with the world of bonsai. However, bonsai is now growing more popular overseas.

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The house of the Four Seasons

The growing popularity of "Bonsai Town"

Europe seems to be experiencing a bonsai boom. JETRO Amsterdam office reported on this boom in "2011 Business Hints" in the January edition of JETRO Sensor.

Forms of uniquely Japan culture such as anime, manga and fashion are currently undergoing a surge of popularity overseas under the label of "Cool Japan1." I would now like to consider whether bonsai, seemingly a thousand miles away from the world of manga, is also ripe for overseas expansion under the same "Cool Japan" umbrella.

The history of bonsai stretches back to the Heian period. It originated in China and was transmitted to Japan under the name "bonkei." The name was changed to "bonsai" in the Edo period and the tradition then spread across the world entering the Meiji period. At first, the overseas reaction was quite frosty. It was seen as an "oddity that defies the laws of nature." It finally caught on after being presented as a souvenir at the 1970 Osaka Expo, spreading out across the globe thereafter.

Incidentally, in my local area, there is one of the largest clusters of bonsai cultivation, an area known as "Omiya Bonsai Village" (present day Bonsai-cho, Kita-ku, Saitama city). The village was first established in 1925 by bonsai growers from Tokyo's Dangozaka and Shinmeicho areas after these areas were hit by the Great Kanto Earthquake. Searching for an expanse of land suitable for cultivating bonsai, they settled on Omiya, with its good soil, clean water and fresh air. The founding principle was to create "a town for bonsai growers and bonsai lovers." To this end, four conditions were laid down for people moving to the area. Residents (1) had to own at least 10 bonsai pieces, (2) could not build 2-storey houses, (3) had to use hedges when demarcating land and (4) had to keep their gates open. These conditions still apply today. Bonsai Village is located to the north of Omiya Hikawa Shrine. When the writer was a child, the whole area around there was nothing but fields. March 2010 saw the opening of "The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama." The Museum is becoming a popular sightseeing spot and has already been visited by around 1,200 foreign tourists from several dozens of different countries.

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Bonsai Park in the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama (Photo courtesy of the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum)

A popular pastime among China's wealthy

Bonsai exporting already offers ample business opportunities. Total Japanese exports topped 5.2 billion yen in 2008 and the figure has only grown since. In 2010, Vietnam accounted for 60% of total exports, followed by Hong Kong and China. One of the reasons for Vietnam's top position is the country's relatively lax phytosanitary measures. Many bonsai exported to Vietnam find their way to the Chinese market. Bonsai also maintains a deep-rooted popularity in European countries such as Italy, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium. However, exports to Europe have been falling since 2008, when the EU tightened import regulations after parasites were found on trees exported to Netherlands (see graph).

Bonsai Exports by Major Countries and Regions

Bonsai is particularly popular in China. Why is this? China's wealthy collect bonsai as a symbol of prosperity. According to a report on the lifestyles of China's rich2, if we exclude mass entertainment such as watching movies or listening to music, then bonsai beats calligraphy and handicrafts into first place as the most common hobby or creative activity of this social grouping. As for people who gave bonsai as their hobby, if they are categorized according to the income of MasterCard holders, then we can see that a high ratio of respondents belong to social classes that could be described as rich or very rich. Even more interestingly, a high proportion of the Cultural Revolution generation (people who were in their teens to 30s during the Cultural Revolution and are now aged between 55-75), a generation usually prone to frugality, also mentioned bonsai as their favorite pastime. The current Chinese enthusiasm for bonsai shares many similarities with the past boom, occurred during rapid economic growth, in Japan, when Japanese people competed with each other to buy beauty products and luxury brand products from Western countries.

After undergoing rapid post-war growth, the Japanese became materially wealthy, and before long many people began to seek spiritual fulfillment too. The Japanese began to live more convenient, Westernized lifestyles. The backbone of the economy shifted from primary industries to secondary industries and on to tertiary industries. Likewise, the desires of the Japanese shifted from "quantity" to "quality." It may be that China is now following the same process.

China is currently moving from being "the world's factory" to "the world's market." Economic growth has led to the emergence of a large number of wealthy people. China is now trying to attract investment into service industries and is attempting to shift its industrial structure through the development of a tertiary sector.

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"Chiyo-no-Matsu": invaluable tray of Japanese white pine (Photo courtesy of the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum)

Promoting Japan through bonsai

In determining the quality of the tree, an appreciation of bonsai takes in four key points: (1) The stability and strength of the root spread, (2) The gracefulness of the way the trunk tapers upwards, (3) The balance of the branches and (4) The simulation of age and maturity. In other words, the value of a bonsai is decided by how well the grower can subtly refine the aesthetic feeling of the tree whilst respecting its innate, natural essence. This practice has a spiritual dimension to it, namely an appreciation of beauty. It would be no exaggeration to say that bonsai embodies a uniquely Japanese sense of beauty and mind. This is what makes bonsai suitable for inclusion under the label "Cool Japan."

(Masaki Tanaka / Overseas Business Support Division)

Note 1 :
An article called "Japan's Gross National Cool" (McGray, 2002), from the US diplomacy magazine "Foreign Policy," discussed how Japan, through the development of its own unique pop culture, had become a cultural superpower furnished with a new growth engine of "Gross National Cool (GNC)." This concept was picked up by the Japanese media after the translated version appeared in "Chuo Koron" in 2003 (See P.86, "Hitotsubashi Business Review Winter 2010 Edition," Takeshi Matsui).

Note 2 :
JMA Research Institute "Report on the Lifestyles of China's Wealthy", 2008.