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7 min read


Bonsai is a Japanese art form. It stands to reason that there would be many Japanese words which describe characteristics, features or other aspects about bonsai or a specific bonsai tree which may be difficult to translate as a singular English word. In fact many times these single Japanese words have such deep meanings that it takes paragraphs of English text to attempt to convey.

The purpose of this post is simply to introduce you to some of the most common Japanese words used in the context of bonsai. You may actually find it easier when talking about your trees to use these words than to use full sentences. Plus it sounds way cooler!


Jidai means age in Japanese. What’s more important is that it refers to an antiquated look of the trunk's appearance and shape or the bark of the trunk of a very mature, aged tree. Jidai speaks of a bonsai that projects an old refined sensibility after many years of cultivation as a bonsai in a container. True jidai cannot be faked, it is only to be found on trees which usually have a long history.

In a sentence: “That juniper has impressive JIDAI the way the trunk coils, the deadwood features and the thick live veins!”


jidai bonsai tree

Image caption. This very impressive Shimpaku is called Hiryu, and was the star if the recent exhibition in Saitama, Japan. It is estimated to be 1000 years old. Hiryu means flying dragon. I believe we would all agree it possesses amazing jidai.


This Japanese word translated literally means bones. In the context of bonsai it is a term which is used to refer to the core elements of a bonsai tree. These may include the visible surface roots, the trunk and the main branches. All these are elements of the tree which are not easily changed. It’s actually a fantastic term really as what better way to describe the basic framework of a bonsai tree than to refer to bones, as we immediately think of skeleton and that’s spot on. The ''Hone'' of a bonsai is what makes it unique and unlike any other in someone else’s collection.

In a sentence: “I am still working on the Hone of my bonsai tree before I put effort into the fine branching and finding the perfect container.”


trident maple bonsai

Image caption. One of the amazing Trident Maples at last years Taiken-ten in Kyoto. It was in fact a Kokufu prize winner. For me there is no better time to display deciduous trees because this is when the "hone" of the tree is revealed and, in my opinion as far as technique goes, separates the amateur enthusiast and master - there are no leaves to hide the flaws behind. Read the detailed analysis of this tree which I wrote or download the e-book for free.


This is a Japanese term which refers to the duration of time {years} a bonsai has been cultivated in a container; but not merely this. A bonsai tree which has seen many years of growing in a container will naturally have a sense of elegance, at least in part as the growth has been slow and controlled. The trunk or trunks and branches will evoke reference to the uniquely Japanese aesthetic of ''wabi'' and ''sabi.'' The commercial value of a tree is also rather dependent on the sense of “mochikomi” which a tree imparts to the viewer.

In a sentence: “I get a great sense of mochikomi from this maple tree.”


toringo apple bonsai tree

Image caption. This exquisite crabapple (Toringo) was on display at Master Kobayashi's bonsai museum "Shunkaen" several years ago when I visited with my wife. Considering first the container, no doubt an antique - perhaps Chinese Kowatari or Nakawatari with its less than perfect lines but faded glaze and developed patina. The gnarled roots disappearing into the well rooted moss. A trunk which has tremendous movement, discoloured by the presence of lichen and moss. The branches which grow this way and that, with smooth transitions and no visible scarring, a testimony to many years of cultivation. Fruit adds dramatically to the charm, not too many which would suggest lavish growing conditions but enough to suggest a tree which mustered up enough strength to bear. When combined, these elements truly epitomize a sense of mochikomi.


I am certain you would have heard this term used before but perhaps you were to embarrassed to ask what it meant. Perhaps you know what it means; in which case maybe my explanation will simply add to your understanding. Unlike the preceding terms which are more abstract and describe certain qualities about a tree, the word nebari refers to something rather specific. All roots of a bonsai which are visible above the surrounding surface of moss or growing media are referred to as nebari. Happonebari is a related term and refers to roots which extend in all directions, sinking into earth and enabling a tree to have a stable appearance. Good happonebari is particularly in bonsai trees trained in the broom style and are almost always achieved through layering.

In a sentence: “What incredible nebari that maple has, it makes the tree seem very stable in its pot.”


nebari bonsai tree

Image caption. The nebari you see in the preceding image is actually those of an azalea. There is probably no other classic bonsai style which shows off surface roots to better effect than the root over rock style. It can be a little tricky to get just right though - roots should not be parallel to one another, they should hug the rock tightly without any gaps and other such aesthetic considerations. The roots in the above example are exceptional, but typical of an azalea as their roots will readily become webbed with age and will fuse with one another. The manner in which they snake down the rock and into then disappear into the soil only to reappear a little further away is very interesting indeed.


Where I live in Somerset West, South Africa, we have many old oaks and camphor trees planted by the early Dutch and English settlers. Many of these old and magnificent trees have for whatever reason developed really interesting trunks which have died from the inside to the point that in some you can actually climb inside them. Such a detail can aptly be described by the Japanese word "sabamiki." It basically means a trunk which has been damaged, split or sustained some other damage cause by a natural event. However this is not to be confused with the term "shari," which is commonly used when referring to deadwood. As already mentioned, you will often see sabamiki in trees exposed to harsh conditions such as a lot of rain or a lot of wind perhaps, where lightning often strikes such as on a plateau or perhaps weaker trees which are prone to diseases or termite attack. Sometimes, when trees have been scarred during the course of their development as a bonsai the artist will enhance the scar, enlarging it and giving it more character. The aim is to incorporate the scarring and make an attractive feature from it. Sabamiki, when sensitively done considering the complete styling of the tree, can really add much charm to a tree and helps the artist to tell a story.

In a sentence: "The sabamiki on this Hackberry makes me think of an ancient tree growing in a forest, I almost expect forest creatures to be be playing in among its nebari."


sabamiki bonsai tree

Image caption. This is an especially old Yezo-matsu or Yezo Spruce which can be viewed at the Omiya Bonsai Museum. It is called "Todoroki." Most trees of this species were collected from the Chishima (Kuril) islands of Japan. It has very unique charms which include the special surface of the trunk and the very vibrant green needles. The sabamiki in this example is very old and is almost certainly natural. The story the tree is telling me is that one year the snowfall on the island was particularly heavy, leading to the lowest right branch straining and eventually snapping under the weight. With the death of this branch the tree changed its sapflow to stronger parts of the tree in an effort to survive the cold winters. Over centuries the wood was weathered away to form the recess we now see in the lower part of the trunk.

Shari and Jin

Here's another term which you are probably very familiar with. However I think this is a really nice explanation of what these Japanese words or terms refer to; decaying areas of the trunk that have lost bark and are reduced to a skeleton are called shari. If however this same sort of area on a branch is called jin. Such details on a tree lend it a very refined and aged appearance and can add dramatically to its visual age. Most often, bark is artificially peeled from the tree by hand although the most impressive of examples were naturally created. The Chinese juniper, needle juniper and yew trees are particularly popular with these details.

In a sentence: "The shari on the trunk of this old white pine really makes it look ancient. I also love the way the jin on the branches express the hardships the tree has had to endure.

Japanese red pine literati bonsai tree

There really are too many examples of trees which demonstrate shari and jin. Here is a photo of a Japanese red pine or Akamatsu which was on show at Taiken-ten in Kyoto last year. Akamatsu are of my favourite species and I really appreciate this specimen. These trees are almost always styled as bunjin due to the manner in which they grow in nature. This tree possesses all the qualities which express hardship; notice how the artist in contrast to most examples of pine has not arranged the foliage pads and needles to a level of perfection. Instead they appear almost untidy. Notice the incredible movement of the trunk; perhaps depicting the stages of development the tree went through eg one year a heavy snowfall so the tree was forced downwards, the next was a gentle season so it was able to grow up towards the sun and so forth. However in the context of what we are discussing the trunk shari looks very natural, especially seeing as the live vein or living tissue of the tree has begun to envelop the shari. The wood on pines is rather soft so it is not common to have many jin's on these trees however we could say the single deadwood protrusion to the left of the canopy was a branch and thus can be called a jin.

2 Responses


April 11, 2023

Yes, this was very interesting. It would be good to have more of this.


September 14, 2017

Thanks Terry, very interesting and great to learn these words!

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