Bunjin Part I—What IS This Weird Thing?

Bunjin get a bad rap or a badass rap. There’s also those who will pass it by on the bench without comment. I figure the no comment is the most interesting reaction.

I thought it would be fun to explore bunjin in a several part blog series. In this first part we’ll touch on bunjin’s poetic sensibility.

Just to warm up, here are a few bunjin.


Several bunjin bonsai. First photo courtesy Bonsai Eegit, the last, Peter Warren. The last is the truest form of bunjin, with a lot of savor.

For Part I in this series I looked up one of our foremost translators of bonsai to the West, John Naka. The following is an abridged version of his words about bunjin, originally printed in Golden Statements, March/April 1993. (Though edited lightly, I left his poetic style of writing, to puzzle over as I have. Bunjin themselves encourage puzzling.)

Introduction to Bunjin Style

A bonsai style commonly called bunjin style in America or simply bunjin. However, one should know the meaning and understanding of bunjin. Bunjin means literary man, man of letters or literati. Opposite of bunjin is bujin which means soldier or military man, or in the old days in Japan it would mean a Samurai or Bushi. Opposite characters are bunmin which means common civilian, and soujin which means priest. Amazingly, all of these – bunjin, bujin, bunmin and soujin are related terms to bonsai. However, bunjin describes the most outstanding, elegant, refined, simple and artistic, a personal concept among author, poet, poetess, artist and calligrapher. So, named after this bunjin, for bonsai it is called bunjin-bonsai or bunjin-gi (bunjin-ki). Gi or ki means tree.

Characteristics of Bunjin Style

  • It has shape or form but there is no definite pattern.
  • It has no pattern, it is irregular and seems disfigured.
  • In Japanese way, they are able to just drink and enjoy tea very casually with just Yakuta Kimono on.
  • Not to use silverware and linen napkin in a more sophisticated manner.
  • It is like food that has no taste at the beginning but the more you chew the more flavor comes out. When you first look at bunjin style there is nothing exciting about it, it is so skimpy and lonely. But the more you observe it the more the tree quality and natural traits will come out. You will feel something from inside of your mind, and not only through the surface eyes.
  • It looks like it is struggling for its survival, or a form of agony. The tree itself should not be in this condition, in reality it should be healthy. The shape or form may indicate struggle but not health. It seems to be a very cruel method but it is only concept. Its appearance should not be too serious nor easy, it should be free, unconstrained, witty, clever, humorous and unconventional. A good example for this is a study of any of nature’s tree that has survived some sort of problem or disaster.
  • To avoid uselessness, the ultimate final form or shape is a very important technique.
  • It should portray a simple abstract painting, Senryu, Haiku, poem, music and song.
  • Shape or form is from wind, weather, not too rugged but more graceful.
  • It is a dream, an abstract. It is an extremely advanced, significant bonsai design.

My teacher Mr. Shinji Suzuki would talk a lot about savor. Not just for bunjin, but particularly for bunjin. He’d agree with what Naka has written. A tree with savor is one that you keep coming back to, as if seeking an answer not easily given. And one that, like an acerbic person, you admire and respect more as time goes on.

This series continues with “Bunjin Part II”, in a few weeks. 

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  1. Barbara Phillips says:

    Otherworldly post. Takes me into the heart of survival. The sinuous beauty of bunjin is one of my favorites. And Peter Warrens pot, so different from the usual standard round oval pot for this style, captures the feeling of survival. Thanks Michael.

  2. Joshua Kaltreider says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and appreciate the effort put into making this accessible. There’s a lot to take away from this, to think about, and try to bring into practice.
    Outside of a blog post where consistent vocabulary is important, would you use the terms bunjin and literati [style] interchangeably? Or is there a distinction in your mind?

  3. Vanaja Suryakumar says:

    Thank you for this explanation. It is very informative. Bunjin is one of my personal favourites.

  4. Brian Schindler says:

    Michael great post. I’ve always felt that bunjin is the jazz equivalent of bonsai.

  5. Linda S Warre says:

    I remember two such impressive plants on your bench when we visited a few years ago. Thank you!

  6. jdceng says:

    Hi Michael

    Can I be bold and say that these are all Chinese Penjing Literati that are different to the Japanese Version called Bunjin.


    • crataegus says:

      Yes, certainly. You’ve preempted my comments in the next part of the series. The first two pines (the second is mine) are not true bunjin. They lack two essential qualities of Japanese bunjin, firstly, age, and secondly, they’re too sweet. The third image represents the closest in this group to Japanese bunjin. I’ll have other examples in the series aimed at showing rather than telling what makes good bunjin.

  7. Peter J Pelofske says:

    Helpful discussion. A variety of subtleties. Much to consider.

  8. Jeffrey Robsin says:

    For me bunjin is a style very reminiscent of the virtuoso brushwork of traditional ink wash paintings of China and Japan and illustrates perfectly the Zen Buddhist concept of ma (間) a celebration of not things, but the space between them. They are about negative space, voids and emptiness. Also they beautifully evoke the Japanese wabi (侘) aesthetic of rustic simplicity and conveying the perceived “spirit” or “essence” of a over direct imitation. I love them and it took me a while acquire one. I purchased one from Michael right after my move to Portland. I never tire of viewing it. It opens up the the minds eye the entire Cascades where it was collected and all nature beyond. It is a beautiful bonsai and I am honored to have it on the bench.

  9. Richard G. McKinley says:

    Sublime in all ways. Thank you for sharing your art, experience and insights. It’s a great gift.

  10. Doug Kinzey says:

    Very informative post Michael, thank you. I am especially interested in your comment that the first two pines are not ‘true bunjin’, but the last by Peter Warren is. I see the difference, but haven’t thought about it previously. I’m looking forward to your future posts on this topic.

  11. Roger H says:

    A very good start to your series on bunjin, Michael. I much appreciated your work in presenting it and look forward to the next part. Your comments on each of the opening pictures are intriguing. Each offers something of the ideal bunjin, which itself is almost a contradiction of ideas to say it that way, as the ‘freedom’ of bunjin almost can’t have an ‘ideal’ form. I liked your tree most, perhaps because of the shortness and tightness of the branches, whereas the other two had crowns that seemed out of proportion (too large) for the tree they were part of. That is not to say that each was not appreciated nor didn’t lead to thinking much about their forms and feelings engendered. Thank you.

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