I have been discussing the perfect bonsai with a lot of different people recently, some Occidental and some Oriental. It has become increasingly apparent that we in the west have become preoccupied with the perfection of precision.
This contrasts dramatically with the Oriental concept of the presence of harmony. This argument will be familiar to Occidentals as black and white being the two extreme ends of a grey scale, reality is a shade of grey.My journey started a number of years ago but turned profound during my first experience of Japan.
Japan offers the greatest contrast between tradition and modern values I have experienced in any culture. Their mental concept of beauty is alien to us, we look for the faults in perfection, and they look for perfection in the imperfect. As an illustration of this we were travelling by train from Tokyo to Kyoto and I was looking at what was a superbly beautiful mountain scenery.
This was frequently scarred with grotesque manmade features such as quarries, factories and huge power line systems. I was fortunate enough to be travelling with friends who were Japanese and I asked the impertinent question of why the country was so frequently defaced by these manmade features.
My friend took a long time to respond, when he did he asked me, "What ugliness?". I enquired further and in our discussion I came to realise that my friend was not playing the fool. His culture and philosophy had simply erased from his conscious vision the objects, which were causing offence to me. More simply where I saw power grids he, didn't, he saw beautiful mountains.

Kokufu, recognised by the majority in the Bonsai world as being the grandest of all of the competitions in the Bonsai world has three classes of tree that compete, which loosely translate to large trees, middle size trees and small trees. Now if this were a European or American bonsai show these sizes would be defined in absolute measurable terms with rules coming out of our ears to ensure that no stone was left unturned and all possible and a few impossible cases were defined. I asked Akimoto San if he would be able to explain to me what the size rules for these classes were.

After recovering from the shock that I needed to ask the question he responded with a measured "We know." Now, "We know" as a starting point for a rule is quite difficult for me to comprehend and this was exacerbated when you realised that the cost of entering a tree into the shows selection panel was not cheap. So in a moment of rashness I impertinently asked Akimoto San how he knew.

Now this felt like going back to my first day at school and asking Teacher why 2 and 2 made 4. The answer was probably more profound though and Akimoto San patiently explained to me that a tree has presence, a large tree would be a tree with a large presence, a small tree would be a tree with a small presence. Presence was the sum of all of a trees attributes, it was taper, it was branch placement , it was harmony, it was・

Now I know a lot of things are written about the Japanese rules for style in bonsai and while I can not profess to have seen all of the trees or had the benefit of talking to all of the Masters, I did have the opportunity to see a lot of trees. None of them were perfect. None of them followed all of the rules. None of them was set on a pedestal with 62 or 63 points and a disappointed grower smiling benignly beside them.


Because, the tree had presence and people were looking beyond the faults and enjoying the beauty of the imperfection. This is a strange concept for us where we have been bought up with a very prescriptive standard of judgement in the competitive environment. We find this to be particularly true in horticulture where the dreaded NAS (Not According to Schedule) has sounded the death knell of many a show entry before any serious judging begins.

The problem is not a new one, how do you judge something that is subjectively based in a quantitative manner and at the same time maintain the quality of your judgement. Photographers have been doing this since Fox-Talbot with some success (and some failures).

I have come to the conclusion that in the Bonsai world we are not even attempting to do this with any evenness of hand. I say this knowing that even in my Societies shows we do not succeed. I think that we are fair with the prize winners, yes I know we have an ambiguous and flexible set of rules. Our strictest enforcement centres on the requirement of at least 6 months ownership. This flexibility has caused some disagreement and warm discussions on occasions, but these have been few.

It can not be acceptable that every week up and down the country Bonsai displays are judged against Fuchsia and Chrysanthemum using the RHS standards for these plants. I am not, repeat not, criticising the RHS or the growers of Fuchsia or Chrysanthemum, their standards are extremely high and they are rightfully proud of their achievements.

These standards are however totally inappropriate for bonsai and fail to recognise the unique aesthetic balance which is in contradiction of the normal show rules. By way of example one very well respected Show Organiser has told me repetitively that I have too few plants on my stand and that they are not symmetrical. We must break this cycle and get our own sympathetic rules in place.

While I have used examples of show stands, the same is true of individual trees. At one show I was talking to an RHS accredited judge and he asked how I would advise him to judge Bonsai when they appeared on his bench for judging as he did not find the RHS Schedule useful. He asked for a five-minute explanation and after an hour had a brief outline set in his mind. This is one judge, how many don't ask?

The other side of the coin is that a Bonsai Master is asked to judge and he is given free rein to make his decisions. Now, these individuals will be intrinsically fair and attempt to make balanced decisions, however, personal preference in style and variety are bound to influence decisions. So the grand prize winner at this show might not even get a look in at the next show. This is totally discouraging to the exhibitors and can only end up with their withdrawal from showing trees in competition.

Why is competition so important? I believe that it is important because it allows the individual to measure their improvement in styling, horticulture and artistic interpretation against their peers and set targets for their own improvement. This is why it is also important that judgement is consistent across shows. Competition should be used by the Bonsai world as a vehicle to improve the standard of trees across the board, not just a vehicle for applauding the work of the very best.

We must either move towards an Oriental model of judging or support Occidental prescriptivness. Both will require an infrastructure to be developed. I believe that the debate needs to be opened and closed in the next six months and that the Bonsai world must establish its own definitive judging criteria.

I personally believe that we are trying to create an illusion of age and a vision of a real tree in miniature. This being the case I believe that the Presence model is the correct one to aim for. The difficulty is finding a way to provide qualitative feedback to growers to allow them to develop along the curve, avoiding prescriptive, onerous and/or unenforceable rules and at the same time maintaining the importance of Presence. I also believe that the fundamental of showing is that every exhibitor should receive feedback to allow them to adopt and improve their techniques as they believe most appropriate for their circumstances.

I do not have all the answers. We do need to find them and start to encapsulate these and develop the infrastructure to support their adoption, otherwise can someone tell me how to judge Sweet Peas against an informal upright Satsuki?

Any other comments?