Bonsai are trees and plants grown in containers in such a way so that they look their most beautiful--even prettier than those growing in the wild. Cultivating bonsai, therefore, is a very artistic hobby. It's also a good illustration of the gentle respect Japanese have for living things and an expression of their sense of what is beautiful. It's much more involved than growing potted flowers, and requires a much bigger commitment--physically and emotionally.
The oldest mention of the word bonsai comes up in a mid-fourteenth century poem, but it wasn't until around three centuries later that people began using it regularly. Early bonsai can be seen in picture scrolls, though, dating as far back as 1309.
In ancient times bonsai were usually enjoyed by aristocrats, priests, and other high-ranking people, but from around the seventeenth century, commoners began delighting in them, too. After Japan ended three centuries of isolation in 1868 and opened itself up to Western countries, bonsai came to be appreciated as objects of art, and people began growing bonsai not just as a hobby but also as an artistic pursuit. Large-scale bonsai exhibitions were staged, and scholarly books on growing techniques were published.
Today, growing bonsai continues to be a hobby enjoyed by members of the general public. It's also regarded as an important part of Japan's cultural and artistic tradition, nurtured over the years by the nation's climate and people's love of nature.
Caring for bonsai is no longer just a Japanese pastime. More than 1,200 people from 32 countries attended the World Bonsai Convention that was held in the city of Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, in 1989. The convention helped launch the World Bonsai Friendship Federation, which has been a driving force in popularizing bonsai and raising bonsai-growing skills around the world. The association has organized international conventions about once every four years since the Omiya gathering; so far, they've been held in Florida in the United States and Seoul in South Korea. The next convention, set for 2002, will be in Munich in Germany.