THE  IMPERIAL  BONSAI  COLLECTION,  PART I


This Page Last Updated: June 30, 2013



Thru the 1960s
After the 1960s  + Notes


       "...The history of the Imperial Bonsai Collection really begins with the Meiji Era in 1868.  At that time, bonsai were used for display both inside and outside the Meiji Palace, and ever since they have played an important role in the affairs of the Palace.
       [The 250-acre Edo ("Estuary Gate") castle compound, Nishi no Maru, now became the new imperial residence.  It was renamed Tokyo Castle (Tōkei jō) in October 1868 when the Meiji Emperor moved from the 1,074-year old capital of Kyoto ("Western Capital," formerly called Heian) to his new capital in Tokyo ("Eastern Capital"), some 400 km or under 250 miles away as the crow flies.  The following year it was renamed the Imperial Castle.  Japan's tallest building at the time, the five-story castle keep, soaring 50m (164 ft) above its foundations and offering an expansive view over Edo, was black with a gold roof, in contrast to the rest of the castle which was a glimmering white.  (All that remains today of that Tokugawa shogun's castle are a few of the 23 watchtowers, 25 outer gates, 98 inner gates, 5m-thick stone walls, and moats (up to 90m or so wide and 4 to 5m deep) that once made up the 16 kilometer (10-mile) perimeter around the stone foundations of the keep.)  Eleven years after a fire destroyed this former shogun's residence in May 1873, the new imperial Palace Castle, Kyūjō, was constructed on the site, hand-built with traditional Japanese wood and a semi-gabled roof covered with copper shingling.  Completed in October 1888, two months later it was officially designated the Imperial Palace.  This is near where the Imperial] bonsai are maintained today.
       "A necessary requirement for bonsai placed in such large surroundings as the Imperial Palace was that they be 'Giant Bonsai' -- large enough to fill the grand space.  [The Meiji Palace was not just a blend of Japanese and western styles, but rather typified the coexistence of oriental and occidental magnificence.  For example, the Hōmeiden State Banquet Hall was 915 m.sq., of which 836 m.sq was unsupported by pillars.  It had coffered ceilings delicately decorated with a hundred varieties of flowers, tapestry-covered walls, and parquet floors.  The fittings included sliding opaque and painted fusuma dividers on the east and west sides, translucent or glass shōji on the south in the Chinese style, 32 crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and marble mantelpieces such as might be found in a European palace.  For its banquet room, sturdy leather-covered chairs without arms were ordered from Germany, while the furnishings of the reception room were imported from France.  In such a setting the western custom would have been to arrange cut flowers.  Here, however, the terse beauty of bonsai that would mirror nature was used to blend harmoniously in and yet provide a contrast with the western furnishings.  The 'Giant Bonsai' were mostly pines and oaks, with flowering trees such as plum or wisteria suitably combining a simple beauty with a fairly large tree as well.  When a banquet was held in the Hōmeiden Hall, during the meal three bonsai were displayed in front of a large golden screen at the far end of the room.  The central member of the trio was a giant bonsai of the pine family three meters in height, and two complementary bonsai stood one on either side -- possibly a white oak or juniper and a flowering tree.  (The custom of displaying bonsai in front of a gilded screen is very prevalent even today.)  At the opposite end -- the entrance -- were lined up seven pots containing specially selected bonsai.  On their stands of black ebony or purple rosewood, these were said to have contributed to the air of splendor of the surroundings.  The bonsai were chosen to express the harmony of nature and to suggest mountains, valleys, and flowers.  It is a matter of conjecture whether the older trees in the Collection were ever used as "potted plant" decorations in the halls of Edo Castle from the Shogunate days, or whether they were brought from Kyoto on the accession of the Meiji Emperor -- detailed records of their origins are not known to exist.]
       "It was not until the 1890s when bonsai had become fashionable all over Japan that smaller-sized bonsai became prevalent and that mere size was not an indication of talent or quality.  The trees in the Imperial Bonsai Collection, however, were unaffected by this transition.  Without sacrificing their true character and purpose, their caretakers down through the years to today have preserved the natural style of the giant bonsai.  [During the Meiji and Taishō Eras, bonsai were also placed to serve as signposts at turns in the corridors and other necessary places within the large Palace with its maze of branching corridors and identical-looking rooms.  By using these giant bonsai as landmarks at which either to turn or go straight on, it was possible for one to safely arrive at one's destination!  It was an elegant method of marking the way.  Occasionally, instead of bonsai, men would be stationed to show the way, and then they would be said, both by themselves and others around them, to be playing the role of a bonsai.  This custom continued in the Shōwa Era also, up to the outbreak of the Pacific War.]
       "Only about half of the bonsai in the Imperial Collection -- about 300 -- are regularly displayed today.  [Fukiage was the last remnant of the scenic Musashino Plain which preceded Edo and Tokyo.  To the west of the Imperial Palace, Fukiage has carried that name since the Edo period and is used as the modern residential area for the imperial family within the compound.  The Akasaka Detached Palace, outside and to the southwest of the Palace compound, was a temporary residence from 1872 to 1888 while the Imperial Palace was being rebuilt.  Located in the Motoakasaka area of Tokyo, the building took on its present function as the State Guesthouse in 1974.  In 2009 that palace was designated a National Treasure of Japan.]  In the royal family's residence [in the Fukiage Inner Garden, the Fukiage shingosho, as it has been known since this new residence was built in 1993], the bonsai are rotated once a week.  There are five bonsai in the living quarters, and about seven in the halls and on the staircases; their rotation is planned so that there will always be seasonal bonsai to enjoy.  The life of a bonsai may seem almost permanent, and we can marvel at those aged 500 or 1,000 years.
       "Seeing the Imperial Bonsai Collection, I thought about how many people have for so long tended them daily with such loving care as they attained such an age.  Anyone who has ever given himself wholeheartedly to cultivating bonsai knows what a sensitive response a bonsai can make to a person's sincere efforts.  Perhaps the Imperial Bonsai have continued to live because they responded to the kindness of those gardeners who, for example, protected them from fire during the Second World War by pouring water over them after the Palace had been bombed.  The appearance of the Imperial Bonsai today could be considered a frozen page in the history of the Japanese people.  I know of no other examples of living organisms in such numbers that have survived the conditions of nature along with all possible physical damage, and still continue to live so vigorously.  It was a great honor and privilege for me to be in the same company with these magnificent specimens." 1

       Very shortly before noon on 1 September 1923, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake, struck the Tokyo-Yokohama area.  Because the earthquake struck at lunchtime when many people were using cooking fires, the damage and the number of fatalities were augmented due to fires which broke out in numerous locations.  The fires spread rapidly due to high winds from a nearby typhoon (off the coast of Noto Peninsula, across the main Honshū Island, perhaps 300 km or under 200 miles to the northwest of the capital) and some developed into firestorms which swept across the cities.  At least 105,000 persons died.  The Imperial Palace caught fire, but the Crown Prince Regent (Hirohito) was unharmed.  The Taishō Emperor and Empress had fortuitously moved by royal train to the summer palace at Nikko the week before the disaster, and were never in any danger.  The Prince Regent remained at the Imperial Palace where he was at the heart of the event.  Carrier pigeons kept the emperor informed as information about the extent of the devastation became known.  (Having arrived at the Akasaka Palace for a temporary visit just four days prior to the earthquake, Hirohito resided there from September 1923 till September 1928, two months before his coronation as the Shōwa Emperor.)  The outer walls of the Imperial Palace were cracked by the earthquake.  The palace esplanade was one of the open areas in the city where large numbers of refugees gathered with their few possessions during the firestorm.  The conflagration destroyed everything to the immediate east, north, and south of the Imperial Palace and threatened the western neighborhoods.  The next day there was a large force of soldiers around the Imperial Palace, axing and dynamiting adjacent homes in an attempt to keep fires from advancing west.  The Kanda, Nihombashi, Asakusa (except for the Kannon Temple), and Tsukiji districts were all wiped out of existence.  Some 375,000 buildings were destroyed, including many government departmental buildings.  The neighboring city of Yokohama, just to the south-southwest, was nearly wiped out of existence.   (When the capital city was mostly rebuilt in only seven-and-a-half years, wide streets were employed as firebreaks against future disasters.) 2

       Some of the other historical disasters in the capital included: 1621 (fire leveled all of city, including structures in the castle compound), 1657 (three days of fire destroyed two-thirds of the city and castle, it is estimated that over 100,000 persons died, and the Fukiage area remained empty ever since, to be used only for a residence), 1668 (fire attributed to arson burned for 45 days), 1682 (significant fire), 1703 (earthquake leveled castle and moats, 8,000 houses collapsed, in Kantō area twelve fires broke out, 2,300 people dead, 37,000 persons directly affected), 1707 (last eruption of Fuji-yama, 100 km or 60 miles distant, over a period of sixteen days cloaked Edo with almost 10 cm or 4" layer of ash), 1760 (downtown area of the city burned), 1771 (fire breaking out in the red-light Yoshiwara district and then spreading to four others killed 400 people), 1772 (great fire left swath of ashes and cinders nearly 8 km or 5 miles wide and 15 km or 9 miles long, destroying 382 temples, 169 shrines, 127 daimyō residences, 878 non-official residences, 8705 houses of bannermen, and 934 blocks of merchant dwellings, with estimates of over 15,000 casualties), 1806 (severe fire), 1845 (fires consumed Edo and castle), 1855 (earthquake flattened 10,000 houses instantly, fires killed up to 26,000 persons), 1872 (fire originated from a government building, 4,000 buildings and houses in Tukiji and Ginza areas were destroyed), 1881 (greatest of all Meiji Tokyo fires, first fire broke out on 26 Jan which destroyed 15,200 houses, the second broke out on 11 Feb which destroyed 7,700 houses, and the last broke out on 21 Feb which destroyed 1,500 houses, probably the work of an arsonist, the fire spread rapidly, fanned by strong seasonal winds from the northwest), 1907 (August floods killed 459 people, 87,000 homes under water, all bridges down, railway service between Yokohama and Tokyo was suspended because of collapses of embankments, Kawasaki city about 18 km or 11 miles from Tokyo was flooded), 1910 (flood caused more severe damage with 122,365 affected homes), 1917 (180-kph or 112-mph wind 1 Oct typhoon destroyed 18,048 homes and killed at least 113 persons and injured 573 more), 1953 (a record temperature of 38.4°C or 101°F) was set in Tokyo), 1959 (September typhoon dropped 4-7 cm or 2" of rain in one hour, collapsed huge sections of the palace ramparts and flooded moats, with 5,098 dead or missing, 38,921 injured, 833,965 affected), 1963 (typhoons destroyed nearly half of Japan's standing crops, resulting in food shortages and increased imports), 1993 (fifth of six summer typhoons in August flooded the Imperial Palace moat), and 1994 (Tokyo had a new record temperature of 39.1°C or 102°F, as part of a twenty-two day-long heat wave in early August, chicken farms in surrounding area suffered 150,000 dead birds, reservoirs reached dangerously low levels).
       And the old capital Kyoto saw its share of disasters also, including: 1620 (severe fire followed by other fires this year), 1673 (major fire), 1675 (significant fire), 1730 (fire broke out in the Muromachi district and 3,810 houses were burnt, destroyed over 3,000 looms of cloth-weavers in 70% burned-down Nishi-jin area not far from the Imperial Palace, and all six of the cloth-weavers for the royal family were burned out), 1788 (said to be one of the worst fires in world history, burned uncontrolled for 3 days and smouldered for 3 more, consumed 80% of Kyoto, including 201 temples, 37 shrines, 36,797 homes, 1,424 in 1,967 neighborhoods, the emperor and his court fled the fire, and the Imperial Palace was destroyed, but no other re-construction was permitted until a new palace was completed), 1854 (fire destroyed residential palace of the emperor and other buildings), and 1864 (great fire began as an unintended consequence of the Hamaguri rebellion at the Kyoto Palace). 3

       Each of these events spared, damaged or killed some members of the reservoir of bonsai which eventually came together to form the Imperial Bonsai Collection.  Other trees, once belonging to the various daimyō warlords, were incorporated in the Collection, having also been put to the test of these disasters or others throughout the country.  In 1926 -- that is, after the Great Kanto Earthquake -- there were more than 5,000 bonsai in the possession of the Imperial Palace.  In 1976 there were 600 trees.  This was an 88% drop or loss, or the saving of only one out of every eight or so of the pre-war trees.  (What would our private or public collections be like diminished to only 12% of their current sizes?) 4


Central Tokyo from Japan, The Official Guide, 1941, after pg. 240
Map of Central Tokyo, 1941
(Japan, The Official Guide, Board of Tourist Industry, 1941, between pages 240 and 241)


       The Ōmichi Bonsai Shitate-ba area is northwest of the Imperial Palace and southeast of the imperial residence area in the Fukiage Inner Garden.  (The term Shitate-ba translates as "place to prepare" something or oneself.)  The location is off the main Inui or Ōmichi Road.  This eight-meter-wide road was a main thoroughfare lined with keyaki (Zelkova serrata, Japanese grey-bark elm) trees when the Edo Castle was built five hundred years ago by Ōta Dōkan.  One of the ancient milestones said to mark this road as the start of the great Kōshū Highway is near the Bonsai Shitate-ba.  In the old days it was the main thoroughfare passing in front of the mansions of the three Tokugawa branch families of Mito, Owari, and Kii.  Though the road existed since the days of the Edo Castle, the Bonsai Shitate-ba facilities were made after the construction of the Imperial Palace, during the early years of the Meiji Era.  Running between Fukiage Park and the Dōkan Moat (as old as the road), the Ōmichi Road was also the route for going to worship at the Palace Sanctuary.  On the three great seasonal festivals, high officials in full dress would go by carriage to the Sanctuary.  These three days would be troublesome "for gardeners of the Bonsai Shitate-ba because at night they had the extra task of going out with lighted torches to clear up horse droppings.
       "There were also many occasions in those days when they had to take bonsai to the Detached Palaces of Hama and Kasumigaseki, and these would be carried on a litter rather in the manner of a bridal procession.  Clad in festival attire of white undershorts, short jackets [actually, a kind of apron which covered the chest and stomach, it was tied with its strings] and white footwear, with wooden clappers hanging round their necks, they would carry the litter on their shoulders while calling out the step to the best of the clappers.  They are said to have taken a break every hundred meters or so until they arrived at their destination, which enables us to visualize the leisurely pace in those days.  Later they came to use a spring handcart with a handrail known as a koshiguruma, after that a bicycle trailer, and finally a motor vehicle, all of which speaks of the changing times.
       "In the Meiji and Taishō Eras, the gardeners had a distinctive uniform with a happi coat having the character for 'Palace' dyed in the middle of the back and that for 'artisan' on the collar in front.  A round wicker hat, a knife hanging from the hip, and a black cotton cape completed the outfit.  After the beginning of the Shōwa Era, however, this costume came to be disliked by the gardeners and was replaced by something more like ordinary working clothes.  During the war the ubiquitous national uniform was worn, and this in turn has given place to the present open-necked style." 5

       The old Imperial Household Agency building was badly damaged during the 1923 earthquake.  Its replacement was constructed in 1935 (and then renovated in 1952).  It is located next to and just to the northeast of the Imperial Palace.  Those two buildings are located in the former West Citadel of the old Edo Castle.  During the Pacific War, the shortage of fertilizers and even of water affected the Imperial Palace's Collection, as well as those dwarf potted trees almost everywhere else.  Some trees outside of that Collection perished, and many others inside and outside were almost killed off.
       The soldiers stationed in the Ōmichi gardening sheds to ensure the security of water for fire-fighting considered the watering of bonsai there a waste.  They would glare angrily at the poor gardeners who had, instead, to work from morning to night digging foxholes.  An attempt was made to plant some of the bonsai in the ground, pot and all.  However, as the roots were prevented by the pot from spreading and were overshadowed by the branches and leaves above, the rain water could not soak through to them and those trees withered.
       At the height of the war, a good number of the bonsai were transferred to the Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, the horticultural gardens attached to Tokyo University a little ways to the north of the palace.  (Occupying 40-acres, the gardens were originally founded by the Tokugawa shogunate for the cultivation of medicinal plants.  Between the gardens and the palace was the Kōraku-en Garden.)  Even after the transfer it took a great deal of effort to save those remaining bonsai at the Ōmichi Shitate-ba from dying from lack of water.  When fine weather continued and nothing else could be done, the gardeners would wait for nightfall and then go down by moonlight to fetch water from the nearby Dōkan Moat, a little ways to the east.  But this was very hard work carrying the water back up in copper pots because of the steepness of the gradient.  People working as gardeners were affected badly because their bodies were undernourished from lack of food.  They wondered whether the bonsai or their own bodies would give up the struggle first.
       On 24 November 1944 occurred the first of 70 bombing raids on Tokyo by U.S. long-range B-29 Super Fortress bombers.  These raids eventually destroyed over half of million buildings in the capital.  Approximately 41.5 sq. km (16 sq. miles = 1/3 of the city) of Tokyo were razed in wind-whipped fires from just the 10 March 1945 raid which killed an estimated 197,000 persons and injured at least 125,000 more.  Then on the night of 25 May 1945 most structures of the Imperial Palace were heavily damaged by fires which had spread by fierce winds from surrounding areas hit by firebombing.  The main Palace itself, home of the Imperial General Headquarters, was specifically prohibited by USAAF order from being directly targeted.  Before the eyes of those at Ōmichi, flames shot up as through a chimney from the hollow spaces in the great trees of the Fukiage wood.  The bonsai were covered with showers of sparks and the gardeners desperately tried to hold back the fire by dousing the trees with water.  (It was from the basement of the concrete library that the Shōwa Emperor (Hirohito) recorded a statement that declared the capitulation of Japan on 15 August 1945, ending World War II.  When his subjects heard the recording, it was the first time most of them had ever heard his voice.)
       Even after the end of the war the primary task engaged in by the workers of the Bonsai Shitate-ba was food production.  To the wartime field of sweet potatoes was added gardens to contain the 20,000 seedlings of cucumber, tomato and pumpkin plants which had been acquired.  The loss of the war brought about many conspicuous changes at the Imperial Palace, and in the Ōmichi Shitate-ba alone, nearly everyone gave up their jobs.  Bonsai pots lay around in the burnt-out sheds and stores, there was not a pane of glass left in the greenhouse, and even the tools required for cultivation were not there.
       The Koishikawa Botanical Gardens had also suffered from the bombings.  The main greenhouse and other facilities, excepting the main building and a small greenhouse, were burned down.  The bonsai transferred there for safekeeping were destroyed.  As Ōmichi was busy with food production, it was decided to collect all the bonsai pots lying around and have the Botanical Gardens take care of them.  It took two of the small charcoal-burning trucks of the time to carry the pots off.  A photo taken after the war shows the Bonsai Collection's Tokugawa Iemitsu white pine (see below) in neglected condition with much of its growth close and untrimmed.  Its shape and that of many trees throughout the country had become very poor -- reflective of the nation's state.  A concerted effort to save and restore the Collection was then made by officials and bonsai lovers.  The Tokyo Bonsai Association learnt of the plight and offered the services of their labor beginning in 1947.  The bonsai growers around Tokyo and Ōmiya (32 km or 20 miles north-northwest of the capital) formed regional groups and two or three times a month they would travel to Ōmichi in groups of seven to ten persons and try their best to save the withered bonsai from dying.  The Association would hold regular meetings of their directors, do technological research, and only approach their task after scrupulous preparation.  During these years the earth in the pots was changed a very little at a time, the roots were lightly trimmed, and the work progressed very slowly amidst continual observation and diagnosis.
       The Tokyo Bonsai Association continued to offer their services for two or three years, and thus the Imperial Bonsai overrode the crisis and made a complete recovery without the loss of any more plants.  And then the trees' appearance was put to rights, their roots grew stronger, the wood overflowed with new vitality, the green of the foliage grew out luxuriantly, and the Imperial Bonsai reappeared with their quality of composed dignity.
       The almost miraculous recovery of the Imperial Bonsai was due to the sincere and loving care by so many people, but an additional fact that should not be overlooked is the innate strength of the bonsai themselves that enabled them to survive their ordeal.  One feature of the pre-war cultivation of the Imperial Bonsai was that, in principle, they were raised without fertilizer.  At that time, there were no chemical fertilizers.  The use of existing organic fertilizers such as rapeseed oil cake would have affected the fragrance of the bonsai.  Thus, fertilizers could not be given lightly to those trees intended for interior Palace decoration.  As fertilizer was kept from them, the Imperial Bonsai grew without it, and in the course of time became accustomed to the condition.
       When transplanting, too, not only was it unsafe to move the tree for one or two months until the roots became fixed again, but there was also the danger that the plant might die if used for several weeks as an interior decorative piece.  The inconvenience of it being unsuitable to display the plant until the year following its transplanting often led to the matter of transplanting being put off indefinitely.
       If fertilizer was applied sufficiently, the roots would expand and curl around the inside of the pot.  Naturally, constant transplanting would become necessary.  But because transplanting was so difficult (especially because of the size of some of the trees), this interrelation became a characteristic that distinguished the cultivation of Imperial Bonsai from that of ordinary ones.  Of course, this was an undesirable state for the bonsai to be in.  But as the months and years went by it did play a part in giving them an innate ability to endure.  Ordinary bonsai would have suffered by going through the war years and then some without the fertilizers they were used to.  If the thorough cultivation favored by ordinary bonsai lovers had been employed continuously then it would probably have been difficult for the Imperial Bonsai to have survived their wartime and post-war hardships.  If bonsai remain in an unfertilized state, then a deep, dark green cannot be hoped for from the evergreens and they will be a lighter green.  But in the case of the Imperial Bonsai this weaker green causes one to feel a contrary sense of solemnity.
       In the mid-1960s the Imperial Palace was finally rebuilt to replace the Meiji Palace which had been destroyed by wind-blown fires from nearby fire-bombings during the war.  Work was begun at the end of June 1964 and was finished 52 months later in October 1968.  Formal ceremonies were held a month later.  The new main palace hall complex is used for both receiving state guests and holding official state ceremonies and functions.  It was constructed of steel-framed reinforced concrete structures produced domestically.  Interior decoration concentrates on the natural finish of fine native woods, no paint being used.  The modern architectural interior of the new Palace, Kyūden, is so different in character from the Meiji Palace that the places where bonsai can be used as decorations have been sharply reduced.  The total area of the modern compound including the gardens is 7.41 sq. km (2.86 sq. miles). 6


Imperial_Palace_Tokyo_Map
Modern-day map of the Imperial Palace and surrounding gardens showing approx. location of the Imperial Bonsai Collection
(small forest green rectangle northwest of the main Imperial Palace, Kyūden)
(383px-Imperial_Palace_Tokyo_Map.svg.png from Wikipedia Commons)


       The Olympic Summer Games were hosted by Tokyo in October 1964.  Tens of thousands of visitors helped focus the city's attention on its appalling air pollution.  Downtown traffic policemen carried small oxygen cylinders for occasional relief from automobile fumes.  The near-perfect cone of the 3,776.24 m or 12,389 ft-tall Fujiyama was visible to the southwest from the capital on only thirteen days the following year because of the pollution.  In 1967, the government passed strict landmark rules on air pollution which went into effect the next year.  Because of efforts to curb air pollution, by 1986 Mt. Fuji would be visible an average of seventy-eight days a year from the capital (from 3.6% of the year up to 21.4%).  In 2010 the volcano would be visible on 116 days (31.8%).7


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