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Listening to the Voices of Trees: The Bonsai World of Kawabe Takeo


Ōmiya-based Kawabe Takeo is a bonsai artist with a difference. His groundbreaking approach has overturned the conventions of bonsai and brought him international acclaim. We talked to him about his search for a more natural approach to bonsai aesthetics.

Breaking Bonsai Taboos

“Trees are like people,” says Kawabe Takeo. “They have their individual personalities just like us. They are living things imbued with a natural life force and vitality that goes beyond anything we can easily imagine. And each tree is unique, the drama and history of its life shaped by its environment. Every tree sends out a message all its own.”

One example of what makes Kawabe’s approach to bonsai unique is his attitude to the imi-eda or “taboo” branches that the cultivator should prune from the tree according to conventional bonsai wisdom. Branches that jut out from the front of the tree and appear to “threaten” the viewer and those that intersect with the trunk are just two examples of branches shunned by most cultivators. But Kawabe has exhibited several pieces at the Japan Bonsai Style Exhibition, a prestigious nationwide event, that deliberate flout the convention by leaving imi-eda intact.

“I don't really like the idea of shaping a tree to conform too closely to the rules of what people expect from bonsai,” he explains. “Trees in the wild are shaped by the challenges of their environment, and they certainly don't conform to the received opinions of the bonsai world. You could say that the natural world is a treasure trove of imi-eda. I think we need to be more flexible and open-minded about accepting the trees as they are, awkward branches and all. Trees in their natural state are hugely diverse and it’s this variety that gives them their character and individuality.”

A Tōhoku shinpaku

A Warm European Welcome

Bonsai aficionados in Europe have been quick to latch on to Kawabe’s bold new style of bonsai. Many have become captivated by his work, which they discovered through specialist bonsai magazines published in Japan.

In 2002, Kawabe was invited to speak as the guest of honor at an event held by the largest bonsai business in Spain. He has returned more than 60 times since, visiting Germany, France, Belgium, Monaco, and other European countries and is now a revered figure for European bonsai enthusiasts.

In 2012, the Japan National Tourism Organization put out a pamphlet called “A Living Work of Art: Bonsai” that introduced major bonsai nurseries around the country to overseas audiences. A survey conducted at the time revealed that Kawabe enjoyed higher name recognition among overseas bonsai fans than any other cultivator, and one of his pieces was duly chosen to adorn the cover.

“Bonsai in Japan isn’t really thriving at the moment,” Kawabe said some years ago. “It often happens that when Japanese things become recognized overseas, that interest can spark a renewal of popularity back home in Japan. That is what happened with ukiyo-e artists like Utamaro—their works were appreciated in Europe first, and then people here followed suit. Today, bonsai art is booming in many countries around the world. I want to make sure that this international critical acclaim will lead to a reevaluation of bonsai back home in Japan, as happened with ukiyo-e in the past.” Kawabe’s dream is now steadily becoming reality.

Today, many of the leading figures in European bonsai travel to Japan to study with Kawabe. One of them, Oscar Roncari, is president of the Bonsaï Club de Suisse Romande. He spoke to me about what it was that first drew him to Kawabe’s bonsai.

“You can sense a deep respect and love for trees in all Kawabe-sensei’s work. Unfortunately, bonsai culture today is becoming increasingly commercialized, and many people are losing sight of that respect. Before trying to force our ideas onto the tree, I think we would do better to follow Kawabe-sensei’s example and accept what the tree is giving us.” Roncari’s words go to the very heart not only of bonsai but of the entire shokunin culture of Japanese craftsmanship. The work of all craftsmen is marked by a deep respect and great love for the material they work with.

Kawabe discusses bonsai with a group of enthusiasts from Switzerland.

Listening to the Voices of the Trees

Kawabe uses shears made to his personal specifications by specialist manufacturers in Tsubame Sanjō.

Kawabe tells me about an incident that dramatically changed his approach to bonsai. Before dedicating his life to bonsai, Kawabe was an engineer and then the manager of an automobile manufacturing plant. He threw in his lot with the bonsai world at the age of 30, despite opposition from family and friends. The dramatic change took place seven years later, when he was still a relative novice.

“It was an ordinary day. I was working quietly on my own at the back of the bonsai nursery as usual. The work space was like a laboratory of bonsai. There were trees in various stages of being worked on all around me. We were trying ambitious modifications on some of the trees, and that can impose a heavy burden. They all looked so tired and weak! Suddenly a strong force seemed to take hold of me and I felt an amazing pressure building up and squeezing my head. And then I heard the voices of the trees. They were calling out to me, saying: We are living things too! Truly, that day I heard the cry of the trees.

“That experience fundamentally changed my whole approach to bonsai. Our priority should not be human aesthetic values but the good health and life of the tree itself. We should carefully examine the condition of the tree and use our knowledge to decide what needs to be done and what kind of actions we need to avoid. As soon as I tried this new approach, I found new ideas for bonsai welling up constantly like a spring. You might think I’m making this up, but it’s true: If you listen carefully, the tree really does tell you the shape it wants to be!”

Looking back on his first trip to Spain, Kawabe recalls that he devoted much of that first overseas lecture telling people what not to do. “I confessed to all the terrible mistakes I had made myself,” he says with a laugh. “I didn't want my students to do anything that would strip the trees of their life and energy. Anyway, they seemed to understand my attitude and the thinking behind it, and I’ve been invited back to Europe quite often since then.”

Kawabe at home with a piece he made from Japanese yews originally planted 350 years ago.

Giving New Life to a Feudal Lord’s Trees

Some of Kawabe’s best-known pieces make use of Japanese yew trees (ichii) with connections to the Kaga feudal domain in modern Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. At an exhibition held at the famous Kenrokuen Garden in October 2015, Kawabe displayed 12 pieces with a history dating back more than three centuries.

The Kaga ichii yews are a plantation of Japanese yew trees put down over 350 years ago by the third lord of the Kaga domain, Maeda Toshitsune (1594–1658), to provide materials for ikebana (flower arrangement). In recent years, the trees had fallen into neglect. Strangled with vines and kudzu, the trees were almost dead. An enthusiast with ties to Kanazawa came to the rescue, suggesting that the trees had wonderful potential as bonsai. After several nurseries around the country tried and failed to work with the trees, Kawabe took over the project and eventually succeeded in giving the trees a new lease of life.

“I think probably the previous attempts failed because the people involved didn't properly understand the environment in which the Kaga yews had lived for so many years. Normally, this type of tree grows in a mildly acidic soil. But the Kaga ichii yews were planted in a previously submerged area with considerable deposits of seashells. The calcium from the shells created an alkaline soil. After 350 years in this environment, the trees had adapted to survive and quickly withered when they were casually transferred to a low acidic soil. I divided the work into two stages over two years, and moved the trees slowly into bonsai pots. Again, this was a decision that was based on listening to what the trees were telling me.”

Kizahashi (Stairs) (left), a Tōhoku shinpaku, more than 1,000 years old; height 95 cm. (Photo by Sugisaki Miho). One of Kawabe’s Kaga yews (right); height 100 cm.

Hidden Life

It has often been claimed that Japanese craftsmen rely on a “sixth sense” in their work. The best sculptors of Buddhist images, for example, are said to have “drawn the Buddha out of the wood.”

Kawabe makes many of his tools himself.

Another example can be found in the Sakuteiki, a Heian-period (794–1185) guide to gardens that remains a key text for enthusiasts to this day, which says: “follow what the stones desire.” In other words, the job of landscape gardeners is not to look for where they would like to place a stone but to find the place the stone would choose for itself and place it there.

Kawabe’s approach to bonsai is the same. He gives himself up body and soul to the task of picking up on the messages they seem to be giving him and then works to shape the tree into the form it wants for itself. “The idea that this approach might help the tree to look at its best, or create a pleasing piece of bonsai—human concerns like these are of secondary importance. My priority is the life of the tree itself. Nothing is more impressive than the glow of vitality.”

This is the essence of the shokunin culture of craftsmanship. Craftsmen work to coax life from their materials. Beauty is not a human creation. It is something that lies within life itself, waiting to be discovered.

Kawabe at home, chatting with some of his friends.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 24, 2017. Photos by Sawano Shin’ichirō unless otherwise stated. Banner photo: Kawabe stands in front of a Tōhoku shinpaku that is more than 1,000 years old.)

See Kawabe’s Creation

Three major pieces by Kawabe will be among a number of bonsai on display in the Ōmiya Station concourse during the eighth World Bonsai Convention, held in Saitama on April 27–30.

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