The Incredible Art of Tanuki Bonsai 狸 or たぬき




The validity of creating a single bonsai from two separate sources of plant material (one of which has been long dead) has often been a matter of considerable debate within the western bonsai community. Such creations are referred to by the Japanese as “tanuki” bonsai and by many Westerners as “phoenix grafts.”

Regardless of their name, the process in their creation is basically the same. A large and interesting piece of dead wood is used as the centerpiece in the planting. A die grinder or dremel tool is fitted with a router bit and used to inscribe a groove in the deadwood and then a young leggy plant (most often a juniper) is nailed, screwed or otherwise affixed in the groove.

With the passage of time the young plant grows into the groove, the screws are removed and the composite creation, which is then shaped using traditional bonsai techniques, begins to take on the appearance of an ancient tree similar to many of the California and Colorado junipers we see collected from the American desert southwest.

The Japanese Viewpoint

Tanuki Sake
Classical Tanuki Sake Set

In the hands of a skilled bonsai artist the finished creation can be spectacular, but is it “valid” bonsai? Many Westerners, including this author, say “yes,” but among the Japanese the question is mute. Understanding how such creations got their name may help the reader to understand the Japanese viewpoint on the matter.


The word “tanuki” translates from Japanese as “badger,” 狸 or たぬき, an animal which is regarded in the west as particularly vicious and aggressive. However, in Japan badgers are regarded as sneaky tricksters. A popular Japanese folk story tells of a tanuki who dresses up as a Buddhist priest and visits each house in the village tricking the residents into giving him free food and money. In another more x rated version the tanuki visits a “house of ill repute.” 

One can well imagine what he convinces the residents to provide. With this kind of a history it’s easy to understand how the word “tanuki” has come to mean “something that is not what it appears to be.”

This is not to say the Japanese never make tanuki bonsai… they do. They regard it as a fun and enjoyable diversion, but not to be considered in the same category as regular bonsai. You will not see tanuki displayed in professional shows in Japan because in the last analysis, they do not regard tanuki bonsai as valid. Like the tanuki of fable, such bonsai are not what they appear to be. They are,… in fact,… fake.


 

A Western Approach

But are they fake? Perhaps it is a question of viewpoint. The term “phoenix graft” was first coined by noted bonsai artist Dan Robinson. His garden in Bremerton, Washington is a spectacular collection of collected and classically designed bonsai, but also includes an impressive collection of tanuki or as Jerry would say… phoenix grafts. Like the phoenix bird of classical Greek mythology, rising reborn and more glorious than ever from the ashes of its own funeral pyre, the phoenix bonsai uses long dead ancient wood and young new plant material to create a new artistic vision greater than the sum of its parts.

If, like a painter or sculptor our objective is to create a work of art which evokes an emotional or intellectual reaction from the viewer, then perhaps this type of bonsai is as valid as any other. We must ask ourselves a question. Do we honor our teachers by bringing new insights and new approaches to the art or do we simply pollute and debase it? It is a debate which will continue in the western bonsai community for many years to come.

It is not our purpose here to offer a solution to such a debate, but rather to simply present the mechanics and techniques for creating a tanuki bonsai. Whether you choose to display the finished creation at a bonsai exhibit is a matter for you to decide. Call it what you will, but always remember the words of another great artist. “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

Selection of Deadwood


Classical piece of deadwood before bleaching
By virtue of the fact that deadwood is being used in its construction, a tanuki bonsai is a temporary creation at best. Whether “temporary” translates at 2, 22 or 202 years will depend largely on the kind of wood you choose for its creation. Water is the enemy. Any deadwood that is in constant contact with moisture is eventually going to rot and require repair or replacement. Therefore, not all deadwood will work, no matter how interesting its shape. It needs to be dense and very hard. The piece used in this article is a juniper snag collected from the western desert, very old and hard enough to pound nails with.

The upper portions of the deadwood which do not come into contact with the soil mass will weather fine, but those portions which extend into the soil mass are in contact with moisture will rot quickly if they are not dense enough. Some people like to paint the deadwood with a wood preservative to ward off the effects of moisture. This can be a good idea. There are many varieties available in the marketplace. However, you should take care that the chemical will not leach into the soil and damage the live tree planted next to it.

Container Selection

Tanuki bonsai are not instant bonsai. You will be working with relatively young plant material which needs time to grow. Assume that you are a good three to five years away from being able to display the tree in an exhibition. Initially, you should select an oversized container. Eventually you will transfer the planting to a container suitable for showing. For now, something as simple as a large plastic bus pan or a wooden growing box will serve you well. Lots of room for root growth will also translate as lots of top growth. We selected an oversized mica training pot.


to bleach wood
Bonsai lime sulfur to bleach deadwood
Plant Selection

Junipers are most often the plant material of choice for making a tanuki bonsai. This stems from the fact that most ancient trees with this much dead wood usually fall into the evergreen class. More often than not, they are junipers, but pines, yews, firs, and hemlocks might also be fair game. Remember the objective is to create something which looks like it could have been dug out of the landscape… not created for Disneyworld

Be guided more by the mechanical considerations. Fairly young, spindly plant material is required with a trunk diameter not much larger than your index finger. The material selected should be very flexible and willing to put up with having holes drilled through its trunk and getting banged a scuffed about during the creative process. Junipers and pines are very flexible and put up with this kind of treatment.

If you select azalea you will discover that the trunk and branches snap easily and that its delicate bark cannot withstand the bruising it will receive. At least for your first attempt, try to keep your problems to a minimum. In this instance we have selected a Shimpaku juniper. Bonsai lime sulfur is used to bleach deadwood --> click here for more details



Assembly Protocol

What follows is a step by step guide to creating a tanuki bonsai. Complete these steps exactly in the order listed. Artistic considerations are not the focus of this article, only the mechanical steps necessary to complete the planting. The traditional practices of asymmetrical balance and proper triangulation of the finished planting are the same as they would be for any bonsai. How you position the deadwood, where you cut the router groove and how you position the trunk and branches should be based on solid principles of bonsai design.



Enter your email address:


Delivered by FeedBurner
Your SEO optimized title page contents

Comments