The Five Styles of Japanese Bonsai

Having an understanding of the five basic styles of Japanese bonsai is a great place to start when learning the art of Bonsai. It gives a firm point of reference to return to when styling and refining your bonsai trees at any stage of their life cycle.

Just like most other art forms, bonsai has several categories which define how the elements of the tree create a particular style.

In all styles the tree should be the thickest at the base with an even taper (thinning) as it grows to the apex (tip) of the tree.

The first branch should be around a third of way up the overall height of the tree, and no branch should point forward till at least two thirds up the overall height of the tree.

There are many more specifications which can help improve a tree but we can get to them another time, today I just want to start with the basics and then improve the rest over time.

Style one.

The formal upright style.

A bolt upright trunk with evenly spaced branches all the way to the apex. This style in nature you might see in the middle of a paddock standing on its own where it has had even elements all year round.

Large pine trees are a good example. A style hard to replicate due to its need to be so perfect but recognisable when you see a good specimen.

Style two.

The informal upright style.

The trunk is usually bent in an S shape with the upper curves minimising as the tree grows toward the apex.

This tree in nature has possibly had wind blowing from different directions at certain lengths of time and probably had to fight with other trees close to it to reach the light. Probably the most common of the bonsai styles.

Style three.

The slanting style.

The trunk on these trees will now be on a lean of between 60 to 80 degrees.

The S shape is usually still present and the other elements of the previous two styles still apply.

This tree in nature is usually found along a river bank or side of a mountain where wind or the weight of ice and snow has forced this tree to lean or fight for light as it grows.

Style four.

Semi Cascade.

The trunk or main branch now starts to head towards the ground just below the rim of the pot.

This tree still needs to look natural and not like it is falling or trying to escape out of the pot.

Trees that grow on the side of a mountain where gravity and the weight of snow or ice has forced this tree to grow toward the ground.

Style five.

Full cascade.

Similar to the previous style but now the trunk will drop lower than the base of the pot.

Picture a stream running down the side of the mountain with smaller streams splitting off from it at even intervals.

This style still needs to have a heavy base so again it doesn’t look like it is falling or escaping from the pot.

Applying the five Styles

By referring back to the five basic styles regularly, you may be able to correct issues with your trees that at the time you can see that something is not quite right, but not really sure what it is, these guidelines might help.

I personally re evaluate my collection by looking back at these five styles and training my Bonsai to fit into these guidelines.