Are bonsai more expensive in the U.S. than Japan?

Bonsai Nut

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I have wondered about this a lot recently. All things considered, are bonsai more expensive here in the U.S. than they are in Japan? I know there are extremes in both countries - award-winning trees that sell for multiple thousands of dollars. But for trees that are less than $1,000, or for very good pre-bonsai material, does your dollar go farther in Japan or the U.S.?

(I have only been to Japan once, so my experience is too limited to be considered a representative sample. I would like to hear from people who have visited numerous times or who has specific knowledge about the bonsai trade in Japan. My curiosity stems from the appearance of very good material on Japanese online retailers and auction sites whose quality far surpasses what you could buy here in the U.S. for the same amount (on average)).
 

Smoke

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I don't know , but I do know that in th DVD about a year in the life of Shinji Suzuki "Works of Divinity" there is a period at the end of the DVD where Shinji gives some of his time to some school students. The material these fourth and fifth graders are given to work with is some of the most primo stock I have seen.

I don't see this kind of material at any conventions I have ever been to. I guess I would have to say the value of the money goes much farther in Japan. I would think your money would buy much better material on average than what I have seen in the US.

Al
 

subnet_rx

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I think they are cheaper, but only because it's a much shorter trip from the bonsai farms in China. I believe I remember them being fairly cheap in the videos on bonsaifarm.tv.
 

Glider

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There are so many dedicated growers in Japan, with fields and fields of everything from cuttings to large trunks and of all kinds; juniper, maples, pine azaleas etc.. We have nothing like that in the UK, and probably not in the US, so it's generally going to be cheaper in Japan to find pre-bonsai stock grown specifically for bonsai (i.e. grown and clipped with bonsai in mind). They don't have to load it into containers and ship it a few thousand miles, pay import and quarantine fees and taxes and so-on.
 

Attila Soos

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My knowledge comes from secondary sources (not yet been in Japan myself).
The highest quality bonsai in Japan are much more expensive than what would someone pay in the US or Europe for the same tree. So, if you are just looking for Kokufu-ten quality trees, Japan is more expensive. In the West, you don't see too many people paying $50,000 and over for a bonsai. In Japan, $50,000 is the low range, when talking about Kokufu-ten quality trees.

Pre-bonsai is an entirely different story. But there are two different categories of pre-bonsai: yamadori and farm-grown pre-bonsai. Yamadori is in short supply in Japan, so it commands high price. In this area, the West has advantage price-wise: you can buy a very old yamadori, with a lot of character, for under $5,000 in the West. In Japan, yamadori is so rare, that you would have to pay much more.

The huge advantage that Japan has is the field-grown pre-bonsai (material under $1,000). The quality of what they have is so much higher than in the West (within the same price category), that one cannot even compare the two. That's because there is an entire industry catering to growing high-quality pre-bonsai. High supply obviously results in low prices. This price discrepancy between pre-bonsai and high quality finished bonsai also shows that the real value of bonsai is added in the final stage, when the artist creates the finished product. That's where the high-level of expertise is needed, and that's where the tree becomes highly labor-intensive, since every twig needs to be wired and maintained. One can grow thousands of pre-bonsai by himself, but can only maintain a hundred or so finished trees. So, an finished tree costs exponentially more than a pre-bonsai.

In the West, there are only a handful of people growing pre-bonsai, so high-quality items are much more rare, and therefore, more expensive (the exception is being the yamadori, which in the West is still available at very reasonable prices).

On the other hand, the upside price of finished bonsai in the West is severely limited by several factors: cultural limitations (how can I pay for a tree tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars?), and lack of infrastructure to maintain it (a top tree needs constant maintenance and expertise, not readily available everywhere in the West).
 
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Walter Pall

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A renowned Japanese agent was in my garden and looked at price tags of collected trees that I have for offer. He said in all sincerity that I could add a zero in Japan.
The same applies to many collected trees in America. The trees that Jim Doyle has for offer should be worth much more in Japan, and also in Europe btw.

http://walter-pall.de/American_Junipers.jpg.dir/

http://walter-pall.de/American_Pines.jpg.dir/
 
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On the contrary, "ordinary" bonsai stock (field grown) is quite cheap in Japan especially big trees.
I have talked a few months ago with a japanese bonsaist of good level (got some trees in the kokufu) who explained me that the market in Japan was so depressed that when a grower retires, he can't sell his stock for more an one third of its estimated value. Guess that most of this is afterwards exported.
 

Attila Soos

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On the contrary, "ordinary" bonsai stock (field grown) is quite cheap in Japan especially big trees.
I have talked a few months ago with a japanese bonsaist of good level (got some trees in the kokufu) who explained me that the market in Japan was so depressed that when a grower retires, he can't sell his stock for more an one third of its estimated value. Guess that most of this is afterwards exported.

That's right (and there is no "contrary" here, Walter is talking about Yamadori collected from nature).
This is the main difference between the West and Japan. In Japan, man-made, high quality bonsai stock is cheaper than in the West, but yamadori collected from nature is much more expensive than in the West.

On the other hand, very high quality, finished bonsai masterpieces - and these are almost all made of collected material -are infinitely more expensive than in the West.
 
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Glider

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According to a friend of mine who runs a bonsai nursery, there is a growing problem in Japan (no pun intended, but take it if you like it :) ). Young people have less interest in bonsai than their parents. The kids of current field growers are going into other careers and the farms are being sold off as their parents retire. According to Ken, it's getting harder and more expensive to source good starter material for import (into the UK).

He has friends in Japan who are growers (he stays with them for a month or so every year) and from whom he sources much of the material he sells, but (he says), they are getting older too and when they retire, their farm will probably close as their children have other interests and jobs. Ken himself is past 60. Happily his son-in-law co-runs his nursery.

It's a sad thing really, if you think about it. Growing an outstanding trunk from a cutting can take most of a persons' working life (e.g. ~40 years). It's a very slow process and even if there are thousands of them, it's not immediately rewarding in terms of profit. It's not really surprising that the kids are not really interested in taking over, and that many growers are turning out much younger and less refined starter stock (e.g. 'S' bent 3 year old stuff) to keep the cash flow going.

When I think about how long it takes to develop a trunk, I can't help being surprised that they are as cheap as they are, relatively speaking. I can't help thinking that the farmers who, if you think about it, are the source of most bonsai in the world, and are the people most bonsai enthusiasts rely on to take care of those boring first 5, 10, 20 or 40 years of trunk development for us, are taken a bit for granted. But it's not going to last if this trend continues. The world is speeding up and people want things 'now'. Whilst patience may still be a virtue, it doesn’t bring immediate reward (by definition), or pay the bills.
 
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subnet_rx

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Bonsai should really be more about the journey than the final product. We're fortunate that a person's work can be saved through digital pictures and videos for a very long time. I really won't expect my children to carry on what I'm doing. It's really something that compliments my life, and I wouldn't expect it to fit into someone else's.
 

Glider

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Bonsai should really be more about the journey than the final product.
For the final owners, yes, but I was talking about the farmers who do the less rewarding work of starting off thousands of cuttings and growing them on to reasonable starter material. They never get to see the final product and their only reward comes from selling these trunks.
 

Bonsai Nut

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This entire thread is starting to scare me. I had initially hoped that the bonsai business in Japan was larger and more economically viable, so that efficiencies of scale (and a larger demand) kept costs low. Instead it sounds to me like the art may be in decline, and that there is more supply than demand (with the exception of the nicest trees), and people are being forced to liquidate their inventory, or cut prices to sell what stock they have.

I know here in the U.S. there is a well-known and regarded bonsai nursery that no longer goes on field trips, or expends the effort to work on extra-large bonsai. There is simply not a market and it takes too much time and attention. Their bread and butter are trees that are $300 or less, as well as occasional classes. They have an extensive collection of collected trees that they are trying to move - they sell them so rarely that they plan on never needing to collect another one. The owner plans to be dead before they are all sold.
 

Walter Pall

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Well the sad truth is that bonsai in Japan is strongly on decline in just about every respect. Yes, at the moment Europeans are fortunate to get good material from Japan for cheap because so many nurseries are selling off their stuff. And they will close eventually it seems. The ironic thing is that at the same time European demand for the Japanese material is dwindling. The big collectors who pay several hundred thousand for a good bonsai are in their eighties and nineties and will disappear soon. Then the market for top material will change again. There will be most outstanding bonsai on offer for a fraction of what they cost only a couple of years ago.
But this hig-high-end market does not concern Americans or Europeans. We never had a stake in that. What concerns us it the fact that very well prepared bonsai material from Japan will dry out. I assume that we will get it form China then, but at the moment I am very doubtful fo the quality to expect.
On the other hand we may see a development in America that we are experiencing in Europe. Folks are not too keen to get Asian trees anymore. They want indigenous material. They want good European material for reasonable prices. I think this is great development and hope the same will happen in America. Only when the general crowd has given up to see bonsai as an Asian game it will flourish by itself. It will not matter anymore what state bonsai in Japan is in. In Europe we are at a turning point. Many have given up to look at Japan for leadership. They could care less what is going on there.
I think this all is not threatening. I think this is good news. For those who had no clue about this it may well be something like a shock.
 

Mark

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It is great to get all these first hand reports on the decline of Bonsai in Japan rather than speculation and rumours from those who have never been there.

Mark
 

Walter Pall

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Mark,

Thnk you for your wise words.
It is enough to frequently talk to quite a few Japanese masters about all sorts of things. The subject that comes up the most is the decline of bonsai in Japan. I had three such conversations in the past month. Then there are those who travel to Japan every year to purchase material. They know very well what's going on there. If one is in contact with a large number of such people one can get a better overview than those who are close by.
Mr. Iwasaki can be trusted to know what he is talking about. And Mr. Saburo Kato on many occasions in Europe has voiced his concerns about the interest in bonsai in Japan declining.
 

Rick Moquin

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Walter,

Perhaps only slightly related to the title...

Having discussed with these folks, what is the foremost reason for such a decline, besides interest. It is hard to believe that such a vital part of ones culture could just dwindle to nothing. Customs, traditions and fundamentals play an important role in any society, is there anything being done to rekindle the spirit?
 

Walter Pall

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Rick,

this I cannot answer really. As far as I understand bonsai is considered super uncool by the new generation. This is in contrast to what I see here in Europe and also in America.
 

meushi

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Actually it is not limited to bonsai... most traditional Japanese arts/hobbies are considered massively uncool by the new generation. It might have something to do with those arts having been depicted as "old/rich folks hobbies" for decades as well as with the associated careers being considered unprofitable.

For example, last december the first world kumihimo conference was organized at Kyoto Institute of Technology... a couple of retired Japanese ladies attended, one such lady successfully dragged her grand-daughter along, the vast majority of the audience were in fact foreigners. Most Japanese kumihimo studios are closing as they can't compete with cheap chinese machine made items, in fact most kids aren't picking up the hobby as the chinese made items cost less than the material.

Michael
 
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