Gardens, Bonsai and Poetry in Edo and Tokyo: Evolving Traditions Keeping the Ideal of Living in Harmony with Nature Alive

Cassandra Atherton and Glenn Moore, Deakin University, La Trobe University [About | Email]

Volume 23, Issue 3 (Article 8 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 30 January 2024.


Tokyo is a fast-paced, crowded city, where it is easy to feel disconnected from nature. The disconnect began when Edo emerged as the world’s biggest city, and residents compensated with gardens, by growing bonsai, and through nature-themed poetry. This article analyses the way these three activities have enabled people to feel closer to nature, and argues that although each has its own traditions, they have also evolved, enabling them to stay relevant through the years. In the Edo Period this involved the democratisation of poetry and bonsai, and in the Meiji and Showa periods public parks were created. In the 21st century, manga and anime are keeping a new generation in touch with traditional nature-themed poetry, and innovative poets and bonsai masters are reaching modern audiences and helping keep the ideal of living in harmony with nature alive.

Keywords: Tokyo, Edo, Rikugien Gardens, Bonsai, Waka, Haiku, Karuta, Harmony With Nature.


Komogome is a quiet, residential Tokyo neighbourhood, with an aging population. Tourists are unlikely to visit—one travel website warns “not to expect fancy shopping malls or high-end restaurants,” but adds that Komogome “is quite well known for its gardens” (Yabai website.) The best known is Rikugien Gardens, just a 15-minute walk from the station. However, its popularity with Tokyo residents is not because the gardens are an especially good venue for picnics or games. Indeed, leisure activities of that kind are not allowed, alcohol is strictly forbidden, and even jogging is frowned upon (Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association). In keeping with the sedate character of the neighbourhood, Rikugien Gardens is a “strolling garden,” and its appeal derives from two overlapping features: It showcases seasonal changes, and it demonstrates the link between poetry and nature.
The appeal of seasonal changes is evident from the two most popular viewing times at Rikugien occurring in late March, when a 70-year-old weeping cherry near the main gate puts on a spectacular show, and October through to early November, when the autumn foliage of the Gardens’ zelkovas, ginkgoes, and maples is so popular that visiting hours are extended. For Tokyo residents who live cocooned from the seasons in air-conditioned, concrete and glass buildings, and time spent underground on trains, this is an almost irresistible lure. In fact, Rikugien Gardens was planted to highlight the distinct qualities of each of the four seasons, with summer highlights including rhododendrons and crepe myrtle, and winter featuring the camellias and the plum trees that bloom in early February, when there is still a chill in the air (Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association).

Figure 1. Yakitsuri at Rikugien Gardens

Visiting Rikugien Gardens to experience seasonal variations is part of a larger desire amongst many Tokyo residents to live closer to nature.  However, the fact that the gardens consist entirely of trees that were hand-planted and are tended to year-round by gardeners and arborists reveals that the “nature” there is not wild and untamed, but rather a cultivated or domesticated version.  This is underscored by the fact that the gardens’ winter highlights include man-made seasonal items such as yakitsuri, which are wires arborists install to protect the branches of pines from the weight of water and snow (Hobson 2007, 18, 19; Saito 2017, 171). This article argues that cultivated nature has been embraced as true nature and is not only found in Tokyo’s parks and gardens, but also in bonsai, which has emerged as an important way for people to stay in touch with seasonal changes in their homes, between park visits.
Rikugien Gardens also illustrates the long-standing relationship between poetry, the seasons and nature. Traditional waka poetry, which traces back to the Heian Period, grew out of the pre-modern world in which people developed a close relationship with rice and trees, and, unlike life in modern Tokyo, lived according to the seasons (Heldt 2007, 15, 69). Over time this poetry came to define nature itself (Asquith & Kelland 2004, 16). Indeed, Rikugien Gardens was modelled on scenes from classical waka poems. [1] Nature-themed poetry has remained popular in Tokyo to this day, and like bonsai, it allows people who live in an urban, built environment, to feel close to nature.
Although the expression of the harmony-with-nature myth takes outwardly traditional forms—visiting a centuries-old, poetry inspired garden, engaging in the time-honoured pastime of bonsai cultivation, and reciting traditional, nature-themed poetry—this article argues that these three forms have constantly evolved, staying relevant to each new generation’s tastes and needs. Accordingly, this article has a loosely chronological approach, considering the evolution and continuing relevance of parks, poetry, and bonsai in turn. It begins with Rikugien Gardens, which itself was an Edo Period adaptation of the classical gardens of Heian aristocrats. The Gardens opened to the public in 1938, and continued to evolve, with illuminated night-time viewings of Autumn foliage the most recent innovation. The article then considers the evolution of poetry, which in the 1600s had been an aristocratic pastime, reaching a mass audience in the Edo Period through the poetry-themed game karuta and the emergence of the then new, more streamlined poetic form of haiku. Currently in Japan, manga and anime based on karuta keep the game and classical poetry popular with high school students, and new generations of poets are connecting with modern audiences. Finally, the article shows how bonsai followed a similar trajectory, experiencing growth in the early Edo Period, when working people in the new, largely treeless city took up the pastime, and, like poetry seeing innovation in the 21st century, broadening its appeal.
Of course, not all Tokyo residents yearn to be closer to nature, and not all visit parks, write poetry, or grow bonsai.  Nevertheless, the figures indicate significant interest in all these things.  Data collated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government show that 41.5 million locals visited city parks and gardens in 2021. (Tokyo Metropolitan Government) Those numbers are even more impressive when it is remembered that they do not include visits to shrine forests such as Meiji Jingu, whose 3 million visitors in the New Year period alone is more than twice the 1.2 million who visit the ever-popular Shinjuku Gyoen Garden each year (Ministry of the Environment; Yamabe, 2018). It also does not include visits to parks and shrines in outer wards of the city, which typically do not charge admission fees or count visitors. For example, Nerima, a residential neighbourhood on the Oedo Line, boasts Hikarigaoka Park, known for its azalea display, Heisei Tsutsuji Park, and Taka Inari Shrine.
Although the popularity of poetry cannot be quantified as neatly as park visits, by every possible measure it is an integral part of everyday life. The exposure to poetry in schools continues into adulthood, with over a million Japanese belonging to haiku clubs and societies. (Strand, 2021). A numerical measure of this engagement is the annual haiku contest run by the green tea company, Ito En, which attracts a staggering 500,000 entries, submitted by “elementary school students, the elderly and everyone in between.” The contest also gives a hint at how poetry is part of the reading landscape, with the 2,000 winning entries printed on the labels of Ito En green tea bottles throughout the year (Petkoska, 2022; Ito En Shinhaiku). The article gives further evidence of poetry competition entry numbers, plus examples of the ubiquity of poetry in Japan, including the popularity of the televised Imperial Poetry Ceremony, and poetry books with sales exceeding a million copies.
The popularity of bonsai is even harder to quantify, as most bonsai growers quietly tend to a tree that can be passed down from one generation to the next. Nevertheless, the article shows how a weekly NHK television bonsai program and an increasing presence in mainstream retail outlets, selling young bonsai for beginners, are strong indicators of its growing popularity, especially amongst younger people. Moreover, although the number of bonsai devotees might only be a fraction of the millions who visit parks or read and write poetry, the bonsai grower’s level of engagement is intense.  So where, statistically, the average Tokyo resident visits a park four times a year, bonsai growers tend to their trees and engage with nature every single day.
The accumulation of evidence—more than 41 million park visits every year, millions of people reading and writing poetry, and an increasing number of bonsai devotees—shows that something is going on, and this article argues that these activities all feed into a desire to reconnect with nature and help keep the harmony with nature myth alive.

Rikugien Gardens: A Man-Made, Poetry-Themed Garden

The harmony-with-nature myth emerged out of the wet rice cultivation method used in premodern Japan. The strain of rice grown was developed through selective breeding to suit paddy cultivation.  It was productive and allowed farmers and their families to survive in a harsh landscape, but depended entirely on the farmers maintaining the paddies, transplanting seedlings at just the right time, and controlling weeds and pests (Kyoko, 2020, 10). A similar partnership grew up with trees that were planted in the cultivated area in and around farming villages (the satoyama). The farmers thinned out the trees to give the best specimens space to grow and they removed broken or diseased branches. The trees reciprocated by providing wood for building and fuel, filtering the village’s water supply, and protecting the village and its rice paddies from destructive winds (Totman 1989, 10). The trees in the satoyama also formed a buffer against the wild mountain landscape. Known as the okayama, this area of untamed nature was inhabited by fierce animals, including wolves, bears, and wild boar, as well as potentially hostile spirits (Shirane 2013, 114, 115).

The world of the pre-modern Japanese farmer was shared with spirits, ghosts, and yokai, and the notion of trees as protectors gave them a place in folklore. Trees were allies in a challenging, sometimes dangerous world, and admirable traits were attributed to them: they could be sturdy, resilient, and reliable. Over time, these traits were interpreted, metaphorically, as personalities. There were also tales of yokai trees, and according to folklore, when a tree was a hundred years old, a spirit known as a kodama inhabited it (Shirane 2013, 128; Foster 2015, 151). The Japanese native religion Shinto emerged out of the same setting as this folklore. It exhibited the same reverence for nature and held that spirits (kami) could be found in distinctive natural features, and could inhabit a distinctive rock, a stream, or an old tree (Reader 2007, 43).

Although this article is not a comparative study, a brief consideration of the differences between Japanese and Western ideas about nature and religion helps shine a light on the Japanese notion of a partnership with tamed nature. As the British anthropologist, Margaret Sleeboom, has explained, premodern Japanese farming practices and overlapping folkloric and Shinto beliefs about nature were all anchored in the fact that “the Japanese regard[ed] themselves as laterally connected” to plants and animals.  By contrast, in Europe, the dominant model was hierarchical, with God at the top, and humans in the middle, ranking above plants and animals (2004, 48). As Lynn White put it in his seminal study, in Christian Europe “man and nature are two things, and man is master” (White, 1967, 1205). White’s conclusion that Christianity is to blame for the environmental crisis the world is experiencing today has been disputed by many theologians, but his observation that in medieval Europe nature was exploited and “coerced”—“ploughing, harvesting, chopping trees, and butchering pigs”—nevertheless contrasts markedly with the Japanese harmony with nature myth that grew out of wet rice cultivation and working in partnership with the trees in the satoyama (White 1205).

For Heian aristocrats, contact with nature was not framed around labour, as it was in farming villages. Nevertheless, they worshipped at shrines surrounded by trees, they lived in houses made of wood, and they had gardens that were carefully constructed to “articulate the beauty of seasonal changes… and highlight the rhythms of nature” (Mehta & Tada 2015, 2, 3). Court poetry aimed to express this life and the aesthetic that developed around it. Marc Keane has explained that “in the Heian period, the imagery of poems, known only too well by the imperial courtiers, and the imagery of the gardens they built at their residences were so completely intertwined and interrelated, that when a garden was observed it was understood by the viewer in a poetic manner” (2012, 8).  This intertwining was so complete that, as Pamela Asquith and Arne Kelland have shown, over time the poetic depictions of “idealised” nature were “thought to be true nature” (2004, 16). This is underscored by the fact that the dominant variety of cherry, whose blossom is seen as symbolic of spring and has been depicted in countless paintings and poems, is the somei-yoshino variety, a hybrid that cannot reproduce itself from seed (Nakamura, Takahashi & Sato 2014, 236). As David Barnhill put it, people see “the natural world through the eyes of culture” (2008, 1057).
The disconnect from nature—albeit a stylised, tamed nature—felt in Tokyo today first emerged in the 1600s, when the city, then known as Edo, was transformed from a sleepy village into a city that served as the Tokugawa shogunate’s administrative and military base—effectively the nation’s capital. Of course, there were other large Japanese cities, but Edo was on an entirely different scale. By 1644, just 40 years after its founding, the city’s population was already twice that of Kyoto, and it just kept growing until by the early 1700s it was the biggest city in the world with a million inhabitants (Screech 2020, 10: Firely and Stahl 2009, 64). The city’s enormous area physically separated life from the countryside in ways that older, smaller cities did not, and this in turn affected the rhythm of life. “Life in the countryside was regulated by the seasons,” explained Charles Dunn. “In the already artificial life of the great cities, the clock and the calendar held sway” (1969, 131).
Daimyo and their families and samurai were insulated from the city’s work-a-day rhythms. Their work was largely unchanged, and they had ample leisure time. Nonetheless, they found themselves in a raw, new, largely treeless environment.  Their response was to create gardens around their grand homes. These gardens served a dual purpose. As well as reconnecting them with nature, they were status symbols. As Nishimaya Matsunosuke has explained, in typical nouveau riche fashion, the daimyo and samurai who had risen to power with the shogun craved refinement.  Their model was court life in the Heian Period, when it was fashionable for the nobility to have gardens.

Figure 2. One of the original stone pillars in the gardens today

Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, the daimyo who built Rikugien Gardens on his estate in Komogome, took the poetry-nature connection to greater lengths than most. He named the garden Rikugien after the word for the six classifications of waka poems, and it comprised 88 scenes taken from classical poems. A garden path was constructed to take visitors through the scenes, each marked by a sekichu (stone pillar), 32 of which survive today (Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association). The garden was a massive undertaking, which no doubt enhanced the status Yanagisawa accrued: It was built entirely from scratch, with the apparently natural physical features that appear in the 88 scenes, including the pond, the boulders, and even Fujimi Yama, a thirty-five-metre-high hill, from where it was possible to view Mount Fuji, all entirely man-made (Park Management 2022, 8; Campbell 2019, 67).  

 Figure 3 Togetsukyo bridge
Yanagisawa would have had access to poetic, literary, and artistic sources, giving him a style guide for his garden, plus Heian period design manuals such as Sakuteiki, giving practical advice on garden construction.  An example of how these sources came together was the Togetsukyo bridge. Building a bridge comprising stone slabs sitting atop three massive boulders was no small task. According to the memoir written by Yanagisawa’s concubine Ogimachi Machiko, the boulders and stones were brought onto the site by “burly men” with carts, and then carefully eased into place (Ogimachi 2021, 90). Sakuteiki gives detailed advice on stone and rock placement, and it even has a section on how to dig a pond, where the point is made that a spirit level should be used while the pond is still being dug “since it is not possible to fill ponds with water before they are built” (Takei & Keane 2008, 155-156). Stylistically, the pond, island, and bridge conformed to the images and descriptions that could be “found in most paintings and literary references to Heian period gardens” (Takei & Keane 2008, 21; Campbell 2016, 61), and true to those images, the bridge symbolised the following waka poem:

Shadow of the moon moving at night
And the cry of a crane
In mash of reed
In the shore of the waka
Makes me feel so lonely

Just as the natural features in Rikugien Gardens are man-made, the trees are hand-planted. The trees were chosen to reflect scenes from classical waka poems, and because Edo was originally swampy (Screech 2020, 57) this meant the trees—chiefly pines, zelkovas, cherries, plums, and maples—had to be brought in from inland regions. A sign of the hand-planting is how the trees are grouped so that those with distinctive spring blossom or vibrant autumn leaves are massed to highlight the changing seasons (Oginachi 2021, 91). After they were planted, the trees continued to be tended to and nurtured.  As well as installing winter yakitsuri, prior to spring the Rikugien gardeners wrap komomaki (straw belts) around the trunks of trees that are vulnerable to insect pests. Diseased branches are pruned, and trees—especially pines—are shaped in a process known as fukinaoshi to conform to styles found in classical paintings and waka poetry (Hobson 2007, 47-52; Mader 2005, 17, 18). A favourite shape, often used in bonsai, is fukinagashi, in which a pine is trained to have a windswept look.  

Figure 4. Komomaki wrapped around a stylised fukinagashi pine
In short, far from being wild and untamed, the “nature” on display in Rikugien Gardens is the result of an ongoing partnership with landscapers, gardeners, and arborists, and the gardens are a demonstration to modern Tokyo residents of the living tradition of harmony with domesticated nature.

Poetry and Nature

The circular relationship between poetry and nature, whereby domesticated, stylised trees inspired waka poetry, which in turn inspired the design of Rikugien Gardens, took another turn when, “on the fifteenth day of the eighth month,” 1702, Yanagisawa celebrated the opening of his new garden—as well as displaying his “uncommon love of elegant pursuits”—by holding a poetry party.  Each guest composed a poem on the topic “clear moonlight on water” (Ogimachi 2021, 92). Yanagisawa’s own poem read:

In the clear moonlight
The sky and the water on the pond
Are as one
Reflected in the rippling waves
How late the night, how late (Ogimachi 2021, 92)

Yanagisawa’s poem conformed to a style that had been solidified well before the 16th century. Beginning as what Helen McCullough describes as “the product of a leisured aristocracy,” poetry reflected the elegance of life in the Heian court and how it connected with nature and the seasons. Common topics included the beautiful gardens andtrips into the countryside, but the true measure of how nature was infused into life and poetry was that it also routinely appeared in the third great Heian poetry topic, that being love affairs (1985, 1). This is demonstrated in the following poem, referring to the Heian custom of lovers scenting their robes with incense:

Never again will
I plant a plum tree near my house
For I mistook
The scent for the perfumed robes
Of the one for whom I wait (Rodd & Henkenius, 1996, 58, 59)

Classical waka poetry was collected in great anthologies. The two most important were Kokinshu, compiled by a committee appointed by the emperor at the beginning of the 10th century, and the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, assembled by a scholar named Fujiwara no Teika in the early 13th century. These anthologies came to define Japanese poetry, with its 5/7/5/7/7 syllable pattern, and its predominant nature theme (McCullough 1985, 2. Carter, 2019 3, Greene 2012, 1528, 1529).  Indeed, Donald Keene has argued that the waka poems in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu still form the basis of our understanding of Japanese poetry today (1993, 674).
Although it is not hard to see why aristocrats like Lord Yanagisawa were drawn to the elegance and romance in this classical, nature-themed poetry, the attraction for merchants and commoners who lived and worked in booming, gritty Edo is not quite so apparent. However, these poems had nostalgic appeal because people lived in small houses on crowded, treeless streets, with work no longer connected to the seasons (Nakai & Howell 2012, 131). As Peter Flueckiger explained, poetry in the Edo Period “was valued as a vehicle for accessing the languages and cultures of the past.” Classical waka poems, therefore, were a means of restoring “the lost wholeness” of life as it was lived in premodern, agrarian Japan (2011, 1, 3).  In a related way, aspirational, middle class city dwellers saw classical waka poetry as a way of announcing their status and refinement, and their “belonging to a world of elegance” (Flueckiger 2011, 6). As Roger Thomas has explained, “there was a persistent yearning amongst the newly literate for… the glories of Japan’s classical past” (2016, 471).
The transformation of poetry from an elite pastime into the realm of popular culture was facilitated by the democratisation of the waka-themed card game karuta. At the start of the 17th century, karuta cards were hand-painted and expensive, and the game was restricted to wealthy elites. Gradually, in the same way that woodblock printing drove down manufacturing costs of books, karuta cards were mass produced and the game became more affordable. At first players conformed to the polite style used by aristocrats. Ambitious parents were even known to use karuta to teach their daughters courtly manners (Machotka 2009, 144.) However, over time a more raucous style evolved, with players lunging to beat one-another to sought-after cards.
Karuta players use two packs of 100 cards each. Each card in the first pack, the yomifuda (reading cards), has one of the 100 waka poems from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu printed on it. The cards in the second pack, the torifuda (capturing cards), only carry the final two lines of a poem. To play the game, the torifuda cards are scattered face up on the floor between the two competing players, and a designated reader then picks a card at random from the yomifuda deck and begins to recite its poem. As soon as players recognise the matching torifuda they scoop it up, with the one ending up with the most captured cards the winner (Saitama Prefecture Karuta Association, 2010, 3-15).
Knowledge of the poems gave players a head start, and so people who played the game memorised classical poems. Two of the many examples of poems in karuta that relied on an assumed knowledge of trees and their symbolic meanings include poem 33, that uses the cherry blossom, the symbol of transience and the fleeting nature of all things human, and poem 34, that uses the pine, a well-known symbol of longevity.

 Poem 33
In the peaceful light
Of the ever-shining sun
In the days of spring,
Why do the cherry’s new-blown blooms
Scatter like restless thoughts?
Poem 34
Who is still alive
When I have grown so old
That I can call my friends?
Even Takasago’s pines
No longer offer comfort (Ogura Hyakunin Isshu)

The democratisation of nature-themed poetry in the Edo period was furthered by the emergence of haiku, a form which streamlined waka’s 5/7/5/7/7 syllable structure into a punchier, 5/7/5 form.  The brevity of the new form, and the fact that it “spoke in everyday language,” made it accessible, and its potential to be light-hearted and iconoclastic made it seem like a breath of fresh air (Bowers 1996, vii). However, as the novelty receded, it increasingly seemed “mundane and tasteless” (Cobb 2002, 2). The man now seen as the first haiku master, Basho Matsuo, revived and ultimately elevated the form. As Harau Shirane explains, although Basho embraced what he called “haikai spirit,” and was open to making his poems playful and writing from new perspectives, he also “looked for poetic and spiritual inspiration to classical and medieval poets” (2008, 87). As such, he was able to make haiku more refined and link it to classical traditions, without sacrificing its broad appeal.  As David Cobb puts it, he found “spiritual moments in the everyday lives of common people and their engagement with nature” (2002, 2, 3). 
The key here was seasonality. Timon Screech has pointed out that “Japanese verse in all genres is highly seasonal” (2020, 162). However, while seasonality in waku is common, it is not mandated.  By contrast, in haiku a “season word” (kigo) must appear in every poem (Greene 2012, 593; Higginson, 1985, 90). This can be the actual name of the season, or something more subtle.  Snow is an obvious indicator of winter, and trees have associations with specific seasons: Bamboo has a growth spurt in summer, when wisteria blooms, cherries bloom in spring, and gingko leaves turn yellow in late autumn. This seasonal focus complements haiku’s simplicity and symmetry, conveying what Kenneth Yasuda states is “sense of balance and harmony” evocative of the lifestyle lived in premodern Japan (1957, 60). Basho poems that reference the four seasons are as follows:

The first snow
Just enough
To bend the jonquil leaves
I came weary
Seeking an inn
When, the wisteria flowers
In his absence
The God’s garden is neglected
Dead leaves piling
The sweet spring night has gone
While the cherry flowers viewed (Miyamori 2002, 101, 137, 122, 112)

Nature-Based Poetry in Tokyo Today

Everything about 18th century Edo that challenged the harmony-with-nature myth was more extreme in Tokyo in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A million people had grown to over 10 million. Donald Richie commented that the high-rise buildings and elevated highways made the city “look like Dallas-Fort Worth” (Richie 1999, 13). Neon lights assaulted the senses, subways were crowded, and work and leisure were increasingly carried out staring at a computer or smart phone. Just as they did in the Edo Period, many people have turned to nature-themed waka and haiku, which reassuringly keep them connected to a past when people lived in accordance to the seasons and in tune with nature’s rhythms.  While this poetry adheres to centuries old traditions, it has also quietly evolved to remain accessible to contemporary audiences and relevant to their lives.
The Utakai Hajime (the annual Imperial New Year’s Poetry Reading) demonstrates the way tradition endures while at the same time quietly evolving. The poetry reading ceremony has been held at the Imperial Palace since 1267, and its ritual has changed very little over the years. The ceremony is still presided over by the Dokuji (master of ceremonies), and twelve poems are read, one of which is composed by the emperor and one by the empress (Tagaya 2017, 212). However, while the ceremony was once restricted to members of the imperial household and a very few invited aristocrats and scholars, with the poems published later for the public to read, it is now televised by NHK, and the poems are posted online. Moreover, although the poems are still read by the ceremonial koji, accompanied by traditional singing, they now include some poems written by commoners. These changes might seem small, but they have made the ceremony more accessible (Kishida 1983, 47). “The entire nation, people and sovereign,” wrote Robert Tuck, “are united in the common act of composing waka poetry” (Tuck 2018, xv).
Although the transmission of the Utakai Hajime poems has evolved, the poems themselves still conform to waka’s traditional thirty-one syllable structure, most have a seasonal reference, and many make mention of forests or specific trees. A powerful example was in the 1991 ceremony, when Emperor Akihito’s poem emphasised the importance of the nation’s traditional partnership with trees:

With the people I pray
That the forests
Our forefathers protected
May prosper
In the Land of the Rising Sun

That year Empress Michiko composed a poem based on her visit to the Imperial Tomb of Musashino, where she saw young trees planted around the tomb of the Showa Emperor Hirohito:

These trees
Here in Musahino
Will grow, one day, into a forest
And stand as guardians
Of the Emperor’s tomb (Imperial Household Agency 1991)

Despite waka’s long history and its ceremonial importance—or perhaps because of these things—it somehow does not have the same “cool” reputation as haiku (Kids Web Japan). Nevertheless, it is studied in high school, and its place on curriculums is reflected in the booming membership of high school karuta clubs. Explaining why schools encourage these clubs, one teacher states: “It’s important that children are exposed to this tradition. No-one can really understand our history and language without a knowledge of these poems” (Bull 1996, 76). With clubs feeling that they are representing their schools, there is fierce competition to win the All-Japan Championships. The championships are widely reported in Japanese newspapers, and spawned a popular manga entitled Chihayafuru, that was later adapted into an anime series of the same name. (Ueda 2011). The main character in Chihayafuru, Chihaya Ayase, learns to love karuta at school, forms a club, and aims for victory in the national championship at Omi Shrine. She became a role-model for high school students, in turn inspiring further interest in karuta, which now has over a million active players in Japan. Indeed, in 2019 the author, Suetsugu Yuki, established the Chihayafuru Fund to support competitive karuta, sponsoring the “Chihayafuru Ogurayama Cup,” with a ¥1,000,000 ($100,000) first prize (Asahi Shimbun, 2020; Chihayafuru Fund website).

Figure 5. Chihayafuru Manga

Haiku is present in all stages of Japanese life from childhood to adulthood. Children learn the basic structures of the poems in kindergarten. Akebono Nursery School principal Fumiko Taya explains that “Haiku encourages sensitivity, nurturing empathy, and compassion.” (Yokoyama 2017). Elementary school students are taken on “haiku walks,” where they visit parks and learn to write nature-based poems. One strategy on these walks is to have the children touch a tree while they are blindfolded so that they can “feel nature with their bodies” (Kids Web Japan). High school haiku clubs compete against one-another, and while the haiku team might not have the same status as baseball, both activities culminate in a national championship, with the annual Haiku Koshien mirroring the famous National High School Baseball Championship, held at Koshien Stadium, the home of the Hanshin Tigers (Haiku Capital Matsuyama).
Exposure to haiku in school sets up haiku’s popularity amongst the adult population, many of whom belong to haiku societies. There are over 1,000 such societies, comprising more than a million members in total. Haiku writers also mix in more informal settings. For instance, in haiku bars drinks come with a pen and “purpose made card” for composing a haiku. (Haiku capital Matsuyama). The popularity of haiku competitions gives an insight into the number of people who write haiku. The contest run by the green tea company Ito En, mentioned in the introduction to this article, attracts over half a million entries each year, and a competition run by Tokyo Metro receives almost as many. These competitions also give an insight into the everyday nature of reading poetry, with the winning Ito En haiku printed on green tea labels, and winning entries in the Tokyo Metro competition being displayed in carriages for commuters to read (Metro Cultural Foundation). Given that Tokyo Metro is a combination of nine lines including the Ginza and Namboku lines, with a daily ridership of over 9 million, the winning poems are seen by a lot of people. The popularity of reading haiku is also seen in book sales that can reach six figures, and a healthy haiku magazine industry. The oldest haiku magazine in the country, Hototogisu, first published in 1897, continues to thrive. In the 1980s the monthly circulation was 10,000 copies, and in 2021 the editors were receiving 6,000 submissions every month (Yomiyuri Shimbun, 2021; Hotogotsu website.).
Waka book sales have also enjoyed a boom that began towards the end of the 1980s. Tawara Machi’s best-selling book Sarada Kinenbi sold a phenomenal 2.5 million copies in Japan alone—one copy for every 50 people—and another 6 million copies worldwide. Romance and the book’s contemporary settings—a Shinjuku-bound train, a baseball game, surfing, shopping—clearly connected with young readers. However, the book is by no means a complete departure from tradition, and as Jon Holt points out, Tawara stays true to the 5/7/5/7/7 form, which she calls her “magic wand” (2016, 36, 37). Moreover, her contemporary settings often come with nature and seasonal references. In one poem the “blue of sky and sea” is juxtaposed against a surfboard, and modern readers would instantly associate the sun on her face at a baseball game with summer. Indeed, the ballpark itself, with its manicured green grass, could be seen as managed nature in the modern city. Tokyo readers are likely to also relate to Tawara’s laments about the disconnect from nature they experienced in the city.

The winds of spring
Blow at the telephone poles
They bear no blossoms,
Have no petals to scatter,
And point up to heaven (Tawara 1989, 56).


When Edo emerged as the world’s biggest city the disconnect with nature was felt most acutely by commoners. Unlike daimyo such as Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, who had the space and money to build their own spacious garden, craftsmen, labourers, and even relatively well-off merchants lived in cramped houses set side-by-side in narrow streets. Moreover, parks were not an option. With no history of big cities in Japan, there had never been a reason to develop public parks, and it wasn’t until the Meiji period that they emerged in Tokyo—as Andre Sorenson notes, “in the Tokugawa period the Western concept of the urban park as an oasis of countryside within the city was unknown” (2002, 43).
While nature-themed poetry created a wistful link back to a time when life was lived close to nature, a void remained in the lives of many people who found themselves living in Edo’s stark, almost treeless cityscape. One solution was to undertake a pilgrimage to a shrine, which was typically set amongst old trees, but such pilgrimages could only be undertaken annually, and for many it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip (Tormanek 1998, 165-169). One of the few practical ways working people could compensate for their treeless urban environment was to grow bonsai (Long 1971, 271). Introduced from China in the early Heian Period, it became a popular hobby with Kyoto aristocrats when the bulk of the population lived in rural villages and worked on the land.  They were already in touch with nature and had no need to indulge in an exotic, tree-growing hobby, but in urban Edo it quickly became popular. Indeed, the bonsai craze in the Genroku Period has been likened to the “Tulipmania” that gripped Holland at about the same time.  Just as with tulips, bonsai trees could be expensive, but the craze cut across class—the very poor who couldn’t afford finely crafted pots grew their tiny trees in cast-off abalone shells—and by the end of the 17th century bonsai was as much a part of popular Edo culture as wood block prints and puppet theatre (Vaporis 2012, 230).
Bonsai, which is possibly the most extreme form of managed nature, afforded everyone, from the wealthy merchant with an expensive tree, to the poorest labourer growing an azalea in an old shell, the opportunity to experience a partnership with nature. Regardless of the tree’s monetary value, a bonsai tree’s leaves must be pruned regularly. This is both to keep the tree from growing too large, and to shape it. Shaping is also achieved by strategically wrapping wire around the trunk and branches to train them to mimic certain idealised, “natural” shapes such as fukinagashi (the windswept look of a pine that grows in an exposed place such as the seashore) or kengai (the cascading style of a tree clinging to the side of a steep mountain. (Bonsai Kai 1989, 18, 19). The roots also need to be pruned, usually every other year, when the soil in the pot is refreshed. Because the tree grows in such a small, shallow container, it needs to be fed regularly and watered every day. This exacting routine gives rise to a truly harmonious relationship between the grower and tree. According to Bonsai Master Kato Saburo, “Although the plant cannot speak to you, you’ll sense when it is trying to tell you something.”  Kato believes that at that point, the bonsai “responds to your love and becomes an honest friend” (1980).
An extensive 20th century park creation program and the ease of travel into the countryside in post-WW2 Japan meant that the daily separation from greenery was not as complete in 21st century Tokyo as it had been in Edo. Park creation in Tokyo began in the Meiji Period, when daimyo gardens began to be converted into public parks. Hibiya Park was the first in 1903 and was joined by others in the early Showa Period, including Rikugien Gardens (Waley, 2005, 18). The lack of space in the densely populated city put a break on the development of new parks, but the destruction caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake and the fire-bombing in WW2 opened-up land that the city government took advantage of, creating parks such as Shinjuku Gyoen Garden (Schencking, 2013, 289, Havens, 2011, 3).  Access to parks has been further extended by the introduction of illuminated night-time viewing of autumn foliage at Rikugien and Happo-en Gardens, giving the opportunity to office workers and families with school children to experience one of the year’s seasonal highlights, albeit in a new form of tamed nature based on modern LED lighting.
Tokyo now even has its own shrine forest, Meiji Jingu, visited by ten-million people every year. Moreover, railways, cars, and weekends free of work make travelling outside of the city far easier than in the Edo period and have led to the growth of domestic tourism into rural areas (Graburn 1995, 64). Despite Meiji Jingu’s accessibility, visiting outlying shrines is still popular, but the real focus of this domestic tourism is finding a rustic farmland scene, with “a long, winding dirt road, grass and rice fields, traditional Japanese house architecture, and hazy mountain peaks in the background” (Creighton 1997, 241). As Millie Creighton explains, “in today’s modern, urban centred, post-industrial Japan…the collective nostalgic imagination implies the return to a pre-Western, pre-industrialised, and nonurban past” (1997, 239).
Far from eroding demand for bonsai, the juxtaposition of park visits and nostalgia-filled drives into the countryside with the everyday reality of life in the mega-city made keeping a miniature tree seem more attractive. The only thing limiting bonsai’s popularity was the reputation it acquired in post WW2 Japan as a pastime for older men, a reputation that was shattered early in the 21st century when innovative young bonsai masters began making the hobby attractive to younger demographic. Yamada Kaori is one of the best known of these innovators. She experimented with growing two trees in the one container, and she adds grass and low growing flowers to a pot to “soften” its appearance.  “I often hear young people say, ‘how cute’ or ‘how cool’ when they see [my] bonsai,” she said (Lies 2007). An indication of the popularity of Yamada’s approach is that she was made host of a weekly bonsai program on NHK. In turn, newspapers began reported that stressed young professionals who lived their lives disconnected from nature in small apartments, on daily subway rides and working long hours in airconditioned offices, were turning to bonsai for “a sense of the seasons” (Miyoshi 2005).

Figure 6. Tokyu Hands bonsai supplies
Responding to bonsai’s demographic shift, upmarket department stores such as Isetan and Mitsukoshi began selling equipment and conducting bonsai appreciation classes, where novices learnt how to communicate with the miniature trees. Tokyu Hands, a store that specialises in DIY and crafts, also responded with a dedicated bonsai section in each store, selling starter trees, equipment, and peripherals, including the small rocks and moss that growers use to achieve a natural look. While Tokyu Hands caters to bonsai growers all year round, during the spring growing season the store collaborates with the Omiya Bonsai Museum to put on a special display of trees in its Shibuya store. Customers can also relax in the store’s “Bonsai Café,” where the menu includes “Moss Bonsai Parfait,” whose green top matches the moss for sale on the shelves, and “Bonsai Tiramisu,” topped with chocolate “soil,” which is eaten with a miniature shovel. (McGee 2015).
The Bonsai Café is light-hearted fun but is underpinned by a serious commitment to bonsai and the philosophy of living in harmony with nature.  That commitment comes through even more overtly in smaller, suburban stores. A classic example is Ryu-Ryu, in Sangubashi, just a few stops from Shinjuku on the Odakyu Line.  The owner, Hosomura Takeyoshi, is the son of a gardener and “grew up surrounded by grass, trees and flowers.” He believes that this upbringing gave him a love of nature.  His menu is sparse—green or English breakfast tea with the option of biscuits—the idea being that the customer’s focus should be on viewing the bonsai on display.  Indeed, the only other thing sold at Ryu Ryu is seasonal shimekazari (New Year decorations made of rice straw rope), which Hosomura fashions himself.  He also cultivates the bonsai he sells, using moss and rocks to make miniature landscapes “cut from nature.”  A measure of how seriously he takes bonsai and the idea that growers must work in harmony with the miniature trees is that he will sell his bonsai only to people “who will cherish them and treat them like long-term partners” (Ryu-Ryu website).


Figure 7. Ryu-Ryu, café and bonsai shop in Sangubashi, with bonsai and shimekazari on display
On January 16, 2020, when Japan recorded its first Covid-19 case, bonsai was about to receive an unplanned boost. As the pandemic took hold and successive states of emergency were declared, the isolation of working and studying from home, having favourite restaurants and izakaya closed, and not even being able to pray at shrines, began to affect people. The isolation and anxiety were so extreme that in February 2021 the government installed a Minister for Loneliness, and by June of that year the nation was in the throes of a mental health crisis (Wortly 2021; Stickley & Ueda 2021). Bonsai proved to be one of the few ways of dealing with the crisis, with studies showing that it was effective in “managing uncertainty and stress during the lockdown” (Yazdan 2021, 13).
One explanation for bonsai’s positive effect was that although growers remained physically isolated, they were able to join online communities that emerged in the pandemic. However, while new zoom connections were better than nothing, expanded online contact alone fell short of explaining the benefits accruing to bonsai growers. It became apparent that the key was the growers’ relationship with their trees, rather than with one another. Yamada Kaori suggests that it is “the joy of living with something that’s alive,” and that people were treating their trees as pets (All About Japan, 2019). Yazdan Mansourian, whose research at Charles Sturt University confirms that bonsai “connects people to nature,” explains that “People who do not have enough space for a garden can enjoy having a bonsai tree in a small apartment and at the same time enjoy the benefits of connecting with nature through these tiny trees” (2021, 12).
Entering a partnership with a miniature tree restored hope when people were feeling helpless and overwhelmed by the pandemic. Many of the trees were hundreds of years old, and continued to thrive when mankind was succumbing to the virus. This resilience was expressed in the poetry at the 2021 Utakai Hajime. During the state of emergency, the Empress Masako was walking through the Akasaka Palace gardens when she saw a Japanese apricot tree (ume) that was thriving, with fruit starting to form.  She was struck by the comparison between “the unswerving vitality of the workings of nature” and struggles of the Japanese people in the pandemic (Imperial Household Agency, 2021).  It inspired her to write the following poem:

As I stand in the garden
Yearning for
The end of the infection’s spread
The fruit of the ume
Are a hopeful green (Imperial Household Agency, 2021)


It is axiomatic that Tokyo is a mix of old and new, with the JNTO telling tourists that the city is “as futuristic as it is historical (JNTO, “Tokyo”). Indeed, the juxtaposition of old and new is hard to miss. There can be a traditional kissaten, serving black coffee and little else, in the same street as a Starbucks, a kimono clad woman might be seen walking past a store staffed by a robot, or the view from the window of a whisper quiet shinkansen will be of a wooden farmhouse surrounded by rice paddies. What is harder to see is the fusion of old and new discussed in this article, where an illuminated viewing of Autumn foliage takes place in a garden built by a samurai in the Edo Period, or where a popular manga is based on thousand-year-old waka poems, or where upscale department stores like Mitsukoshi run instruction sessions for young professionals in the ancient art of bonsai.
These examples of the fusion of old and new are the result of an ongoing evolution that kept gardens, nature themed poetry and bonsai as relevant in modern Tokyo as they were in old Edo.  Indeed, the evolution was already taking place in the early Edo Period, when samurai like Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu built gardens from scratch in a raw new city with no natural greenery. Waka poetry, once the domain of aristocrats, was made available to the masses in the 1600s through democratisation of the poetry-themed card game karuta, and poetry itself was evolving, with the emergence of haiku.  Bonsai followed a similar path, being popularised in the early Edo Period, with simple, affordable trees making the hobby accessible to the working people who were most completely disconnected from nature in the Shogun’s city. As the article details, the evolution continues, with parks and gardens being opened up to an ever-widening public, a new generation of poets and manga artists connecting young audiences with waka and haiku, and female bonsai masters like Yamada Kaori innovating and giving the ancient art a modern look.
The constant in amongst all this evolution is that parks, bonsai, and nature-themed poetry continue to reconnect people living in a sterile, seasonless urban setting with nature. Of course, just as not all merchants and working people in Edo grew bonsai or read and wrote poetry, not everyone in 21st century Tokyo does those things or visits the city’s parks and gardens.  However, an abundance of anecdotal and statistical evidence shows the popularity of each of these nature-related activities, and the enduring appeal of the harmony with nature myth.


1. The term waka is interchangeable with tanka. For the sake of consistency, waka will be used in this article.  It is used rather than the generic “poetry” to differentiate it from haiku, which also features in the article.  (Carter 2019, 3; Tagaya 2017, 210; Greene 2012, 1528)


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About the Authors

Cassandra Atherton is a Professor of Writing and Literature at Deakin University, where she is currently Head of the School of Communication and Creative Arts. She was a Harvard Visiting Scholar in English and a Visiting Fellow at Sophia University. She co-authored Prose Poetry: An Introduction (Princeton UP, 2020) and co-edited the Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (Melbourne UP, 2020) with Paul Hetherington, and is currently working on a book on ekphrastic poetry.  She is a commissioning editor for Westerly magazine, senior editor at Spineless Wonders, and associate editor of MadHat Press (USA).
Glenn Moore is a Research Fellow at La Trobe University, and also works for the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai).  He taught history for many years at the University of Melbourne, and has written articles on study tour pedagogy, Japanese society and history, and Japanese tree culture.


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