Judging Shohin bonsai

Photos are from the private collection of Morten Albek and from 2020 edition of the Trophy in Belgium.

How to judge Shohin Bonsai is a frequently asked question. I will make a short introduction to the basics here.

Shohin sizes

Shohin bonsai differs from other categories of bonsai by their size. The All Japan Shohin Bonsai Association sets a limit size for each individual tree at 20cm / 10 inches measured from the rim of the pot to the top of the tree.

This is not a rigid rule, because small jin´s or flowers may break through this limit and still be accepted. Also trees measuring 21-23 cm have won prizes at big japanese exhibitions, so rules are more guidelines. If it fits in the racks and has the feeling of a Shohin it is accepted. Always it is the judges that finally takes the decision if any doubt.



Shohin is always displayed with more trees together to add a seasonal feeling. It is newer set up with just one tree, because the important seasonal approach demands the interplay between two or more trees.

The standard displays show from five to seven trees normally and arranged in a typical rack normally. Fewer trees can be used, but newer dispalyed with just a single tree.

For the subcategory mame-bonsai, less than 10 cm / 4 inches in height, more trees are often shown to fill out the preselected area.

Standard areas assigned for each Shohin display is  90 X 180 cm, or a length of 120 cm for smaller Mame displays.



Variation and seasonal expression

Threes must be of different specimens or varieties, not repeating each other. Displays will not show two Japanese black pines but can show a Japanese black pine accompanied by a J. White pine.

Also pots, forms and colours are not be repeated, as well as small stand used to elevate trees should not repeat each other in the form either.

The main tree is always (by tradition) showing a strong masculine tree, but no rules demand it to be a coniferous tree. Although this is the tradition it is not a rule, but a cultural approach.

The secondary tree shows a clear seasonal expression, often showing berries or flowers for example.

The space within the rack supports this seasonal feeling. In winter this can be both a Zelkova with leafless branches and a Juniper with green needles.

Scrolls are rarely used because it all gets too crowded and negative space is very important to achieve harmony and simplicity.

The number of trees in this type of display varies from 3-4 to 7 trees mostly.

For Mame bonsai it is possible to add more trees to fill in the space of the area.

Accents are used to underline the seasonal expression, and always at least one accent is used.


Three-point displays

A variation of the form and norm is the three-point display. In this display type, two trees are used, with an accent planting and most often added a scroll or screen. Here the main tree may exceed the size of a Shohin in some displays and is judged separately. Again, the changing seasons is the main expression. This also should be shown by the scroll used.

The scroll shows the season nearly present or a little ahead. This is shown by autumn leaves at a tree in the display supported by a scroll showing a bird flying away for example. 

The tree point display is judged separately because it is impossible to compare with a display with more trees that also does´nt make use of a scroll. 


When judging Shohin bonsai it is always the full displays that are judged.

Of course with the focus on the quality of the trees as a group and the arrangement of the display.

Does it show the season clearly? Is it harmonic and peaceful? Do the trees show balance within the full composition? And so on…

Only when two or more displays are judged as being equally good, judges begin to pinpoint the individual quality of single trees and comparing these to decide a winner.

First judging the primary tree (main tree at the top of the main rack), and then the secondary tree as the most important trees of quality. Followed by the rest of the trees added.

Clear faults on any bonsai display withdrawing value is clearly wired branches and guy wires visible. Smaller branches wired at coniferous trees are acceptable. 

Trees unbalanced in the display, dirty pots or missing moss or other shrubs covering the soil surface also largely disqualifies a bonsai on display from receiving any points.