Setting up the Shohin-bonsai display

Simplicity is a major component of achieving a display with the right expression of harmony and peace. Balance, contrast, and invisible lines are words to remember when setting up a display.

Along with Shohin-bonsai, accessories can be added to extend the expression and aesthetic of the display. It is necessary to be aware of the basic Japanese rules for displaying bonsai, to fully understand how a display is set up and appreciate how it works. There are pieces of industrial art which would be completely inappropriate in a bonsai display, regardless of their immediate elegance and refinement.

Westerners have tried to use such items from time to time, but they never seem to last long. They simply do not have the feeling of nature, the aesthetic value, or the simplicity and beauty appreciated in bonsai art.

The numbers in the graphic show how to read the display:   1. Top tree, the most important tree   2. Assistant or binary tree, complements the top tree   3. Secondary trees, of equal importance and value to the display   4. Accents or accessories.

The elements

Besides balancing the different elements in a Shohin-bonsai display, there are some other aesthetic considerations to be aware of. The bonsai itself tells a story, and suggests a theme that can be expanded by using the right companions to the tree. All together, the bonsai, the way it is set up, and the elements applied will suggest a mood and a certain story to the viewer. Just as a written poem suggests feelings to the reader, a Shohin-bonsai display is a poem of nature for a viewer to translate, with primary focus on the season.

Elements in a display have to be of natural materials. Industrial materials will affect the picture in a negative way, taking the focus away from nature. The purpose of the elements is to enhance the image, not take the lead. This means that one has to choose the right accessories very carefully, so they harmonically melt together with the rest of the set-up, the trees as the main objects.


The display table

Display tables and stands are available in many varieties. There are stands that can hold different numbers of Shohin, and tables for solitary plants. Stands are designed to hold both odd and equal numbers of trees, up to seven trees, and different sizes of Shohin. It is totally acceptable to use an equal number of elements in a display; although odd numbers are traditionally used. At the biggest Shohin-bonsai exhibition in Japan, Gafuten, in 2005, second place was taken by a display that contained six trees. Newer display racks are designed for both odd and equal numbers of trees; two or four items are standard for equal numbered stands.


Natural elevation is not the issue

As misunderstood (also by me according to earlier western readings of the subject) the arrangement of trees in a display is NOT about the natural elevation of the trees like they grow in nature. It might be taken into consideration, but in a shohin display there often is a larger acceptance of arranging more freely than in the traditional Tokonoma display.

Avoid repetition of elements.

Focus on what is in harmony with each other.

In a display of more than one level, the elevation of the items has do with the rhythm of the trees according to each other. Form and movement decides how the trees are placed. When a Japanese display often shows a conifer at the top of the rack, this has do do with traditions and the expression of the tree, not where it grows in nature.

A deciduous tree is as valid as a conifer as the main tree. The characteristics are the important detail to observe when choosing the main tree. It has to be a formal steady, and strong looking tree (without flowers / berries, because this shows a feminine sign that is classified as a weaker tree without being impolite to women). the reason Japanese exhibitions most often shows Pines or Junipers, are simply tradition.


Suiseki, or viewing stones, are symbolic in bonsai and are often displayed together. The stones represent mountains or plateaus, maybe a waterfall or steep ocean cliff. The use of stone in display dates back many centuries.  For displays not using multi-tiered stands, Suiseki suggesting celestial feelings are sometimes placed higher than the bonsai but more important is the interaction with the other elements. In the same manner, it is more natural to place Suiseki resembling mountains, turtles, or other earthbound images below the top bonsai in a display.

Accessories like water bowls and ornaments (i.e. copper deer) are naturally placed lower than the top bonsai; like accent plants that grow naturally below the trees. This achieves a natural and harmonious impression.  The artist has the freedom to place objects however they work best, as long as they are in the right relationship to the trees.

Of course, great care has to be taken when pairing the tree and the accent plant, in order to create harmonic play between the two elements. For a Shohin-display on a multi-tiered stand, accents are commonly placed beside the binary tree, and not on the main stand but that is not a rule, just tradition which can easily be diverged.


Reading the display

In a Shohin-bonsai display, the number of trees allows for a creative set-up, but the basic principles must still be followed in order to make the display work.  Secondary trees (everything but the top tree and the assistant tree) can be arranged freely on the stand, which makes it fun to set up a Shohin-display, because there is so much freedom in arranging the items. Generally, a display of Shohin follows the basic rules a little less rigidly than other displays. There is a more relaxed attitude when it comes to rules, but still a very tight focus on bringing out the best result.

There are some basics guidelines to be followed when reading a Shohin-bonsai display. Knowing these guidelines helps to understand why the trees and other items are set up like they are.  In a normal bonsai display, the main tree is placed closest to the middle and the back of the exhibition area. The second most important tree is placed farther away, receiving the movement of the main tree. Because the  secondary tree is placed alone it is wise to use tree slightly larger to make the right balance between the elements.


The Shohin-display differs from the bonsai display. The main tree is often placed on a stand with two or three levels, making it impossible to place it closest to the middle of the overall display. Instead, the stand that supports the main tree (the tree is placed at the top shelf), is placed nearer the middle than the assistant tree whenever possible.