Bonsai Kanji Symbols

By T.Riley

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It was also suggested that this idea of breaking something down into smaller sections may be a reference to making it easier to learn and on personal reflection this may also be a pointer to the “eight fold path” of Buddhism?

However, at this point I will pose an immediate question and that is, “Why isn’t/wasn’t the more exact kanji for tray or flat plate employed therefore?”

Bonsai Kanji Symbols



This also has the radical for plate in it at the bottom along with that for boat, windy and again.

Presumably this is some sort of reference to boards with lipped edges being used on boats to carry plates to prevent them sliding off in rough seas.

Although the “tray” kanji shown above is a more precise word, the nautical connotations are/were all wrong presumably, has no subtlety, and it has no connection the overall message being conveyed.

So this introduces the notion of kanji elements being deliberately selected to be in context and suggestive. A tray isn’t a tray unless it’s the right type of tray.

I am grateful to Hiromi Dugwell of Toray Europe, one of my company’s Japanese suppliers, who pointed out another twist to the tale of the first “ Bon” kanji.

“Bon” is synonymous with “Hachi” which is another word for pot or bowl (flowerpot in some usages) as well as being the word for “eight” (also “many”). Further investigation showed me that the kanji for “pot/hachi” is very interesting. (see below)

Bonsai Kanji Symbols


Bonsai Kanji Symbols

BON-TRAY Includes “hachi”

On the right side are the radicals for tree (already seen above) and the line through it at the bottom usually means one – so single tree? On the left is the kanji for “gold”

So “Hachi” as “pot” is giving us an image of a golden (valuable) single tree.

Is it too big a leap to speculate, that the original meaning for this Kanji? may have been for those pots that held the first, treasured, yamadori that were the preserve of the nobility historically………………………

And do we have “hachi/eight” in the “bon” kanji as a pointer to a pot with a valuable/precious tree in it? Perhaps an old Japanese pun!?

Turning to the “Sai” kanji, (interpreted as planting or plantation) it was pointed out by my pal’s bonsai teacher that this kanji consists of the radicals for ground, tree as well as containing sword and rain elements. (the water droplet again)

We might expect the kanji for “plantation” to be similar to the forest kanji shown above and maybe conveying a sense such as “many plants in the ground” – but it seems not.

However, to be fair about it, I have discovered one interpretation of the “sai “ kanji as 10 tree planting (plantation?) . This depends solely on how far you extend the horizontal line in the sword-like radical but this I believe, only adds weight to my thesis that there are hints, clues and deliberate ambiguity in the kanji.

A commentary on the radicals making up the “sai” follows and incidentally, there are well over 100 Japanese words that say “sai” with meanings as diverse as most, occasion, gather, festival, wife, talent, west and vegetable which may present even more pun potential.

kanji sai table

There does seem to be some confusion about whether the spear radical (Bushu 62) used in the “sai” kanji is a spear or a halberd. Whatever! It looks like a sword and a cutting or breaking stroke of some sort and as stated above my old friend the water droplet has turned up. (look back to the “blood” kanji – a broken plate will cut you)

Off on another “left field” excursion, I wonder why a spear (or a halberd) might be represented by a broken or cut sword. It could be because the Yari spear in some manifestations is somewhat like a short sword on the end of a staff with elongated tangs not unlike the more familiar European halberd (a pole weapon with a spike and axe blade on the end used against mounted knights in armour)

Maybe broken sword blades were re-worked as spear points so as not to waste a valuable resource. The little water droplet which also appears in the kanji for “perspire/sweat” (and almost every other “wet” kanji I have looked, except river and water itself, could be symbolising the work involved?

But whether it’s “10 tree planting” or “tree planted in the ground”, a broken sword, a spear or a halberd – and remembering the context, what does all this weapon imagery have to do with planting or plantation?

I recall that agricultural tools were adapted as weapons by peoples conquered and disarmed by the mediaeval Chinese/Japanese. e.g. rice flails, pitchforks and staves, which have since become stylised martial arts weapons.

Maybe your halberd came apart to become a handy but nondescript staff or digging stick and an easily tucked away machete type tool when the local warlord “came a calling?”

Perhaps it points to a weapon not used as a weapon – but used to prune or dig or as a planting tool or to some multi-purpose weapon/farming implement?

Then digging a little bit more I discovered that a “sai” is a small trident type martial arts weapon widely believed to be adapted from a planting tool! So perhaps we have another pun on planting here.

Bonsai Kanji Symbols

A Sai

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fans may recognise this as Raphael’s weapon!

So, setting all this speculation aside, what do we have in the “Sai” kanji?

I suggest that we may have a tree in earth (or ten trees?) with a probable water symbol and some notion of planting and cutting short/pruning and/or cultivating perhaps.


As can be seen Chinese and Japanese Kanji are an extremely complex form of communication and this article barely explores the vast array of pictograms that can be learnt.

My brief foray into the general subject of kanji seems to reveal a wealth of subtle nuances and meanings, double meanings (and dare I say, philosophy) in them that I’m sure could occupy a lifetime’s study.

In summary, I do sense that knowing what we do about Chinese and Japanese traditions, culture and bonsai specifically, that the BON SAI kanji as “Tray Planting” interpretation always felt a little too simplistic.

However, when studied in a little more depth, a more complex interpretation of the Bonsai kanji is revealed.

Both kanji seem to have a sense of making each entity smaller - so is there an overall meaning that not only is the dish or pot reduced but the tree is dwarfed as well?

Add possible undertones of breaking something down in to smaller pieces in order to study or know it better and the “eight fold path” of Buddism and we could end up with something you could write a book about let alone a couple of thousand words.

Although proposed somewhat tentatively here, the notion of a dwarf tree that is planted, cultivated, pruned and watered in its special pot, eventually becoming something to be treasured, seems to be a lot more satisfactory to me.

If you would like to comment on this article, please email me at:-

Sources and Acknowledegements long lists of kanji arranged by stroke numbers quite useful but not extensive lists the 214 Bushu radicals covers anime and a lot of other Japanese style stuff A quick intro to Buddism A quick intro to Writing in Japanese See for evolution of Kanji

The Mahou site produced consistently goods results and explanations. Google search engine method is to type in:-

Mahou kanji [insert Japanese and/or English word(s) you are looking for using English letters ] “ then follow the link usually headed “Mahou (translate this page). “Googling” seems easier than using the site’s kanji “lookup” function and navigating within the site.

My thanks to Richard Fish and Hiromi Dugwell for their help, interest and assistance.

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