Mark Cooper casts an expert eye on the sizeable issue of bonsai sizes.
Although I am not an advocate of rules in bonsai, I have often thought that we (in Europe) are not particularly well educated in the area of size guidelines for smaller trees, and the hobby has seemed reluctant to debate this topic of size guidelines for the Mame/ Shohin/ Chuhin classes in exhibitions, and therefore better educate the bonsai community.
Size guidelines aren’t particularly important per se I think, until it comes to competitions and awards that is. Then this seems to be a very grey area and it can create ill feeling and confusion with exhibitors and visitors alike. The classic example I suppose is a small tree that wins a top Shohin award at one exhibition and then gets awarded a top Chuhin prize at another show a few weeks later. That can’t be good for the “shohin” hobby surely? I feel that this is due to the lack of guidelines and educational materials from any authoritative body, and here I think the BSB has a clear role.
In my experience this seems to be a topic that causes a lot of debate between bonsai hobbyists at bonsai shows regarding judging decisions and the allocation of awards. This seems largely born of the inconsistent assessment of trees on the boundary of Shohin / Chuhin sizes and the lack of clear published guidelines for the submission of exhibits to shows.
There are size guidelines generally understood by the All Japan Shohin Bonsai Association, but members and exhibitors are advised that these guidelines are open to some intelligent aesthetic interpretation. For example, if a “large shohin” i.e. a few cm bigger than a 20cm limit for that exhibition (and it does vary a little), is light and delicate in design and small in visual mass, it can still be considered as “shohin”. Whereas, for example, a “large” shohin, dense, macho looking Black Pine with a big trunk and nebari could can be viewed as unsuitable as a shohin even at 20+cm or thereabouts.
In our travels to Japan over the last decade or so and being instructed and coached by some of the top shohin pros, conforming to the size guidelines for a “shohin” show like Gafu-ten or Shuga-ten (or even Taikan-ten or Kokufu-ten) are seriously considered by both hobbyists and professionals alike. In Japan too, the level of knowledge and professionalism is far greater of course due to the length of time that shohin have been popular in Japan and because of the growing commercial importance of the shohin business.
At many top shohin shows in Japan, very often it will be a professional who will set up a customer’s display for them. As the pros are extremely accurate at “eye-balling” the physical size and feel of a tree, a measurement will not usually be required. After all, their professional reputation depends on getting the tree into the right exhibition class and to create a display that is balanced and harmonious.
At specialist shohin nurseries one will often see a hobbyist measuring a potential new acquisition before purchase to ensure that it will be appropriate for the size class in which they may wish to exhibit it in. We have also seen professionals with a rule or tape measure measuring a tree that they are creating to ensure that it meets the size criteria for exhibition.