Modern Containers, Traditional Motifs Part 1

Like bonsai itself, bonsai pottery is filled with classical designs and traditional motifs. Visual motifs like paintings and carvings on bonsai containers often come from famous paintings, poems, and prints. Stylistic motifs like shapes and details(say of the feet, or rim) can come from individual artists and be named after them or from specific eras. In this series of articles, we’ll look at the origins of often seen classical and traditional motifs and styles as well a variety of examples. I’ll keep the critique on the pots to a minimum on this one as it’s already run a bit long!


A Little History:
The Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga, commonly called the Chojugiga, is an ancient Japanese cultural property and National Treasure owned by the Kozan-Ji temple and dates from the 12th to possibly 13th centuries. It is a series of painted hand scrolls featuring anthropomorphic, frolicking animals, magical humans, and samurai. Thieving monkeys, bathing rabbits, and wrestling frogs appear throughout, and these are the elements of the scrolls that find their way onto bonsai pottery often enough to be called traditional motifs. Originally the animal elements of the scrolls were whimsical and satirical representations of the priests of the time. The scrolls have been highly influential in Japanese art and culture, and are often credited as being the first manga. Some of the stylistic painting effects such as movement lines used by the artist are still in use in Manga in Japan today.

Frogs and rabbits wrestling, with the stamp of the Kozan-ji temple.
Rabbits and frogs chase a thieving monkey.
Depiction of the excerpt above by Ichinokura Sekisyu. Classical style, and the motif contrasts nicely to me with the more formal container.
A much simpler depiction with just the frog and rabbit painted by Owari Yuho, on a much more complex shape.
Oni footed round with a crisply painted version from the scrolls by Toho(Shuji Shimada).
A pair of glazed relief sculpted rounds with two animal figures from the scrolls by Ameniya Shinobu.
The most common depictions seen from the scrolls as painted by Shunka Seizan.
A later work painted by Daisuke and made by Ishida Shoseki, part of a series.
A very stylized, almost impressionistic depiction from Okumura Souzan.
Last but certainly not least, rabbit and frog with the Kozan-ji stamp by the master himself, Tsukinowa Yusen.

Raijin and Fujin

A Little History:
Raijin and Fujin are Japanese weather deities(Kami). Raijin is the god of thunder, storms, and lightning. Fujin is the god of the wind. Thought of as both protectors and destroyers, like many Japanese deities Raijin and Fujin are neither good nor bad. In a nation like Japan where natural disasters related to the weather are more commonplace than other societies with extensive mythologies, it’s difficult to see how two weather deities are thought of as protectors. Raijin’s positive aspects come from agriculture, as the bringer of storms and rain. Fujin’s good side is historically rooted in winds that twice decimated Mongol naval invasions in the 13th century.

The most common depictions on bonsai pottery come from folding screens painted by Tawaraya Sōtatsu. The works are considered emblematic of the Rinpa school of Japanese Painting and feature both painted color and gold foil.
Yoshiyuki Kawada’s gold award winning sculpted pieces featuring Raijin and Fujin.
An interesting version of the deities by Kutani Ikko, less classical than usually seen.
A highly detailed depiction of both deities with landscape painted by Ogurayama.
Fantastic carved depiction of the gods by Ameniya Shinobu. You can clearly see Raijin holding his hammers with drums surrounding him, and the windswept hair and bag of winds of Fujin.
Highly stylized depiction painted by Kyogoku Shiho showing Fujin in panel surrounded by geometrics.
Raijin by 3rd generation Tosui, Mizuno Shikao, in his usual highly identifiable style.
A more rustic depiction from Yuuki Shoseki. Very much unlike her usual style of painting.
The pair of deities from Chinese artist Sekizan. I like that the artist used a yellow glaze here as it does call to mind the gold foil from the original folding screens.
Interesting pair of go-sai(5 color) Fujin by Kutani Ikko on a beautifully made mokko by Bushuan.

The Fox’s Wedding

A Little History:
“On a day when the sun shines bright and the rain falls, wise parents advise their children to play indoors. It isn’t that they are worried about them catching a cold. No, it is something more mysterious. For on such days the kitsune, the magical foxes of Japan, hold their wedding processions.”-From the Hyakumongatori website.
The “kitsune no yomeiri”, or “Fox’s Wedding” in Japanese folklore is an explanation for unexplained forest lights or a ‘sunshower’(where it is raining but the sky is clear and the sun shining). Folklore surrounding the sunshower is fascinating reading. I’ve long been enamored of stories in folklore and fiction involving trickster gods and spirits, and they always seem to be associated with fairy lights and sunshowers.
For further reading on the Fox’s Wedding, I highly recommend the article on this site

Classical depiction of the Fox’s Wedding, showing the trickster foxes hiding their true guise throughout the procession, except for the front.
Another classical depiction, showing a long procession of Foxes and a surprise viewer hiding behind a tree.
Large painting by Fujikake Yuzan hanging in my pottery room, see my article A Hanging for more on this piece.
Another depiction from Fujikake Yuzan, an often seen motif from the artist, who I feel paints the best classical versions on bonsai containers.
Three depictions in mame/mini from Tosui, 3rd Generation, Mizuno Shikao, in varying colors and that signature Tosui style.
A more stylized depiction than is usually seen, by Joshu Katsuyama, a popular motif for this artist as well.
A classical version from perennial blog favorite(for his glazed pieces) Shunka Seizan.
A more classical depiction than his previous entry above, painted by Joshu Katsuyama.
A larger piece by the 3rd Generation Tosui, in his unmistakable style. These classical motifs are seen more often on Tosui containers than just about anyone.
Unique depiction painted by Ogurayama. Easily the most interesting of the lot to me, as it is more reminiscent of classical triptychs, scrolls, and woodblocks of the scene.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Part 1 in a series on classical motifs that appear frequently on bonsai containers. Almost all of the artists in this article have full articles devoted to them as well, check the Table of Contents if you’re interested in seeing more work from and learning more about any artist.
In future installments of this series we’ll look at famous woodblock prints like The 53 Stations of the Tokaido, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa and other Hokusai, as well as the origins of some named bonsai container styles and details.

Thanks for Reading!


About japanesepots

I've been collecting Japanese Bonsai pots for a few years, and feel that the famous, and some of the lesser known but great Japanese pot artists could do with a little more writing and exposure in English. Additionally, this blog will feature My own And others bonsai for discussion. The purpose of this blog is to further knowledge of Japanese pottery and Japanese style bonsai. If you have any questions about Japanese bonsai pottery, or would like to acquire pots by some of the potters presented in the blog, feel free to email me at
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1 Response to Modern Containers, Traditional Motifs Part 1

  1. Colin Barr says:

    Great Article many thanks

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