What is the difference between bonsai and a potted plant?

Hello, I am Yuki, an owner of the Japanese bonsai pots online store YUKIMONO.

One day, I had an opportunity to see an old bonsai guidebook published in 1937. Though it was written by a bonsai master almost 80 years ago, it gave clearly a detailed description of What bonsai is. Sometimes I receive questions like “what’s bonsai?” or “what’s the difference between bonsai and a potted plant?”, and I never answer well. So let’s see how the old bonsai master in the book answers very basic but important questions.

Is bonsai just a small tree put in a small pot?
He says “Bonsai should be natural scenery expressed on a smaller scale with a tree and a pot. It also should be a beautiful art work expressed with complete harmony with a tree as a natural object and a pot as an artifact.” He also says “If you want to know the concept of bonsai specifically, you must understand the difference between bonsai and a potted planted.”

He explains the difference. “Do you think that it is bonsai which is just a small tree put in a small pot? Or do you think it is the potted plant which is a nursery tree put in a deep round planter? Both of them can not be answered yes. The potted plant should be cultivated for its blooms or leaves and Bonsai should be created to appreciate the natural scenery expressed with the beautiful shape of a tree and a bonsai pot.”

This plant is put in a bonsai pot.
Imagine a cactus in the desert area
Interpreting his words in my way, if you got a cactus from a flower shop, and tried to express a wild landscape with it, for example some desert area of Mexico or the US, and  also used a pot, it would be bonsai. On the other hand, if you just potted a cactus into a pot to enjoy its splinter or form, it would be just a potted plant.

Will a diorama also be bonsai?
As an old bonsai master says, if it is said that bonsai is natural scenery expressed on a smaller scale, can we say that a diorama made with small plants in a pot will also be bonsai? The old master in the book answers this, No.

“Bonsai is fundamentally different from a diorama. As natural scenery expressed on a smaller scale, there is Bonkei (盆景) derived from the Chinese term “Pengjing,” however, Bonkei is just a thing made by copying natural scenery with natural materials artificially.”

He continues as follows. “As bonsai is a work of art, it is quite obvious that bonsai is an artificial thing, however, the role of the artificiality in bonsai must be the help for nature. Therefore, don’t leave anything man-made on bonsai and those vulgar artificialities should be done away with bonsai.”

Being aware of just what bonsai is makes  your bonsai work improve
Sometimes I am asked by people critically if bonsai is cruelty towards plants. They think that potting a tree in a bonsai pot, which would grow up to be a big tree in nature, and keeping it small is therefore contrary to nature. I wondered how the old master would counter this question.

He says “These are said by whom doesn’t understand what exactly bonsai is. It is the figure which plants fit and live naturally. Plants have the property to be going to live anywhere given environment with limited soil and nourishment.”

The master in the book tells us over and over it should be that one bonsai with a tree and a pot expresses a beautiful landscape. Now, 80 years later, Japanese natural and social environments have drastically changed and it is difficult to truly understand his words without great efforts, however, being aware of just what bonsai is is very important to improve our bonsai works.

Thank you very much for reading this post till the end!