“Bonsai trees are like our children”: a couple pleads for the return of stolen trees

TOKYO — For decades, a precious 400-year-old Japanese bonsai tree has been shaped, watered and cared for with all the precision necessary for a priceless work of art.

In the wrong hands, he could die in a week.

The tree, a 33-inch-tall Shimpaku, was among seven trees stolen from the garden of Seiji Iimura, 54, a fifth-generation owner of a bonsai shop in the city of Kawaguchi, near Tokyo, in January .

In total, the stolen trees were worth more than 10 million yen, or about $90,000.

Keeping bonsai requires a powerful mix of dedication and skill, usually creating a deep emotional bond for their owners. Mr. Iimura has meticulously cared for the Shimpaku for 25 years.

In interviews, Mr Iimura and his wife pleaded with the thieves to return the trees and make sure to water them in the meantime.

“Bonsais are like our children,” said Fuyumi Iimura, Mr. Iimura’s wife. “These are our children who have lived for 400 years. I now feel like our limbs have been taken away and I miss them every day.

The police were unable to find the thieves. Mr Iimura said their large garden of 3,000 pots had been opened – the couple never considered the possibility that someone could steal one – but they have since installed several cameras. They will be building a fence soon and are considering adding a mermaid.

Keeping a bonsai tree is as much an art as painting it, with owners using wiring and pruning to shape the trees, often over decades, into miniature versions of those found outdoors. They have an appeal similar to dollhouses or miniature cars, shrinking something big and beautiful so it can fit into a home or garden.

Long associated with Japan, the tradition of caring for trees began in China around the year 1000 and has spread to dedicated owners across the world. Several previous theft victims have mourned their stolen trees in the same way as the Iimuras, describing it as a family loss.

“It’s not the money, those plants were like children to me,” Suzanne Berv, of Great Neck, NY, told The New York Times in 1978 after eight of her bonsai trees were cut down.

“It’s almost like someone kidnapped one of your children,” Fred Miyahara told KPBS, a San Diego public radio station, in 2013 when a tree he cared for fell. been stolen.

“Having them stolen is a bit like having your babies stolen,” Richard Fenn, a pensioner from Tauranga, told the New Zealand Herald in 2017 when his collection fell victim to thieves. “They can take my shirts or my car, but having them stolen is pretty heartbreaking.”

The tree that was stolen from Mr Iimura was not for sale, he said, because it was “priceless”.

Yuji Tamura, editor of the Japan Bonsai Association, said the tree had already received an award at a conference and was “considered excellent”.

“It takes a lot of work to create a beautiful bonsai,” he said. “Trees haven’t lived in pots for 400 or 500 years. Trees as old as the Shimpaku or the Ezo spruce are taken from the mountains and nurtured for decades to become magnificent bonsai trees.

While the trees can be sold for significant sums on the black market, Mr Iimura said he hoped international media coverage would make it harder for thieves to sell the trees.

“All we want is for the bonsai trees to be returned,” he said.

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