Tanuki bonsai is not a style, but a unique technique for making bonsai look much older than they are. Many traditional styles can be created with this process of joining a live plant to a piece of dead wood.
Although considered "phony bonsai" in some circles, when done properly it can be impressive. With some age, you most likely won't even know. In the United States, artist Dan Robinson is credited with naming this process a "Phoenix Graft." Tanuki are created in Japan, however they are not allowed in formal exhibits. Outside of the Orient, it is considered respectful to "admit to your deception." If it's a very good subject, you may even want to brag.
This tanuki bonsai was displayed at the 2015 Bonsai Societies of Florida convention. Bragging rights go to Randy Clark.
Before he retired to Florida, Randy wrote an excellent article with graphics on how he creates bonsai using this technique. In part, he said:
“Regardless of their name, the process in their creation is basically the same. A large and interesting piece of dead wood is used as the centerpiece in the planting.
A die grinder or dremel tool is fitted with a router bit and used to inscribe a groove in the deadwood. Then a young leggy plant (most often a juniper) is nailed, screwed or otherwise affixed in the groove.”
Finding the perfect combination of tree and dead wood is not as easy as you may think.
Mike Sullivan, a South Florida bonsai artist, created this tanuki from a small juniper and a piece of buttonwood driftwood.
Shown here in 2008, still in the early stages of development.
I look forward to seeing the future development of both Mike and Randy's tanuki.
Although there is nothing that says juniper bonsai is the only plant to use, it is the most popular.
The starter shown here uses a young, thin trunk juniper that is still very flexible and fits nicely in the grove. It will likely develop very quickly.
Not everyone uses screws and nails, some use glue. Others tighten the combination of tree and driftwood with ties, string or wire. If this is your choice, be watchful that the bark isn't damaged by the pressure as the young tree grows.
This combination of driftwood and juniper is a joint venture by David Cutchin and David VanBuskirk, Ocklawaha, Florida. David V. attached the two and David C. styled the tree. Excellent teamwork!
This very old Japanese tanuki is a good example of how, over time, we could be convinced it's the real thing.
Name Note: Because these bonsai trees look like something they aren't, they're named Tanuki.
The word “tanuki” refers to an actual animal in Japan. Known as a “raccoon dog” it is neither of these two, but rather a species unto itself. The important thing to remember is that the animal “appears” many places in Japanese folk lore and is generally regarded as a sneaky trickster, unreliable, frequently intoxicated and not very intelligent.
To find "real" trees like these tanuki bonsai in nature, you may have to climb mountains. So, is it cheating? Some say yes.
Others of us just enjoy them for what they are, a creative combination of nature, living and dead.