Bonsai burglars: Japan sees surge in tiny tree thefts, prompting ‘angry’ growers to boost security

Bonsai nurseries and collectors across Japan are investing in new defences amid a resurgence in thefts of their most prized specimens, some of which have taken decades to cultivate and are worth millions of yen.

Organised criminal groups from overseas are believed to be behind the thefts, stealing bonsai to order and smuggling them out of the country to be sold to unscrupulous collectors.

Around a dozen thefts were reported in 2019, followed by 20 more incidents in just three months at the turn of the year. The most recent raid this month targeted Gashou-en, a nursery in Kumamoto prefecture in southern Japan that has been raising award-winning bonsai for nearly 50 years.

“They came early in the morning of May 8, at around 1.30,” said Yusei Sasaki, who represents the third generation of the Sasaki family to manage the business.

“They took 33 trees, including some that were very valuable,” he told This Week in Asia, estimating that the stolen trees were worth 18.8 million yen (US$120,500). Police have made no progress in tracking down the thieves.

Security camera footage shows a masked thief stealing a bonsai tree from Gashou-en nursery earlier this month. Photo: Instagram/Gashou-en

“I’m really angry, and I’m also really sad,” Sasaki said. “We have worked hard to raise these trees, and it takes a long time for them to be perfect. They are works of art.”

Bonsai, which means “tray planting” in Japanese, is the art of growing and painstakingly shaping miniature trees in containers. The art form is believed to originate from the Tang dynasty pastime of penjing, or artfully arranging plants and stones in a shallow tray.

The Gashou-en nursery has closed-circuit security cameras, but they only managed to capture fleeting glimpses of three individuals entering the property and making off with the trees. The intruders avoided areas where motion-activated lights were installed, suggesting they had carried out reconnaissance of the nursery in advance.

All three thieves wore masks, making it difficult to identify them, Sasaki said. The nursery is presently looking into ways to enhance its security.

The industry has suspicions about the groups carrying out the thefts, however, with police in central Japan’s Aichi prefecture arresting two Vietnamese nationals on suspicion of stealing seven bonsai with a value of 5.3 million yen from a collector in Kanagawa prefecture in March.

A bonsai in Gashou-en nursery. Some of the most prized bonsai trees can take decades to cultivate. Photo: Instagram/Gashou-en

The Mainichi newspaper on May 15 quoted police sources as saying that the haul had included a stunning kuromatsu (black pine) bonsai, and that they believed the two men had carried out a number of similar thefts across the country and sold the trees to collectors in China and Southeast Asia.

The two Vietnamese men have not been named but were identified as a 20-year-old student at a language academy in Nagoya and a construction worker, aged 33, living in the nearby town of Togo. Their court cases have yet to begin.

The problem has become so prevalent that the Nippon Bonsai Growers’ Cooperative has a page on its website dedicated to the latest thefts and is urging members to take precautions.

Nine black pine bonsai, three Japanese oaks and a maple were stolen in an incident in the Kanto region on March 17, with the association instructing members to stop linking Google Maps to their premises as there have been suggestions that the thieves were using the app.

Earlier in the month, thieves cut through a metal fence at a nursery in Kansai and took trees worth an estimated 10 million yen, with seven trees taken from a garden in Yamanashi prefecture specialising in cultivating wild-plum bonsai trees.

In a statement, the organisation said, “This is not someone else’s problem. Your garden could be targeted tomorrow. By combining alarm systems and security cameras, you can create a fairly effective security system. It is also worth considering contacting an insurance company.”

A bonsai in Gashou-en. Bonsai can be valued at millions of yen, according to growers. Photo: Instagram/Gashou-en

Kazuhiro Takebe’s Bonsai Life nursery, in Mie prefecture in central Japan, has twice been targeted by thieves. In December 2022, a group stole 50 trees, and in March this year about 30 more of prized specimens were taken.

“It is becoming a big problem for everyone in the bonsai business,” Takebe said. “We had security in place before, but we have installed extra cameras and alarms since the second theft. We also plan to construct a new, higher wall around the nursery.”

As in previous cases, the thieves came shortly after midnight, moved quickly and managed to make off with some of the nursery’s best bonsai.

“These groups are very organised, and they are stealing to order … There are reports of groups operating all over Japan, and we have heard that they visit nurseries during the day posing as customers,” he said.

“They take lots of photos and videos, and it seems likely that they send those images to buyers before returning at night to steal the ones that their buyers in Vietnam or somewhere else in Southeast Asia have requested.”

“We have heard that some other nurseries have had their stolen bonsai returned, but none of ours have been returned yet,” Takebe added.



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