Robert & Roberta Adair



Stories from Robert & Roberta Adair

I started writing this post over a year ago.  Rather than go with the “top 10 reasons” that I had started, I’ll simply write about one reason (of many) that I can think of regarding why Roberta in Japan is a bit of a shocker.  What is it?  Bonsai trees.

why I don’t make sense in Japan

Bonsai is a Japanese art form that a lot of older Japanese people (dudes, mainly) are really into.  I remember the first bonsai tree I ever saw.  I think I was around 6 years old when I saw this bizarre mini-tree at a (non-Japanese) church friend’s house.  I remember being impressed – that’s a lot of time and care and…precision.  It seemed to me that it was a good hobby for really careful, precise people with amazing attention to details and rules and…

…pretty much someone who isn’t a whole lot like me.

I stink at bonsai (literally and metaphorically).  Our landlady’s dad (who passed away many years ago) had 3 that were left on our porch.  She said to just water them occasionally – they’re scrappy little things and will be fine.  Well, let’s just say that we started with three, although one was already dead or mostly dead when we arrived.  The other two followed in the same way.  I was good at remembering to water them in the spring, summer, and fall, but I don’t know if I watered them at all in the winter.  Years and years of care – wasted.  Bye bye bonsai.  I failed you.


(and, yes, despite good efforts at resuscitation, they’re really dead.)

A missionary friend shared with me that a bonsai tree can’t technically be called a bonsai until it as been cared for daily for 50 years.  (What?!?!)  He said he considered trying it out until he learned that little “technicality” and gave up on the idea.  He then wrote: “Evangelism and church ministry [in Japan] requires that kind of patient perseverance, I think. And for THAT to happen, a relationship needs to exist. You’re building those relationships now.  Some will respond now.  Some will respond in 50 years.  Ganbatte (persevere)!”  (that’s the metaphor part :) .


When I first came to Japan, I felt like everything was manicured within an inch of its life.  Control over nature (amazing, impressive, manicured parks) = beauty.  Trees didn’t grow where or how they wanted to grow; they were forced to be exactly what their masters wanted them to be.  I felt they were trimmed and pruned and hedged within an inch of their very lives (dramatic hand gesture).  My perception is that this similar control exists in a lot of areas of Japanese culture.

While my head can appreciate this beauty and mastery, my heart (oh, the American that I am!) responds to free (“Give me liberty or give me death!”).  I like how the forest tries to take over the dirt roads my grandpa and uncles have tried to maintain.  Trees that grow and plant their own kind in random, delightful fashion and eventually die – the smell of life and death mixed together in the forest is sublime.  I loved the wild flowers that grew along cracked roads and around gross trash dumps in Kosovo – nature saying, hey, this is ugly but we’ll make it pretty.  Splashes of color – no designer, no planning, just being.  (on the flip side, bonsai have no function other than beauty – no shade, little O2, no fruit.  Maybe they do their own part at “being” and I like functional…?)  While going to parks in Japan is quite a thing to do – and I love that we live in a country with many parks – I prefer the untamed, un-pathed, un-manicured “wild nature” (should “tame nature” be an oxymoron?).


I’m still processing this (and wondering how the heck we’re going to tell our landlady that we killed yet 2 more of her dad’s bonsai…)  I have to believe that there is hope and that God didn’t call us here to be pining for un-manicured trees.  How do I need to change?  I know in my head that I “should” grow in my appreciation for order and structure (yet even writing that sentence was hard).  I probably also need to grow in noticing and celebrating “freedom” and spontaneity where it already exists, such as:

  • a surprising belly laugh from a friend instead of the cover-the-mouth and “nnn nnn nnn” laughs I usually hear
  • a friend coming over for dinner when we only invited her 15 minutes earlier
  • seeing wildflowers growing near the gutters or by paths
  • the Kita Alps (and other places “off-the-grid” in Japan) – and realizing my soul needs time in the wild and away from bonsai trees and bonsai culture…

Advice and thoughts are welcome.  (as are prayers!)

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