Their version of these, which had been previously called "Bunjin Ueki," "Bunjin Hachiue," or other terms, were renamed "bonsai" (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term penzai). This term had the connotation of a shallower container in which the Japanese could now more successfully style small trees. The term "bonsai," however, would not become regularly used in describing their dwarf potted trees for nearly a century. Many others terms and compositions adopted by this group were derived from Kai-shi-en Gaden, the Japanese version of Jieziyuan Huazhuan.
In 1829, a significant book that first established classical bonsai art, Somoku Kinyo Shu (A Colorful Collection of Trees and Plants/Collection of tree leaves), was published. It includes the basic criteria for the ideal form of the classical pine bonsai, in detail and with illustrations.That same year, small tako-tsuki (octopus-styled) trees with long, wavy-branches began to be offered by a grower in Asakusa Park, a north-eastern Edo suburb. Within 20 years that neighborhood became crowded with nurseries selling bonsai. The three-volume Kinsei-Jufu, possibly the first catalog of bonsai, tools, and pots, dates from 1833.
Numerous artists of the 19th century depicted dwarf potted trees in woodblock prints, including Yoshishige (who pictured each of the fifty-three classic stations of the Tokaido (road) as miniature landscape) and Kunisada (who included mostly hachi-no-ki in some four dozen prints). The earliest known photograph from Japan depicting a dwarf potted tree dates from c.1861 by Pierre Rossier.
On October 13, 1868, the Meiji Emperor moved to his new capital in Tokyo. Bonsai were displayed both inside and outside Meiji Palace, where they have since remained important in affairs of the Palace. Bonsai placed in the grand setting of the Imperial Palace had to be "Giant Bonsai," large enough to fill the grand space. The Meiji Emperor encouraged interest in bonsai. Government officials who did not appreciate bonsai fell out of favor. Soon all members of the ministry had bonsai whether they liked the tradition or not. Prince Itoh was an exception: any bonsai which the emperor gave him were then passed to Kijoji Itoh. Kijoji Itoh was a statesman of great influence behind the scenes, and a noted bonsai collector who conducted research and experiments on these bonsai.
Bonsai shaping aesthetics and techniques were becoming more sophisticated. By the late 1860s, thick combed and wetted hemp fibers were used to roughly shape the trunk and branches of miniature trees by pulling and tying them. The process was tedious and bothersome, and the final product was unsightly. Tips of branches would only be opened flat. Long, wavy-branched tako (octopus) style trees were mass-produced and designed in the [renamed capital] Tokyo for the increasing foreign trade while the more subtle and delicate bunjin-style trees designed in Kyoto and Osaka were for use in Japan. Tokyo preferred big trunks out of proportion and did not approve of Kyoto's finely-designed slender trunks. (This cultural rivalry would continue for a century.)
Pots exported from China between 1816 and 1911 (especially the late 19th century) were called Nakawatari (middle-crossing) or Chuwatari. Shallow rectangular or oval stoneware with carved feet and drainage holes, unglazed pots of this type were used at ancestral shrines and treasured by the Chinese. After the mid-century, certain Japanese antiquities dealers imported them and instant popular approval for this type of container for bonsai created a huge demand. Consequently, orders came from Japan to Yixing pottery centers specifically to make bonsai pots.
Through the later 19th century, Japanese participation in various international exhibitions introduced many in the U.S. and Europe to dwarf potted trees. Specimens from the displays went into Western hands following the closing of the fairs. Japanese immigrants to the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii Territory brought plants and cultivation experience with them. Export nurseries, most notably the Yokohama Gardeners Association, provided increasingly good quality dwarf potted trees for Americans and Europeans — even if the buyers did not have enough information or experience to actually keep the trees alive long-term.
An Artistic Bonsai Concours was held in Tokyo in 1892 followed by the publication of a three-volume commemorative picture book. This demonstrated a new tendency to see bonsai as an independent art form. In 1903, the Tokyo association Jurakukai held showings of bonsai and ikebana at two Japanese-style restaurants. Three years later, Bonsai Gaho (till c.1913), became possibly the first monthly magazine on the subject. By 1907, "on the outskirts of Tokio [dwarf] tree artists have formed a little colony of from twenty to thirty houses, and from this centre their work find its way to all parts of the world." "Its secrets are handed down from father to son in a few families, and are guarded with scrupulous care."
Count Okuma (1838–1922) maintained a famed collection of dwarf pines and dwarf plum trees.
In 1910, shaping with wire was described in the Sanyu-en Bonsai-Dan (History of Bonsai in the Sanyu nursery). Zinc-galvanized steel wire was initially used. Expensive copper wire was only used for trees which had real potential. Between 1911 and about 1940, mass-produced containers were exported from Yixing, China and made to the specifications of Japanese dealers. These were called Shinto (new crossing or arrival) or Shin-watare. These were made for increasing numbers of enthusiasts. Some containers, including primitive style ones, were also being made in Formosa.
By 1914, "at the N.E. corner of Shiba Park is a permanent bazaar (the first of its kind established in Tokyo) where hosts of native-made gimcracks can be bought at fixed prices. The exhibits of potted plants and dwarf trees held here from time to time attract lovers of such things." Also this year, the first national annual bonsai show was held (through 1933) in Tokyo's Hibiya Park. During this period, the tokonoma in formal rooms and tea rooms became the main place for bonsai display. The shaped trees now shared space with other items such as scrolls, incense burners, Buddhist statues and tea ceremony implements.
The first issue of Bonsai magazine was published in 1921 by Norio Kobayashi (1889–1972). This influential periodical would run for 518 consecutive issues. Copper wire was being extensively used by this time. Major changes to a tree's shape could now be accomplished with wiring. Trees could be precisely and aesthetically wired, and then sold immediately. A greater number of both collected and nursery trees could now be trained for bonsai. The number of hobbyists increased due to the increased ability to style with wire, but there was also an increase in damaged or scarred trees.
The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and resulting fire devastated Tokyo, and gutted the downtown area where many bonsai were grown. And so two years later, a group of thirty families of downtown Tokyo professional growers established the Ōmiya Bonsai Village, northeast of the capital. The first great annual public exhibition of trees was held at the Asahi Newspaper Hall in Tokyo in 1927. The first of the very prestigious Kokufu-ten exhibitions were held in Tokyo's Ueno Park, beginning in 1934.By the following year, tokonoma display principles allowed for bonsai to be shown for the tree's individual beauty, not just for its spiritual or symbolic significance.
Toolsmith Masakuni I (1880–1950) helped design and produce the first steel tools specifically made for the developing requirements of bonsai styling.
By 1940, there were about 300 bonsai dealers in Tokyo, some 150 species of trees were being cultivated, and thousands of specimens annually were shipped to Europe and America. The first major book on the subject in English was published in the Japanese capital: Dwarf Trees (Bonsai) by Shinobu Nozaki (1895–1968). The first bonsai nurseries and clubs in the Americas were started by first and second-generation Japanese immigrants.
Caretaker of the Imperial bonsai collection, Kyuzo Murata (1902–1991), was one of very few persons allowed to take care of bonsai during the Pacific War. He gathered together and preserved many trees from the other Omiya growers and would water them under the protection of night. Throughout 1945, many old trees were the smallest casualties of the spring and summer napalm bombing of Tokyo (esp. March 9/10) and sixty-six other cities. Gardeners protected the Imperial collection trees from fire by pouring water over them after the Palace had been bombed on May 25/26. Following the surrender of Japan, there began the post-war re-evaluation and reviving of damaged collections of trees — including the Imperial - which would continue for over a decade as Japan was rebuilt. Many of the Omiya growers did not continue their vocation. During the Allied Occupation of Japan (through 1952) U.S. officers and their wives could take courses in bonsai, bonkei, ikebana, and other traditional arts and crafts as arranged by General MacArthur's headquarters. Many of the older and limited varieties of trees were no longer available, and the bonsai considered in fashion changed partly because of this shortage. Copper wire now largely replaced ordinary iron wire for shaping the better trees, but the latter still would be used for mass-produced commercial bonsai.