Photo/IllutrationSurveillance camera footage shows an individual holding a bonsai plant at Tojuen bonsai farm in Saitama in November. (Provided by Tojuen)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KAWAGUCHI, Saitama Prefecture--It's too early to say that a serial thief is on the loose, but a string of thefts have put bonsai dealers up a tree.

While it is standard to cultivate dwarf potted trees outdoors, doing so is risky, as it leaves species that can fetch up to millions of yen a piece open to thieves, even if security measures are in place.

On the morning of Jan. 13, Seiji Iimura, a bonsai grower in the city of Kawaguchi, noticed something amiss at his farm, where he cultivates about 3,000 bonsai trees.

Iimura, 54, realized that four pots were missing, all Shinpaku, a variety of Japanese cypress considered among the most gorgeous of bonsai plants and popular at home and abroad.

Iimura explained that one of the four trees, which he said he raised as "my own children," is estimated to be about 400 years old and can fetch at least 6 million yen ($54,545).

Only a handful of Shinpaku were on display at his farm, Kirakuen, which is 4,959 square meters wide.

“An individual well-versed in bonsai must have been involved in the theft,” he said.

Iimura's farm is open to the public because he wants visitors to feel close to bonsai, which has been traditionally considered an expensive hobby requiring an extremely deft hand to look after the plants.

Iimura said he had not put extra security measures in place against possible theft, as he wanted to make the farm accessible to fans, but noted that he plans to enhance his vigilance.

“I will draw up anti-theft measures, while still keeping a space where bonsai fans can freely walk around to marvel at the plants,” he said.

However, even bonsai farms with safeguards in place are vulnerable to theft.

Tojuen, a farm in the prefectural capital of Saitama raising 1,000 trees, had eight pots stolen in November, all Shinpaku trees.

The farm, which comprises 991.8 square meters, was equipped with six surveillance cameras and a barrier set up at night to prevent trespassing. Hiromi Hamano, 81, who runs the farm, took the steps after a theft six months earlier.

Footage on the cameras showed an individual in a hooded top apparently go straight to the targets without checking out other pots and steal them around 2 a.m.

Hamano noted that Shinpaku trees are often traded in Vietnam and China at prices much higher than in Japan.

He is considering starting a joint patrol with other bonsai farmers in the neighboring area to prevent future thefts.

“I've already put particularly coveted trees indoors, but I cannot do this for all the trees at my farm," he said.