A Tribute to My Mentor TED TSUKIYAMA
By Felix Laughlin, President of the National Bonsai Foundation
It is truly a great privilege to say that Ted Tsukiyama has been my trusted mentor for many years. A lover of bonsai and a leader of the bonsai community who best exemplifies “bonsai no kokoro” (the spirit of bonsai), Ted is a man for whom I have the deepest respect and admiration.
During World War II, Ted served in the Military Intelligence Service assigned to the U.S. 10th Army Air Force in India and Burma. He was the first person of Japanese ancestry to graduate from Yale Law School, and has had a long and distinguished career as a lawyer and mediator in Honolulu. Indeed, he is known as the “Dean of Hawaiian Arbitrators.”
Ted was introduced to bonsai in 1964 and, in David Fukumoto’s words, “befriended the nation of his former enemies.” In 1989, along with Saburo Kato and John Naka, he was one of the founders of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF). Since that date he has served continuously as legal counsel for WBFF.
My fateful meeting with Ted took place in 2001, 3 days after “9/11,” when we met on the Hawaiian island of Lanai to discuss the history and future of WBFF. I greeted Ted at the airport after his short flight over from Honolulu had landed, and we drove to the Koele Lodge where we sat down to talk for several hours over coffee.
A strong proponent of Saburo Kato’s noble philosophy of bonsai, Ted spoke of Mr. Kato’s vision for WBFF, which is to promote bonsai as an instrument for the achievement of greater international friendship, goodwill and peace. Ted explained that, through Mr. Kato’s inspired and devoted leadership, WBFF had already held four successful World Bonsai Conventions, published two WBFF bonsai magazines, Bonsai of the World I and Bonsai of the World II (both edited by Ted), and created a global network of regional bonsai organizations in nine regions, constituting the only worldwide bonsai organization of its kind.
Ted then invited me to look into the future to see how WBFF could continue to achieve its objectives. The outcome of the meeting was that I discovered to my terror that I was going to succeed both Saburo Kato, WBFF’s Founding Chairman, and John Naka, the Founding President of the North American Bonsai Federation (NABF). My only solace was Ted’s assurance that he would be at my side always, ready to guide and assist when needed.
Following the Lanai meeting, I stayed in close touch with Ted, and we corresponded frequently by email, exploring ways to improve WBFF as an organization especially in its communications with regional organizations and the global bonsai community. We also invited prominent American bonsai leaders to join the North American Bonsai Federation. And we began planning for the 5th World Bonsai Convention to be held in Washington, D.C. during 2005. With Ted as our guiding light and a team that included Solita Rosade (a future Chairman of WBFF and currently the President of NABF), David Fukumoto as editor and Andy Rutledge as webmaster, we created websites for WBFF and NABF and loaded them both with information about these organizations and the forthcoming convention.
Since Ted and I were also involved with the National Bonsai Foundation (NBF), the support organization for the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., I knew well how much he had contributed to the expansion of the Museum. In 1990, he was NBF’s fundraising chairman for the building of the Kaneshiro Tropical Conservatory at the Museum. A close friend of Haruo “Papa” Kaneshiro, they along with others had co-founded the Hawaiian Bonsai Association and together they wanted the Hawaiian bonsai community to have a special place at the Museum for the display of tropical bonsai. Through his leadership and the generosity of the Hawaiian bonsai community, Ted succeeded in providing the funds needed to build this outstanding Conservatory.
In 2002, Ted and his wife Fuku flew to Washington, DC to reunite with Saburo Kato and his wife Yayoi and participate in the dedication of the “Kato Family Stroll Garden” at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum celebrating the incredible influence that Mr. Kato and his family have had on the art of bonsai. See “Kato Stoll Garden Dedicated” in the Summer 2002 issue of the NBF Bulletin at www.bonsai-nbf.org/nbf-bulletin. Before the 5th World Bonsai Convention in 2005 in Washington, DC, Ted traveled to Whittier, California to interview John Naka in his bonsai garden and to Mansei-en in Omiya, Japan to interview Saburo Kato for a tribute video that was presented at the opening ceremony of the 2005 convention.
Ted has also been honored by the Japanese Government with the Order of the Rising Sun, Silver Rays, in recognition of his significant contribution to building American-Japanese friendship including his work as a founder of WBFF. See “Bonsai Hero” by Marybel Balendonck in the Winter 2001 issue of the NBF Bulletin at www.bonsai-nbf.org/nbf-bulletin.
After Solita Rosade became WBFF Chairman in 2005, Ted continued to provide her with the same ever-helpful advice and support that he had given to me during the previous four years. If any issue arose about WBFF on which Soli needed advice, she might ask both Ted and me, but both Soli and I viewed Ted as having the last word – we knew beyond doubt that his view was not clouded by any bias but was informed entirely by what was the right course for WBFF. The “high road” was always the road that he took.
More recently in 2010, Ted and Fuku, along with Roy and Jane Yamashiroya, joined me on a trip to Japan on behalf of the National Bonsai Foundation. The main purpose of the trip was to discuss with the Japanese the NBF campaign to raise $2,000,000 to renovate the Japanese Pavilion and the Kato Family Stroll Garden at the Museum. We visited with Mr. and Mrs. Daizo Iwasaki at their beautiful home and garden at Takasago-an on the island of Shikoku, and then flew to Tokyo for meetings with Hiroshi Takeyama, Chairman of the Nippon Bonsai Association, and other officials of the NBA.
Throughout that trip to Japan, Ted was our principal spokesman, explaining our mission in Japanese and handling all meetings with the skills of a seasoned diplomat. While privately Ted would disparage his Japanese language competency, it was obvious that the Japanese loved him and held him in the highest regard. Everyone we met addressed Ted as “Tsukiyama-Sensei.”
Reflecting on that fateful meeting with Ted on Lanai, it is clear to me now that this was just the beginning of a treasured friendship that would last for many years to come.
Thank you, Ted! Felix Laughlin, President, National Bonsai Foundation
Editor note: I thank Felix for sharing and providing an insight on Ted's extraordinary national and international bonsai contributions. Saburo Kato has been the inspiration and Ted Tsukiyama, John Naka, and others made the current bonsai world possible.
As the transitional successor of both Saburo Kato and John Naka, the two most prominent bonsai giants of our generation, Felix provided the crucial leadership that kept alive Saburo Kato's dream of "World Peace Through Bonsai!" Since then the leadership shifts every four years to the host regional WBFF district that sponsors the World Bonsai Convention.
Felix, as the president of National Bonsai Foundation, the bonsai support group for the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington D.C., continues to play a crucial role for today's bonsai generation. For more information regarding the National Bonsai Foundation, please go to: www.bonsai-nbf.org