Some people think growing bonsai is impossibly difficult and it could be. It depends upon what you consider "bonsai." It's extremely difficult if you're set on growing only Japanese outdoor trees styled in the Japanese bonsai manner.  The Japanese are amongst the most disciplined and meticulous in the world; and unless you are totally dedicated to learn it their way in Japan in a lengthy full emergence effort, it's very likely you'll fail. There are no short-cuts!

                Most Japanese bonsai are trained using the single apex - tier branched "pine tree" shape. The tapering trunk emerges from strong surface roots and continues to the top in a single line. Flattened branches come off the trunk in a variety of ways and the overall appearance is an irregular triangle. This favorite structural form is even utilized to create Azalea or Elm bonsai. Much of Japanese bonsai are highly codified and it's possible for the masses to study for a lifetime and still not master all fine points. 

                In contrast, aristocratic Chinese penjing was practiced only by  the elite. They were well-educated, sufficiently wealthy, and casually enjoyed artistic pot plants as just one of numerous cultural pastimes. The plants were grown for personal pleasure and not for competitions or commercial activity. As a pure hobby without concern for anyone else's opinion, it was art. If you like it, leave it alone. If something is wrong, keep studying it until you've identified the problem. Then fix it! Be very direct and confident and don't worry about details.


                Tropical Hawaiian outdoor bonsai utilize the concepts of the Chinese penjing art and the craftsmanship of Japanese bonsai. But these have been adapted to the luxuriant trees of the tropics with stout trunks and dense lofty canopies.  The dominant tropical tree structure is a multiple apex - arched branched shape that are similar to old Oak trees, but with more prominent root systems. Huge banyan trees were our playgrounds and bonsai in banyan shapes with aerial roots are very special to us. Our bonsai also depict dramatic rocky Hawaiian scenes and we enjoy making rock plantings and tray landscapes utilizing beautiful lava rocks.

                Bonsai has been practiced in Hawaii for over 100 years. My grandfather Sakunoju Hinochi utilized the covers of aluminum cooking pots that had three knob handles as feet. He enjoyed creating landscapes and I treasure a little hut and a tiny ceramic fish that he used. The first generation of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii had a difficult life with limited opportunity. So they poured a huge amount of effort into creating beauty in miniature. Prior to the 1950's, bonsai were grown mainly by older Japanese men.

                Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro was a cook on the inter-island barge and when it unloaded and reloaded in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, he stayed over at the home of fellow Okinawan Soboku Nishihira. Hilo was a favorite port for visiting Japanese Merchant Marine ships and old Japanese bonsai were often left as gifts for their hosts. During World War II many abandoned their bonsai as they feared they would be branded as traitors. Saboku collected them and hid them in the Kaumana hills. After the war, he opened the first Hawaiian bonsai nursery and Papa frequently brought back bonsai to his Honolulu home.

KaneshiroBlackPine.jpg (9833 bytes)           Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro trained this Japanese Black Pine for almost 50 years. It was one of two old trees that he had acquired from Soboku Nishihira and is believed to have been grown from a seed planted before 1920. The other old tree is exhibited in the Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro Tropical Conservatory at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in the National Arboretum in Washington D.C.  (July 2001 photo)


                Papa and others shared their knowledge. Ted Tsukiyama tells of being introduced to bonsai by Raphael Camacho who was of Portuguese decent. When I taught bonsai at Aiea High School evening adult education in the mid-1960's, many in the class were younger non-Japanese ladies. A Hawaiian form of bonsai blended into our multicultural community.  Horticulturist Dr. Horace Clay inspired and guided a sharing environment where there were no secrets.

                We formed the non-profit IRS tax-exempt Hawaii Bonsai Association (HBA) as an umbrella organization of individuals that would assist everyone, but would not have activity that any one bonsai club could sponsor. We did not want to compete with any club and as clubs became stronger, we reduced our activities. HBA members were the leaders or the most active members of the bonsai clubs.  We formed HBA with several significant idealistic guidelines:

        1.     EQUALITY AND OPENNESS. Membership was open to anyone simply upon payment of membership dues.  There would be no screening committees and no barriers to participation. No member would accept the honorific teacher title "sensei" as it would create a permanent hierarchy instead of friendship and equality.

        2.     SHARING.  All HBA members were willing and able to share what they knew without fees. We banned competitions in favor of exhibits that included educational displays. Competitions discourage sharing and favors those who have larger financial resources or the old-timers. Rather than perpetuate "bonsai rules" and create an elite class of judges, we encouraged the formation of a sacred relationship between each bonsai and its owner-trainer. 

        3.     RESPECT.  Everyone could offer suggestions, but each person trained his own tree.  We were usually able to rein in aggressive individuals with over-inflated egos who wanted to show off. It was bad manners to voice an opinion about another person's tree unless a critique was formally requested and the most important principle was whether or not the owner was happy.  As staunch populists respecting each other,  we became true friends!

        4.     ENCOURAGING NOVICES.  There really are no bonsai secrets and it doesn't require an expert to teach the basics. We created team-teaching classes and encouraged recent students to be assistant instructors. Novices learned quickly by teaching others. We rotated teaching assignments and the old-timers "graduated" to be course coordinators; then "retired" to free up teaching and learning opportunities. It was fun to learn together!

        5.     ECONOMIZING & PAYING YOUR OWN WAY. Bonsai is inexpensive if you learn enough horticultural skills to propagate your own plants, have friends who'll trade stock plants or allow you to take cuttings, and if you initially use cheap nursery containers cut down to the proper depth.  As our interest increased and the quality of our bonsai improved, we depended upon importers to bring in pots and tools.

       6.     FOCUSING ON BONSAI.  Too often, a bonsai club's leadership believes it is necessary to raise a lot of money that is poorly spent. It just doesn't make sense to spend a lot of time on fund-raising and plant sales just to get a free club Christmas Party. Too often one or more of the club leaders are "semi-professionals." We focused on "bonsai" and did not allow the organization to become a political tool of an individual or clique.

                In this way the Hawaiian bonsai community initially grew with varied enthusiasts of all ages. It was very inclusive and we enjoyed the successes of each of our members. As each new technique was shared, additional applications and innovations advanced the art. We researched and taught Chinese techniques that proved superior in tropical Hawaii. Lacking the discipline and meticulous nature of the Japanese, a casual form of tropical bonsai is evolving.

                Every organization faces the challenges of being youthful and alive. Too often the old-timers dominate, create rules and policies that perpetuate their dominance, and stagnate to relive old glories. Like any art, bonsai is alive and changing and we face the challenge of creating the environment that encourages sharing and innovation.


                Before World War II Hawaiian bonsai mainly copied Japanese bonsai. Although tropical trees were being trained, the shapes followed Japanese single apex-tier branched patterns.  It may seem strange that a Chinese Banyan or other tropical broadleaf plant would be trained into a pine tree shape, but it's still a very common practice.

                In Hawaii, the first successful tropical banyan styling with aerial roots were developed in the 1960's and 1970's.  Complex rock plantings began in the 1970's and 1980's.  Innovative tropical designs began in the 1980's and new concepts continue to be introduced. Outdoor bonsai requires a significant amount of skill and commitment and many want to grow bonsai indoors. Just making a plant a bonsai does not automatically convert it into a house plant. After extensive trials, Fuku-Bonsai developed TRUE INDOOR BONSAI™, the training of proven house plants in the bonsai manner.

                The golden age of Hawaiian Bonsai was fuelled with the spirit of the "Greatest Generation" who were born in the depression years and who fought and died in World War II. Hawaii's Japanese citizens volunteered to fight even when other Japanese citizens were in barbed wire relocation camps. After the war, they took advantage of veteran educational benefits and in the 1950's, this generation changed Hawaii's political and economic landscape and created equal opportunity for everyone. Now Hawaiian bonsai are enjoyed by young and old, men and ladies, and members of all ethnic groups! 

               The last 20 years has also been the golden age of International Bonsai. Fuku-Bonsai honors Saburo Kato of Japan, John Naka of California, Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro of Hawaii, Yee-Sun Wu of Hong Kong, Akiji Kataoka of Japan, and Ted Tsukiyama of Hawaii for their exemplary and generous leadership in creating the bonsai world that more people enjoy each year.

                Now this aging generation is fading. There's a need for a public bonsai repository to preserve the best of the past to be the foundation for future bonsai generations.  In 1985 after numerous failed efforts, the Fukumoto family Fuku-Bonsai sole proprietorship evolved into a corporation to become the catalyst to create such a repository.  The non-profit IRS tax-exempt Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation became the public guardian of memorial bonsai and artifacts. They now co-sponsor the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center & Hawaii State Bonsai Repository in Kurtistown on the Big Island of Hawaii.

(insert photo-centered)

In 1986, Sadakichi Sugahara, Kauai's beloved bonsai master was dying and offered his entire collection to be sold to raise funds to build the Fuku-Bonsai Center. Instead, the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation accepted the donation of three bonsai, one of which became the logo tree of the foundation. Sadakichi collected this Ironwood (Casuarina equistifolia) in the 1950's. In greatly reducing the height, a major section of the trunk began rotting and this contributes to the unique attractiveness of the tree. (2000 photo)


                We face the challenge of continuing to preserve, promote, and assist those now becoming interested in bonsai.  Although some will take on the challenge of traditional outdoor Japanese bonsai with all of its complexity, we can only assist with outdoor bonsai in very limited areas as different outdoor plants grow differently in each locale. The best source of assistance regarding outdoor bonsai is a bonsai club in your area.   Their members have already learned the specific necessary outdoor bonsai techniques and have identified trees that should grow well for you.

                In contrast, house plants are the same throughout the world. Homes and offices are either heated or air conditioned to mirror Hawaii's natural temperature range. We select and offer only plants that can adapt and grow vigorously throughout all parts of the United States.

                We recognize that there is a major generational change and active multi-faceted people enjoy bonsai is just one of many interests. While they enjoy a few indoor bonsai, it is not likely that they would make the commitment to devote the extensive time needed to develop the skills to train and maintain traditional outdoor bonsai. On a populist basis, bonsai is returning to its Chinese penjing roots utilizing Fuku-Bonsai's TRUE INDOOR BONSAI™ concepts.

               Many who are interested in indoor house plant bonsai do not have access to premium plant stock or needed supplies.  In Hawaii, we adapted and developed locally available substitutes based upon principles. We'll share these principles to help you to identify materials available in your area. For some, it's more economical for us to provide the same components that we use.

                We give specific recommendations to those using our specific plants and materials. Those growing our TRUE INDOOR BONSAI™ already are getting specific advice for specific plants when they send us good clear photographs. As it becomes simpler to scan photos or to e-mail digitized photos, immediate recommendations will become possible. Fuku-Bonsai will increasingly become a resource for those wanting to learn more.


                There is more to bonsai than acquiring trees or training plants. Bonsai is a way of life. It shares the serenity and beauty of nature and is a celebration of man and nature in harmony. It's not necessary to own a bonsai to be exposed to the detailed complexity and the richness of priceless  treasures! While technique may be needed, it's more important to recognize and understand concepts and to have an appreciation of the essence that created a significant bonsai.

                Sometimes a bonsai is special because it's associated with a special person and we'll share the stories of the memorial bonsai in the exhibit collection.  Sometimes a new or little known technique make extraordinary results possible.  Sometimes very unusual plant stock or a quirky idea is behind an unusual or non-traditional design.  Sometimes bonsai are created to exploit an uncommon horticultural plant trait. Short stories of the many plants in the exhibit collection will touch upon these many facets of bonsai.

                Some people believe that bonsai can be learned by mastering each of the "rules" being taught by "sensei" and that you have to know the rules before you break them. I don't agree. Rules are the products of man and organizations. Bonsai should reflect the dictates of nature and man in harmony. Techniques are easy to learn but are useless without having an idea of what you're trying to create.

                Each and every person has the god given ability to recognize what they like and what they don't like. It's not important for all of us to like exactly the same thing! It's important that each person determine the direction to take in training his bonsai. It's important that each person take responsibility for the care and training of his tree because growing bonsai is just like raising children!

                Some people believe that bonsai can be taught and that the basics would be equivalent to a college "Bonsai 101" course.  In a simplistic sense, this is true.   But "Bonsai 101" is just the beginning and unfortunately many never go beyond that. Too often a person who has grown bonsai for 20 years really has one year of experience 20 times! Bonsai is a never ending journey and each of us will be students for a lifetime. Shouldn't we share and help each other?

                THE BASICS OF BONSAI will be the longest most comprehensive portion of and will be continually enlarged. It will include photos and from time to time new photos and additional information will be added to share the history of a bonsai. I hope you'll enjoy this section and will send feedback to guide us in adding more information of interest. WELCOME TO THE FUKU-BONSAI WORLD! 

                                                David W. Fukumoto, founder
                                                October 2000
*** Return to Index     *** Go to next section     *** Go to Mail-Order
<0 years really has one year of experience 20 times! Bonsai is a never ending journey and each of us will be students for a lifetime. Shouldn't we share and help each other?

                THE BASICS OF BONSAI will be the longest most comprehensive portion of and will be continually enlarged. It will include photos and from time to time new photos and additional information will be added to share the history of a bonsai. I hope you'll enjoy this section and will send feedback to guide us in adding more information of interest. WELCOME TO THE FUKU-BONSAI WORLD! 

                                                David W. Fukumoto, founder
                                                October 2000
*** Return to Index     *** Go to next section     *** Go to Mail-Order
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