Hawaiian bonsai began in Hilo on the Big
Island, which had the highest percentage of Japanese in Hawaii. The Japanese
maritime ships brought Japanese Black Pine bonsai as gifts for their Hawaiian hosts over
100 years ago and this special relationship continues today. Hilo has a sister city
relationship with Oshima Island and many Japanese students come as part of exchange
programs. In the early years there was a silent but very real riff between the
Japanese and the Okinawans. Although today Okinawa is a prefecture of Japan and
much of the animosity has disappeared, the Okinawans point out that for centuries they
were a separate kingdom and there is a growing desire for their homeland to be
The legendary Soboku Nishihira was an energetic entrepreneur who contracted to do
dangerous digging and blasting of tunnels through mountains as part of the famed Kohala
Ditch. This water system brought water from the Kohala Mountains to allow agriculture to
flourish along the Hamakua Coast. Today, it's also part of an eco-tourism kayak
adventure. He was successful, received his contract bonus, and leveraged it into a
pig farm in upper Kaumana above the city of Hilo.
When World War II broke out, it was a fearful time and Japanese books, culture, and
treasures were destroyed or hidden. Soboku collected kitchen waste to feed his pigs
and his slop cans hung on posts in the backyards. Occasionally he saw a bonsai
tucked away and after seriously discussing the danger of having such symbols of disloyalty
waiting to be discovered "by the FBI who would throw you in the
calaboose," the owners often agreed to sell them to Nishihira who had a place
above Hilo where "the FBI no come."
After the war ended, Nishihira brought his many trees out of the forest reserve,
lined them up according to price, and opened the first known Hawaiian bonsai
nursery. One frequent visitor was Haruo Kaneshiro, the cook on the inter-island
barge. When it docked in Hilo, Kaneshiro would visit his friend Nishihira
and learned the art and culture of bonsai. Some of the oldest bonsai
went to Honolulu with him and soon there was a steady stream of buyers.
Because of the ideal weather, premium volcanic high-velocity pumice ejecta,
and ideal lava rocks, several Hilo bonsai nurseries started up.
We learned about Nishihira from Kaneshiro, about how he was an astute
businessman that developed numerous new methods to train his trees. Kaneshiro had been a
part of a real estate investment group that earned windfall profits in land
speculation. He opened a popular restaurant and after he had acquired and built a
number of rental apartments, retired to take care of his apartments and make bonsai his
By the early 1960's "Papa" Kaneshiro's home was our favorite hang-out as we
learned bonsai. But from the Kaneshiros, we learned about the Okinawan culture, the
community and family values, and were treated to extraordinary hospitality! Masako
"Mama" Kaneshiro is a great cook too.
They lived frugally but could afford to purchase any bonsai pot available. They were good
friends of the Kamioka family who owned Standard Trading Company, the exclusive importer
of the Yamaaki kiln of the Kataoka family who made the Tokoname district famous for bonsai
pottery. Haruo attended Osaka Expo 70 World's Fair and shared with us stories of the
bonsai he saw, the masters he met, and the qualities of outstanding bonsai pots.
I was with him and his family as part of the Hawaii group that attended the 1974
Convention hosted by the California Bonsai Society with joint participation by the
American Bonsai Society and Bonsai Clubs International. Papa was very excited about
a handmade Osaka Expo 1970 commemorative pot at Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery that had been
made by Japanese master potter Akiji Kataoka.
Kaneshiro immediately recognized the significance of the pot which represented a major new
level of Japanese bonsai pottery and was the only one in our group who could afford to
purchase it. But not one to flaunt his wealth, he hesitated. It was only
after we "twisted his arm" and argued that Hawaii needed that pot to learn to
recognize high-quality pottery that he relented and soon his prized Japanese Black Pine
was in that pot.
Soboku Nishihara and Haruo Kaneshiro represent two outstanding Okinawans who were leaders
of the Hawaii bonsai community and who imbued it with many Okinawan traits of hard work,
frugality, humility, hospitality, friendships, and a strong sense of community.
Wife Myrtle's family is Okinawan with both the Kiyabu and the Higa side of
the families having nine siblings. So I married into a huge close-knit
family and much of the success of Fuku-Bonsai is due to their full unselfish
support and loyalty. The Kaneshiros and Kiyabus families became good
friends and although we are an island apart there's a special bond of