A tribute to my professional bonsai mentor:


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The Spirit and Soul of International Bonsai

(May 15, 1915 - February 8, 2008)

 By David W. Fukumoto

          News of the passing of Saburo Kato flashed around the world through emails and the internet and signaled the end of the introductory era of international bonsai.  He was a bonsai master, philosopher, and my most important mentor. There are very few as committed to bonsai as I am and Saburo Kato showed me the way of ultimate bonsai professionals.

          Kato’s family created Omiya Bonsai Village and an international industry. They successfully brought Ezo Spruce into cultivation by substituting good potting media for decaying spaghnum moss to improve plant health. They emphasized that bonsai needed a love of the art and a commitment to the health of the trees. They brought an elegant humanity and integrity to a supply side marketplace that preyed on consumers’ love and determination to own a bonsai.

          I was a novice who shared knowledge and dreamed of a certified export nursery industry shipping Hawaiian prepared bonsai stock and bonsai throughout the United States. Fuku-Bonsai focused on durable, strong houseplants with an aggregate potting media containing no clay. So, even from the start, my professional life followed his.


          Kato lived through the hell of World War II and his deep love of bonsai was instrumental in restoring the Imperial Collection and networking with the American occupying forces to teach bonsai to everyone.  With his kind and gentle nature, he built very strong ties with other enthusiasts first throughout Japan, playing a major role in the strengthening of the Nippon Bonsai Association and the bonsai exhibit at Japan's Expo 70. There he met Haruo and Masako Kaneshiro of Hawaii; and through them and others, learned Western ways to become an influential, inspirational, international bonsai leader. 

          He made contact with John Yoshio Naka of California, Paul Lesniewicz of Germany, Nikuj Parekt of India, Yee-sun Wu of Hong Kong, Dr. John Creech of Washington D.C., and Ted Tsukiyama of Hawaii. Over time I became a part of this circle of bonsai purists who created the International Age of Bonsai.  The greatest World War II generation put the war behind them and former enemies and allies joined together to spread bonsai throughout the world!

          Kato’s  family friend, Kaichi Ito, was studying in Hawaii and became an important link as the Kaneshiros and Ted Tsukiyama became Hawaii's liaisons for Kato's dreams. Our group's first visit to Mansien-en in 1977 was a spectacular eye-opener! Fuku-Bonsai was just four or five years old and Kato's professional assistance and subtle mentoring was priceless and crucial to us getting established.   


          Kato opened doors throughout Japan and we got to see the finest potters, tool-makers, exhibitions, bonsai nurseries, as well as those who collected and provided field-grown prepared bonsai stock. We received a detailed insight into the division of labor of Japan's craft-oriented bonsai industry and this helped me to design the needed scale of our operations and to vertically integrate all functions within Fuku-Bonsai as a stand-alone Hawaiian operation.  

          Kato showed that bonsai nurseries needed a very strong family-oriented structure. When it became apparent that the Fukumoto children would be following other paths, a corporation was formed. As major stockholders, the Fukumoto heirs will play a significant future role as we develop a professional staff and management team.  Bonsai nurseries are really all about organizational leadership and a multi-generational commitment!

          Bonsai professionals must provide leadership and support for the bonsai community and Kato excelled.  His personal generosity and enthusiasm rallied their industry through the difficult post-war economy.  As Japan attained prosperity, his call for bonsai as an instrument for world peace brought government support and raised the bonsai community above the pettiness of individual business and economic challenges.  He reached out to his entire nation and raised bonsai's stature as a prominent Japanese cultural art. Recognizing that the bonsai interest of the American occupational forces saved bonsai and carried it through post-war hardships, Kato played a major role in the Bi-centennial Bonsai Gift to the United States in 1976. He did the right things for the right reasons.


          So when Kato put out the call to explore the creation of an international bonsai organization, Hawaii responded with full support and created a parallel set of activity.  The World Bonsai Convention (WBC) in 1979 in Osaka, Japan laid the groundwork for the 1989 formation of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation. Our delegate was Hawaii Bonsai Association's president Horace Clay (who was also a horticulture professor and a founding director of Fuku-Bonsai Inc.).  The Hawaii Bonsai Association co-sponsored the landmark 1980 International Bonsai Congress (IBC) in Waikiki in co-sponsorship with Bonsai Clubs International with the theme:  "Bonsai, Bridge to International Friendship!"

          In the two years prior to IBC 80, I came into direct contact and got to know this great man.  His first visit to Fuku-Bonsai with Mrs. Kato and Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro was after not finding any suitable demonstration materials on Oahu. With Papa interpreting, Kato asked a lot of questions about my thoughts on international bonsai.

          Alone in the nursery, we were able to communicate and he enjoyed my early penjing experiments. For his demonstration, he liked Weeping Banyans (Ficus benjamina) even though they were just a few years old. He wanted me to keep my best effort. To provide the large quantity of trees needed, we separated group plantings, and prepared them as individual potted trees for his IBC 80 presentation.  


          About a year before IBC 80, I received a call to attend an "emergency" meeting in Honolulu with Saburo Kato.  There, I learned that Kato requested permission to withdraw his acceptance to be the primary demonstrator and that the Hawaii Bonsai Association "officially" invite "Nippon Bonsai Association (NBA) to participate in the convention as an organization and to designate a representative to demonstrate." While Hawaii had made a direct connection with Saburo Kato, he felt very strongly that it was much more important to set up a strong formal relationship between bonsai organizations. 

          I initially strongly spoke in opposition as I previously had very poor experiences in trying to establish communications in English. At that time, it was almost impossible to get any information from Nippon Bonsai Association. There was a possibility that NBA would not formally accept; but if it did, he felt it would be likely that NBA would select him. But there were no guarantees.

          Kato asked us to make the effort. When a few of us continued to oppose, he pledged to improve NBA's English communications and if NBA did not formally agree to participate, that he would commit to participate and demonstrate as an individual. I know enough about Japanese customs to be extremely impressed that he wanted this bad enough to make that commitment.  Such actions would seriously work against him in Japan and we were well aware of the repercussions if things played out in that manner.  Everyone present agreed to follow his recommendations.

          Nippon Bonsai Association officially agreed to participate and their English communication greatly improved.  Kato demonstrated as the NBA representative and IBC 80 became a successful landmark convention that helped to launch international bonsai. It included the participation of the American Bonsai Society and the Nippon Bonsai Association with participants from many countries. The Hawaii group presented an innovative 3-ring presentation, followed by a Chinese penjing presentation by Australia's Deborah Koreshoff, a demonstration on training collected Hawaiian bonsai by America's John Naka, ending with the featured presentation by Saburo Kato.


          Kato's pre-demonstration address "Bonsai no kokoro (The Spirit & Philosophy of Bonsai)" was extraordinary but the translation at the convention was impromptu and not recorded. Ted Tsukiyama obtained a copy in Japanese and made the first translation several months after the convention. With the assistance of Haruko Kiyabu and others, a formal edited translation was made that was approved by Saburo Kato and subsequently published internationally. A copy is posted on Fuku-Bonsai's website at www.fukubonsai.com/5a2.html along with a Saburo Kato profile article.

          Fuku-Bonsai plays a continuing role with "Peace Forest," his first major venture into group plantings utilizing tropical plant materials.  We provided basic information as to growth characteristics of tropical trees, and he shared with us his design concepts of how he would off-set the lack of mature demonstration trees by using more trees and how they would be placed for an enhanced effect. 

          Kato explained his strategic concept that forest arrangements are like representations of human group relationships.  A small group of trees could represent a family and it is made easier if you imagine the two largest trees to be the father and the mother.  The appearance will depend upon the relative age of the "children" and will change as the forest ages.


          Saburo Kato went on to create international bonsai and the World Bonsai Friendship Federation in Omiya, Japan in 1989. He is known to all who value and appreciate the current availability of bonsai knowledge.

          Kato was an extraordinary person  .  .  .  bonsai grower extraordinaire  .  .  .  organizer and leader of peers  .  .  .  a politician in the finest sense of the word who made things possible  .  .  .  a warm person of integrity and authenticity. The world rightly honors Saburo Kato for his traits and contributions.  I do, too, but on a more personal level as he was my professional mentor who walked his talk.  He was an inspiration to those associated with Fuku-Bonsai and we will try to carry on.


*** Return to Fuku-Bonsai homepage      *** Go to Mailorder
Saburo Kato articles on this website:
        ***  "Bonsai no kokoro" (The Spirit and Philosophy of Bonsai) and Saburo Kato profile article
        ***  Saburo Kato Forest Planting Techniques
        ***  "Peace Forest;" created at IBC 80 Hawaii;  restoration at Fuku-Bonsai
        ***  Book:  "Forests, Rock Planting and Ezo Spruce" by Saburo Kato
        ***  "Aikane;"  the Peace Forest sister bonsai
© Fuku-Bonsai     September 2008    www.fukubonsai.com