Sharing the Art of Bonsai
Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i
Editor’s note: This series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interview with George Masumoto is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/10592.
The authors acknowledge use of additional information from “Dentist Likes Wiring Bonsai Plants” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 2001).
Bonsai captures the beauty of nature in a living, breathing sculpture that involves growing and training miniature trees in pots. For almost 50 years, George Masumoto has pursued this art form as an avid and knowledgeable hobbyist. He laughingly compares the pruning and wiring of plants to his professional work as an orthodontist. In a 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin feature, he said, “There is a lot of correlation between what I do during the day and what I do at night. I wire teeth during the day, and I wire plants at night. A patient with crooked teeth requires lifelong monitoring, and the orthodontics require updates, just as bonsai requires constant pruning and wiring to reach the desired shape.” (archives.starbulletin.com/2001/06/08/features/garden.html)
Born in 1941, Masumoto grew up in Kaimukï, where his parents enjoyed the pastime of raising orchids and anthuriums. His job was to water the blooms, a task that sparked his early interest in horticulture. He attended public schools in Honolulu including Jefferson Elementary, Stevenson Middle and Roosevelt High School. When it was time to choose a career, Masumoto decided to pursue dentistry and earned a degree from the University of Minnesota in 1966. This was in the midst of the Vietnam War, and Masumoto wound up serving as a dentist with the rank of captain in the Army. After two years, he returned to school and completed an advanced degree in orthodontics from the University of Washington. He said, “In 1970, I came home to Honolulu to establish my orthodontic practice. From that time, I was home. I didn’t go away.” After a successful 47-year practice, Masumoto retired in 2017.
Getting Started with Bonsai
Masumoto admitted that dentistry is an arduous profession, and he wanted to find a hobby that was both relaxing and enjoyable. The cultivation of bonsai intrigued him. He began by reading books on this art form, but quickly realized that everything was two-dimensional in printed materials. In 1974, he decided to take a ten-week “ABCs of Bonsai” course sponsored by the Hawai‘i Bonsai Association. It was a fledgling organization in the 1970s with a mission to educate people about bonsai. Earlier organizations in Hawai‘i like the Honolulu Bonsai Kenkyu Club conducted their activities and proceedings in Japanese. This left the younger English-speaking leaders like Ted Tsukiyama and Haruo Kaneshiro feeling excluded. They petitioned for a Charter of Incorporation and formed the Hawai‘i Bonsai Association in 1972.
In the course, Masumoto was given two trees to work on with the veteran bonsai cultivators providing hands-on assistance. Since then, he has expanded his knowledge by participating in workshops and conventions in Australia, Japan, California, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. He said that local bonsai clubs have also banded together to sponsor international conferences in Hawai’i, making it possible to meet and learn from master artists from Japan, United States and Australia.
History of Bonsai
Along with the practical aspects of bonsai cultivation, Masumoto learned about the fascinating history of bonsai that originated in China where artists created miniature landscapes, called penjing. When Buddhist monks brought bonsai to Japan, the Japanese further refined and popularized the art form. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, bonsai cultivation was introduced to the United States and Europe through exhibits at international expositions. Masumoto noted that this is no longer a hobby solely enjoyed by people of Asian ancestry. Today, it includes a diverse ethnic following, and the art form reflects facets of these various cultures.
According to Masumoto, bonsai enthusiasts in Hawai‘i help one another. He said, “Everyone is a do-it-yourself hobbyist, but we share things as friends and friends of friends.” One WWII story he recalled hearing dealt with Japanese on the Big Island, who feared confiscation of all things Japanese. One gentleman, Saboku Nishihira, agreed to hide their bonsai plants in the forest behind his large property. This type of help exemplifies the informal support network in the local community. Masumoto said that bonsai in Hawai‘i is less a business for profit and more of a hobby to pursue. The atmosphere is collegial rather than competitive. At exhibitions in Hawai‘i, there are no monetary awards or trophies. “Everybody’s more friendly with each other. Exhibitors have a chance to receive practical critiques and tips, so it makes for a better atmosphere.”
Sources for Bonsai
There are numerous ways to start a bonsai collection in Hawai‘i. In earlier years, the trade with Japan made it possible for skippers of the boats to bring in bonsai plants and give them to friends. Most hobbyists, however, search for local sources. In the past, Masumoto has gone to Kahuku Ranch near Nä‘älehu on the Big Island to dig ‘öhi‘a lehua where the ‘öhi‘a grow in little pockets of lava. These plants are already pretty much stunted because there is no room for them to grow. According to Masumoto, the key is spotting a good ‘öhi‘a tree and shaking it. He chuckled, “If it doesn’t shake and the whole island shakes, forget it. It means that the big taproot goes way down into the lava, so you won’t be able to get it out.” Other old timers have dug for ironwood on Kaua‘i and in the Kahuku region on O‘ahu.
The highly restricted regulations about bringing plants into the state and even across islands makes it imperative for hobbyists to seek out plants in their neighborhoods. Over the years, Masumoto has worked with banyans, junipers, ironwoods and other plants that give him a more traditional-looking bonsai. Growing from seed is a time-intensive undertaking. Black pine, for example, would take 25 years to be show ready. For this reason, Masumoto frequently begins his bonsai plants as cuttings, moving them to larger pots as they grow. In selecting the plant, he looks for one with “reasonably small leaves, many branches, a thick tapering trunk and radiating roots.”
He keeps the plants in regular-size pots to allow them to reach the desired size before transplanting them to tabletop bonsai pots. He said the lack of seasonal changes and the hot summers make it important to select plants that can thrive in this tropical environment. Good starter plants are banyans and junipers that are amenable to propagation in local weather.
Caring for bonsai requires paying attention to the light and soil moisture. Masumoto maintained that the primary concern is the watering of a tree. Every plant has its own requirements, and it often takes two or three years to learn how to properly water it. He explained, “The plant will pretty much tell you what needs to be done. So the only way you can learn is by having the tree for an extended period of time. You get to know what it needs. It’s like having a youngster, and you know the kid has to have food. He will tell you when he is hungry or thirsty.”
According to Masumoto, the art form requires making the plants “look old.” There are various techniques to do this through shaping and pruning. Most hobbyists in Hawai‘i have no access to old trees as might be the case in Japan. For that reason they start with nursery stock that are cuttings and purged trees and shape them. When the different bonsai clubs in Hawai‘i stage shows, their members often sell branches trimmed from trees they have propagated that can be used to start a new creation. Masumoto admits that he does not sell his trees. “It’s like raising a child. You have this tree for 10 years. I don’t want to sell it.”
Maintaining Happy Trees
Masumoto said that it is important to maintain a “happy tree” that puts out new branches and leaves. If it is not doing that, it is time to re-pot and put in new soil so that the plant gets nutrients again. He said, “Many people think that once you put the bonsai in the pot, it’s going to stay in that pot for the rest of its life. However, over time, the roots will take over all the soil, so there’s no room for the roots to grow. Then the tree will go into a decline.” He advised changing the soil every two to five years. One must also know the times of year to perform certain tasks. The summer months are too hot, so hobbyists focus on the cooler months from November to February to do their major work.
Sadly, bonsai theft has become more prevalent in the last few decades when folks sell them to buy drugs. He said, “Unfortunately, they often sell the plants to somebody who doesn’t know anything about bonsai. So within a very short time, it dies.” As a precaution, bonsai club members are advised to identify their plants, take photos and write their initials inside the pots. He said, “Some people are even inserting microchips in their pots like they do for pets.” After thieves made off with some of his plants 30 years ago, Masumoto put up a wooden fence around his property that has prevented thieves from entering the yard.
Sharing His Knowledge
In the past, Masumoto has served as president of both the Pacific Bonsai Club and the Hawai‘i Bonsai Association. He continues to be an advisor and a certified bonsai sensei, who is always willing to share his experiences with other hobbyists.
As a veteran cultivator and something of a bonsai whisperer, Masumoto tells new hobbyists that this art form is not about imposing your will on a plant. “You have to observe what the plant is telling you. You cannot rush it.” His experiences truly mirrors the marriage of horticulture and art.