THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN BONSAI SOCIETY A UNIQUE HISTORY

By Patrick Allen, RMBS 2012/2013 President and Harold Sasaki, Charter Member of The Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society and Honorary Life Member


On February 19, 1942, soon after the beginning of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential executive order which allowed local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones,” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.”  This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Almost 120,000 Japanese Americans and resident Japanese aliens were removed from their homes and sent to one of ten internment camps, officially called “relocation centers”, in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. This was a very sad moment in our nation’s history.

At the end of the war, some of the Japanese men and their families settled in the Denver area. In 1945, eight of these men organized the Denver Bonsai Club. We know 7 names of these 8 men;  Mr. George Fukuma, Mr. Shiichi Fukuhara, Mr. Ben Yamakishi, Mr. Sam Naka, Mr. George Inai, Mr. Kai Kawahara and Mr. Mitsutaro Tawara.

After the formation of the Denver Bonsai Club, bonsai interest in Denver grew, having up to 75 members in the club. All were Japanese Americans and the meetings were conducted in Japanese. Members met at each other’s homes to learn from each other and from those members who came from California with bonsai experience. The club also held annual shows and this 1954 photo of the 10th anniversary bonsai show is the oldest known picture.

This picture is of Mr. George Inai waiting on a customer in his Denver grocery store, who started this business shortly after being discharged from one of the Internment Camps, which was located in either Wyoming or Colorado.

In 1969, Mr. George Fukuma

(pictured at the right in 1972) helped form a successful English speaking bonsai club with 55 charter members, called the Denver Junior Bonsai club.   One of its charter members, Colonel Bob Krueger, recently retired from the U.S. Air Force, was influential in establishing a partnership with Mr. Fukuma and the other Japanese-American members of the Denver Bonsai Club.  Colonel Krueger learned Japanese when early in his military career he served as the Commander of Camp Drake Japan and appreciated the Japanese culture, which included bonsai.

George Fukuma helped the Junior Bonsai club by conducting bonsai demonstrations and invited other Denver Bonsai club members such as Kai Kawahara, Frank Takeshita, and Bob Kataoka to demonstrate other aspects of bonsai. The two clubs worked closely with each other. The junior club members, with few exceptions, spoke no Japanese, and the seniors were generally not fluent in English, but the common language of the bonsai art established a close and enduring relationship between the two groups.

In 1975, Bob Kataoka and Harold Sasaki, presidents of the respective clubs, attempted, but because of the language and cultural issues, were unsuccessful with merging the two clubs.  The Junior Bonsai club was renamed as the Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society.

Mr. Kataoka built a home in 1955 and created a beautiful Japanese garden in his backyard.  He collected native trees from the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Mr. Kataoka’s reputation and expertise as an American bonsai master was recognized and acclaimed by such acknowledged teachers as Mr. John Naka, Mr. Ben Oki, Mr. Ken Sugimoto, and Mr. Frank Okamura.  Bob Kataoka’s bonsai reputation extended beyond the borders of the United States and was acknowledged by the eminent Japanese bonsai master, Mr.  Kyuzo Murata.

Bob Kataoka’s best Ponderosa Pine became the logo of the Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society in 1983.  In 1986, the Bob Kataoka Memorial Award, “Artist of the Year,” was established in his honor. The award is presented each year at our annual bonsai show to a member who has developed an outstanding bonsai.

In 2012, the Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society celebrated the 43rd anniversary its annual Father’s Day show.  The 2012 show was held at the Denver Botanic Gardens and a record of 2,172 visitors attended and 83 trees were exhibited for the public’s enjoyment.  The Rocky Mountain Bonsai Society and Colorado’s interest in Bonsai continues.

On June 20th, Denver Botanic Gardens opened the Bill Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion and Tea Garden.  Mr. Bill Hosokawa was in one of the World War II internment camps and settled in Denver upon his release. He became one of Colorado’s prominent community leaders and editor of the Rocky Mountain Journal.  This year we were also privileged to host the ABS/BCI 2012 International Bonsai and Stone convention, Visions of the American West.