"The Father of Popular Bonsai in the Non-Oriental World," Part I
Compiled by Robert J. Baran
On Feb. 27, 1921, a second son (of eventually twelve children) was born to the family of Toshiji Yoshimura. Toshiji was
a leader in the bonsai world and one of the top suiseki authorities in Japan. He thus would be a founder of the Tokyo
Bonsai Club, Nippon Bonsai Cooperative, and Japan Suiseki Association. His father had been a samurai
and a renowned garden designer.
In 1924, the eldest son of Toshiji died in childhood, and the family bonsai tradition passed on to the three-year old named Yuji, who would one day leave his mark on the art in many places outside of Japan. That year also saw the founding of Toshiji's Kofu-En ("Garden of the Fragrant Breezes") Bonsai Nursery, located in the southwestern Tokyo suburb of Meguro, with the patronage of the Iwasaki family. By this time little Yuji had begun growing tiny plants in containers. He would often grow young perennials and weeds in containers which his father made him hide from customers in the back areas of the garden. 1
"Japanese five-needle pine, Pinus parviflora, trained in the twin trunk style and exhibited
with wildflowers and dwarf bamboo. This distinctive bonsai display was exhibited by
Toshiji Yoshimura in May 1924, noting his well established style."
(International Bonsai, IBA, 1989/No. 3, pg. 15)
Yuji Yoshimura as a youth studied all the related traditional art forms of bonsai. His father raised him with strict discipline, which would go on to foster his unique personality and integrity. Before going to school every day, for instance, Yuji had to weed the entire bonsai. When he was a teenager, he often roamed the mountains, hills, fields, and lakes of the countryside. The views inspired him to use his father's lessons to compress the realm of nature into a small space. He also studied classical music, the guitar and violin. He later used his music knowledge when he demonstrated bonsai. He also trained in the traditional arts of ikebana (popularly known as "flower arrangement" but, literally, "dancing flowers") and the tea ceremony. He was regularly taken to numerous exhibitions to help set up and dismantle. Yuji graduated from the Tokyo Horticulture School in 1938 where he had studied bonsai, bonkei, and garden art. His family's Kofu-en Bonsai Nursery occupied him until his career was interrupted by five years of army cavalry service, mostly in China as a lieutenant. Upon termination, he returned to his home in Japan and in 1948 established his own bonsai nursery, separate from his father's. He continued his grandfather's landscape gardening work. Then as one of the founders of the Nippon Young Men's Bonsai Association, he often guided foreigners through exhibits of trees and explained the details of bonsai. He made guide books in English for the Kokufu Bonsai Ten, the National Bonsai Exhibition. (See also this background on Toshiji, Aug 27 listing.)
In December 1951 he met Alfred Koehn, a German diplomat who had spent years in China and Japan and was a well-known author of books on Oriental arts and crafts. Through the interactions with foreigners, Yuji seriously conceived to expand bonsai art into the world. Now, in Japan at the time, neither foreigners nor natives could take a bonsai class. The bonsai industry thought that this was a Japanese art whose arcane details Westerners could never understand, whose techniques they could not master, and whose aesthetics they could not appreciate. The Japanese tradition was for one to become an apprentice under an established master for several years of strict discipline in order to learn all this -- not a short-term proposition. Yoshimura didn't believe such thoughts and decided to open classes for foreigners who lived in Japan. The following April 23, Yoshimura and Koehn collaborated to give demonstrations and the first formal bonsai courses were made available to the public and outsiders. Over six hundred foreign visitors were eventually taught by the pair, among them dignitaries, military personnel, businessmen and their wives. 2
"Alfred Koehn, next to Mr. Yoshimura on his left, is explaining rock planting techniques to
Mr. Yoshimura's students in his course in 1952." (Photo by Yuji Yoshimura)
(International Bonsai, 1998/No. 1, pg. 33)
Yoshimura also decided to write a comprehensive bonsai book in English. He needed many scientific tests and high quality photos, which led him to a life-long study of photography. At last, in 1957, The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes by Yuji Yoshimura and Giovanna M. Halford was published (Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co.). Halford had been one of his first students and assisted him in English phrasing of the material. Although there had been a few earlier books in English by this time, this was the first really comprehensive and practical work on the subject. It was received with excitement by those who were eager to learn classical bonsai. (Forty-three years later, the thirty-seventh printing would be made of what some have referred to as the "Bonsai Bible in English." The work has twenty-five color and 245 b&w photos and illustrations.) (See also this background on Halford, Nov 2 listing.) Because of his unconventional practice, Yoshimura was effectively ousted by Japan's bonsai society. No one officially talks about Yuji Yoshimura's achievement, even in today's Japan. 3
The following year, Yoshimura was invited to come to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by its director, Dr. George Avery.
The young bonsai master had been recommended because of his skill, artistry, enthusiasm, and excellent teaching record.
While on the 1959 C. Stuart Gager fellowship grant there, Yoshimura extended his teaching and lecturing beyond the East
Coast to also the West Coast and Hawaii. He returned to teach at Longwood Garden near Philadelphia.
In 1960 Yuji Yoshimura spent two months in Australia making a lasting impression,
assisting the early teachers and students of the nascent art there, and
becoming Patron of one of the bonsai groups.
In 1962 Yoshimura began to teach classes at the New York Botanical Garden, assisted by Edna L. Kane.
(Also this year, five clubs joined to form the Bonsai Clubs Association of San Francisco Bay Area. The BCA newsletter came out in November issued from Tosh Saburomaru's office mimeograph machine. Yuji Yoshimura is credited with the idea of the newsletter. It once and for all broke down any idea of secrecy in bonsai and departed from "the idea of one bonsai master." It made bonsai an art for everyone with great artists and great teachers in an atmosphere of freedom. Bonsai clubs began to work together and encouraged the formation of others. Connie and Horace Hinds, Jr., who had taken lessons from both Tosh and Yoshimura when he was in the area, assisted editor Robert C. Miller, Jr. on that and subsequent issues. BCA president in 1964, Horace would be the Editor-in-Chief for eleven years beginning in 1966 for the newsletter's next incarnation, Bonsai, Magazine of Bonsai, Japanese Gardens and Suiseki. And he then continued as Editor Emeritus until his death in 1991.) 8
At the beginning of 1963, the Bonsai Society of Greater New York was founded by Yuji Yoshimura and thirteen enthusiasts. Jerry Stowell was elected the first president. Within three years there were 555 members, including 339 corresponding members in thirty-one states and several foreign countries. The club's first official show was held that October at the New York Botanic Gardens. 9
In March 1964 Yoshimura's wife and two daughters came from Japan to join
him at his American Nursery in Tarrytown, NY. There he had begun
importing containers and some bonsai from Japan and would eventually create
over a thousand fine quality bonsai from American stock. Muriel R.
Leeds began studying under this teacher. A winner of the Horticultural
Award of the Garden Club of America, Leeds was trained as an artist and
(Tosh Saburomaru served as educational advisor to Lane Books Co. on the Sunset Bonsai illustrated paperback. The book's first printing in March 1965 of 17,500 copies sold out in a month, and six thousand more copies sold in the next few months, the most successful of the magazine's eighteen low-priced gardening books. The tenth printing was made in April 1970).
The growing interest in bonsai received mention in a January 1966 Wall Street Journal article. By this
time there were over twenty clubs in the U.S., half of them started in just the previous three years. Yoshimura's
Tarrytown, NY nursery is quoted as offering fully trained trees from $3.50 to $3,000. 12
(In June 1967, members of the Bonsai Society of Greater New York, seventeen of which had participated in a two week Spring study tour of bonsai in Japan, helped found the American Bonsai Society in Cleveland, Ohio. By the end of the first year, there were ninety-nine individuals and fifteen clubs as charter members. Jerry Stowell was elected its first president.) 13
(In January 1968 "Bonsai Clubs International" was officially adopted to replace "Bonsai Clubs Association" due to many inquiries from English-speaking countries and associations with members outside of the U.S. Jim Ransohoff -- a student under Peter Sugiwara, Tosh, John Naka, and Yuji Yoshimura -- was elected president of the improved organization. Over 1,100 copies of the Dec/Jan 68 issue of the BCI magazine Bonsai would be distributed.) 14
As conventions and exhibits became popular, Tosh Saburomaru and Yuji Yoshimura began to be frequent demonstrators and lecturers from Sebastopol to Fresno, California. 15
The eleven page Bonsai in Sydney booklet by E.N. Marshall in 1970 (Ingleburn, N.S.W.: Combined Bonsai Groups of Sydney) included an article by Yoshimura.
In the summer of 1971 Yoshimura led a bonsai tour of Japan.
The following year the first joint convention by BCI and ABS was held in
Kansas City, MO. Some four hundred persons attended the July 13-16
event. With an official theme of "Learning Together," the guest artists
were Yuji Yoshimura and Toshio Kawamoto, the major promoter of
natural tray landscapes using less developed trees than required by bonsai and
which could be enjoyed by a wider audience.
(On Aug. 27, 1975, Toshiji Yoshimura died at the age of 83. Yuji's brother, Kanekazu,
became proprietor of Kofu-En and was active in the Nippon Bonsai Association and Nippon
On July 17 and 18, 1976, a special exhibition honoring twenty-five years of instruction by Yuji Yoshimura was held at his School of Bonsai. The featured trees for this came from the Muriel R. Leeds Collection. A Commemorative Album would be issued the following year with over a hundred photos showing many trees over the course of ten years of development. 17
Yoshimura assisted his student William N. Valavanis, a teacher in his own right,
in launching the premier issue in the Spring of 1979 of the quarterly International Bonsai.
The elder sensei also translated its first article -- "Creation of Small Size Satsuki Azalea Bonsai" -- from
the Japanese magazine source.
At the joint BCI-ABS Convention from July 4 to 8 in New York City, Yuji Yoshimura, John Naka, and Frank Okamura were the guest artists. Okamura had been the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's curator and teacher of bonsai for nearly thirty years.
In 1982 Yoshimura conducted a teaching tour for the bonsai clubs in India.
"Three bonsai masters enjoying the banquet at the Mid-Atlantic Bonsai Festival in April
1983 in North Bergen, New Jersey. Left to right -- Yuji Yoshimura, Frank Okamura,
Japanese gardener & bonsai curator at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and John Y. Naka
from Los Angeles, California"
(International Bonsai, IBA, 1998, No. 1,pg. 38)