Kokufu Bonsai Ten, Part I

("National Bonsai Exhibition")

Kokufu ten calligraphy
Koku       Fu          Bon        Sai       Ten

Compiled by Robert J. Baran, with William N. Valavanis

This Page Last Updated: February 7, 2016

The Shows by Year
Some Photos
Some Albums

       This now eight-day February national exhibit of bonsai is the largest and most prestigious of all bonsai shows worldwide.  The Nippon Bonsai Association (NBA), the official sponsor of the event, has worked diligently over many years to insure that only the finest bonsai in Japan are displayed.  To win one of the several prizes or sho awarded greatly enhances the career of the stylist and honors the owner of the outstanding tree.  In a given year there may be anywhere from one to five of the prizes awarded.  However, the Kokufu-sho is not given if there is not a worthy tree.  Once a tree does win the prize, it is never again eligible for another Kokufu-sho but it still can be entered additional times for display only.
       The Kokufu-sho is a "trophy" as a simple shikishi board, used for paintings.  It is gold-colored with kanji characters which read "Kokufu Prize."  A monetary prize is not attached, but there is a certificate which often can then be hung in the owner's home.  The shikishi board is often displayed with the bonsai when exhibited in other shows.  It is common for the top Kokufu Prize bonsai from the February exhibition to be displayed along with the board at the Taikan exhibition the following November.  (The Taikan Ten is the "Great Viewing Exhibit" held in Kyoto.  This outstanding, four-day national exhibit of bonsai is the largest and best of the late season shows, first held in 1981.  This is another of the exhibits that is held for hobbyists, although many of the better trees have been styled and maintained by bonsai professionals.)
       The Kokufu Ten is set up on Friday and Saturday.  The awards are given to the bonsai after the show is set up a few days before the opening, without ceremony.  The show does not open until Tuesday.

       Beginning with the 60th Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition in 1986 the Nippon Bonsai Association has commemorated every tenth anniversary year by holding the exhibition in two parts.  In order to present more bonsai recently also, the events in 2014 and 2015 were scheduled in two parts, each lasting four days with a switch-out day between when all the trees would be changed on Saturday.  The first part of 2014's Exhibition (the 88th, Feb. 4 - 7) was composed of 170 displays, including 29 Kicho Bonsai (Important Bonsai Masterpieces).  These are automatically accepted into the show.  After the exhibition was set up a group of judges awarded five coveted National Awards (Kokufu-sho).  There were only five shohin bonsai compositions, a mame bonsai composition was not included in this part.  There were 46 medium-size three-point exhibits which included a main bonsai, often two, and a companion planting.  Considering that each shohin bonsai composition had six main bonsai and a side tree (all very consistent which shows the current taste of display) and most medium size exhibits had two trees nearly 300 individual specimens were shown.  Two Americans, Doug Paul and Frank Cucchira, displayed Sargent juniper bonsai.  Another exhibitor from Italy also displayed a Sargent juniper bonsai and received one of the five Kokufu-sho awards, the first time for a foreigner.
       Unlike in previous years, there were pink lights against the bright blue table coverings with the addition of dramatic spot lighting which did not make it easy to photograph the compositions.
       The 2014 Part 2 was held from Feb. 9 - 12.  It also had 170 displays, 26 Kicho Bonsai, and 55 medium size bonsai.  There were again only 5 shohin bonsai compositions.  The judges selected six Kokufu prize bonsai for Part 2.

       (As much as 27 centimetres -- 10.6 inches -- of snow was recorded in Tokyo by late Saturday, February 8, 2014, the heaviest fall in the capital for 45 years, according to the meteorological agency.  The snow storm hit the capital on the eve of its gubernatorial election.  Observers say the heavy snowfall may affect voter turnout in the city of 13 million people.  The storm's affect on Kokufu Ten attendance is not reported yet.)
       (History was made on February 9-13, 2014 when the newly reorganized Nippon Suiseki Exhibition held the first ever suiseki exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.  Under the leadership of Kunio Kobayashi (Chairman) and Seiji Morimae (Secretary General), the event was held concurrently during Part 2 of the Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition so people could enjoy both arts in one venue (separate floor galleries).  This brings a new era to the combination, appreciation and promotion of bonsai and suiseki.)
       For the 2013 show there were six National Prize winners (see towards bottom).  Also there were seventy Kicho Bonsai displayed.  For the 2012 show there were four National Prizes: Japanese black pine, Satsuki Osakazuki, Shimpaku juniper, and a Shishigashira Japanese maple.  For the 2011 show there were five National Prizes: Japanese flowering apricot, Sargent's juniper, Ezo spruce, Korean hornbeam, and a Japanese five-needle pine.  Forty-five trees were listed as important Bonsai Masterpieces.
      In comparison, for the first half of the double-show 2006 year, three of the National Prizes were awarded.  A Japanese five-needle pine 'Zuisho', a shimpaku juniper (Juniperus chinensis var. 'Sargenti'), and a chojubai (Chaenomeles japonica 'chojubai', dwarf flowering-quince) were most highly esteemed by the panel of sixteen award judges.  For the second half, there were five National Prizes awarded: another chojubai dwarf flowering-quince, a Japanese five-needle pine (Pinus pentaphylla), a Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis), a Needle juniper (Juniperus rigida), and a shohin bonsai display.

       The bonsai displayed range from large specimens (up to about 120 cm or 48" tall) to the small shohin-sized trees (less than 25 cm or 10" in height).  Although taking place in the dead of winter, nothing is forced to bloom or bud early for the show.  The Japanese like to see their bonsai in their natural form.  Therefore, the foliage of the Japanese yew, cryptomeria and Needle juniper will mostly be in the reddish winter coloring.  And all deciduous trees are represented: true, the majority are still intricate silhouettes, but the early bloomers (literally) are covered in festive pastels.
       Approximately 260 trees are now displayed annually in the Metropolitan Art Museum (Tōkyō Bijutsukan) in Ueno Park in northeastern Tokyo.  (This year 2013 there were 204 displays including only six shohin compositions.)  Usually every ten years the show is doubled to about 520 trees.  (Since its opening in 1926, the museum has been very popular among citizens as a venue for public exhibitions by nationally and internationally renowned fine arts organizations.  The museum was last renovated in 1975.)
       In 2011 and 2012 the show was moved to the Tokyo Metropolitan Industrial Trade Center, located across the street from the Asakusa Kannon Temple in Asakusa, less than a mile to the east of Ueno, while the museum was being renovated to make it accessable for the elderly and handicapped.  "The exhibition [here] is all in one room, on the 7th floor.  It must have been an ordeal to move over 250 bonsai and display tables in elevators all the way up to the 7th floor.  Many new sections of backgrounds needed to be purchased in order to use the new venue, very expensive, as is the daily rental for the 7th floor... with its low ceiling.  All the bonsai are in one large room [compared to the usual four smaller rooms], no time to sit and think... and study.  The number of entries decreased slightly as [some] owners did not want their prize bonsai displayed in the Industrial Trade Center, they preferred the Art Museum."
       The show was returned to the Art Museum in 2013.  During the closure, several new elevators and escalators were installed along with many massive textured concrete walls.  There are now three Gallery Rooms.
       The Kokufu show was previously housed on two basement floors of the Museum.  The lowest level contained all the large bonsai, which comprise the majority of displays.  The upper floor showcased the shohin and small bonsai.  This grouping of trees by size prevented the overpowering of some bonsai by proximity to others.  The bonsai were displayed in four rooms which allows one to mentally rest between studying the bonsai.
       The bonsai exhibition is open to the general public and is always seen by crowds.   Over 40,000 visitors annually were viewing the show in the early 1990s.  (36,000 braved the heavy snows in 1994.)  During the last few years, though, attendance has been as low as around 15,000.  Between 30,000 and 35,000 people were expected to view the two-part show in 2006 -- the first part's attendance was estimated to be over 15,000 persons.  Approximately 28,000 people visited the 2007 exhibition.  In 2010, the attendance was only about 17,000 people, but many foreign groups from Italy, France, Spain, etc. did attend.  The admission price is ¥1,000 (currently about 8.56 USD or 7.65 Euro).  No special viewing opportunities are given for Nippon Bonsai Association members.  Each member does receive a ticket in Bonsai Shunjyu, the monthly magazine of the NBA.
       One of William N. Valavanis' trip members from overseas, on his own, went to the exhibit and had a difficult time finding it.  There were NO signs and not every one knew about the show.  In the West, we enthusiasts dream about attending the Kokufu Ten.  The irony is, of course, that bonsai is not that big of a thing in Japan -- many there still consider it to be an old man's hobby.  WNV heard (in 2013) from a man who's father lives about three blocks from the Green Club (see below).  The elder grows bonsai and did not know about the show or the sales area!  While there is a renaissance of sorts going on in Japan with smaller, more "fun" bonsai attracting young people, the prestigious Kokufu continues to present only the world's finest "traditional" styles and sizes of potted trees.

Kokufu ten No. 80 Admission Ticket, 2006
Kokufu ten No. 87 Admission Ticket, 2012
2006, No. 80 Admission Ticket
2013, No. 87 Admission Ticket

       On the northwest shore of Lake Shinobazu in Ueno Park is the Bai ten.  This is the bonsai sales area set up to accommodate bonsai shoppers visiting the Kokufu Ten.  Bai ten is a mostly uncovered lot that is centered around a three-story building called the "Green Club."  This Ueno Green Club is where bonsai vendors, nursery owners, and potters from all over Japan of every stripe set up stalls selling their wares.  Perhaps four dozen vendors are inside the building there and another five dozen are outside.  As vendors pay a little more for exhibit space inside the Green Club, it is typically filled with higher-quality wares.  Bai ten is one of the highlights of a bonsai tour to Japan.  Not only are there hundreds of great trees, pots, tools and other bonsai paraphernalia on site, but they are all for sale.  A 10-minute free shuttle bus trip from the museum runs continuously throughout the day to the "club" area.  Sometimes an auction is also held.  (The Tokyo Green Club in Ueno often has shows here on weekends throughout the year, with trees, pots, tools, books, and magazines for sale.)
       The Ueno Green Club is also where all the trees entered for the Kokufu Ten are brought about two weeks before the exhibit for judging.  Only the top trees are selected by the thirteen show judges, each of whom has a list of all the entrees.  This way the judges know that if there are, for example, perhaps twenty ume (Prunus mume, Japanese flowering plum) entered, they will be very critical on how each tree is evaluated, in contrast to a situation where if only a single pomegranate is entered, the judges might perhaps then make a few allowances so that a well-represented exhibit results.  After the selection process is completed, the trees are then taken away and returned a few days before the show at the museum.  Only professional bonsai artists may bring the trees, like "tree handlers."  It costs the tree's owner the equivalent of about $200 to have a single tree pre-judged.  If the tree is actually selected for the show, about another $600 fee is required for its entry in the Kokufu Ten about three weeks after the judging.

       Each professional artist is allocated a certain section in the show to display each of his customers' trees.  Mr. Morimae, for example in 2006, had seven trees accepted.  Once he got to the museum he saw the seven areas next to each other, and proceeded to set up his customers' trees there.  Setting up the show is a communal effort, so after one's trees are unloaded and set up (with a little help from friends), the next few hours are spent helping other nurseries, for instance, complete their displays.  The companion plants and suiseki are usually supplied by the handler of the trees, not usually the owners.  You see, as an individual you cannot display a tree.  It must go through a handler who brings the tree in for judging in January and cares for the tree.  Sometimes the display tables and pots are rented to the owner for display, sometimes sold.  Artists look for eye movement direction and tree species in arranging the trees.  Usually an evergreen is positioned next to a deciduous or broadleaf tree.  After each artist finished placing his customer's trees, Mr. Hiroshi Takeyama (b. 1941), the third and current chairman of the NBA (since 2003), makes small adjustments.  All the positions are numbered from 1 to about 265 (or whatever).  After the final positioning was done, the show guide was completed because nobody knew the exact location of the trees until the last minute.  The printer then produced the guide overnight.
       The NBA publishes a high-quality catalog or photo book afterwards to commemorate each show (see below photos).  Each album comes packaged in a slipcase box, the cover of which has a different photo than the album cover itself.  Usually the trees are photographed at night during the show.  Several stages are set up and each tree is brought there for photos.
       For a double-show year, like 2014 or 2006, the show is closed for a day as the first round of trees is switched out, the second group is brought in, arranged, and a second show guide is finalized and printed.  The show then resumes.

         The bonsai are displayed by the owner's name, not the artist who created them.  Unlike in the West, the bonsai is the main object of the award, NOT the artist or the award.  Remember that many artists are necessary to create masterpieces.  The artist(s) is not mentioned in the commemorative album (see below), but often is if a magazine writes about the history of the tree.  The award goes with the tree, and everyone knows which tree received the award.  The actual award plaque is interesting, but not that important -- the honor is.  Usually the last person who handled the bonsai receives all the accolades and the people who risked their lives to collect the trees, the people who cared for it and established it, and others who may have done some preliminary training do not.  It is very rare that a bonsai masterpiece has only one artist.  Only the last person who does something to the tree becomes "famous."  Probably the master artists Masahiko Kimura, Kunio Kobayashi and Toshinori Suzuki have created the most Kokufu sho award bonsai masterpieces.
       (In Japan, the professional bonsai artists have their own exhibition -- Nippon Bonsai Sakufu Ten (Japan Bonsai Creator's Exhibition).  In early December (previously early January), their bonsai are displayed with the latest artist's name, not that of the owner.  It is very common to have one bonsai displayed in the Sakufu Ten and then have it displayed in the Kokufu Ten with different names only a month or two apart.  The Japanese have their bonsai on display to show the beauty of these wonderful trees.  Of course most of the Japanese artists know who "created" the masterpiece, but it is the tree that gets the award.  For the Sakufu Ten where the exhibition books are sold in December at the show, the trees are actually judged and photographed the previous October.)
       Master designer and artist Masahiko Kimura (b. 1940) worked on 50 of the 265 trees entered into the second half of the 2006 Kokufu Ten.  The shimpaku juniper from the first half which was awarded a Kokufu prize had also been designed and displayed by Kimura for a client.  (Kimura worked on 70 to 80 trees of the 2011 show, both deciduous and evergreen specimens.)
       There were two foreign American exhibitors in 2013:

Sargent juniper award winner at the 87th Kokufu ten, 2013, photo by Wm. N. Valavanis Trident maple award winner at the 87th Kokufu ten, 2013, photo by Wm. N. Valavanis
Sinuous trunk style Sargent juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Sargentii')
displayed by Doug Paul, Pennsylvania, USA at 2013 Kokufu Ten
Root-over-rock style Trident maple
displayed by Matt Ouwinga, Chicago, IL, USA at 2013 Kokufu Ten

       The first American to ever have an entry selected for inclusion in the show was Doug Paul from Kennett Square, PA.  His Japanese hemlock (Tsuga diversifolia) was being shown at the 2010 exhibition (see about a third of the way down and on the righthand side of the photo page).  Doug is on the NBF Board of Directors.  (This hemlock bonsai was purchased by Doug in Japan from Isao Omachi and was going through the lengthy two year post-entry quarantine period before it arrived to The Kennett Collection.  Doug's Juniper that was in the Kokufu Ten in 2011 was lost forever to the sea during the Great Tsunami.  The good news is that the amazing Hemlock was safe in the USA during quarantine.)

A happy Isao Omachi breaking down at the 2015 Kokufu exhibition. Photo by Bill
A happy Isao Omachi breaking down the display at the 2015 Kokufu exhibition.
Photo by Bill Valavanis.

       "Isao Omachi's house and bonsai nursery were swept away in the [2011] tsunami.  That's the tough news.  The good news is that hundreds, maybe thousands of people in our international bonsai community donated to help Isao and his family get back on their feet.  As a result of this effort (and Isao's and his family's determination) Isao is back doing what he loves."

       Constantino Franchi of Italy had a Ficus titled "Made in Tuscany" in the 71st Kokufu Ten in 1997.  That tree was subsequently adopted by Kunio Kobayashi for his collection.  A California juniper (Juniperus californica) designed by American Ernie Kuo was donated to Prime Minister Obuchi and was displayed at the 74th Kokufu Ten in 2000.  (This juniper has not faired well in the Tokyo area and is said to be nearly dead in a large wooden box at the Kato garden.)  Polish artist Mario Komsta, an apprentice of teacher Nobuichi Urushibata in Shizuoka for a few years, was a recent exhibitor.  Mario had a Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) selected for the 80th Kokufu Ten in 2006.  (That tree was styled for himself not for a customer [as was previously reported here].  As of September 2012, Mario still had this tree with him in Spain, and the previous year it was at the Noelanders Trophy competition in Europe.)  And a number of other non-Japanese have assisted during their apprenticeships to Japanese bonsai masters in preparing trees for other showings.

       Many of the famous "Japanese" bonsai (Chinese quince, Korean Hornbeam, Pomegranate) often displayed in Kokufu Ten were originally imported from Korea, China, Taiwan, etc., either as field-grown or, less commonly, collected stock.

       From 1914 through 1933, the All-Japan Bonsai Exhibition was held annually in Hibiya Park in Tokyo.  (Another large annual show during this period was the Zen Nihon Bonsai Ten, also in Tokyo.  These displays were held from 1928 to at least 1931, and each was also commemorated with an illustrated show album of perhaps 80 pages in length.)
       Beginning in 1934, the Kokufu Ten succeeded the Hibya Park exhibit and it is now the oldest continuous -- except during World War II -- public exhibit in Japan.  Author, editor and publisher Norio Kobayashi (1889-1972, see Apr 1) was the driving force behind the establishment of the Kokufu Bonsai Society and the Kokufu Ten exhibition.  The President of the House of Peers and miniature bonsai enthusiast, Count Yorinaga (Raiju) Matsudaira (1874-1944, see Sep 13), was the society's first president.  Ninety-six trees were in that initial exhibition.
        Because of a rapid increase in the number of bonsai enthusiasts in Japan in the early 1960s, the need to transform the private Kokufu Bonsai Society into a nationwide public organization became obvious.  In February 1965 the Kokufu Bonsai Society was dissolved and reorganized to become the parent body of the Nippon Bonsai Association.  Shigeru Yoshida (1878-1967), the former diplomat to London who had been the first prime minister in post-war Japan until 1954, was its first president.  The NBA assumed the role of organizer of the annual Kokufu Bonsai Exhibitions.  The association currently has more than 300 chapters nationwide with approximately 20,000 members and some 300 other members in 30 countries throughout the world.

(Initial material from "The Best Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibits in Japan" by Thomas S. Elias, originally on pg. 12 (of pp. 10-14 article) of the May/June 2002 issue of Bonsai Clubs International's Bonsai Magazine); with some additional material from Morita, Kazuya and NBA Editorial Staff "Bonsai in Japan," in Tsukiyama, Ted T. (ed.) Bonsai of the World, Book I (Japan: World Bonsai Friendship Federation, 1993), pp. 89-90; Kobayashi, Norio  Bonsai -- Miniature Potted Trees (Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau, Inc.; 1951, 1962, 1966), pg. 167; Bonsai Tonight's article "Green Club", and "The Kokufu Gamble" by Cheryl Manning, a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared in Golden Statements magazine; plus substantial material from personal e-mails to RJB from William N. Valavanis, especially while the latter was in Tokyo during the 2006 show.  Exhibition re-location per e-mail from WNV 7 Jan 2010, and Sakufu Ten move from January to December per WNV 30 Nov 2011.  And material from the discussion thread, http://web.archive.org/web/20100212152743/http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/announcements-f5/american-s-bonsai-display-at-kokufu-bonsai-ten-exhibition-t2266.htm.  Quote from 2011 from WNV posting to Internet Bonsai Forum, 15 Feb 2011, http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/t5641-2011-85th-kokufu-bonsai-exhibition.  E-mail communication between RJB and Mario Komsta on Facebook, Sept. 22-23, 2012.  2013 ticket from Facebook posting by Isao Omachi, Japan, 27 Jan 2013.  Info and photos for 2013 from 7 Feb Internet Bonsai Club forum posting by WNV, with e-mails to RJB from WNV in response to several questions on 6 and 7 Feb 2013; 2014 photos and information per WNV's blog; "Back on His Feet -- Isao Omachi Four Years Later," Bonsaibark blog, 04/27/15)

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The Shows by Year
Some Photos
Some Albums

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