Ted Tsukiyama: Elder Statesman

Bonsai People   /  


Ted Tsukiyama, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday, has long been a leader of the national and international bonsai community.

During World War II, he served in the Military Intelligence Service, assigned to the U.S. 10th Army Air Force in India and Burma. He was the first person of Japanese ancestry to graduate from Yale Law School, and had a long and distinguished career as a lawyer and mediator in Honolulu.  He is known as the “Dean of Hawaiian Arbitrators.”

Tsukiyama was introduced to bonsai in 1964 and, in the words of Hawaii bonsai pioneer David Fukumoto, “befriended the nation of his former enemies.” In 1989, along with Saburo Kato and John Naka, he was one of the founders of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF).  Using his legal acumen and organizational skills, Tsukiyama worked tirelessly with Kato to create a global network of regional WBFF organizations, constituting the only worldwide bonsai organization of its kind.  Since WBFF’s creation, Tsukiyama has been a chief spokesman for Kato’s vision for WBFF – to promote bonsai as an instrument for the achievement of greater international friendship, goodwill and peace.

In addition to WBFF, Tsukiyama is an Honorary Director of the National Bonsai Foundation (NBF), having helped to create what is today the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. In 1990, he was NBF’s fundraising chairman for the building of the Museum’s Kaneshiro Tropical Conservatory. Along with his close friend, Haruo “Papa” Kaneshiro, and others including Fukumoto, he co-founded the Hawaiian Bonsai Association. They wanted the Hawaiian bonsai community to have a special place at the Museum for the display of tropical bonsai. Through Tsukiyama’s leadership and the generosity of the Hawaiian bonsai community, they succeeded in raising the funds to build this outstanding Conservatory.

In 2002, Tsukiyama and his wife Fuku flew to Washington, D.C. to reunite with Saburo Kato and his wife Yayoi to participate in the dedication of the Museum’s Kato Family Stroll Garden, celebrating the incredible influence that Kato and his family have had on the art of bonsai. Before the 5th World Bonsai Convention in 2005 in Washington, D.C., Tsukiyama traveled to Whittier, California, to interview John Naka in his bonsai garden and to Mansei-en in Omiya, Japan, to interview Saburo Kato for a tribute video that was presented at the opening ceremony of the 2005 convention.

Tsukiyama has also been honored by the Japanese government with the Order of the Rising Sun, Silver Rays, in recognition of his significant contribution to building American-Japanese friendship including his work as a founder of WBFF.

In 2010, the Tsukiyamas, along with Roy and Jane Yamashiroya, joined NBF President Felix Laughlin on a trip to Japan to discuss NBF’s campaign to raise $2,000,000 to renovate the Museum’s Japanese Pavilion and the Kato Family Stroll Garden. They visited with Mr. and Mrs. Daizo Iwasaki at their beautiful home and garden at Takasago-an on the island of Shikoku, and then flew to Tokyo for meetings with Hiroshi Takeyama, Chairman of the Nippon Bonsai Association (NBA), and other officials of the NBA.

Throughout that trip, Tsukiyama was the principal spokesman, explaining the mission in Japanese and handling meetings with the skills of a seasoned diplomat. According to Laughlin, Tsukiyama would privately disparage his Japanese language competency, yet it was obvious that the Japanese loved him and held him in the highest regard. Everyone they met addressed him as “Tsukiyama-Sensei.”

“Bonsai lovers all around the world regard Ted as the person who best exemplifies ‘bonsai no kokoro’ (the spirit of bonsai),” Laughlin said.



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