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Club History

Yuji Yoshimura
Yuji Yoshimura

The Kusamura Bonsai Club is one of the oldest English-speaking bonsai clubs in northern California. We sponsor lectures and instruction in the technique of growing bonsai for beginners and advanced students.

Kusamura Bonsai Club arose out of an initial organization named “Hokubei Kusamura Mujin-ko” with its earliest recorded formal meeting in 1956. It became known as the Northern California Kusamura Mutual Association a few years later and began meeting in member’s homes. It was led by Yukikichi “Keiseki” Hirotsu who only spoke Japanese. Later he was founder of Kashu Suiseki Kai in Palo Alto, the first suiseki club in North America, and a few years later founded and taught at San Francisco Suiseki Kai.

A few years earlier Yuji Yoshimura started teaching bonsai to non-Japanese citizens after WWII. His father was Toshiji Yoshimura, an important person in Japanese bonsai at that time. He owned Kofu-En (Tokyo) nursery and a founder of the prestigious Nippon Bonsai Society. In April 1952, the 31-year-old Yuji Yoshimura, assisted by German agricultural diplomat Alfred Koehn, began the first bonsai course for foreigners in Tokyo at his Kofu-en nursery. Yoshimura refused to believe the prevailing wisdom that Westerners could not understand, appreciate, or technically master bonsai. He then created the Nippon Bonsai Society and became the first to teach Bonsai to non-Japanese citizens after WWII. The class was an instant success, and within three years over 600 students — mostly foreign dignitaries, military personnel and businessmen and their wives — took the six-lesson course in classical bonsai art.

He systematized much information that previously had only been passed down orally and by example from teacher to student. With the assistance of Giovanna M. Halford, a student of his from England, Yoshimura worked on a companion text for the class. In 1957, The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes was published by Charles E. Tuttle Co.. Although there had been a few earlier Bonsai books in English by this time, this was the first comprehensive and practical work on the subject. The book later came to be referred to as the “Bonsai Bible in English”. It would go through 37 printings before being reissued under a new title, The Art of Bonsai: Creation, Care and Enjoyment.

In 1954 he traveled around Northern California teaching. Some of the initial group of 12 people in his class helped found Kusamura Bonsai Club. One of the people in this group was Toshio Saburomaru who became the club’s first sensei or teacher. 

In 1959 Pete Sugawara joined Kusamura and encouraged the club to welcome non-Japanese speakers. Jim Ransohoff is the first to join. The first constitution and by-laws of Kusamura Bonsai Club were approved by the membership on June 12, 1960 with Toshio Saburomaru serving as President for the fractional year of 1960.

Toshio Saburomaru
Toshio Saburomaru

Traditionally bonsai clubs to this point had followed a model where there is one teacher, the sensei. Toshio thought it better for people to hear from other teachers as they came thru the area. Tosh, as he was known to his friends, became a well known teacher and traveled around the U.S. and the world teaching bonsai.

In 1960 Yuji, assisted by Tosh, design and teach the first series of classes to 35 people. This series of classes have continued to be taught as our “Beginning Bonsai Class” since then. Our club’s first bonsai show was held at the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple on October, 7, 1961.

Spreading Out

In 1961, a few members from San Jose members formed Midori Bonsai Club . Then in 1962-63 many of the Japanese-speaking members formed Akebono Bonsai Club at the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple. A few years later, in 1970, members of that club formed San Jose Betsuin Bonsai Club. 

In 1962, Jim Ransohoff and Connie and Horace Hinds helped create the Bonsai Club Association (now known as Bonsai Clubs International or BCI) and began creating conventions and shows in the Bay Area. By 1963, other bonsai enthusiasts had formed clubs in Marin, East Bay, San Francisco, Kusamura, Midori, Tri-County, and American Bonsai Club. Interest in Bonsai increased in the United States.

In 1964, Yuji Yoshimura presented his last lecture to Kusamura members at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto with the sponsorship of The American Bonsai Association, created in 1958, and the Sacramento Bonsai Club.

In 1965, the Kusamura Bonsai Club show at Stanford University featured over “over 100 examples of Japanese dwarfed trees (bonsai).” Names such as Planting, Refvem, Ransohoff, and Poggensee, are now 50 years later considered household names to club members. The club had begun conducting tree gathering trips to the Pygmy Forest near Ft. Bragg, Toiyabe National Forest, Mohave, and the Red Lake Lodge near the Grand Canyon. Our club also did frequent special exhibitions at events like the Japanese Doll Exhibit, San Francisco Hall of Flowers, Art and Bonsai Exhibit at Foothill College, and the Marin Art and Garden show.

In the late-1960s and early-1970s, John Naka, Fay Kramer (another student of Yuji Yoshimura/Zeko Nakamura), Kyuzo Murata, Morihiko Tomita, Masao Komatsu, and Kawasumi Masakuni began doing workshops for Kusamura. In the mid-1970s, a popular demonstration was by Carl Young, of Seiju-en Nursery located in Lodi, on the use of Chrysanthemums as bonsai. The 1980s saw presenters such as William Valavanis (publisher of International Bonsai), John Naka, Hiroshi Suzuki, Dan Robinson, Mike Page, Katsumi Kinoshita, and Melba Tucker (First Lady of Bonsai). Since then the club has learned from Yasuo Mitsuya, Kathy Shaner, Harunobu Tokita, Marco Invernizzi, Roy Nagatoshi, Mel Ikeda, Peter Warren, Ted Matson, Jim Gremel, Lonnie McCormick, Gordon Deeg, Peter Tea, Ryan Nichols, Valerie Monroe, John Thompson and many others

In the 1990s, visitors and shows continued with speakers like Bill Sullivan, Denis Makishima, Yasuo Mitsuya, Kathy Shaner, and Tatemori Gondo. Shows and events were held at Filoli Gardens and Estate, Horticultural Show in Palo Alto, Mountain View Buddhist Temple and others.

In 1992, Kusamura Bonsai Club officially filled for 501 (c)(3) status with the IRS under President Bill Scott. In the early ’90s, many members of Kusamura participated in the creation of the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt, in Oakland, CA. Among these was landscape architect Jim Ransohoff, who drew up the design of the garden.

Since 2000, the club has continued its tradition of teaching and hosting speakers and demonstrators. Workshops have been held by Yasuo Mitsuya, Kathy Shaner, Marco Invernizzi, Peter Warren, Ted Matson, Jim Gremel, Gordon Deeg, Peter Tea, Ryan Nichols, Valerie Monroe, John Thompson and many others.

Harunobu Tokita at a Kusamura meeting in 2004 discussing how to improve members’ trees
Toshio Saburomaru
Toshio Saburomaru

“Wire Every Little Branch”

Tosh’s favorite saying and something we still teach

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