‘World War Bonsai: Remembrance and Resilience’ Showcases History, Culture, and Resistance of Bonsai in the Northwest

by Mayumi Tsutakawa

Bonsai. Many of us know broadly what it is (small, highly cultivated trees), but few of us recognize the depth of history or patient care required to create these living art works.

The exhibition at Pacific Bonsai Museum (PBM) in Federal Way, “World War Bonsai: Remembrance and Resilience,” offers perspectives and history — and perhaps hope — in our difficult time of both introspection and public cries against racism — and while we also shelter ourselves from a pandemic.

Katherine Wimble Fox, staff of Pacific Bonsai Museum, explains, “The exhibition focuses on 32 bonsai, the work of America’s first bonsai masters, who, sadly, experienced tremendous personal suffering, the loss of livelihoods, and cherished trees, when they were forced into World War II incarceration simply because they looked like the enemy.” Art works by Erin Shigaki illustrate these stories.

PBM believes that, as a widespread racial equity awakening has swelled protests this summer, the life stories of the Japanese Americans whose works are featured in the exhibition will inspire those working to end racism and that the artist’s bonsai will serve as living proof of the power of perseverance.

Pacific Bonsai Museum began in 1989 when then Weyerhaeuser Company president George Weyerhaeuser donated his collection of extraordinary bonsai to create an outdoor museum adjacent to the Weyerhaeuser Company headquarters in south King County. The exhibit space was designed by Hoshide Wanzer Architects. It became an independent nonprofit organization in 2013. Pacific Bonsai Museum is an anti-racist organization, according to its website.

World War Bonsai

PBM curator Aarin Packard had conceived of this exhibition for 15 years as he collected stories and biographical information. Japanese American crafts were pursued and documented during incarceration camp life, such as painting, calligraphy, wood carving, ikebana, and bonsai, often created with available materials found in the far-flung desert locations of the camps. Packard knew the Japanese American bonsai history was important to share as it has been missing from the institutional record and probably had never been told in a formal museum setting in the U.S. or Japan. 

Packard, museum curator for the past six years, grew up in Southern California and worked on bonsai for many years. He has been to Japan to study, in particular for a three-week appointment at a key bonsai teaching garden in Tokyo. He gained knowledge of the Japanese American community over many years and developed the exhibition and text, along with having it reviewed by community experts. 

For newcomers to the art of bonsai, it should be noted that it is both a slow and changing art form. The same person who began a tree’s cultivation will likely not live to see its future forms. As well, each of these living art works has a deep connection to the history in which the tree lived. Bonsai combines the intentionality of daily care with changing beauty over time, Packard says. In designing the exhibition, Packard felt that it was important to introduce the people who cared for each tree. 

The exhibit’s 32 trees each have an approximate date the plant began to grow, then a different age for the cultivated life of the plant. For example, the finest piece in the exhibition is the Domoto maple tree, which the early pioneer Kanetaro Domoto purchased in San Francisco from a 1916 exhibit of art from Japan. At that time, according to Packard, it was probably 100 years old, so today the plant is more than 200 years old. Domoto immigrated to the U.S. in 1880 and established a garden center in Oakland and left the tree to his descendants. This Domoto tree survived the war years when left in a wooden pot that then degraded, allowing the roots to reach the earth. The Domoto family later developed one of the leading nursery and horticulture training schools in the Bay Area.

A new book by designer Will Hayes, A Gallery of Trees, documents the museum’s collection and gives details of some of the significant trees in this special exhibition.

Bonsai Amid Injustice

Visitors to the exhibition might carry away a sense of tragedy and injustice faced by people of Japanese descent on the West Coast of the U.S. during the Second World War. But moreover, Packard says, when viewing the trees, we should see them as symbols of determination to continue under duress and symbols of healing. 

The exhibition includes stunning and delicate bonsai treasures created by noted California and Bay Area bonsai experts such as the Domoto Family, Mas Imazumi, a conscientious objector, and Ben Oki, survivor of the Hiroshima bomb. Additionally, it features bonsai by Hawaiian bonsai master Ted Tsukiyama, who was also a highly decorated veteran of the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team. 

Local Pacific Northwest horticulture experts probably will recognize bonsai by Kelly Nishitani, of Oriental Gardens in North Seattle, as well as those from Kenny Hikogawa and his brother-in-law Joe Asahara, who created Oriental Garden Center in Federal Way, and plants by Taki Nagasawa of Green River Nursery in Kent.

A rare centerpiece of the exhibit is a Japanese Black Pine grown from seed in a can by Juzaburo Furuzawa while he was incarcerated in the Topaz concentration camp in Utah — one of the only such living bonsai that survived the camps. The plant recently made news, as it was stolen from the PBM in February of 2020 and then was miraculously returned to the museum less than 72 hours later, perhaps due to media attention and public pressure.

Community Voices

Seattle area artist and activist Erin Shigaki has created numerous art works and photographic murals depicting the difficult times faced by Japanese and Japanese Americans during the forced evacuation and life in the World War II concentration camps. Her images bring visitors in direct confrontation with innocent victims of the incarceration — people of all ages. Her works, usually large photographic enlargements adhered by wheat paste to outdoor walls, have been displayed at Densho in Japantown in Seattle’s International District and recently at Bellevue College, where an administrator destroyed a portion of the text panel to fit her own idea of local history.

 Installation view of archival images selected, composed, and wheat-pasted by artist Erin Shigaki (photo: Pacific Bonsai Museum)

Although Shigaki claims no special knowledge of bonsai, she credited her mentor in graphic design, the late Larry Gojio, with introducing her to the Pacific Bonsai Museum years ago, as he was an avid practitioner of the art. 

A visitor might wonder whether an exhibit of bonsai trees is relevant to our social justice concerns today. Shigaki said, “The World War II Japanese American incarceration is part of a long, continuing dragnet of U.S. government-sanctioned racism and white supremacy. In my work I explore this history and the resilience of my ancestors which echoes the outsized systemic injustices Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have always faced in this country.” She feels that the bonsai in this exhibit tell stories of reclaiming and preserving culture, creating beauty in desolation, and patiently tending and growing lives in hopes that the promises of America are real.

Anna Tamura, a noted community volunteer who helped develop interpretive materials for the Minidoka and Tule Lake incarceration sites, reviewed the text and historical background for the exhibition. She says, “Some Issei and Nisei (first and second generation Japanese Americans) practiced bonsai in the camps. For example, using the art of bonsai on native sagebrush at Minidoka to create the wildlife refuge outside of the camp and bonsai exhibits during incarceration at Minidoka.”

Tamura shared with the PBM team how the art of bonsai was similar to gardening in the camps: “creating beauty in an oppressive and ugly environment, continuing and practicing Japanese cultural activities, and a recreational pastime, especially for the Issei.”

Shigaki notes that “this beautiful and powerful exhibit is a fully outdoor space — so it’s easy to socially distance. The trees and the environment change with the seasons; it’s a wonderful place to visit any time of the year.”

Opening alcoves (photo: Pacific Bonsai Museum)


“World War Bonsai: Remembrance and Resilience”

Pacific Bonsai Museum, 2515 South 336th St., Federal Way

Opened in August 2020 and will continue through October 2021

Admission by donation. This outdoor museum is ADA accessible.

HOURS: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

More info at the Pacific Bonsai Museum website or by phone at 253.353.7345.

The museum’s in-person teaching experiences have been put on hold. Online content includes a Virtual Field Trip program offered to students, families, and teachers. Check the Pacific Bonsai Museum website for additional content.

The exhibition’s video presentation, “Branch Out,” is available to view for free online. It features music by taiko masters Ringtaro and Asako Tateishi, and it’s available on YouTube

The museum’s book A Gallery of Trees is available for sale on the PBM website.

Mayumi Tsutakawa is an arts writer who grew up in, and lives in, the Mount Baker neighborhood. She formerly managed the grants program for the Washington State Arts Commission.

Featured image: Kataoka juniper (photo: courtesy of Pacific Bonsai Museum)

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