Bonsai in Hawaii most likely had its beginning with the first Japanese immigrants who arrived as early as 1868. Soon to follow were Japanese contract laborers imported to work in Hawaii's sugar plantations. They began growing dwarfed trees and plants in pots using materials found in Hawaii. Later, Japanese merchant and naval training ships brought Japanese bonsai, primarily Japanese black pine, to Hawaii. One such plant, estimated to be over 125 years old, is now in the Hawaii State Bonsai Repository.
Tragically, almost all of the old, well-trained bonsai developed and maintained in Hawaii prior to 1941 were abandoned or destroyed following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Their owners were fearful of being apprehended as pro-Japan sympathizers. A few bonsai were saved by being planted in the ground as landscape trees. One brave exception was Soboku Nishihira who defied the threat of FBI arrest and incarceration by gathering up abandoned bonsai from their fear-stricken owners. A friend and former dormitory mate from the plantations days, Haruo Kaneshiro, became fascinated by the beautiful bonsai collected by Nishihira and acquired many of them to begin what would become the finest post-war bonsai collection in Hawaii. Thus commenced "Papa" Kaneshiro's 50 year career as a bonsai hobbyist, artist and teacher, inspiring and developing most of Hawaii's present bonsai leaders and thereby earning the sobriquet "the father of bonsai in Hawaii."
After World War II, other bonsai pioneers began to import shimpaku, satsuki, keyaki, and other bonsai trees from Japan. In the late 1950's, elder Japanese bonsai hobbyists organized the Honolulu Bonsai Kenkyu Club to hold bonsai exhibits, plant sales and field trips to promote their mutual bonsai interests. However, the Kenkyu Club conducted their activities and proceedings in Japanese. This left the younger, non-Japanese speaking members feeling isolated and excluded. They also felt that an English-speaking group of cosmopolitan members would be more in keeping with "Hawaiian style" and American ideals. This group petitioned for a Charter of Incorporation and thus, in 1972, the Hawaii Bonsai Association was formed.
It has been said that there are more bonsai hobbyists per capita today in Hawaii than in any other state. It is no longer a hobby of those only of Japanese ancestry. It now also includes those with Hawaiian, Chinese, Caucasian, Korean, Filipino, Portuguese, Vietnamese, German, Italian, Thai, and many other backgrounds as well. This mix is unlikely to be found anywhere else in the world in such a small area. Bonsai in Hawaii reflects many facets of these diverse cultures, which adds greatly to its uniqueness.
Hawaii Bonsai Association was the host for Bonsai Clubs International conventions in Hawaii in 1980, 1990 and 2000.
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