Kokufu Bonsai Ten, Part IV

("National Bonsai Exhibition")

Kokufu ten calligraphy
Koku       Fu          Bon        Sai       Ten

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

This Page Last Updated: March 26, 2016

The Shows by Year
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      "Ueno and Asakusa make up the historical enclave of Tōkyō.  Traditional architecture and way of life are preserved here at the northeastern reaches of the city."
      "The Meiji government turned Ueno Hill into one of the nation's first public parks.  It would serve as the site of trade and industrial expositions; it would have a national museum, a library, a university of fine arts, and a zoo.  The modernization of Ueno still continues, but the park is more than the sum of its museums."
      "In the mid-1600s, [Asakusa] became a pleasure quarter in its own right with stalls selling toys, souvenirs, and sweets; acrobats, jugglers and strolling musicians; and saké shops and teahouses -- where the waitresses often provided more than tea.  Then, in 1841, the Kabuki theaters moved to Asakusa.  It was only for a short time, but that was enough to establish it as the entertainment quarter of the city -- a reputation it held unchallenged until World War II, when most of the area was destroyed.  Though it never fully recovered as an entertainment district, the area today is home to artisans and small entrepreneurs, children and grandmothers, hipsters, hucksters, and priests."  Per Fodor's Tōkyō, 2nd Edition (NY: Fodor's Travel Publications; 2007), pp. 39, 47-48.

      Also, note that in 1829, tako-tsuki (octopus-style-shaped) dwarf potted trees were being presented by a grower in Asakusa Park, an Edo suburb.  (Within 20 years the neighborhood would be crowded with nurseries selling bonsai.)  Per Nozaki, Shinobu  Dwarf Trees (Bonsai) (Tokyo: Sanseido Company, Ltd.; 1940), pg. 23, and O'Connell, Jean  "The Art of Bonsai," Science Digest, March 1970, pg. 38.

Nippon Bonsai Association  Classic Bonsai of Japan (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1989), pg. 172, color plate 31, "In 1955 at the 30th Kokufuten exhibition, a 500 year old tosho (Needle juniper, Juniperus rigida) made its first appearance and touched off a reappraisal of that type of tree's virtues.  It had been found growing naturally two decades earlier, and its condition is said to have deteriorated seriously at one period.  Fortunately it came into the hands of an expert familiar with the tosho, thanks to whom it gives great artistic pleasure today.  The deadwood projection at the base of the 36" (90 cm) tall tree conveys an almost terrifying sense of the tree's great age and makes an exquisite contrast with the brilliant green of the foliage."  And, from pg.170, color plate 9, we learn "in 1978, at the 52nd Kokufuten exhibition one of the trees was an ohamabo (Hibiscus tiliaceus), with a curved trunk and 130 years old.  The 30" (75 cm) tree was an outstanding specimen from Okinawa which afforded distinguished proof of the high level of bonsai there."

Bonsai Today, No. 24, pg. 10 states "For each exhibition a program was produced.  The majority of the trees in the first Kokufuten were overwhelmingly in the ishitsuki [root-on-rock] style, as opposed to those trained in other styles.  Among those using rocks, the majority of them were root-over-rock, that is, the roots wrapped around the stone.  There were very few clinging-to-the-rock, that is, with roots on the rock.  The majority of artists and enthusiasts apparently thus used the stone to emphasize the tree, a significant break with tradition."  Pg. 11 then mentions  "By the third Kokufu exposition (1935), trees on rocks were now more prevalent than those which were root-over-rock, and rock styles in general predominated." and "At the eighth Kokufu Exposition in November 1939 [sic], several on-a-rock bonsai were displayed on a suiban [shallow tray capable of holding water], dispensing with soil except in the crevices which held the plants. "

"A Talk on Masterpiece Bonsai and Master Artists, No. 16 - Toshiji Yoshimura (1891-1975) - Kofu-en," Kinbon magazine, October 2011, pp. 44-47, English translation kindly provided to RJB in personal e-mails from William N. Valavanis, 12 and 13 Nov 2011, includes the following lines:
      "A Binden-ho style display (style for displays at the lounge for the Imperial family) [was] exhibited in 1932.  The display consists of a group planting of cactus and other plants on a Bizen-ware tray (arranged by Toshiji Yoshimura)...  It was outstanding when it was also exhibited at the 1st Kokufu Bonsai-ten as an accent to Count Hayashi's cycad bonsai."
      "A creative bonkei [using the Ezo spruce rock-planting and keiryu-seki (mountain stream stone) and] depicting a scene of nature by Yoshimura Kofu [was] exhibited at the 2nd Kokufu Bonsai-ten under the name of [Mr. Saburo] Watanabe."
      "Yoshimura's explanation on his work in the 2nd Kokufu Exhibition is covered in a special article titled 'A Talk on Creative Displays in the Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition' in the 1935 February issue of the magazine Bonsai.  He was one of the first to start making and displaying creative rock-planting bonsai, and his ideas on these are described well in the article."
      "Yoshimura Kofu-en's display [was] shown in the commemorative album of the 3rd Kokufu Bonsai-ten in 1935.  The display consists of a Shinpaku, Goyo matsu with paired trunk, suiseki "Mura-suzume (a flock of sparrows)", and dwarf rhododendron."
      "In the early 1930's which was the golden age of bonsai, Kofu-en usually held two or three displays at the Kokufu Bonsai exhibitions, and at times they held up to four displays.  At times, Kofu-en might have made extra displays to fill in the vacant space, however, in most cases the name of the garden was used by customers because they preferred to use it instead of showing the name of the owner of the bonsai.  According to the records of the Exhibition, there were times that the Yoshimuras, including his younger brother's garden, Koka-en, held 7 or 8 displays."

Takeyama, Hiroshi  "The broom style," Bonsai Today, No. 26, 1993-4, pp. 42-43: "It was only in the period between World Wars, after the broadening of the aesthetic vision of bonsai masters to a more "natural" concept of styles, that someone decided to train a zelkova in the broom style and exhibit it in Kokufu."

"Prior to the WWII, Kokufuten included exhibit spaces which were much larger -- the length of reception room alcoves extending over 9'.  The display choices were very interesting with large cascading bonsai often placed at ends of exhibit space & three or more plants in the center... or numerous plants appearing to flow in one direction with the wind.  Display is not one thing or static in Japan." Per posting #8 by Chris Cochrane on 13 Oct 2006 to "Topic: Uhaku Sudo on display options" on the Internet Bonsai Club.

Per Kyuzo Murata's article "Spirit of Bonsai" (Bonsai Journal, ABS, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer 1987, pp. 7, from his 1975 speech before the ABS), "...A famous zelkova was owned by the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who happened to be the Chairman [1965-67] of Nippon Bonsai Association at the time.  The zelkova was created by Mr. Ogata, who had severed the main trunk of the zelkova and created a totally new look.
     "When I first saw it at the annual Kokufukai Exhibition, I laughed at it.  So did the directors of national museums who attended the exhibition.  Several years later it was exhibited at the [1964] Toyko Olympics and that time people liked it.  Some years later, it was again displayed at the Kokufukai Exhibition, and then it was recognized as one of the finest bonsai in Japan.  It really is a strange-looking tree.  You would never find such an unnatural-looking tree anywhere in the world; yet it looks exactly like a huge zelkova standing alone and strong in the field."

Per "Famous Bonsai Masterpiece Series Yoshida Japanese Grey-Bark Elm" by WABI Magazine (translated by Craig W. Riser from WABI No. 2, September 2002), International Bonsai, 2007/No. 4, pp. 32-33, it was about in 1937 that Mr. Kawabe and Kyunosuke Ogata purchased the original specimen, dug up the zelkova from a thicket [in Saitama prefecture? on a hill behind a farm], sawed it, removed it, and right there cut off one to two feet of roots, and covered the cutting wound with tree salve.  Ogata, an eccentric bonsai master, trained it vigorously with great passion at his home and cut back the branches countless times forcing new shoots and growth.  The present shape of the crown was developed around 1945. By 1955 Ogata's garden had moved to Omiya Bonsai Village and the branch was probably removed that same year.
     "After that it went from the founder of Kyuka-en Bonsai Garden, Kyuzo Murata to Kenji Fukunaga.  It was presented by Mr. Fukunaga to the Prime Minister.  This bonsai with its unconventional yet stately appearance reminded people [of] the Prime Minister who greatly appreciated its beauty.
     "The Prime Minister displayed this tree at the 30th National Bonsai Exhibition (Kokufu Bonsai Ten) in 1956, where it was well received...  It was displayed after the Prime Minister's death in 1968 as "The Prime Minister's beloved Japanese grey-bark elm" at the 42nd National Bonsai Exhibition.  Incidentally the present owner of the bonsai is Kenji Fukunaga's son, Nobuhiko Fukunaga.
     "The late Kyuzo Murata of Kyuka-en Bonsai Garden characterized this bonsai as follows: 'Despite the fact that it has a very unnatural style as a Japanese grey-bark elm bonsai which normally conforms to natural styles it is seen as a large natural tree and deeply moves people.  It is a large tree which seems even more natural than a natural tree.'"
     The article includes photos of the tree in 1955, 1968, and 2002 (color, with a few small grasses allowed to grow at the base of the tree), plus a b&w of Prime Minister Yoshida at Kyuka-en.

     "Just beyond the central fountain [of Ueno Park] I spotted the [Metropolitan Art] Museum. As the entrance came into view beyond the trees, I was amazed to see a line 200 yards long and 5-6 people wide.  Was it possible that all those people could be waiting to see a bonsai show? ...
     "The scene was almost beyond belief.  The spectators, who were predominantly men, were packed 3-4 deep, heel-to-toe, along the first display area.  The line moved in slow motion past the trees, the first of which was a 250-year-old Shimpaku Juniper of remarkable splendor.  The people were remarkably quiet.  Perhaps, like me, their eyes were so busy communicating the beauty of these treasures to the soul that talking was quite impossible.  Too impatient to go the heel-to-toe route, I moved slowly along the periphery of the throng.
     "Along the second wall were four bonsai displayed before large, plain gold screens.  They were masterpieces from the Imperial family's collection...
     "By mid-afternoon, the crowd had thinned down considerably and it was possible to make a circuit to study the trees in more detail.  One of the four Imperial family trees was especially interesting -- a Zelkova variety whose bark was broken into distinct platelets instead of the relative smoothness one would expect.  Conifers dominated the show but there was also a good representation of deciduous trees including several group plantings.  In all, there were 200 entries, of which several were groups of mame.
     "...it is true that the containers of the Ueno Park [No. 48] show were of subdued colors -- dark brown or 'mouse gray' (a new color to me and, as I learned, also a fairly new color on the Japanese scene) and soft off-whites for the single deciduous and group plantings..."  Per Hinds, John  "A Greenhorn's View of the Japanese Bonsai World," Bonsai Magazine, BCI, Vol. XIII, No. 4, May 1974, pg. 12.  And, per Part II, June 1974, pg. 22, "...Last year more than 40,000 visited the exhibition, and this year's attendance was judged even higher."

"Twelve judges, each a master bonsai artist, view the bonsai as it travels down a long ramp.  Among the judges for the 1978 [No. 52] exhibition were Kyuzo Murata, Saburo Kato, Nobukichi Koide, Fusazo Takeyama, Yasuji Matsuda, Motosuke Hamano, Hideo Chugun, Yoshitaro Ogawa, Tsuneichi Nakajima, Akira Kato and Hideo Kato.  Each judge was allocated 5 points to award to each specimen, therefore, a perfect score would be 60 points...  Each judge is given a pad of paper with his name printed on each sheet of paper, on which he writes his score.  As the bonsai is moved down the ramp in front of each judge, an envelope is passed from judge to judge.  At the end of the line the envelope is opened and scores tabulated on a large wall chart..."  Per "About the Cover," International Bonsai, Winter/79, pg. 24.  Note that a thirteenth judge was added sometime by the 2006 [No. 80] show.

     "On judging at the Tokyo show for top awards, it is not only the tree that is judged, but the stand, accent plant, how the pot fits the tree, etc.
         1.  They look at the tree, is it true to its species.  Then the rootage that is showing, trunk, foliage masses and moss.  Is it an old tree, etc.
         2.  The pot.  Is it a good pot, does it suit the tree?  Is the tree placement in the pot correct?  Soil or moss well done?
         3.  The stand.  Does the style match the tree and the pot?
         4.  Accent plant.  Does it suit the main tree, have a correct stand, is it well done?
         5.  The overall display.  Is the tree, stand and accent piece in the correct place?  The overall effect.
     "Don't look for answers in the Tokyo show book.  The pictures are taken ahead of time, and many trees are on different stands.  Who wants to haul all the stands and trees twice, remembering that there is a pre-judging of these trees for entry into the show.  Many trees are shown without accent plants in the book..."
     "A few general notes on this:
     "Almost all accent plants were evenly spaced.  The same amount of space at either side of the display area.  (Stand of main tree and accent plant were the same distance from either end.)  Accent plant was almost always even with or just forward of the main tree stand.  Rarely very far forward or middle to back of the display.  The display area is evenly utilized."
Per the 1991 (No. 65 show) observations of Kathy Shaner, "Diary From Japan," Bonsai Journal, ABS, Vol. 26, No. 3, Fall 1992, pg. 11.

     "The biggest and most important show of the year is the national bonsai show in Tokyo, called the Kokufu show.  Hobbyists own the bonsai shown at this exhibition.  Practically all of these bonsai, however, are worked on by professionals who are employed by the hobbyists to refine them and get them into this show.  Membership in the professional organization the Kumiai is necessary to enter trees in the Kokufu.  Lifetime membership fees are so steep, however - many thousands of dollars - that newly graduated apprentices sometimes have difficulty affording it.  Without the ability to get client trees into these big shows their careers are limited.  One year I was present during the judging of the Kokufu show, which takes place two weeks before it opens to the public.
     "As the morning passed during judging day at the Kokufu show, the scores are posted on a chalkboard.  This is a big day for professionals who have come to try to get their client's bonsai into the show, and there was a fair amount of tension while they waited, and a lot of smoking.  There was tea and coffee too, so the whole room was full of stimulants.  It did not appear that stimulants were needed - guys leaning against the wall in back, trying to look nonchalant but radiating the opposite, their alert eyes panning across the numbers being posted.
     "The scores ranged from the low twenties to the low fifties.  There was one young man in dark glasses, a grandson of Hamano (Hamano was Mr. Suzuki's teacher [MH's teacher was Suzuki]), who had prepared an old, well-known flowering quince for a client and was hoping to get it into the show.  When the score was finally posted, it was very high, a forty-eight, and he flung up his arms with a loud whoop and then just melted.  He walked around the room limply, with a dazed happy smile, and profusely thanked the judges, who with amused stiffness tried to brush off his fawning gratitude.  Having clients' bonsai accepted into the Kokufu is essential to building the reputation of Japanese professionals, and this young man was on his way."
Hagedorn, Michael "Post-Dated, The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk," Portland, OR: Crataegus Books; 2008, pp. 105-106.  His work appeared in the Kokufu show in Tokyo in 2004, 2005, and 2006, and Mr. Suzuki honored him with the opportunity to wire two trees that went on to win a Kokufu Prize and a Prime Minister Award.  Per author bio, pg. 216.

     "Yes, selecting the container for bonsai depends primarily on taste and tradition, there are no 'rules,' (except for outside of Japan by people who believe they know more than the Japanese do).
     "It is important to know when the bonsai will be displayed and enjoyed.  For example for this Kokufu Bonsai Exhibit, which is now held in winter (did you see the snow!) the structure of the Satsuki will be displayed.  So, they are planted in unglazed, antique Chinese containers, to avoid drawing attention from the design of the bonsai.
     "When the Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition began in 1934 it was held twice a year (Spring and Autumn) until about 1948 when they began to hold the exhibition in Winter (December-February).  Probably many of the deciduous species used glazed containers to highlight the autumn changing of the foliage colors.
     "Another important fact to remember is that this is a 'bonsai' exhibition.  Until about 20 years ago Satsuki azaleas were not considered bonsai, but rather as 'Satsuki' and they had their own exhibitions held in late spring so they could show off their beautiful colorings.  The important display item here was flowers, not form, so the design was compromised to show off the flowers.  There were some strange shapes then because they needed to design plants which had room to display the flowers properly.  Those exhibitions were to introduce new Satsuki azalea cultivars so people would buy them at high prices.  When the market was saturated with a new cultivar, they hybridized new cultivars to make money.  Remember, here [in Japan] bonsai is business (used to be big) and primarily not a hobby."
     "Apparently some trees are forced to bloom for this show, primarily the Japanese flowering quince and this Kurume Azalea.  The owner of the Kurume Azalea lives north of Tokyo where it is colder than here now.  It's funny, 80% of the evergreens show their 'winter' coloring, while about 20% are protected to show off their bright green coloring..."
     "But now, the training techniques have vastly improved and there are beautiful Satsuki azaleas displayed at Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition without flowers so unglazed expensive containers are used.  In fact, if you were to visit Kunio Kobayshi (Shunka-en Bonsai Garden in Tokyo) in December and January he had a tremendous number of antique Chinese containers available for rent.  The bonsai would be transplanted into the new containers so they would be accepted at the judging, held in January, for the exhibition held now.
     "Ryan Neil traveled to Japan in January to help his teacher, Masahiko Kimura transplant all the bonsai he was showing for his clients into their 'exhibition containers.'  Even the most beautiful bonsai in the world would not be accepted into this exhibition if it were in an inexpensive pot.  After the exhibition the bonsai are transplanted into their normal containers.  Sometimes they owners like the new pots and eventually purchase them which makes Kobayashi very happy.
     "Doug Paul, Kennett Collection in Pennsylvania, last year displayed his Japanese hemlock at the Kofufu Bonsai Exhibition.  He loves American and European containers and most of his bonsai collection are in beautiful quality containers made by Westerners.  He wanted to send an American pot to Japan for his bonsai last year.  He was told that if his bonsai was in an American pot it would not be accepted at the judging.
     "Sometimes if a flowering bonsai has a good design and can be enjoyed all year around it might be shown in an unglazed container which is good all the time.  If the flowering bonsai is only enjoyed when in blossom, it is often planted in a glazed container which looks good when in the tree is in color, but not at other times of the year.
     "There are no 'rules' for bonsai in Japan, and the selection of containers is a deep subject which depends on taste, season, exhibition and of course your pocketbook."
WNV posting to Internet Bonsai Forum, 15 Feb 2011, http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/t5641-2011-85th-kokufu-bonsai-exhibition#57832; Correction in italics posted the following day by Bill.  This posting and the following one are reprinted here because of the important details presented in them.

     "The Japanese plant old respected bonsai in old antique pots.  A younger bonsai might be planted in a 'new' or contemporary pot, while the masterpieces are always planted in appropriate containers.  The American containers have no 'history' or are new.  Age is highly respected and selecting the appropriate quality container is equally important as to selecting the suitable shape, size and color.
     "Respect for the bonsai is most important in Japan.  Only the highest quality containers are utilized in the Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition which have antiquity and patina.  I've never seen a brand new Japanese container used in this show, it would not be appropriate.
     "If the American (or Western) container were over 150 years old and showed patina, even with a few chips, sometimes filled with gold, it might be accepted."
WNV posting to Internet Bonsai Forum, 15 Feb 2011, http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/t5641p15-2011-85th-kokufu-bonsai-exhibition#57849.

     "Attendance down, quality of bonsai were not as in the past when the exhibition was at the art gallery.  But still beautiful masterpieces!"
     "There were four bonsai displayed with suiseki.  (don't listen to those who tell you the Japanese don't display stones with their bonsai)
     "It was very interesting to see nearly every small and medium size cascade bonsai tied down to the tables with fishing line and push pins because of the threat of earthquakes.  I'm sure the fishing line will keep the pots on the tables IF an earthquake comes..."
     "Doug Paul, The Kennett Collection in PA had a beautiful Shimpaku on display.  The one he had on display last year, unfortunately washed away in the Tusnami [sic]."
     "Sales area at the nearby Ueno Green Club was deserted!  There were actually more vendors attending tables than customers, but it did get busier later on."
WNV posting to Internet Bonsai Forum, 9 Feb 2012, http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/t9120-2012-kokufu-bonsai-exhibition-report.

Please see Walter Pall's comments about the changing styles of Japanese bonsai as revealed in the Kokufu Ten albums over the years.

See also this article by Julian R. Adams, "Bonsai Study on Tour," reprinted from International Bonsai, 2005/No. 3, pp. 18-21.

This is a video from the outdoors Feb. 2008 Green Club, and this is from the indoors one.  This video is of a small indoor sales area at the 2010 Green Club.  Stills from the 2011 Show are here.  The Kokufu Market from 2012 is seen in a series of eleven videos here, plus the second-floor Green Club.  The 2013 Green Club is here and here.

And, finally, here is a clandestine 6-second view of Kokufu Ten from some years back.  But then from 2013 we have some longer views: at the 0:31 to 0:56 marks and then a close-up of a pine from 2:38 to 2:51.  This same longer view footage is also found between the 0:08 and 0:28 marks of this video.

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The Shows by Year
Some Photos
Some Albums

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