Profile: Keiichi FujikawaKeiichi Fujikawa watering a shimpaku at his nursery
Photograph by Bjorn BjorholmKeiichi Fujikawa is a professional bonsai artist from Ikeda City, Japan. He is the second generation proprietor of Fujikawa Kouka-en, the Kansai Area's premier bonsai nursery. Born in 1963, Mr. Fujikawa's involvement with bonsai began while attending a university. Each day after class, he would assist his father, Minoru Fujikawa, with the basic chores around the family nursery. Upon graduating from the university, Mr. Fujikawa was accepted as a full-time bonsai apprentice at Mansei-en Nursery in Omiya, Japan. Under the guidance of world-renowned bonsai artist Saburo Kato, he spent the next 5 years developing his knowledge and understanding of bonsai. Today, Mr. Fujikawa is a certified bonsai professional by the Japan Bonsai Association and maintains one of the most impressive and diverse bonsai nurseries in central Japan.
The following is an on-line interview with Keiichi Fujikawa.AoB:
Your serious involvement with bonsai began while attending university. But your father has been doing bonsai long before that. As a young child, did you ever consider that you will chose bonsai as a profession later in life? How did you see bonsai as a child and as an adolescent?Keiichi Fujikawa:
When I was a child, I was not involved with bonsai at all. As a matter of fact I didn’t want any part of helping around the nursery. However, around the age of 20, while I was in university, I started helping my father with the basic chores around the nursery and that’s when I really started to fall in love with it.AoB:
Your teacher was Saburo Kato, one of the bonsai legends. Can you remember something about him, or something that he said, that would make him somewhat different or unique from the other bonsai teachers?Keiichi Fujikawa:
Above all else, Mr. Kato had a good heart. He continually strived to develop and maintain good personal relationships with customers and his apprentices at Mansei-en. As an apprentice of Mr. Kato’s, I was treated like one of his own children and was always looked after, much like a father would for a son.AoB:
Saburo Kato and his father, used to collect Ezo spruce yamadori from the islands north of Japan. These islands now belong to Russia. Are there any Japanese bonsai collectors who still collect spruce yamadori from these Russian islands? Keiichi Fujikawa:
Before WWII, those northern islands belonged to Japan, however, today since they are part of Russia, collecting is forbidden in that area. Despite the loss, Ezo Spruce can still be collected in Hokkaido, though these days good yamadori material is extremely rare.AoB:
In Japan, what is the most common source for buying bonsai material that is not yet styled, for bonsai artists?Keiichi Fujikawa:
For professional bonsai artists in Japan, there is a great network between bonsai nurseries all over the country. Special private auctions are held regularly throughout Japan where material, both styled and raw, can be purchased or traded. There are also nurseries that specialize in raw, collected material from the mountains, though finding superb new yamadori is difficult these days.AoB:
What is the most important advice that you would give to a bonsai student?Keiichi Fujikawa:
Do not ignore the basics. Failure to learn the basic concepts of bonsai upfront will create problems for the student in the future. Students of bonsai often get overzealous and ruin potentially good material because they do not understand the basic components needed to correctly style and maintain their plants. By “basics” I am referring to all aspects of bonsai, not just how to wire a tree. This includes everything from learning how to properly water to trimming techniques to everyday maintenance.Fujikawa Kouka-en Nursery – Ikeda-shi, Osaka, Japan
Photograph by Bjorn BjorholmAoB:
In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes that a bonsai student makes during the first few years?Keiichi Fujikawa:
Watering mistakes are very common. Each tree is different and therefore requires a different approach to watering. In addition, the weather changes daily so simply watering everything once a day is not a good way to maintain the health of the plants. Basically, water when the soil is dry, don’t water when it’s wet. It sounds very simple but still watering mistakes are extremely common. AoB:
On Internet Forums, people often talk about Japanese style bonsai, Chinese style bonsai, Naturalistic style, etc. Do you think that there is such a thing as a Japanese style? Or maybe people, who say this, don't really understand Japanese bonsai?Keiichi Fujikawa:
In my opinion, the goal of bonsai is universal – to create beautiful trees as a reflection of nature. Since the natural landscape is extremely varied between geographic locations, it is possible that the bonsai in different areas reflect that variance, but the goal remains the same. I find that the level of bonsai varies widely from region to region, but everyone is striving for the same end result.AoB:
Could it be that bonsai are influenced by culture and that this influence is recognizable and identifiable in bonsai design? In example, the Eastern penance toward minimalism would influence bonsai differently from the western mindset?Keiichi Fujikawa:
As I mentioned before, the goal of bonsai is universal. However, personal preferences vary widely so it is possible that this is reflected in bonsai design.AoB:
Bonsai is becoming popular worldwide. However, many people around the world are still trying to learn from Japanese masters. Do you think that not only Japan can teach bonsai to the world, but also, the world can teach bonsai to Japan? Is there any example that you can think of?Keiichi Fujikawa:
I feel that at the current moment, the level of bonsai in Japan is unmatched by any other part of the world. Of course, that is not to say that other countries will never reach the level of Japan. As a matter of fact, there are areas of Europe and America that are currently striving to attain such a level and are rapidly progressing in new and exciting directions. I would certainly say in the future it would be possible for Japan to learn new approaches to bonsai from other parts of the world.AoB:
There are Westerners who feel that every nuance of Japanese bonsai should be duplicated and never swayed from. This imitation can be seen not only in styling, but also in species selection, soil components, and even display. As a traditionally trained, Japanese bonsai artist, what are your thoughts on this?Keiichi Fujikawa:
Using Japan as a starting point for learning is a great way to develop one’s understanding of bonsai; however, there is absolutely nothing wrong with branching out as long as the basics are well understood upfront.AoB:
The master / apprentice relationship has a long history in Japan, so it was natural for it to be incorporated in bonsai as well. What do you think the major advantages of this form of education are? The disadvantages? Keiichi Fujikawa:
In Japan, a typical bonsai apprenticeship lasts 5 full years. It seems a bit extreme at first, but here it is viewed more as an education rather than work. This 5-year period is necessary because it allows the apprentices to learn, relearn, and completely absorb all of the information and techniques necessary to create and maintain high-level bonsai. In addition, apprentices learn the necessary personal skills to develop positive and lasting relationships with customers.
It is difficult to find any real disadvantages, though I can say the sempai/kohai (superior/inferior) system is often taxing on apprentices. Newer apprentices are expected to always answer “yes” and comply with any request made by their superiors, which can sometimes lead to foul relationships. Keichi Fujikawa and Bjorn Bjorholm, Mr. Fujikawa's current full-time apprentice in Osaka.AoB:
Do you think the master / apprentice relationship is the only option for quality education and would the value of a master / apprentice relationship be diminished outside of Japan, in example, in America, Europe, or other countries? Keiichi Fujikawa:
For individuals wanting to do bonsai as a full-time career, I feel that the 5-year apprenticeship is absolutely necessary in order to learn every aspect of bonsai to its full extent. As a matter of fact, in Japan, it is nearly impossible for a person who has not completed an apprenticeship to join the business side of the bonsai community. I also do not feel that the value of an apprenticeship would be diminished outside of Japan. If there are individuals who are skilled enough to teach bonsai at that level, anyone and everyone should be taking advantage of that kind of learning opportunity. AoB:
Could you share the basic outline of an apprentice's education from when they first arrive to when they leave? What is taught first and what must be accomplished before they reach the next level?Keiichi Fujikawa:
A typical bonsai apprenticeship lasts 5-full years under a single master. Every situation varies but for the most part new apprentices can expect to spend the first few weeks or months doing menial chores around the nursery and will rarely if ever get to actually work on bonsai. The first bonsai related task taught to apprentices is how to properly water, which actually happens to be the most difficult skill to master. In addition, basic seasonal tasks are also taught early on.
As far as wiring is concerned, apprentices are usually given inexpensive, low-level material to work with for the first 1-3 years. As each student progresses, better and better material is provided for them to style. When I first learned how to wire at Mansei-en, I was given only young, pencil-thick white pines to style. After mastering the basics, I was allowed to work on better material, though it took several months to reach that point.
Once an apprentice completes the full 5-year program, and his master agrees that he is ready to graduate, he will be presented with an official degree by the Nihon Bonsai Kyokai (Japanese Bonsai Association). This document essentially allows the graduate to officially enter into the business side of the bonsai community of Japan. It is also typical for the graduating apprentice to give 6 months to 1 year of extra work to his master as a way of saying thank you. AoB:
In your opinion, what is the difference between a good bonsai, and a masterpiece? What is it, which in your opinion makes a masterpiece much better than the rest of the bonsai?Keiichi Fujikawa:
The basics must be followed up front. Ignoring the basics ruins potentially fantastic bonsai and it is immediately obvious when this is the case. Of course, a masterpiece must have total balance – nebari, trunk, leaf/needle size. Young trees, or ones that appear young, rank at a much lower level than those that convey a feeling of extreme age. Using the Kokufu-ten as an example, every tree entered into this exhibition appears ancient. This can be seen in the texture of the bark, the rounded crown of each tree, even the pots used help evoke the feeling of age. AoB:
Is it all education? In other words, in your opinion, is knowledge of techniques enough for a person to create artistically successful bonsai or is talent also required? Is it possible for a quality, artistically successful bonsai to be created using only learn-able techniques and methods or must one also have creative talent?Keiichi Fujikawa:
In my opinion, anyone can improve themselves if they put in the time and effort. Some people learn faster and have an artistic sense from the start, while others take longer to develop the same skills, much like painting or drawing. Developing a good eye for quality bonsai is possible for everyone; it just comes earlier for some people than for others.Fujikawa Kouka-en Nursery – Ikeda-shi, Osaka, Japan.
Photograph by Bjorn BjorholmAoB:
Japan leads the world in having not only many quality bonsai nurseries, but also an established service industry in which people with little or no knowledge can buy world-class bonsai, have them boarded, cared for, and even styled by renowned masters of the art. This service industry is vastly important for successful bonsai economics, but is noticeably lacking in the west, why do you think this is?Keiichi Fujikawa:
Bonsai in Japan is viewed as a traditional art and, as such, world-class bonsai are purchased to be admired, much like a painting would be. The only difference is that a painting does not require constant care like a bonsai. Therefore, when a customer purchases a top quality bonsai, it is often left in the care of a master who is skilled and qualified to maintain it.
This is not always the case, however, as many individuals in Japan enjoy creating and maintaining the trees themselves. This is, in my opinion, the reason why professional boarding and styling of customers’ bonsai is not common outside of Japan – people typically want to do it all themselves. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that either, but when very expensive, rare, or important bonsai masterpieces are involved; I feel that leaving them in the care of professionals is best. AoB:
Many people place great value in disclosing the name of the styling artist when showing bonsai; others claim that such common courtesy is not necessary. In Japan, where it is very common to purchase and show trees styled by another, how is this addressed?Keiichi Fujikawa:
Using the Kokufu-ten as an example, a vast majority of the trees entered in this exhibition are styled by professionals for customers. It really is not necessary for the owner of a tree to disclose the name of the stylist in my opinion, though typically, the professional stylist and the customer will already have a good past relationship with each other so the pro’s name will almost always get mentioned at some point. Of course, it is inappropriate for a customer to claim the styling as his own when in reality it was done by a professional. That typically does not happen here though, as there is a certain level of respect and mutual understanding between customers and professionals in the Japanese bonsai community.AoB:
Your gallery here at the Art of Bonsai Project shows a wide range of species, if you could only choose one single species to work with, what would it be and why? What if you could only choose one species of pine, which would you choose? Why?Keiichi Fujikawa:
For me, this is a very difficult question because I enjoy working with a bit of everything. If I had to choose only one, though, I would say Shimpaku Juniper because, in terms of styling, they show the most contrast and improvement in the shortest amount of time. As far as pines are concerned, I prefer White Pines because of their soft, elegant appearance. AoB:
This October America will have its first ever National Bonsai Exhibition in Rochester, New York, what advice could you share with the organizers and participants of this historic event?Keiichi Fujikawa:
Study and strive to understand bonsai at the highest level possible. Flipping through Kokufu-ten books is a great way to start developing a good eye for high-quality bonsai and understanding display techniques. Fujikawa Kouka-en Nursery – Ikeda-shi, Osaka, Japan.
Photograph by Bjorn BjorholmAoB:
Western bonsai has come a long way since being introduced to the art, what is the common perception of Western bonsai in Japan, what advice would you give us, based on your own long history in bonsai?Keiichi Fujikawa:
In my opinion, the level of bonsai is different all over the world, though everyone is striving for the same goal in the end. My advice would be to first master the basics, of course, and study high-level bonsai from the start to develop a good eye. Also, do not hesitate to branch out and go in new directions with the art in the future.