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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Kurtistown bonsai grower prospers among twists of fate

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

KURTISTOWN, Hawai'i — Bonsai grower and teacher David Fukumoto is a happy survivor, pushing ahead with new programs to promote his unique business and hobby.

David Fukumoto, founder of Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center on the Big Island, carefully trims one of his plants.

Hugh Clark • The Honolulu Advertiser

Fukumoto has overcome bankruptcy reorganization, effects from a bad batch of fungicide that he says cost his company millions of dollars in lost plants and sales and last November's flooding that left many of his business records in 18 inches of water.

Still, he describes himself as a "lucky guy" for being able to leave his first job as a house painter on O'ahu to launch what most regard as a unique business.

"David is like a daruma," said Honolulu attorney and mediator Ted Tsukiyama, who joined Fukumoto in founding the Hawaii Bonsai Association in Honolulu nearly 40 years ago.

A daruma is a Japanese figure with a large head and a round body that inevitably bounces back into an upright position. It's also a symbolic gauge of entrepreneurial success.

Tsukiyama described the Puna bonsai grower as someone who quickly adapted from hobbyist to businessman. A survey of leaders in the bonsai culture concluded Fukumoto probably is the only one in Hawai'i making his living from growing, shaping and shipping plants.

Today he sells nearly 1,200 plants a month — most via FedEx — to the Mainland and elsewhere. He is trying to drum up new business via a newly launched round of beginner workshops at the luxury South Kohala hotels and at his Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center nursery between Kurtistown and Mountain View.

Fukumoto "is one of a kind," said retired cooperative extension agent Ruth Iwata of Hilo, who watched Fukumoto's enterprise grow over 20 years after he moved to the Big Island in 1973.

"He really knows the art; he works hard, and he has a very supportive wife," said Iwata.

Hands-on knowledge

While others in the state sell bonsai plants, mostly imports from Asia, Fukumoto has a staff of 10 who help grow, train the miniature trees, package and ship them.

He is widely recognized for his expertise. Recently he explained to anthropologist Melvyn Goldstein, visiting from Cleveland, how he spots a promising plant when it it is only 3 inches tall — 2 inches above the soil and 1 inch into the cinders.

"Some have character," Fukumoto told Goldstein, who spent three days in Hilo at the bonsai nursery absorbing Fukumoto's skills and philosophy.

"He's so helpful. He's an excellent teacher," said the chairman of the Case Western Reserve University anthropology department, who began bonsai activity six years ago and finds "this much harder than anthropology."

Fred Thompson, a high-tech entrepreneur who lives in Mill Valley, Calif., became aware of Fuku-Bonsai during a cruise-ship stop in Kona. When his ship anchored in Hilo, Thompson hired a taxi for the 11-mile trip from the harbor to Kurtistown and received a personal workshop and talk-story session. Before he left, Thompson acquired several plants, including one he gave to his driver, Kristi Cheng, who was unaware of the Puna nursery until then.

"I have attended many bonsai 'clubs' around the world, but nothing like the concept I experienced here," Thompson said. "The vision of low cost, basic growing theory and common sense for bonsai beginners is very unique."

The key to Fukumoto's success, Honolulu bonsai specialist Tsukiyama says, is that "David has a natural eye and hand for identifying plants. He has a good eye for design."

Bonsai came to Hawai'i about 100 years ago from Japan, where the art form has been practiced for about 1,500 years. The trimming and shaping of trees began 2,500 years ago in China, where the activity is known as Penjing.

Overcoming obstacles

Fukumoto's business was growing fast when his company, a corporation with 200 mostly local investors, hit successive bumps.

First was the problem caused by an allegedly bad batch of Benlate, a fungicide sold to Big Island farmers and flower growers in the late 1980s. Two West Hawai'i farmers collected $23.8 million in damages at a trial in Kona and their judgment held up on appeal.

Most of the others settled out of court, but some now are seeking to renew their suits because the manufacturer, Du Pont Co., lied about the product, according to a Georgia federal judge who levied a $112 million fine against the chemical giant.

"We hauled out plants by the truck load," recalled Fukumoto of the major setback that cost him three-quarters of the plant stock. "We are still in recovery."

Then came the prolonged recession-depression of the 1990s, which put him into a bankruptcy that cost him a major visitor center and sales operation he had built at a former rock quarry in Kona. He salvaged the balance of the company during a painful reorganization.

The flood followed. But the 60-year-old Fukumoto remains smiling, saying he considers himself blessed by being able to spend most of his life doing what he loves.

Fukumoto also has established a "Hall of Fame" of bonsai in Hawai'i at the nursery. More than 250 plants on display are not for sale. Some are the prized works of deceased bonsai masters whose families donated the plants to the Hawai'i State Bonsai Repository. It is operated by the nonprofit Mid Pacific Bonsai Foundation.