JOHN YOSHIO NAKA
IN CELEBRATION OF A GRAND MASTER'S LIFE
HE TAUGHT US. HE TAUGHT OUR TEACHERS.
It has been estimated that in all the international world of bonsai,
John Y. Naka was easily considered among the top five contemporary greatest masters,
the grand masters of the art.
The following is a partial and beginning but representative run-through of
this great teacher's life.
This Page Last Updated: December 15, 2014
Born on August 16, 1914 in the farming community of
[Ft.] Lupton, Colorado
(northeast of Denver), John Yoshio Naka was the third child of Kakichi
and Yukino Naka. John's father had left his wife and first two children
in Japan in 1903 to come to America to find his fortune. A few years
later, John's mother came to Colorado to join her husband with his son.
The daughter stayed in Japan with the grandparents. John's mother
was one of the first women to come to here from Japan, so her small child
-- John, eighteen years younger than his brother -- was a novelty to his
father's friends, who all pampered him.
In November, 1922, when he was eight, John's family moved to Japan. (John's oldest brother Sadao stayed behind in Colorado to continue farming.) His father, an only son, went back to the ancestral home in Kurume on Kyushu island to care for his elderly father, Sadehei, when John's paternal grandmother died. John and his grandfather formed a close relationship -- John's father serving as a translator for the first year or so -- and Sadahei encouraged the John's dynamic zest for life. Sadehei-san taught him bonsai as well as a repertoire of Japanese proverbs. These were part of the philosophies which John heard also on long walks in the woods with his grandfather. One day these proverbs would continue to roll off of John's quick tongue.
Being just a boy, John initially could only watch the old man trim and
shape the trees. Then he was only allowed to do such things as watering
and pulling weeds until he was older. John grew very close to his
grandfather, and through him learned to train and love bonsai.
John's artistic abilities had not gone unnoticed. He was invited to study landscape design. It was then that he learned the basics of the relationship of trees, stones and space. When he had nearly completed his formal education in 1935, John received notice that he had been accepted into one of Japan's most prestigious art schools. However, his father had heard rumors of an impending war and feared for his son who was now of warrior's age. The family members met and decided that John should return to Colorado. All the other Nakas would spend the rest of their years on the family farm in Kurume (less than sixty miles northeast of Nagasaki).
At age 21, John returned to Colorado to live with his brother, Sadao, and established a truck farm near Boulder. There in the spring time he met the young daughter of his brother's friend, Alice Toshiko Mizunaga. John and Alice married by the end of 1936 in Brighton, CO and went on to raise three sons: Eugene, Robert, and Richard. On snowy days John would sit in front of a large window sketching trees, especially those with large trunks.
After several years of fighting late springs and early frosts plus hail
storms during the summer, the Nakas decided that they had had enough of
farming. The family moved to Los Angeles, California in late 1946, where
John did landscaping with a special emphasis on Japanese gardens. His
business grew, and he would continue this until 1968. In 1947 he
met Sam (Tameichi) Doi, one of the early knowledgeable bonsai men in Southern
California, after hearing about him at the local barber shop. Their
friendship lasted until Doi returned to Japan in 1948. He
encouraged John to read books on bonsai techniques and even gave him
several volumes. John sought out additional works and subscribed
to the Japanese-language magazine Bonsai
which was edited and published by Norio Kobayashi. The reference work John preferred over all others was the 1934
Bonsai Geijyutsu (The Fine Art of Bonsai) written by Sawada Ushimaro. John began serious
bonsai creation, memories of his days with his grandfather having not faded.
John Naka's Montezuma CypressIn 1948 John created a three-foot tall informal upright Blue atlas cedar ( Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca') bonsai. 1
(International Bonsai, 1988/No. 4, pg. 26)
In November of 1950, the Southern California Bonsai Club was officially
formed by John Naka and four friends, Fusaji ("Frank") B. Nagata, Morihei
Furuya, Mrs. Ai Okumura, and Joseph Yamashiro, to bring bonsai within the
reach of everyone. The first three had been introduced to John by
the aforementioned Mr. Doi, who worked for Mrs. Okumura and took care of
her bonsai collection.
(Doi had become teacher to Nagata and Furuya before WWII. The three of them happened to be assigned to the same relocation camp in 1942 -- near Granada in eastern Colorado, Amache was the smallest camp with only an 8,000 person capacity. While there, they managed to put on a makeshift bonsai exhibit for their fellow internees. After the war they returned to Los Angeles.)
Mr. Yamashiro had met the Nakas in Colorado during the war and they were distant acquaintances. It just so happened that the Yamashiros later moved next door to the Nakas in California. On Sundays the two families would regularly get together. While the poet and philosopher Joseph Yamashiro and John worked on miniature trees in the yard, Alice Naka and Hanna Yamashiro pursued their own interests.
The five students of bonsai became close, spending all their time talking about and working with bonsai.
Now, Mssrs. Nagata, Furuya, and Naka decided to show their trees at the November 1950 San Gabriel Valley Fall Flower and Garden Show at the Fannie E. Morrison Horticulture Center in Pasadena. When they arrived they were informed that individuals could not display unless they were sponsored by a club. Without a moment's hesitation, the quick thinking Frank Nagata spoke up and said they were a club. And what was the name of the club? Again, without hesitation or benefit of conference: The Southern California Bonsai Club. They were now allowed to enter their trees, which did win a trophy and a blue ribbon at the Show the next day.
Founders of The Southern California Bonsai Club (later the California Bonsai Society, Inc.)
(Bonsai in California, #1, 1967)
A demonstration was also given then by the group's youngest member, John. His inaugural exhibit of trees was the first time many Americans had the opportunity to see bonsai after the war. Within two years John would be teaching, first his immediate friends, and then others
By the way, John and his friends decided to make an honest man of Frank, and they founded the organization that Frank had named, in Mrs. Okumura's backyard.
In training by John from this year was a 30" tall silvery blue Atlas cedar ( Cedrus atlantica var. glauca).
3 -11, 1951 the club won another first prize, this time at the California
International Flower Show at Hollywood Park in Inglewood. And the
following month the club won a special award in the Southern California
Spring Flower and Garden Show, again in Pasadena.
His son Robert's science teachers, Ronald Mark and Francis "Jerry" Hill, were brought home to show them
John's collection of bonsai. So impressed with the trees were they that they invited John to accompany
them on a Saturday morning excursion into the desert mountains in southern California. This was in 1952.
Off they went, and John saw for the first time these magnificent trees
only a few feet tall but gnarled and twisted unlike anything he saw in
the local nurseries. That was the beginning of the weekly trek to
the "Valley of the Junipers" for the next twenty-five years.
Interest in bonsai was climbing, the club was growing, and the exhibits were improving. At the Spring Show the club again won the blue ribbon.
Prior to the April 1953 show, the organization which now was made up of more than forty members -- including a few caucasians -- changed its name to the Southern California Bonsai Society. Its listed purpose was the promotion and popularization of the art of bonsai. In addition to the first prize blue ribbon that year the club received a special award and a bronze medal.
Again in 1954, the Society won a first award, but this was the final year of the Spring Flower and Garden Show at Brookside Park in Pasadena. During the next three years, the Society did not participate in any shows. The monthly meetings were devoted to the improvement of the bonsai of the now more than hundred members. 3
In 1957 John gave a demonstration on Channel 5 KTLA "Garden Chats" with Joe Littlefield.
On April 20, 1958, the Southern California Bonsai Society, hoping to make itself a state-wide organization, was renamed The California Bonsai Society. John would be its president for thirty-two years, except for 1959 and 1960 when co-founder Morihei Furuya helmed the club. The group presented its first annual exhibition of miniature trees at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park in Los Angeles. John acted as show chairman for the April 27 - May 4 event which was themed "What is Bonsai?" The exhibit was judged a huge success and scheduled as an annual affair. 4
See also this b&w photo of John from April 26 at the State Museum building, plus "View Resource" for this one and this one from color slides taken on an unspecified day in that year.
One of the students he started with this year was Ben Oki. John quickly realized Oki's extraordinary talent and would eventually invite him to assist John at many conventions across the country.
A 27" moyogi style wisteria ( Wisteria brachybotrys ) and an eleven-tree raft style elm ( Ulmus sp., eventually 17" tall and 37" wide) began their training with John in 1958. On July 4 he collected an olive tree from an olive ranch in Fontana, CA. 5
John Catlin was the show chairman for "Bonsai -- New and Old" in 1959.
Frank Nagata supervised "Early Spring Bonsai" in 1960. By this time the
annual show was recognized as the largest exhibit in the United States
and that year a congratulatory message was received from the Prime Minister
Nobusuke Kishi of Japan.
John Naka founded the Seinan (Southwest) Bonsai Club in 1961 (renamed Nanpu Kai in 1964). This club for select teachers only would see many of California's greatest talents over the next few decades. John also presented a lecture/demonstration to the Southern California Gardeners Association this year (and the Japan America Society the next). Earl Donovan chaired the California Bonsai Society show themed "Bonsai -- A Living Art."
"Forests and Root-over-rock Plantings" were featured in the 1962 show for
which Hunt Lewis was in charge. And that March the Society incorporated
as the California Bonsai Society, Inc.
(ABS Bonsai Journal, Summer 1985, front cover)
In November, another California juniper was collected. At 32" in height, this would be named Ryu (Dragon) because there is a mythical rivalry between a "Tora" and a "Ryu" to see who can strive to obtain something that only one can possess.
This year John began to travel to other states, including the East Coast to teach and demonstrate.
For the next three years William Hatashita was chairman of the shows: "Preview
to Summer" (1963), "The Art of Miniature Trees" (1964) and "Welcoming Spring with Bonsai" (1965).
Since John was fluent in Japanese, he began writing to Norio Kobayashi
in 1963 and the two exchanged letters and information. This led
to an invitation from Kobayashi to John to see the Kokufu-ten Bonsai
Exhibition in Ueno Park, Tokyo. This would be John's first visit
to Japan since he returned to the U.S. in 1935.
In 1965 John and Alice Naka first visited the
Kokufu-ten, the ultimate exhibition in the world. At this 39th presentation
of the world's finest trees -- which are chosen ahead of time by a panel
of judges who see a photograph of each of the perspective entrants -- one
of the bonsai was by a blind artist. His beautiful tree had been
lovingly shaped by careful touch only, knowing the size and position of
each branch, the feel of healthy leaves. John was moved by this pinnacle
of interest in his chosen art.
John appeared on Channel KNBC "Survey 65" to talk about bonsai with host Bob Wright. 9
The 1966 show, "Nature in Bonsai," was headed by George Yamaguchi.
He also helmed the following year's "Bonsai -- Yesterday and Tomorrow."
This tenth annual show was extended to two weeks in length and allowed
nearly 60,000 spectators to view the display.
At what was the first showing of a "new" work by John Naka, Leroy Fujii of the Phoenix Bonsai Society was in attendance. Afterwards Leroy and his brother Tad ran into John at a restaurant, and Leroy congratulated the teacher on Goshin's perfection. John expressed that he was not satisfied yet with it... (During several of the Phoenix club's nearly annual visits to the California Bonsai Society shows and L.A.-area bonsai nurseries, John's private collection was occasionally visited or else a few moments were gotten with the teacher between sessions at the show.) 11