During the 15th century, people commonly saw carved and natural display stands
in China, featuring miniature landscapes. Then in the following century, a
number of books were written specific to this new form of growing small trees,
which then led to the creation of paintings and scrolls. Buddhist monks
introduced the art form of bonsai to Japan, caring for these dwarfed plants and
trees with the greatest of care. Although China is where bonsai originated,
Japan made it famous.
Eventually, images of potted miniature trees were seen everything, becoming
commonplace for most households, temples, schools, and so on. By the turn of the
19th century, the philosophy of bonsai began to take a somewhat different
approach. New styles, training methods, and even a larger variety of plants and
trees were used. The result was a magnificent, three-dimensional effect, which
we have now come to know and love as bonsai.
During this time, a number of masters held rank as being incredible skilled in
the growing and training of bonsai. However, as time passed, new masters
appeared, taking many of the old practices and philosophies, coupling them with
modern creativity. Because of this, you will see some amazing designs and
styles, dripping with aesthetic charm and energy.
John Yoshio Naka
We will start with John Yoshio Naka, born in 1914 and passing away in 2004.
Considered a “grand master” in the art of bonsai, John was considered
among the top greatest contemporary masters in the world. Although he was born
in a farming community in Colorado, he was taken back to Japan at the age of
eight. While there, John spent a lot of time with his grandfather who taught him
the history and philosophy of bonsai. John would watch his grandfather carve and
shape trees, while being encouraged to learn. In 1926, John’s grandfather died
and although John studied a number of things in school, bonsai had a special
place in his heart. John was so talented that he even went on to teach bonsai.
With a natural artistic talent, John was asked to get involved with the study of
landscape, a time of learning more about nature and how various things balance.
Around 1935, word of war was spreading quickly so John and his brother Sadao
were sent back to Brighton, Colorado. In 1936, John married and had three sons
of his own. However, while busy working and raising a family he never forgot the
valuable lessons from his beloved grandfather.
Ten years later, John wanted more than just farming so he moved his family to
Los Angeles, California where he established a landscaping business, but one
with a strong emphasis on Japanese gardens, including bonsai. A chance meeting
with Sam Doi, a bonsai expert from California was the start of John reading a
number of books specific to bonsai, learning more about the art. The result was
John creating a 36-inch deciduous.
Two years later, along with the assistance of four friends, John began to
introduce Bonsai in a more formal way. Developing various bonsai and landscaping
clubs, John won first prize in 1951 at the California International Flower Show.
With popularity of bonsai growing on the rise, the clubs also grew. Over the
years, John was on a number of television shows and began expanding his bonsai
training to different species of trees. Although John was famous for so many
wonderful things, his Goshin juniper forest was one of his most treasured, a
wonderful 32-inch container that actually consisted of 11 trees. John was not
just a bonsai enthusiast but also a demonstrator and master for Bonsai clubs
around the globe.
Born in 1921, Yuji was the son of Toshiji Yoshimura, one of the most respected
leaders in the world of bonsai. Yuji’s father owned a nursery in the suburbs of
Tokyo, growing bonsai, along with founding the Nippon Bonsai Society. With the
eldest son dying when Yuji was just three years of age, the family tradition
would be passed on to him. With resources at his fingertips, Yuji studies
various forms of bonsai, specifically those from the traditional realm.
Graduating from the Tokyo Horticulture School where bonsai, along with garden
art, and bonkei were studies, Yuji had exceptional knowledge that was worked
into his career with the nursery. At the age of 30, Yuji worked with a friend
and interpreter on the creation of various books specific to arts and crafts of
the Orient. These books provided readers with not just demonstrations but also
actual bonsai courses that could be taken. While Yuji had a number of less
important books published, his big break came in 1957 when The Japanese Art of
Miniature Trees and Landscapes as published.
Being even more popular as a bonsai master, Yuji was asked to visit the Brooklyn
Botanic Garden where he was granted a fellowship to teach. Working from the West
to East coast, Yuji developed new workshops that provided intense demonstration,
specifically in Menlo Park. However, Yuji would eventually spend time in
Australia where he again left his imprint on the bonsai world.
From 1960 forward, Yuji lectured around the world and in 1964 after his wife and
daughters came to America from Japan, he started to import containers and some
Japanese bonsai. In addition to his travels, he continued to write, doing all he
could to educate the public about the beautiful art form of bonsai. In fact, his
work was so recognized that an article was written about him in the 1966 edition
of the Wall Street Journal.
By 1971, Yuji was leading the bonsai tour of Japan, and then working a joint
convention in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1975, Yuji’s father died with people in
the bonsai community mourning. Keeping with the tradition and love of Bonsai,
Yuji continued his work when in 1982 he led another tour for bonsai clubs but
this time, in India. That same year, the National Bonsai Foundation, Inc. in
Washington, DC was established.
Since the 19th century, the Kato family had been involved in the horticultural
business in Japan. The master, Jihei’s son, Tomekichi was the founder of the
Mansei-en Nursery and having been raised around plants and trees his entire
life, also grew into a well-respected master. Although Tomekichi never had any
sons, a young man born in 1883 by the name of Taketa grew into a young man with
a burning desire to learn bonsai. Eventually, Taketa married the eldest daughter
of Tomekichi, thus taking on the Kato name. In addition, Taketa changed his name
to Tomekichi Kato II.
Tomekichi II was very skilled with cultivating trees for bonsai and was
particularly fond of the Ezo spruce. With a short growing season, the Ezo took
great dedication to grow. Considered challenging as well, the Ezo was also the
ideal shape for bonsai. However, so many trees died that Tomekichi II’s
colleagues recommended he begin working with another species. Shortly
thereafter, the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred at which Tomekichi opened the
doors of the Mansei-en nursery to people in the village whose homes were
destroyed. This led to a number of people also taking up interest in bonsai,
Although Tomekichi had been told to leave the Ezo spruce alone, he was
transplanting one in 1928 when he noticed rotten sphagnum moss on the battered
roots. He carefully removed the material, planting the Ezo in regular soil. To
his surprise, the tree grew healthy and strong, identifying that the sphagnum
was the problem with the Ezo dying previously. In 1915, Saburo Kato was born to
Tomekichi where as his father before him, grew up with bonsai. As an excellent
student, Saburo would follow his father around to help gather trees.
When Tomekichi died at the age of 64 in 1946, Saburo naturally stepped up to
assume operation of the Mansei-en Nursery in Tokyo. Although bonsai had some
rough years, American soldiers became fascinated with these miniature trees,
learning to exchange food and supplies for the bonsai. This art form became so
popular with the American GI’s that Saburo was asked to teach classes on the
American base, a request coming directly from General MacArthur.
In addition to opening the art of bonsai to the public, this also renewed
Saburo’s faith. The result was literally a rebirth of interest in bonsai not
just in Japan but also around the world. By 1963, Saburo had his first work
published entitled, “Yoseue: Ishizuki Bonsai.” From this point forward,
additional books were published and a number of bonsai exhibitions hosted by
Saburo. With so many claims to fame, probably one of Saburo’s greatest was the
1980 First World Bonsai Convention held in Osaka. Attendees from 10 countries
were there, which involved the display of more than 1,800 trees and stones from
Japan, as well as 72 magnificent photographs of bonsai. Saburo went on to
receive a number of prestigious awards for his unrivaled skill and dedication to
the world of bonsai.
The common denominator amongst the most recent bonsai masters is the changes
seen in the creativity of bonsai. In other words, because bonsai were
complicated in the beginning, growing of these miniature trees was a skill that
most commoners were not able to achieve. However, with masters such as the three
discussed, education of the bonsai, as well as more creative styles opened the
door to better understanding around the world. These men took a complex art and
transformed it into something anyone can do.