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 Modern Masters - Bonsai in the 21st Century

 By Erik A. Olsen

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.

Yuji Yoshimura

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.

Saburo Kato

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, becoming apprentices.

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.

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