Lecture Note – Legacy of John Naka: Father of Bonsai in America – September 7, 2010

Nibei Dr Terasaki Larry and Nina Ragle

Dr. Paul Terasaki, founder of the Nibei Foundation, left, and Nibei's September speakers, Larry and Nina Ragle. (Cultural News Photo)

Nibei Foundation / Japan Study Club

Presenters: Larry Ragle and Nina Ragle

Mr. Ragle is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley in forensic science.  He is the president of the California Bonsai Society and a member of Nanpu Kai, John Naka’s select club.

Mr. Ragle is also a member of the Board of Directors of the National Bonsai Foundation.

Mr. Ragle’s wife, Mrs. Nina Ragle, is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in philosophy.  She has a special interest in suiseki-rock display and viewing.  She is the editor of California Aiseki Kai’s newsletter.  She is also the author of Even Monkeys Fall Out of Trees, a collection of John Naka’s Collection of Japanese Proverbs.

John’s grandfather was a farmer in Japan. John’s father came to Colorado in 1903.  John’s mother and brother arrived here in 1913 and John was born in 1914.

In 1922, John’s grandmother died and then the whole family, except for his eldest brother, returned to Japan.  It was through John’s grandfather that he learned the art and appreciation of bonsai.

John and his grandfather also enjoyed many passing hours playing the Japanese card game called “iroha.”  It was through this game that John learned many proverbs that he embraced throughout his life.

Though it was difficult at eight years of age for John to tackle the Japanese language, within a year he proved to be an exceptional student and graduated with honors.  At this early age, he was already known for his beautiful drawings.

He later studied landscape design and how the elements of plants, stones, space and containers all interplayed to create a most unique bonsai.  His background in drawing and painting also helped John become the great artist that he proved to be.

In 1935, there was the imminent pressure of a Japanese military draft and so it was then decided to send John back to Colorado.  Nonetheless, by the age of 21, all the seeds for John’s future in bonsai were already planted.  He would later embrace all the facets of philosophy, knowledge of spatial relationships and art in general to create his own artistic sense of bonsai.

While in Colorado, he met and married Alice Toshiko Mizunaga in 1936. Though the family tried to continue in their farming endeavors, the 1944, 1945 and 1946 hailstorms convinced the family to give up agriculture.  Yet this failure laid the foundation for John’s future success in the art of bonsai.

In 1946, John and his family, moved to Los Angeles where he started a landscape business and also took up oil painting.  He met Mr. Sam Doi, a bonsai teacher and enthusiast at a local barber shop.

Mr. Doi had taught bonsai before WWII and during the internment period. Mr. Doi was affiliated

with the LA Bonsai Club.  By the 1950’s, John wanted to learn bonsai himself and so he and four other enthusiasts joined together to form what would later become the California Bonsai Society.

Noted members of this organization were Mr. Morihei Furuya, Mr. Frank Nagata, Mrs. Ai Okumura and Mr. Joe Yamashiro.

The purpose of this club was to teach ALL interested people in the art of bonsai, to promote the cultural heritage of Japan, and to enrich the American way of life. John added some more trees to a most-loved bonsai forest that he had created earlier; this forest was called Goshin.

John Naka left a profound legacy through his art of bonsai.  He was the ultimate artist in the world of bonsai and had a most unique teaching method.  For each bonsai, he would draw out a replica of what the future bonsai should finally look like; this would be the target for each piece of art.

He would also have a verbal discussion with each student as to the quality of material, selection of style and suggestions for cuttings.  This was, therefore, a type of lesson plan that included  a handout of instructions, accompanied by a drawing.

In addition, he would incorporate philosophy through the humorous medium of proverbs.  If a student made a mistake, for example, he would say, “Even monkeys fall out of trees.”

John became an international celebrity also. Through his art of bonsai and humor, he was appreciated throughout the world.  He taught bonsai in Australia, Spain, Italy, Mexico, South America, India and the Philippines.

He was also the author of Bonsai Techniques I in 1973 and Bonsai Techniques II in 1987, which were both translated into numerous languages.

In 1976, the Nippon Bonsai Association gave 50 bonsai masterpieces as a gift to the people of America, establishing The National Bonsai Collection at the United States National Arboretum in Washington D.C. which still exists today.

In 1982, the National Bonsai Foundation was founded.  This organization’s purpose was to promote bonsai in North America and help develop the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at The United States National Arboretum.

In 1984, John donated his most cherished Goshin bonsai; now with as many as eleven trees.  In 1988 there was a ground-breaking ceremony in Washington D.C. for the John Naka Pavilion which was attended by many of his students.

Through many generous donors such as Ms. Barbara Marshall, who is affiliated with Hallmark cards, the John Naka North American Pavilion has its opening day two years later.

Mr. Naka was featured at a convention at Disneyland where he demonstrated his bonsai to as many as 600 guests.  His bonsai were displayed at the LA Museum of Science and Industry, Huntington Library, and the LA Nisei Week celebration in Little Tokyo.

A Los Angeles-based bonsai club called Nanpu Kai was founded by John Naka and still exists today.

He was even a guest of the President of Spain where he slept in the presidential palace.

In 1985, he was the recipient of the Japanese government’s medal, the Fifth Class of the Order of the Rising Sun.  On March 5, 2004, he was honored by the National Heritage Japanese American National Museum’s receiving the award for Excellence and Innovation.

Nonetheless, he always remained a most humble and respected man and artist. John Naka passed away in 2004.  His wife Alice is presently living in the Los Angeles Keiro Care Facility.

After his death, Cheryl Manning and Jack Billet, through the National Bonsai Foundation, edited and published The John Naka Sketch Book. This book contains a wonderful selection of his drawings of bonsai that he had drawn for his students.

A question and answer session followed with questions as to where one could take lessons and Mr. Ragle informed the audience of a couple of class locations.  He also added that anyone could e-mail him for lesson locations.

Mr. Ragle also brought with him a few wonderful examples of his own bonsai. One bonsai was a tree with small figs on it that carried a history of over 20 years ago when he was taking lessons from John Naka himself.  Another bonsai was a blooming cherry blossom tree that Mr. Ragle announced, “had no business blooming now!”

It was a most amusing and informative evening learning about how bonsai started in America.  The audience left with a deeper and profound appreciation of the incredibly beautiful and delicate art of bonsai.

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