Bonsai: John Naka of Los Angeles planted seeds worldwide

Bonsai John Naka

John Y. Naka contributed for spreading bonsai worldwide. (Photo courtesy of Japanese American National Museum)

Cultural News, 2006 June Issue

The measure of John Yoshio Naka’s importance to the Japanese cultural art of bonsai can be seen in the almost endless list of tributes and honors he has received. Of greatest significance, the North American Pavilion at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C. bears his name.

Naka is one of the few individuals to have his name on a government structure while still living, and the National Bonsai Foundation declared him the “Patron Saint of Bonsai.”

Naka was a founding member of the Southern California Bonsai Club, one of the first bonsai organizations in post-war America; wrote two definitive texts on fundamental techniques which have been translated into languages such as Italian, Spanish, German and French; and traveled to two-thirds of the states and 20 countries to share his love of bonsai.

Awarded the Fifth Class Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan in 1985, the highest honor conveyed on a non-citizen, Naka was the recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992.

Yet his education in the art of miniature trees began humbly. Born in Fort Lupton, Colorado, in 1914, young John moved to Japan when he was eight and was introduced to bonsai by his grandfather.

Returning to work on his brother’s farm in Colorado in 1935, Naka met Alice Mizunaga and married her soon after. When World War II ended, the Naka family moved to Los Angeles, where Naka met other bonsai enthusiasts, who formed the club that became the California Bonsai Society.

Naka began giving classes in English, which opened the door to non-Japanese-speaking individuals who were interested in bonsai. Because he believed the culture of bonsai was a method to create friendships between all peoples, Naka worked to have the club’s meetings conducted in English and traveled throughout California to give lectures to those expressing an interest. This openness and willingness to travel eventually would take Naka all over North America, Europe, Australia, South Africa and South America.

The proliferation of bonsai clubs in the 1970s and 1980s included the development of the Golden State Bonsai Federation, the American Bonsai Society, the Bonsai Clubs Association which became the Bonsai Clubs International, and the National Bonsai Foundation, all owing something to John Naka.

When international events were organized in faraway places like Germany, South Africa and the Philippines, Naka was often the special guest artist and lecturer. The first World Bonsai Convention was organized in Omiya, Japan, in 1989 under the theme, “World Peace Through Bonsai.” The convention included the first meeting of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation with Naka elected as Vice Chairman of the Board.

In 1990, the John Y. Naka Pavilion was dedicated to house the National Collection of North American Bonsai through a collaboration between the National Bonsai Foundation and the U.S. National Arboretum. The purpose was to present bonsai as a fine art, and at the heart of the National Bonsai Collection is Naka’s masterpiece, Goshin (a protector of the spirit), a juniper forest comprised of 11 trees, each representing one of his grandchildren.

“What I like about bonsai,” Naka once observed, “is that it has a beginning but no end. A bud today becomes a branch tomorrow. It is like searching for the rainbow’s end; the farther it is pursued, the farther away it is. There are no borders in bonsai. The dove of peace flies to palace as to humble house, to young as to old, to rich and poor. So does the spirit of bonsai.” So does the spirit of John Naka.

John Naka was recognized as the Japanese American National Museum’s inaugural Cultural Ambassador in February 2004. He passed away in May 2004.

(Source: Japanese American National Museum)