Sunday, May 14, 2017

Celebrating Asian & Pacific Island Heritage Month: the art of bonsai by one of its masters

John Yoshio Naka, Bonsai Techniques I (Los Angeles: Bonsai Institute of California, 1976; 9th printing, 1989). ISBN 0-430- 422-37-1. Leatherette softcover, red with gilt titling; 269 pp. With index; very good condition. 8” x 10.5”. Autographed by Naka over his seal on front end page. HBB price $100 obo.

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Born of immigrant parents in Colorado in 1914, Naka returned to Japan after his grandmother died in 1922. There his grandfather introduced him to bonsai, the ancient art of cultivating miniaturized trees in natural settings. At 21 he returned to Colorado; after a decade working on his brother’s farm, he and his wife grew weary of the harsh winters and moved to Whittier, a Los Angeles suburb.

Running a landscaping business, Nako felt the urge to teach, and with four friends, started the California Bonsai Society in 1950. He was its president until 1982. At a time when bonsai classes were few and taught in Japanese, Naka opened his garden to anyone. He published widely and lectured even more so, with one exception. He refused to teach in Japan. That, he said, “would be like preaching to Buddha.”

Despite his difference, Naka became revered as one of the masters of bonsai in the 20thC world- even in Japan, where he was honored by the Emperor.

His masterpiece is a grouping of eleven junipers, pictured above: one for each of his grandchildren. He titled it Goshin (protector) and it lives in the Naka Bonsai Pavilion at the US National Arboretum in Washington. While he insisted asking the age of his works was like quizzing a woman about her age, he let slip that cultivating Gishin had taken him 55 years.

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Naka kept revising his two volumes of bonsai techniques up to his death at 89. It is the distillation of a life devoted to a most wondrous art.


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