(Aug. 16, 1914 - May 19, 2004)

Compiled by Robert J. Baran



This Page Last Updated: October 16, 2010


THE LOCAL TEACHER, 1950 through 1967

THE LOCAL TEACHER, 1968 through 1969

THE NATIONAL TEACHER, 1970 through 1974









Bonsai Techniques
Bonsai Techniques II

        John's Bonsai Techniques II was published in 1982.  (This one and the first would see translation into four other languages by the end of the decade.)  The 442 pages and 1,005 b&w photos and line drawings made this required reading in the practice of the art of bonsai.  Most of the earlier books in English leaned more towards basic horticultural knowledge and techniques for keeping the trees alive.  In time, this material shifted towards explaining the aesthetics involved in styling and shaping.   21

Techniques du bonsaï 1
Bonsai-Technik 1
Techniche Bonsai 1
Técnicas Del Bonsái
Techniques du bonsaï 2
Bonsai-Technik 2
Techniche Bonsai 1
Técnicas Del Bonsái II

        In April, the California Bonsai Society, Inc. and California Museum of Science and Industry Silver Anniversary Exhibition was held.
        The following month John demonstrated before the Pennsylvania Bonsai Society what could be done with less than perfect material.  Four not-for-sale flawed plants were gotten at the Rosade Bonsai Studio's back spaces and turned into dramatic bunjin-style specimens.
        John was one of the featured teachers at the ABS Symposium in College Park, MD (June 24 - 26), and then July 7 through 11 for BCI in Cleveland.
        During his second trip to South Africa, John also demonstrated in the cities of Durban and East London. 

        For the twentieth anniversary symposium of the Bonsai Society of Greater New York in April 1983, Yuji Yoshimura and John Naka were the principal lecturer/demonstrators.  They then headlined July 6 through 10 for the BCI Convention in Orlando, FL 
        John also did a thirty-one tree Alberta spruce forest lecture/demonstration in June.  The trees ranged from 1 to 22" tall with 1/32" to 1-1/2" trunk diameters respectively arranged as a receding wedge in a 16 x 22" oval tray that was two inches deep.

Alan Walker photo: John Naka, Yuji Yoshimura, Bill Valavanis, Chase Rosade, Orlando, 070983.
John Naka, Yuji Yoshimura, Bill Valavanis, and Chase Rosade in Orlando, FL, 07/09/83.
(Photo courtesy of Alan Walker, 05/11/07)

        And Naka-san was one of four leading teachers who participated in a series of Master's Design articles for International Bonsai magazine.  Each artist was allowed to discuss his own particular design for the given style.  This year's style was Informal Upright, 1984 would have the Cascade, 1985 would be Slanting, and 1986 would see the Formal Upright.  Each artist was allocated 100 points to divide among the designated elements pertinent to his bonsai design, and each supplied sketches which were then rendered into a standardized format.  23

        After displaying it at the Philadelphia Flower Show March 10 to 17 to some quarter million people, John presented his masterpiece juniper forest Goshin to the National Bonsai Collection in Washington, D.C. in March, 1984.  The composition was the first resident of the new American Bonsai Pavilion and the largest bonsai at the National Arboretum.  It was slightly taller than the 49" high, single trunk Japanese red pine ( Pinus densiflora ) donated by the Imperial Household in 1976.  At the reception honoring John, Goshin was dramatically displayed against a golden screen, and was the only bonsai in the room. 
        On April 28-29, the Second European International Bonsai Symposium was held in Mannheim.  Nineteen countries and thirty-three bonsai clubs in Germany were represented.  Symposium registration was six hundred persons.  Hundreds of bonsai -- many very old, and all refined and sparkling with beauty -- were on display and for sale.  John Naka was the guest artist, and he demonstrated by cutting down three 8-foot tall trees to do an eighteen-inch planting with jin.  A second planting was in the bunjin-style.  Four television monitors relayed the demonstration, which was also conveyed by a German interpreter.  John then went on to England and Scotland.
        British Columbia, Canada hosted John in June.
        During the joint BCI/ABS Convention in Seattle, WA, some 480 attendees were taught by the likes of John, Shinji Ogasawara, Haruo Kaneshiro, and ten others.  "Gems of the Pacific Rim -- Bonsai and the Emerald City" was held from July 4 through 8.
        A b&w photo of Goshin was on the cover of the Summer issue of ABS's Bonsai Journal.
        A large Dwarf Japanese garden juniper was pruned and wired into the literati cascade style by John on September 8-9 at the International Bonsai Arboretum's symposium in Rochester, New York.
        In October, the First International South African Bonsai Convention in Johannesburg included a bonsai and suiseki exhibition, and demonstrations by John and Japan's Shigeo Katō.  The theme was "Bonsai -- Beauty and Harmony."  John had been in South Africa since late September and again included field trips to collect beautiful viewing stones which he brought back to his home in southern California. 

         In 1985 John Naka came to the Philippines with a tour group of mainly Americans.  He held a one-day lecture which included the restyling of a few trees.  The event is considered the turning point for bonsai in that country.  Naka was the first sensei to speak on the subject there and the members of the Philippine Bonsai Society, Inc. (formally organized in 1975) attended the lecture in full force.  His advocacy for "the rules" was easily accepted.  After that visit, his second book became available and it became the bonsai bible there, too.  Subsequently, nearly every tree was restyled and judged in shows in accordance with the "the rules."
        The first color cover of the American Bonsai Society's Bonsai Journal was a photograph of John's California Juniper Tora.  (Pictures of the tree had by this time also appeared in the Time-Life Book Miniatures and Bonsai (1979) and two publications of the Japan Bonsai Association.)  The first in a series of "Ask the Masters" interviews also was in that issue and, of course, was with John, who by this time is listed as having travelled to 34 states and 18 foreign countries. 
         A full page b&w display ad for Green King, "The new bonsai fertilizer from Japan," made its deput in International Bonsai, 1985/No. 3, page 28.  A picture of John with the signed testimonial "I am using Green King fertilizer on my bonsai" is prominently shown on the right side of the ad which would appear in four successive issues.
        On November 3, Emperor Hirohito of Japan bestowed upon John the most prestigious award for a non-Japanese citizen, The Fifth Class of the Order of the Rising Sun.  Five days later John and England's Dan Barton headlined in Palm Springs,CA for the GSBF Convention.

        A color photograph of Goshin graced the May/June 1986 cover of BCI's Bonsai.
        A joint BCI-ABS convention was held July 9 through 13 in Washington, D.C.  There were over 500 attendees from twelve countries celebrating the tenth anniversary of the National Bonsai Collection.  Headliners included John Naka (California juniper)  and Hawaii's Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro (Chinese banyan).
         A letter dated July 29 was sent from the White House to John.  "Dear Mr. Naka: Congratulations on being honored by the International Bonsai Congress.  You have made an extraordinary contribution toward the understanding and appreciation of the beauty and significance of the Japanese culture through Bonsai, while utilizing native American materials.  Your unique talents have brought many honors and I am delighted to see this most recent recongition of your achievements.  Nancy joins me in sending our best wishes for continued success.  Sincerely, (signed) Ronald Reagan."
        The year also saw John and Japan's Shinji Ogasawara make a demonstration tour of Barcelona and Valencia, Spain .  John visited Switzerland on behalf of Pius Notter, president of the 2,000-member strong Swiss Bonsai Club and demonstrated on a collected mountain pine.  And John visited his old school in Kurume, Japan, donating copies of his two books to his instructor and principal who were still living there.
       Volume 2 of a new series of Masters Bonsai Techniques videos featured John carving and refining the dead wood on trunks and branches.  The high quality 40 minute tape was produced in Japan, has English narration, and is available through the Internalional Bonsai Arboretum in New York.  (On September 6-7, John demonstrated the informal upright design using a Japanese black pine before 200 registrants at the Arboretum's symposium.)

        John headlined for the ABS Symposium in Nashville, TN June 25 - 27, 1987, and then was one of the international teachers June 30 - July 4 at the BCI Convention in Minneapolis,/St. Paul, MN.
        Nina S. Ragle's compilation of 287 proverbs presented in both Japanese and English from John Naka, Even Monkeys Fall Out of Trees, was published.  The title refers to the little recognized fact that, yes, even bonsai masters can make a mistake.  Nine line drawings by John and sixteen by Jamie Lee Sugarman illustrate this book covering the philosophy behind many of the techniques.


even monkeys fall out of trees

        The GSBF Convention in Anaheim from Nov. 5 through 8 was the site of Masahiko Kimura's first appearance outside of Japan.  Knicknamed the "The Magical Technician"   Kimura accomplishes fantastic and sometimes unbelievable bonsai designs with the use of power tools.  For his demonstrations he used two different junipers.  During these and his workshop for ten students, Kimura assisted each student in his quiet, empathetic manner while John Naka translated (as he often did for major bonsai events featuring Japanese masters). 28
        John was featured in an episode of the PBS series "The Victory Garden" which was aired on November 28.

        John Naka conducted a demonstration and workshop on April 23 and 24, 1988 for the fifth annual Mid-Atlantic Bonsai Festival held in Willow Grove, PA, before a gathering of a dozen clubs.
        Volume 1 of the Masterworks of Bonsai © video tape series became available.  Twenty-three magnificent trees from John's collection were showcased on this educational and entertaining broadcast quality program.
        July 6 through 10 saw John as one of the featured artists at the ABS Symposium in Montréal.  Three days later John was with Yuji Yoshimura at the BCI Convention in San Antonio, TX where John received the BCI Meritorious Service Award for service to bonsai above and beyond the normal duty.
        From Oct. 20 through 23, John and Ben Oki were the headliners at the 16th Annual Bonsai Societies of Florida Convention in Miami Beach.  And four days later John taught at the GSBF Convention in Santa Rosa, CA.
        This year John demonstrated a second time in Switzerland, again styling a collected mountain pine for Pius Notter
        And the Blue atlas cedar which John had started forty years earlier received the name of Ginpo ("Silver phoenix).  At thirty-seven inches tall and in a Tokoname ware container, the tree would be donated in 1990 to the National Collection in Washington, D.C.).

        The first World Bonsai Convention was held in Omiya, Japan -- the center of the world's bonsai art for most of this century -- between April 6 and 9, 1989.  Its theme was "World Peace Through Bonsai."  Almost thirteen hundred enthusiasts from twenty-eight countries gathered for the event at which three dozen Japanese masters gave lectures and demonstrations.  John was also a headline demonstrator.
        The program included an exhibition of twenty-two representative trees from the designated group of three hundred which are known as Important Bonsai Masterpieces and are maintained by the Japanese government as part of the Imperial household.  These bonsai represent the highest level of artistic, scientific and historical value and are usually only on display inside the Palace grounds -- not often seen by the general public.  The trees are displayed with dignity and grace in valuable antique bonsai containers.  They are the work of generations of artists and are truly a nationa cultural heritage.
        The formal inaugural meeting of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) was also held now.  In planning since 1980, the WBFF was organized as an international non-profit organization to be governed by nine directors -- John Naka was elected Vice Chairman of the Board in 1987 -- representing nine world bonsai regional federations.  Its purpose is to encourage a deep friendship and mutual understanding through the peaceful shared art of bonsai. 
       John wrote the Foreword both in the inaugural issue of Bonsai Today magazine (May-June 1989, pg. 4) and to the English translation of Nippon Bonsai Association's Classic Bonsai of Japan   (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International).
         Also in 1989, one of John's trees was transferred to the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection in Federal Way, Washington state.  The Weyerhaeuser Company opened the collection in the autumn.  This particular tree was a 29 inch tall Oriental sweetgum ( Liquidamber orientalis ), a "textbook perfect" -- of course -- formal upright broom style in training since 1965.  The unusual Bizenware container John selected for this bonsai was estimated to be over a century old.  Its nearly black color contrasts delightfully with the golden oranges of the masterpiece's fall leaves.  The same issue of International Bonsai which included the sweetgum's story had a cover photograph of a California juniper cascade in a drum-shaped Tokoname container.  John had collected the tree in 1978 and had invested many hours of precision carving to create and refine both the deadwood and the living tissue of the trunk.

        At the 1990 ABS Symposium in Columbus, OH, John was the lead artist (June 27 - July 1).  Three days later for the BCI convention in Honolulu, Japanese grand master Saburō Katō was the headliner with Shinji Ogasawara and John.
        On October 1, almost two years after its groundbreaking the John Y. Naka Pavilion was dedicated, as was the National Collection of North American Bonsai (NCNAB) which would be housed in that Pavilion.  This was a milestone in a collaborative effort by the National Bonsai Foundation and the U.S. National Arboretum to present bonsai to the public as a fine art.  The Japanese Bonsai and Chinese Penjing Collections by this time were the most popular displays at the Arboretum.
        Approximately one thousand people representing bonsai organizations throughout the United States and Japan gathered for the dedication with officials from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which operates the Arboretum.  Saburō Katō (Chairman of the World Bonsai Friendship Foundation and Representative Director of the Nippon Bonsai Association) presented the deed of the Naka Pavilion and the deed of the NCNAB to John.  After a moving speech in which he commented how his heart was full on this day and telling the audience that his group planting Goshin represented his grandchildren -- who were, in fact, with him that day -- John presented both deeds to the U.S.D.A. 
        The National Bonsai Foundation was organized as a non-profit corporation in Washington, D.C.  John Naka, Yuji Yoshimura, and former Arboretum Director Dr. John L. Creech were elected as honorary advisors to the Foundation.
       The initial trees included the Blue cedar ( Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca') from John and a Japanese grey bark elm ( Zelkova serrata ) from Yuji Yoshimura, as well as fine specimens by several of their students who were now respected teachers in their own right.
        The Naka Pavilion is the second building of the Museum.  It houses the NCNAB, the curator's office, and the Harry Hirao Reception Center, named after one of John's students, the respected California bonsai and suiseki artist and collector.  Connected to the Naka Pavilion is the Yoshimura Center housing a lecture and workshop room named after the "Father of Popular Bonsai in the Non-Oriental World."
        In his congratulatory speech, Fredric Ballard, president of the NBF, conferred upon John the name "Patron Saint of Bonsai."  While experiencing achievements which would fill fifty computer printout pages, John Naka has remained a fun loving, unassuming person, ever ready to come forth with a witticism and a chuckle.  His pupils' favorite saying of his is "Leave Room For The Birds To Fly Through" the branches of your bonsai.
        And although he had made many trips to Japan, that country was still the one place in which this international teacher refused to hold classes.  "They want me to teach, and I tell them it's like trying to preach to Buddha."
        (An excellent informal upright thick-ropelike-trunked blooming pomegranate ( Punica granatum ) collected from an old garden in 1963 and trained by Alice T. Naka would subsequently also be donated to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.)
         In November, John and Alice moved from Los Angeles to the suburb of Whittier, CA.  Many of his students assisted in the plant and equipment transfer.  John planned to at least partially retire from most of his bonsai activities. 

Naka Sketch Automobile Windshield Sunscreen

        One of John's sketches of a pine tree was printed on an automotive windshield sunscreen made of cardboard and sold by the Tanpopo (CA) Bonsai Club for the National Bonsai Foundation.

        On February 21, 1991, in the city of Cali, Columbia the Latin-American Bonsai Federation (LABF) was formally organized.  The meeting coincided with the celebration of "Cali-Bonsai-10 Years."   Among the impressive co-signers of the Constitutive Act was WBFF Vice President, John Yoshio Naka.
        The International Bonsai Congress in Birmingham, England ran from July 26 to 28.  There were over 600 participants from twenty-two countries.  Nine teachers from four nations were among the lecturers and demonstrators at the event.  John Naka designed an oversized Japanese black pine.  This convention also included a bonsai exhibition of the finest trees from the thirty participating British clubs. A European tour after the Convention included stops to nurseries in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland.
        Oct. 31 through Nov. 3 saw John in San Diego, CA as part of the GSBF "Bonsai Fiesta" Convention.
        And John penned the Foreword for The Chinese art of bonsai & potted landscapes by Yinchun Shen, Beulah Kwok Sung, and C. B. Sung.

        The IBC'92 Convention, "Magic in Memphis," took place from May 21 to 25 in Memphis, TN with Masahiko Kimura and John Naka as the guest artists.  The aforementioned LABF held its first formal meeting here. 32
        And in 1992 John was chosen as one of thirteen honorees to receive a National Heritage Fellowship.  A one-time grant of $5,000 is awarded to each of the exemplary master folk artists and artisans who have been nominated by their peers.  The nomination criteria are authenticity, excellence and significance within a particular artistic tradition.  Those nominated must be actively participating in their art form, have a record of on-going artistic accomplishment, and be worthy of national recognition. 
        John became the first bonsai artist to receive this prestigious award.  Discussions among folklorists and arts curators around the table then centered on whether or not bonsai cultivation should be considered an art form at all.  As is true also for tea ceremony, one of the pinnacles of Japanese artistic expression, the training of miniature trees is not widely understood by cultural outsiders.  A meditative art, usually practiced in solitude, bonsai cultivation is an intensely personal practice requiring no audience.  The cultural importance and clear artistry of John won over the panelists that day.  No one could deny that the transformation of nature into an object of beauty was not artful.  At the time he received his Fellowship, John said, "It has a beginning but no end.  A bud today becomes a branch tomorrow."

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