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

Compiled by Robert J. Baran



This Page Last Updated: November 5, 2017


THE LOCAL TEACHER, 1950 through 1967

THE LOCAL TEACHER, 1968 through 1969

THE NATIONAL TEACHER, 1970 through 1974









        The 2nd World Bonsai Convention of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF), "New Horizons," was held in Orlando, FL from May 27 to 31, 1993.  This was in conjunction with the BCI and ABS conventions. Saburō Katō, Yuji Yoshimura, and John were the headliners for the over seven hundred delegates who attended.
        "A Bonsai Jamboree" in Irvine, CA saw John as one of the headliners for the GSBF Convention Nov. 4 through 7.

        From November 3 to 6, 1994 a joint BCI/GSBF convention took place in San Jose, CA.  Guests of honor were John Naka, Toshio Saburomaru, and Yuji Yoshimura.  Enthusiasts attending from outside this country hailed from Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Brazil, the Netherlands, Italy, Australia, and Japan.  The GSBF was seeking to establish permanent masterpiece bonsai collections in two different areas of the state.  The Huntington Library and Gardens would have Collection-South.  34

        On March 25, 1995 John donated an olive bonsai to the Golden State Bonsai Federation Collection at the Huntington Botanic Garden.  This was the olive he had collected on July 4, 1958.
        An interview with John was printed in the September issue of the German periodical BONSAI KIND (#14).
        And a video was made at the National Arboretum when John led a team in repotting Goshin.

        From Aug. 30 through Sept. 3, 1996 John was the headliner for the Bonsai Societies of Florida 24th annual state convention held in Fort Lauderdale.  This convention was one of the most successful for the state in many years.  Having John was the highlight for the more than 250 attendees who came from all over the U.S., the Carribbean and South America.  Nine other artists and teachers were there, also, but it was the appearance of Naka-san that drew these people from so far away.  John performed a master workshop for ten of the lucky attendees who were fortunate enough and fast enough to sign up and take advantage of his expertise.  He did a special ten tree critique of the exhibit, as well as generously spending a multitude of hours signing his books. 35

        March 20-24, 1997 was the 40th Anniversary Show of the California Bonsai Society.  It featured a two part "retirement" demonstration by John Naka, ably assisted by the likes of Ben Oki, Mel Ikeda, Ernie Kuo, and similar star pupils of the grand master.  Roy Nagatoshi was the emcee.  Spry and entertaining at age 82, Naka-san could still deftly wield a medium-sized chain saw to sculpt a large California juniper, requesting various tools from his senior students in Japanese. 

Mel Ikeda and John Y. Naka, 1997
Mel Ikeda and John Naka.

Ben Oki, John Naka, Mel Ikeda, and Roy Nagatoshi
Ben Oki, John Naka, Mel Ikeda, and Roy Nagatoshi.   (Both 1997 photos by RJB)

        Notable bits of Naka-san's philosophy heard there include:

"Bonsai is not the result: that comes after.  Your enjoyment is what is important."
"It must have philosophy, botany, artistry, human quality behind it to be a bonsai."
"The bonsai is not you working on the tree; you have to have the tree work on you."

        This convention also included fifteen workshops, benefit drawings, vendors, banquet, and the Exhibition of Bonsai: Treasures of the Heart at the Huntington Botanical Gardens.  Here, the permanent Collection-South was officially inaugurated with a few dozen of the local artists' best compositions, some truly magnificent examples of this hobby.  Most if not all of these specimens owe some of their shaping to John's teachings.
        From May 21 through 24 John, Marybel Balendonck and Melba Tucker were at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.  They visited for the opening of the Bamboo Exhibit there and also to spruce up many of the trees in the collection.

Alan Walker photo: John Naka and Budi Sulistyo, 10/97
John Naka and Budi Sulistyo, 10/97.
(Photo courtesy of Alan Walker, 05/11/07)

        John was in Seoul, Korea as part of the 3rd World Bonsai Convention of the WBFF (Oct. 24 - 28).  This was the last WBC in which John attended/participated.

        From June 12 - 17, John was the guest of honor in Pisa, Italy of the European Bonsai and Suiseki Convention 1998.  This year Marc Noelanders' Bonsai Art book was published with a Foreword penned by John.

RJB with Goshin
RJB with Goshin in Washington, D.C., July 1998.

        In April, 1999 John went to the National Arboretum for three days to direct work done on Goshin.  He worked on a number of other trees as well.
       A few years ago John slightly shifted his creative gears.  When he was a young adult he had been painting in oils and styling bonsai.  As the latter came to the forefront, he realized he could not properly dedicate himself to both disciplines.  So, John put away his paints and continued that form of expression through his sketches made prior to designing dwarfed trees.  Now in his golden but still very active years, the master keeps his collection of bonsai in show shape and still teaches three classes, albeit not as often as he used to.  And he has started taking classes to resume his acquaintance with oil painting.  Lamenting and exaggerating his decline -- "I can't see, I can't hear, my wrist hurts," etc. -- he does acknowledge that his mouth is in perfect working order, so his ability to express himself and enlighten others with the flair of an entertainer has not been affected with the passage of time.
       The California juniper from Sand Canyon, with its classic oblique twisted half dead wood, half live wood form, and which was an example of John's artistry that helped him win the Arts Heritage Fellowship in 1992, would be found near the entrance to the Lakeside Park Bonsai Garden near downtown Oakland when the Golden State Bonsai Collection-North opened there on Nov. 6, 1999.
       A week later, during the GSBF convention (Nov. 11-14) in Anaheim, CA, John made a guest appearance for both a ten-tree workshop and a demonstration in which he created what is being called Goshin Two.  This time he did not do a sketch prior to the demonstration so that he wouldn't be locked into a design.  He would rather have a healthy forest planting than a dead copy of Goshin.  In addition to his Nanpukai students, John was joined by his grandson, Mike Naka, who has studied bonsai with his grandfather for several years.

        A Warren Hill color photograph of Goshin graced the Fall 2000 cover of the ABS Journal.   Of note are the fine guy wires rising from places along the outer edge of the soil up to some of the outer branches of the composition.

Alan Walker photo: John Naka, 03/22/02
John Naka, 03/22/02.
Alan Walker photo: Alice Naka, 03/22/02
Alice Naka, 03/22/02.
(Photos courtesy of Alan Walker, 05/11/07)

       John was honored at the Forty Fifth Anniversary Exhibition and Convention of the California Bonsai Society, March 21 through 24, 2002.  Per John's insistence, this month a new election of NABF officers resulted in John being elected "President Emeritus" of the North American group and Felix Laughlin as the new President of the group.   In turn, the WBFF Board then approved the appointment of Saburō Katō and John Naka as "Chairman Emeritus" and "Vice-Chairman Emeritus" of WBFF, respectively.
       In mid-May, John attended the dedication of the Katō Stroll Garden which was added to the Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.  Old friends that Saburō Katō and John Naka were, the two grandmasters of the art met one last time.  And while John privately complained of arthritis in his knees, his masterpiece Goshin was looking in very good health.
Alan Walker photo: John Naka & Ernie Kuo, 111102
John Naka and Ernie Kuo, 11/11/02.   (Photo courtesy of Alan Walker, 05/11/07)

       The premier issue of the North American Bonsai Federation Newsletter was released online on November 8.  As a tribute to his longtime efforts, the NABF Newsletter #1 was primarily dedicated to John Naka.  Best wishes and personal insights from friends and admirers in North America and around the world were presented.  Pictures of many of the key players during this sensei's first 88 years are therein presented.

        A photo of John, with a massive shari 'd juniper during a recent workshop at his home, graced the cover of the September/October 2003 issue of BCI's Bonsai magazine.  The accompanying story (pp. 20-22) has twelve photos by May McNey, Patrick Heath, and Peter Bloomer taken from the late 1970s through August 2003, John's 89th birthday. 

       On February 4, 2004, John was interviewed by Daniel Lee in California.  The videotaped short segments include #1, Philosophical beauty in art of bonsai; #2, Avoiding the Japanese military; #3, Bonsai and oil painting; #4, Writing books on bonsai; #5, You can't change the weather; and #6, Challenging Bonsai techniques.
       In the Spring, John donated his very first tree, a Montezuma Cypress, to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.

       On May 19, 2004, Grandmaster John Yoshio Naka died at Whittier Hospital Medical Center at 11:35 a.m.  He had been hospitalized with complications from shingles which apparently compromised his immune system and caused respiratory and renal failure, three months short of his 90th birthday.   His legacy shall live on.  A French site quickly put up a cartoon of Goshin with the translated caption:  "John Naka has gone.  A whisper of astonishment wanders in between the branches of Goshin." 39

        "Universally acknowledged as the most famous and most popular bonsai artist in history, Naka-san touched the lives of every one of us, whether we met him or not.  John Naka was the sort of person who connected well with people, whether they were the leaders or the first time visitor.  John had a charismatic penchant for seeming to remember everyone’s name.  And he would remember details of the trees you had in workshops that even you probably didn't recall.  John is remembered by many for his awesome bonsai talent and knowledge, but he had tremendous political skills, too.  He had a rather unique ability to tolerate any level of skill while striving for perfection.  A great leader and a great friend, John is the stuff of legend."

        "His enthusiasm for life and for bonsai was boundless, and his sense of humor was never more spontaneous than when he told a story for the hundredth time and burst out laughing every time.  He was generous of spirit and with his time, and he had no patience for pettiness or pessimism.  Chief among his attributes was humility; he never referred to himself as a 'master,' but as a 'student.'  He considered the trees to be the teachers."

        A tribute article consisting of 32 reminiscences, 1 color and 10 b&w photos was published in pp. 6-10 of the July/August/September issue of BCI's Bonsai magazine.  The cover of issue No. 93 of Bonsai Today had a picture of Goshin on it and there were photos of a couple of John's other trees inside. 

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