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

Compiled by Robert J. Baran



This Page Last Updated: October 14, 2017


THE LOCAL TEACHER, 1950 through 1967

THE LOCAL TEACHER, 1968 through 1969

THE NATIONAL TEACHER, 1970 through 1974









        The January/February/March 2005 issue of BCI's Bonsai contained seven tribute articles and a timeline between pages 8 and 23, plus with 19 color and 7 b&w photos, a color cartoon, and 3 line drawings.

        In May, the bonsai world gathered at the John Y. Naka Pavilion of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C. as part of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation's Convention to commemorate John's many contributions to bonsai.  An impressive film was shown about Saburo Kato and the late John Y. Naka, paying tribute to these two men for their historic work in founding the WBFF, which is dedicated to promoting peace through bonsai.  The session concluded with the ceremonial igniting of the Candle of Peace by Saburo Kato.  After a review of the exhibits of trees, scrolls, stones and pots by Mr. Kato and Mike Naka, representing the Naka family, the convention program got underway with some 960 registered participants.
        To give an indication of John's world-wide reknown and appreciation, the following is an excerpt from an Indian report about the convention.  The section is about John's student, Roy Nagatoshi:

He refined a bonsai of Shempaki [sic] Juniper side-grafted on a California Juniper.
His devotion to his teacher (guru) and mentor, the great John Naka was the part
that really touched me.  In ancient Indian culture, the Guru is the sum total of the trinity
-- the creator Lord Brahma, the preserver Lord Vishnu and destroyer Lord Shiva --
the father and mother put together.  Naka Sein [sic], from what I have know about
him, was a true Guru.  The kind we only get to read about in the old stories of India.
Roy paid obeisance to his guru Naka and invited his grandson Michael Naka to the
stage and said he would guide him in shaping the tree through his grandson's eyes.[sic]
It was his ultimate reverence to the guru.  He worked on the tree like a man possessed
and the result was a masterpiece." 40

        The first version of a Wikipedia article for John Naka was published in late March 2006.

        The Facebook group John Naka Bonsaï, Fans & Bonsaïka was established in March 2009.

        On June 28, 2009, a tribute video was screened at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC, the largest Asian American cultural center in the U.S.) 29th anniversary celebration and award dinner in Los Angeles.  A Celebration of Heroes records those to whom the 2009 Pacific Pioneer Award was bestowed: community photographer Archie Miyatake, Nihon Buyo instructor Madam Kansuma Fujima, Urasenke tea ceremony instructor, Sosei Matsumoto, taiko performer Seiichi Tanaka, and bonsai master John Yoshio Naka (posthumously -- see the 3:35 mark, with some commentary by Mel Ikeda).

        Alice Toshiko Mizunaga Naka died on Aug. 1, 2011, per Cheryl Manning in the National Bonsai Foundation's Fall/Winter 2011 newsletter.

        A Facebook fan page was started Sept. 8, 2012.

        For John's centennial birthday celebration in 2014, a number of sources have put together reviews.  These include this slide show on the North American Bonsai Federation's website about the five trees of John's in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.  This recent wonderful video by Cheryl Manning especially touches upon John's last few years.  And the National Museum hosted an event on John's brthday featuring videos and photos of Naka at work, remarks by the Museum's assistant curator Aarin Packard, a display of Naka's bonsai from the Museum's permanent collection, and birthday cake.  Starting at 2 pm, the celebration was free and open to the public.  See also this video about John Naka (starting at the 5:52 mark) and Saburo Kato which was produced by the World Bonsai Friendship Federation and The Japanese American National Museum a few years earlier.

        On May 2, 2014 John became the first inductee into the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum's Bonsai Hall of Fame. 41

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       At the annual National Bonsai Foundation board meeting in 2000, the board approved a suggestion to have copies of John Naka's drawings collected for the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.  Over the years, John had drawn hundreds of these "future images" of bonsai in training, and many of his students kept them as prized possessions.
      (John often saw something unusual for a tree, then related it to something profound (or sometimes engagingly witty) for the viewer.  Frankly, this insight into "connections" was as important an aspect to John as his actual design.)
       By assembling these drawings in one place, any number of options present themselves including possible publication of material that would be a rich resource for bonsai design.  At the very least, having the drawings at the Museum would establish a great collection for researchers.
       To accomplish the task, board director Jack Billet volunteered to collect data by mail.  Jack asked for contributors to make photocopies of their original drawings sized to fit on a standard size sheet of typing paper (8-1/2" x 11"), so that the drawings could be maintained in a relatively generous size but not too large as to be unwieldy.
       For reference purposes, Jack proposed that the original owner of the drawing, and when and where drawn, be identified.  Identifying the bonsai material by genus, species, and cultivar would also help categorize the drawings.  For "place," both the bonsai event and the city would be identified.  If there was an anecdote contributors wished to share regarding the drawing, something John might have said (profound or engagingly witty) that he thought connected with the actual design, it was requested that it be included also.  Finally, a note that either confirmed or denied permission for the Museum to publish (either in print or in Internet form) a copy of the drawing provided was required.

       Thus, an accompanying sheet might read:


SPECIES, et al:


in print or internet format:

John Doe
Golden State Convention
workshop; Fresno, California,

Dwarf Black Spruce -- Picea
abies 'Pumila Nigra'

John said not to be so concerned about the amount cut-off.  "It'll grow more."

( John Doe signature ), 00/00/2000


      And so, originally scheduled for release in the year 2002 was a new publication by the National Bonsai Foundation, The Drawings of John Naka edited by Jack Billet and Cheryl Manning.

John Naka's Sketchbook

        Over 600 sketches were received from more than 250 people around the world.  This book of over eighty sketches was finally issued, as John Naka's Sketchbook, in conjunction with the WBFF Convention in May, 2005. 42

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        In January 2007, the Texas State Bonsai Exhibit, Inc. announced a raffle of a life-size bronze bust of John.  Sculpted by the internationally proclaimed professional artist Donna Dobberfuhl (who is also a member of the group), this unique object d'art was raffled on May 19, 2007.  Proceeds benefited the upcoming permanent world-class Texas State Bonsai Exhibit in Austin, Texas.  The original molt of this now famous bust is at Donna's atelier.  A different bronze of John (without glasses) on a stone base by Bonnie Kobert is at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C. 43

Donna Dobberfuhl and John Naka bronze
Sculptor Donna Dobberfuhl with her bronze bust of John Naka, entitled Sensei

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       The above biography and the linked ones on this site were initially from the unpublished notes for a comprehensive history of our art, Magical Miniature Landscapes by Robert J. Baran.  Much of this material is being incorporated elsewhere on this web site.  Some of the Naka material, without the below bibliography, was included in Designing Dwarfs in the Desert, up through the first 35 years of the Phoenix Bonsai Society (November 1997, Pyramid Dancer Publications).   John Naka had taught in Phoenix before our club was officially formed, and continued to come over to teach us and our teachers for many years.
       We are very much aware that John Naka had been a teacher to at least two generations of bonsai enthusiasts and artists worldwide.  The above biography is definitely not intended to be the final look at this great man's life.  On the contrary, let this be the first seed planted for a whole forest of Web-available material on him.

      Another dimension to our teacher's life and work was told with the "John Naka Tribute" in the NABF Newsletter #1 (

      See also the variety of articles about John on Cheryl Manning's site (

      And "A Tribute to John Yoshio Naka" at the Art of Bonsai Project (

      An illustrated chronology of Goshin can be found in this BonsaiEmpire blog,

      Additional background on the other teachers and organizations mentioned above will be linked as it is discovered and reviewed.  Please e-mail with additional events, anecdotes, graphics, or other Web sites concerning John.  Thank you very much.

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