(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








THE LOCAL TEACHER, 1968 through 1969

        The 11th annual Exhibition of the California Bonsai Society attracted fifty-eight thousand people in 1968.
        The Summer issue of the American Bonsai Society's Bonsai Journal featured a sepia cover photograph by John of a California juniper ( J. californica Carr.) as styled by Frank Nagata. 
        The following year, b&w photographs by John of "a now famous group planting of needle juniper" [sic] graced the both the cover of the February issue of Bonsai Magazine ( Bonsai Clubs International ) and the Spring issue of Bonsai Journal.  John also served as a consultant for the script of the "Mr. Ozaki's Tree" episode of "Family Affair" CBS-TV series, a Don Fedderson Production.  (The show would air Jan. 22, 1970).

       "Bonsai West 1969" was the fifth convention of the Bonsai Clubs Association (which had been renamed Bonsai Clubs International (BCI) the previous year), again staged at the Golden Gate Park Hall of Flowers in San Francisco.  The two-day event in February included a morning lecture-demonstration by local teacher Toshio Saburomaru and one in the afternoon by John Naka in his first appearance away from Southern California.
        A forerunner of the widely expanded productions that convention-goers have come to expect today, "Bonsai West" was to be the last combined effort of the Northern California clubs and BCI.  After its conclusion, the membership divided.  BCI moved East, developing into the strong international organization it is today.  [The more locally oriented Bay Area clubs would go on to be strong components in the 1978 founding of the Golden State Bonsai Federation (GSBF), another success story.  Both alliances continued their mutual basic objectives of promoting education and the art of bonsai for all, while attaining separate geographic goals.]
       In June, John conducted a workshop with demonstration for the Cincinnati Bonsai Society with some members of the Indianapolis club in attendance.

THE NATIONAL TEACHER, 1970 through 1974

      From April 10 through 12, 1970, the American Bonsai Society (ABS) Symposium was held in Dallas, TX and speaker John Naka was so well-received that he was invited to next year's event in July in Norfolk, VA.  A photo-article "Magic With Naka" in the Spring 1970 issue of the Bonsai Journal preserved the step-by-step transformation of a nursery-grown juniper; the Fall 1971 issue had both a cover photograph and illustrated story of "The Forest That Grew in Norfolk."  Nine large nursery-grown junipers were transformed in the latter demonstration.

        In 1971 (and again in 1973), John gave lecture-demonstrations on Channel 23 "Garden Master" TV show.  He was a guest of Pensacola, Florida botanist, Dr. William Benette. 14
        And this year saw the first of the tours John Naka conducted to that land.  (Others would be made in 1973, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1985 and 1992).  Upon returning from these trips, John would immediately try out a new technique or two in front of his students at previously scheduled workshops.  The new Japanese techniques would then be disseminated further.  Other teachers returning from travels similarly shared their knowledge and continue to develop this living artform.
        Beginning with the February issue, BCI's Bonsai Magazine included for a while haiku or senryu penned by John and translated into English by Davina Kosh.  The 5-7-5 syllable forms of Japanese verse -- haiku traditionally must have a seasonal word and limit itself to real things registered by the senses, while senryu includes intangibles such as a sense of humor, feelings and thoughts directly -- have been penned by John while he continues to study with a recognized Teacher of the forms.  John regularly enters his poetry for contests in the Los Angeles Area Japanese publication.  A line drawing by Naka-san accompanied each piece in Bonsai Magazine.

        Early in 1972, John gave a special free demonstation and lecture for the New York club, which was then followed by a workshop to put into practice those things learned.  For the Boston area Northeast club, John picked out 10 different plants for which each member was given a sketch of John's to go by in working up that style.  One photographer was retained to record the Naka demonstration; and others were not permitted so as to reduce the interference with John and with the members' view.  Slides and colored prints were made available to all afterward.  John also conducted workshops for the Pennsylvania club in the Philadelphia area.
        "John always came to Florida during the winter; one of his first visits was in March 1972.  It was a chilly night at Fairchild Tropical Gardens, where, in an unheated building, the Bonsai Club of Miami had arranged for a Miami Herald photographer to take slides of John's demonstration.  Flood lights and all the other rigging were set up for the big show.  I was nervous since I had been selected to find a suitable tree for John to work on.  In the middle of the floor in its pot, was a jaboticaba, well over six feet tall, a good 12 inches taller than John!  John worked and posed for the photographer for over three hours -- he did a wonderful show.  After all the clapping and accolades were quieted down, John said, 'I'd like to tell you something.  I learned a new Japanese cuss word tonight -- JABOTICABA!'  It was quite an evening.  As we were leaving for the night, John turned to me and said, 'Mayna, I think you better put that tree in a larger pot.'  Unknown to him, in Florida where bonsai was in its fledgling state, we had it in the largest pot available!  The tree lived with me for many years and developed nicely.  I gave it to Jim Smith in Vero Beach several years ago and he refined it and exhibited it at BSF 2001 in Orlando.  It looked great!  It just goes to show you that, although the tree was selected by a novice, it was styled by a master and that gave it the groundwork to become a masterpiece.  Mayna Hutchinson (Miami, Florida)"
        From May 14 to 28, the California Bonsai Society held its 15th Annual Exhibition.  This was in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of the Museum of Science and Technology which sponsors the event.  There was a special feature showing of loaned bonsai from the Japanese Imperial Household.
        In conjunction with the show, on May 20 the County of Los Angeles awarded John a commendation "for his outstanding contributions to the Japanese-American friendship, by providing the people of Los Angeles and the Nation with the ability to understand and appreciate the beauty and significance of Bonsai Culture."

        For the second consecutive year a joint BCI-ABS convention was held, this time in July 1973 in Atlanta, GA.  The theme was "Growing Together."  John Naka was one of the guest demonstrators for the 503 delegates -- who gave him a standing ovation after Khan Komai's introduction.  John worked on a large 200 year old California juniper which had been dug from the side of a mountain two and a half years earlier.   He was assisted with this driftwood style by Ben Oki and Frank Goya.

John Naka Juniper Bonsai May 1973 pg. 14
"John Naka, true to tradition subordinated himself
to his Bonsai in the Photo of a native Juniper."
(Bonsai Magazine, BCI, Vol. XII, No. 4, May 1973, pg. 14)

        John also gave a lecture-demonstration on Channel 4 KABC "Expressions East/West" for the episode "Bonsai -- Nature's Echo."
        Longwood Gardens, near Kennett Square, PA, purchased a Juniperus californica from John for their collection.  Found in the mountains of California and severely stunted by the environment, this oldest specimen in their collection was estimated to be about four hundred years old.
        John's juniper forest Goshin was increased to eleven trees -- "one for each of my grandchildren" -- in a 32" long container this year.
        The year also saw the first edition of his excellent work, Bonsai Techniques, which grew out of a much smaller "Bonsai Mimeograph For Beginners Class" pamphlet.  It contains five hundred b&w photos and illustrations and sixteen color plates which depict all aspects of the art.  While photo reproduction improved in later books, Bonsai Techniques continues to be a treasured resource.  Only a bare handful of the books issued before this time have proven their durability, remaining useful additions to an enthusiast's library.  Many of the others, especially in the U.S., were "practice" books by devoted amateurs who had only a few years' worth of experience.  Pictures of their trees-in-training were not terribly educational, and these books are now of historical value only.
        A photograph of a 27"H bonsai styled by John (below) was the first color cover of BCI's Bonsai Magazine in December.  Dug in late October 1956 this 7-1/2" diameter trunk beauty was one of John's first collected California junipers.
John Naka California Juniper cover of Bonsai, Dec 1973

        John Naka was both a demonstrator and the master of ceremonies for the joint BCI-ABS Convention held in Pasadena, CA in July 1974.  Two forest plantings -- one with 23 Juniper foemina specimens -- were created by him, in between problem-solving and allowing enthusiasts to see his personal collection of trees at his home. 18

John Naka demo, International Bonsai Digest Bonsai Gems, 1974, pg. 89
"The blackboard shows the possible relation of the principal tree with the second tree."
(Juyne M. Tayson, M.D. (ed), International Bonsai Digest Bonsai Gems, Fall 1974, pg. 89)


        In the spring of 1975, John gave a workshop hosted by the Hukyu Bonsai Society in Tampa, FL.  Early April saw him in at the Federal Plant Introduction Station in Glenn Dale, MD a few days after the arrival of the fifty-three bonsai from Japan as the bulk of that country's Bicentennial gift to the U.S.  (The previously year both John and Yuji Yoshimura -- see below -- had expressed their willingness to serve as advisors and to assist in the training and maintenance of the collection.  This provided additional reassurance to the directors of the Nippon Bonsai Association that the collection would be properly cared for.)  John walked through the collection with curator Bob Drechsler giving suggestions.  John pointed out that several of the jin (dead branches retained on trees) needed treatment with the preservative lime-sulfur to intensify their whiteness.  After John left, Bob obtained the lime-sulfur and painted the jin -- which promptly turned them yellow-orange.  Being relatively new at caring for bonsai, Bob was horrified at the color.  But after a few days, the jin turned snowy white as they should be.  Relief!
       In May John was awarded the Massachusetts Horticultural Society's Thomas Roland Medal for his untiring and generous efforts for over 25 years to spread the knowledge of bonsai throughout the U.S. and for bringing this field of horticulture to a superior degree of art and refinement.  Later John was a demonstrator at the July 2-6 Bonsai Clubs International Convention in Miami Beach, FL where he gave a "chalk talk" in his superb sketches. 
        The 23-tree all-foemina juniper forest which John created in Pasadena in 1974 was won in a raffle by Art Hellberg of Santa Barbara.  John allowed the forest to be raffled on the condition that sensei be allowed to keep it for a year and nurture it.  With John's out-of-town commitments of spring and early summer, the forest had grown prodigiously without attention.  The master had to spend approximately six hours giving it a "haircut" and rewiring it.  (Think how much time that would have taken an amateur...)  Also, he said, two of the smaller trees had needed to be replaced.  Finally, on September 6, 1975, coinciding with one of John's regular expeditions to the Santa Barbara club for classes, the forest arrived.  The local newspaper had sent a photographer to record the event.  John had chosen 23 to be the number of trees, commemorating his age when he first met his wife, Alice, who was also there for this long-awaited occasion.  Transported to its new home following the afternoon class, the forest -- and site -- received final approval from John.
       Then the first Australian National Bonsai Convention and Show was held between October 31 and November 2.  The Guests of Honor for that were John Naka and  Yuji Yoshimura.  The previous year at the BCI Convention in Pasadena, John was invited to come to Sydney by Rita Cromarty, David Rich and Zillah Willmott, all foundation members of the Australian National Bonsai Association.  Down Under, John worked extremely hard giving demonstrations and workshops all over Sydney.  Waiting at the airport for his departure, John was asked by Zillah for permission to make a portfolio of his sketches that he had done at the workshops.  The sensei readily agreed, and when pressed for written permission, he signed his authorization on the only material they could find at that late hour -- the inside of an empty cigarette packet.  The resulting 500 copy limited edition of 52 of John's sketches proved very popular.

Alan Walker & John Naka 032576
Alan Walker and John Naka, 03/25/76.   (Photo courtesy of Alan Walker, 05/11/07)

        John was one of twenty-two contributors of articles to the BBG's 1976 Bonsai For Indoors handbook, which was edited by Constance T. Derderian.  "Pruning Can Make the Difference" (pp. 26-29) includes nine line drawings by Naka. 
       The official dedication ceremonies took place in Washington, D.C. for the bicentennial gift of 53 bonsai from Japan to the U.S.  During the July BCI Convention which was held in conjunction with this, John Naka styled a buttonwood bonsai.   July 29 through August 1 in Philadelphia, PA John headlined the ABS Symposium.
       On November 20, a display was held at the Museum of Modern Art in Caracas, Venezuela put on by the Club Venezolano de Bonsai.  John Naka and Jorge Lucero demonstrated.  Over three thousand people visited the first day.  The display was also covered by live TV.  John also taught in Peru this trip. 

      The National Bonsai Collection Guidebook was edited by John and Yuji Yoshimura in 1977.  John opened and closed the BCI Convention in Chicago with lecture/demonstrations on July 6-10.  John's second trip to Australia was made this year, and after 2 weeks in Sydney he went to Melbourne, Victoria for a week.

        Between Feb. 10 and 12, 1978 John led the Houston Bonsai Society thru all phases pertaining to the creation of good bonsai.  For the lecture-demonstration John worked on several different plants, including Japanese yew ( Podocarpus ), azalea, holly, and juniper.  All of the critiques and workshops were full, the latter using both collected and nursery stock for their materials.  This was the second year in a row that the Society brought the sensei to Houston for a workshop.

Alan Walker photo: John Naka and Ben Oki, 03/78
John Naka and Ben Oki at Lake Catahoula in central Louisiana, 03/78.
(Photo courtesy of Alan Walker, 05/11/07)

        At the BCI Convention this year from July 19 to 23 "Bonsai Country" in Portland, OR, Toshio Saburomaru and John were the guest artists.

        John was elected president of Crane Products, a Pico Rivera, CA importer of Kaneshin hand-crafted bonsai tools from Japan.
        At the joint 1979 BCI-ABS Convention from July 4 to 8 in New York City, Yuji Yoshimura, John Naka, and retiring Frank Okamura of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden were the guest artists.  The proceedings included a number of programs for Spanish-speaking attendees from Central and South America, and an "Open House" at the BBG and the Japanese garden there.
        A third trip to Australia was made this year and this time he took in Brisbane, Queensland.  A second portfolio of his workshop sketches was produced.  One thousand copies were printed, sampling from both the 1977 visit and this one.  Today both Australian portfolios are still sought after, but they are no longer in print.  John was the first bonsai artist in that country to take a large old tree and turn it into the "bones" of a bonsai.  It was John's dramatic personality and his ability to make his hosts and other workshop participants all comfortable in his company, making for a memorable bonsai experience for them all.  Because of John's great popularity there, Australia was able to bring other masters from the U.S., such as Melba Tucker and Khan Khomai.
        The year saw John's collaboration with Richard K. Ota and Japan's Keko Rokkaku to present Bonsai Techniques For Satsuki.

National Bonsai Collection Guidebook
Bonsai Techniques for Satsuki

        In the spring of 1980 Naka-san demonstrated with Italian cypress trees and discussed Japanese horticulture at the Mitchell Park Pavilion before more than 100 persons.  This event was sponsored by the Milwaukee, WI Bonsai Society and Milwaukee County Park System.  An article in the Milwaukee Sentinel covered half a page and included two b&w photos of John in action.
        "Bonsai -- A Bridge to International Friendship" was the theme of the July 3-6 BCI Convention in Honolulu.  Japanese grand master Saburō Katō headlined with John.
         John's first lecture/demonstration in South Africa occurred in October.  For most of that month he amazed audiences and won friends with his engaging and often humorous style in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town.

Alan Walker photo: John Naka & Goshin, 1980
John Naka and Goshin, 1980.   (Photo courtesy of Alan Walker, 05/11/07)

        John visited the bonsai nurseries in China in 1981, noting the larger general size of the trees (because of display in larger gardens, shrines and courtyards), the less defined shapes and styles (due to a lack of knowledgeable teachers) and the beautiful, well-designed antique pots "just as I dreamed they would be."  On this tour -- which John led -- the group also stopped in Hong Kong to view the personal collection of Yee-sun Wu, and then went on to Japan to attend the National Satsuki Exhibition there.  20
        John also visited India that year, conducting demonstrations and workshops using native trees of that country as part of the 1st Bonsai Week of the two-year-old Bonsai Study Group of the Indo-Japanese Association.
        With Yuji Yoshimura, John headlined for the Atlanta, GA ABS Symposium July 9 through 12.
        And the Golden State Bonsai Federation Convention in San Diego from Nov. 13 through 15 saw John as the principal artist.
        He returned to Caracas, Venezuela in the same year.

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