The Father of Modern Bonsai in Japan, Part I

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Compiled by Robert J. Baran

This Page Last Updated: June 7, 2014

1967 through 1991
Afterwards & Notes

       Kyuzo Murata was born on June 23, 1902 in Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture.  He entered Keio Gijuku University, Tokyo, some 140 miles to the southeast of his birthplace and two miles south of the Imperial Palace.  (Murata's parents were said to have been very successful in the silk industry in Takayama City and thus their son was able to go to a private school far away.)   At Keio University Murata majored in economics, however, he had to later leave without graduating in order to receive treatment for a severe gastric ulcer.  He then became interested in bonsai and studied with Tomekichi Kato, proprietor of Mansei-en Bonsai Garden.

       On his doctor's advice, Murata then went about twenty miles northwest of the capital to the town of Ōmiya (founded as a modern municipality in 1899), where the water was reputed to have health-giving properties for humans as well as for miniature trees.  Sangan-shimizu (a natural spring) is one of the features of the ward's natural heritage.
       (In 1925, a group of professional bonsai gardeners who originally lived around the Dangō-Zaka (Hongō) area in Tokyo emigrated from there due to the crucial damages which had been caused by the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923.  These growers settled at the Toro and Hongō settlements of Ōsato village near Ōmiya.  Ōmiya, lit. "Great Shrine," references the nearby major Shinto Hikawa Shrine.)
       Inevitably exposed to the profession practiced by several other residents, Murata tried his hand at it and presently found that he was blessed with a green thumb.  He established his garden there in 1926.  The acre-and-a-half plot was called Kyuka-En, the Garden of the Nine Mists.  ("Kyuka" was the pen name of Ike-Taiga, a Japanese painter of the Edo period.  The dual meaning of the nursery's name stems from the fact that Ike-Taiga had dropped in at the house where Murata would be born a century and a half later.) 1

       In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Kyuzo Murata and his associates from the Bonsai-Mura (Bonsai Village) at Ōmiya regularly went to Furukamappu on Kunashiri Island (to the east of the big north Japanese island of Hokkaido, and taken over by Russia following WWII).  This was the native home of the Ezo spruce ( Picea glehni ).  The place where they grew is called Yachi, a marshland having a thick mass of accumulated sphagnum moss.  This is an inhospitable natural environment where the land is covered with deep snow from the middle of September until the middle of May, a place where the wind blows endlessly.  Murata and company would pack up the trees they collected about the first or second of September every year and ship them down to Honshu, Japan's main island.  The roots were packed in sphagnum moss, then wrapped in burlap and tied with string.  The trees were then placed in specially constructed boxes for shipping.  They would travel by rail and reach Ōmiya by the tenth or eleventh of September.  At the time of collecting most only had one or two white living roots showing.  By the time they were transported, and despite the poor condition after they arrived, they would have a profusion of vigorous white roots growing out through the burlap.
       (The roots didn't initially last on containerized trees.  The bonsai master Tomikichi Kato was the one who determined how to rectify that problem around 1928.  During the 1930s perhaps the most prized group of bonsai trees were the Ezo spruce, to be found growing wild in the forests of northern Japan along the tundra zone.)

      And Murata began to assist Masakuni I (Shichinosuke Kawasumi, 1880-1950) in developing additional tools for bonsai.  A well-known manufacturer of flower arranging scissors and medical-use cutting tools, Masakuni in 1919 had established a company to carry Japanese bonsai tools.  In the early 1920s he invented the first shears specifically designed for use on bonsai, and a little later came out with the epoch-making concave cutter.  (Previous to this time ordinary garden shears were used to prune bonsai.)  Several Masakuni tools (wire cutter, turntable and jacks, etc.) are still known as "Kyuka Type."

Masakuni I, International Bonsai, Autumn 1979, back cover
Masakuni I
(International Bonsai, Autumn 1979, back cover)

      "Until the Meiji period, the tools used by bonsai craftsman were the same as those used by gardeners [although a few improvised implements may have been employed.  Masakuni then] took custom orders from Akimoto Tsutsuji-en in Angyo, Saitama.  The initial request was for a pair of pruning scissors that kept the strength and durability of gardening tools, but were lightweight, fine and able to cut branches and roots.  The master craftsman Masakuni bought several hundred bonsai to test out his designs.  The discarded prototypes are said to have been in the hundreds and filled 3 fruit boxes.  The final designs became the prototype for the scissors we use today.  Orders from other professionals for wire snips and trunk benders began to arrive and through the meeting of the intelligent and technically minded Murata, all manner of bonsai specific tools came into being.  Long-handled pruning scissors, root pruning scissors, concave cutters, pliers, jin carving tools and powerful trunk bending jacks were all new products to the bonsai world."

       Kyuzo Murata came to serve the Imperial Household in Tokyo in 1931, caring for their magnificent collection of bonsai.

       In early December 1934 the second Kokufu-ten bonsai exhibit was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.   Murata had a tree on display at that event.
       The April 1937 (Vol. 22, No. 4) issue of the Japanese horticultural magazine Jissai Engei (Practical Horticulture) carried an article by Murata entitled "Bonsai to konshoku suru sanso no baiyo hiketsu" ("Secret technique of culturing mountain grass which is planted with bonsai tree").
       The following year, Murata exhibited one of his early creations, a thirteen-tree Ezo spruce group planting from collected material. 2

Guide Book, c.1935, Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama, 2014, pp. 19-20
Guide Book of The Omiya Bonsai Village, c.1935;
Kyuka-En is at the center of the right hand edge.
(The Story of "Bonsai", The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama, March 21, 2014, pp. 19-20)

        (In 1940, Ōsato village merged with other villages to form Ōmiya city.  Also this year, the main hall of the Hikawa Shrine was rebuilt.)

       The bonsai growers at Ōmiya were just beginning to become prosperous again -- most had resettled there from Tokyo two years after the great earthquake of 1923 -- when World War II broke out.  The military draft and the emphasis on raising foodstuffs reduced the number of Ōmiya growers from a peak of twenty-three families in the late 1930s to one, Murata.  Tomekichi Kato (Mansei-en) and Seian Shimizu (Seidai-en) recommended Murata for head of the town-block association of Bonsai-chō (Bonsai Village) to trust him with the future of bonsai.  At that time, a head of a town-block association was not commandeered for war service.
       Although his health made Murata immune to the draft, local officials ordered him to forget about bonsai -- which required full-time care if they were to survive -- and get busy growing rice.  He appealed to the general in command of the district, a family friend who was named Hisaichi Terauchi (whose father, Masatake Terauchi, was the 18th prime minister of Japan and also a general of the army).  Gen. Terauchi countermanded the local officials' order with the characteristically Japanese dictum that "bonsai show the importance of the unimportant."  (His words might also be translated as "bonsai shows the use of the useless.")  Murata was free to give his bonsai all the attention they needed.

        He collected and preserved as many as he could get together from other growers, and got permission to store and house them on his garden plot in Ōmiya.
       A large number of outstanding trees handed down for many generations -- but not cared for by Murata or a very few other growers elsewheres -- were apparently lost in the fiery Tokyo air raids.  To minimize care requirements at Ōmiya, the bonsai were removed from their pots and planted in the ground.  Watering was done late at night. 3

       Immediately after the Pacific War, the luxury tax on bonsai was so high that it nearly caused the disbandment of the growers at Ōmiya.
       "[W]hen the war ended, Murata had no money to keep his garden growing and no customers to buy his trees.  He was on the point of taking up some other occupation when, on a November afternoon [Saturday the 24th] in 1945, fate intervened.  A jeep containing Lt.(j.g.) Leo R. Ball, of the U.S. Navy, and John R. Mercier, a newspaper correspondent from Washington D.C., drew up to his garden gate.  They were horticultural enthusiasts who wanted to see the famous bonsai village.  After they spent several hours in knowledgeable admiration of the beauties of the garden, Murata took out his Visitors' Book, which had been unopened in four years, and asked them to write in it.  Both men wrote glowing tributes to the garden's beauty.  When Murata had their inscriptions translated, the warmth of the messages left by his country's recent enemies gave him heart to carry on his work a little longer.  Gradually, as more visitors came, he began to prosper."

       During the Pacific War, the shortage of fertilizers and even of water affected the Imperial Palace's Collection -- which numbered over 3,000 specimens prior to the war -- as well as those almost everywhere else.  Some trees outside of that Collection perished because of this, and many others inside and outside were almost killed off.  Murata did his best to revive the heavily damaged collection. 4

       In 1947, the Ōmiya Bonsai Association was officially established.  Kyuzo Murata was its first leader.

       From 1949 to 1955, Murata was chairman of the Nihon Bonsai Kumiai (Professional Bonsai Gardener's Association of Japan).

       He was often in contact with Toshiji Yoshimura, a prominent bonsai and suiseki artist from Tokyo.  At one point, Murata's wife Fumi introduced a lovely young Ōmiya lady, Kazuko Nagano, to Toshiji's son, Yuji.  On March 11, 1948 Yuji Yoshimura and Miss Nagano were married.  (Yoshimura would go on to make his mark in the bonsai world outside of Japan.)

Two views of Murata's Nursery c.1951, from pg. 5 of The Japanese Flower & Bonsai Arrangement Calendar 1952,
edited and published by Mineko Chigira, Urawa City.

The caption for the picture above is as follows (typos and all):

"Snap photo of the Kyukaen-Bonsai garden
Hundreds of bonsai trees are cultivated in this bright,
pure and quiet garden where they are exposed sufficiently to the sun,
watered adequately and plumed properly with their masters motherly affection,
so that they enjoy very robust health and attractive styles,
some carrying 100 or 200 or even 800 years of age in their small dwellings."

Also from pg. 5 is the tokonoma there in the guest room of the house.
(Compare with 1989 photo below.)

The trees below are Murata's designs from this same "Daily Record of Engagements."

"Ezo-matsu (Picea ajanensis) came from the Kurile Islands.
Aged more than 800 years: Hight 14 inches: trunk 5 inches in diametre.
From both ends of the trunk, the roots have grown up and made an arch,
so we call it 'Heiwa Mon' (Peace Arch)."   (pg. 18)

"A Maple tree in a white china bowl
Aged about 80 years.
Hight 29 inches: trunk 2 inches in diametre."   (pg. 74)

"A Sanzashi (Hawthorn) in a china bowl
Aged more than 80 years
Hight 29 inches: trunk 2 inches in diametre."   (pg. 60)

"A Leafless Maple tree in a Chinese porcelain
Aged more than 50 years: Hight 22 inches"   (pg. 96)

(Photos courtesy of Roberto Pagnin, Italy, 7 May and 23 May 2008 in personal e-mails to RJB.)

       After the war, many of the blade-making areas began to develop their own bonsai tools using Masakuni as the prototype.  (In the decades that followed there would eventually be many hundreds of different types of bonsai tools on the market to choose from.)

       Murata was head between 1954 and 1960 of the Japan Union of Bonsai Growers, in which capacity he contributed greatly to the cause of the art.  He also was in charge of bonsai belonging to some celebrities, such as one-time Japanese prime minister Shigeru Yoshida and the Imperial family Chichibuno-miya.

        (In 1957, the official suburb name of Bonsai-chō, lit. "Bonsai Town," was given to the precinct.)

       Mr. and Mrs. Edward Holsten, two of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Trustees, returned from a world cruise in 1958 having procured a number of superior specimens from some of Japan's finest bonsai nurseries.  This collection of trees was finally imported in 1961.  Mr. and Mrs. Howard Phipps, Sr., also traveling to Japan in the 1950s, brought back several trees to start the collection that bears their name.  Most of the high-ranking specimens in both collections came from Murata's Kyuka-en. 5

       Isamu Wakabayashi had been born on July 21, 1936 in Kawagoe City, west of Ōmiya in Saitama Prefecture.  He was interested in plants from his early childhood.  After graduating from an agriculture school, he took a job in a city office.  But he soon realized that he was not suited for a clerical job and so left the office.  His father felt that Isamu should have a job related to plants and thought of bonsai.
       The elder probably visited some of the bonsai nurseries in Ōmiya, and Kyuka-en must have gathered his attention.  There he bought a bonsai for 10,000 yen (almost the same amount as the starting monthly salary for a university graduate at that time).  But he paid two 10,000¥ bills, putting them together so that he made them look like a single bill.  On receiving the money, Fumi (Murata's wife) realized that he paid double the price and said "Sir, you paid too much."  It was Wakabayashi's test and knowing Kyuka-en's honest way of business, he decided on sending his son to Murata's.  In the time-honored Japanese tradition, Isamu apprenticed under Kyuzo Murata, began to study bonsai in 1959, and, because the Muratas were childless, Isamu was adopted by them and took on that family name.
       Kyuzo Murata regularly organized a group of growers and went to the Imperial palace to care for the Collection there.  Naturally, Isamu was among the group as his apprentice.  A woman named Rumiko was working in her youth at the Imperial Palace as secretary to the Lord Chamberlain.  People who worked with them around the Palace followed the time-honored tradition of arranging to have the two young singles meet.  Isamu and Rumiko came to know each other and would marry in 1966.

       Now, Lynn Perry was a graduate of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, and also studied in the Dept. of Landscape Architecture of the University of Pennsylvania.  She became the first American to study bonsai with a Japanese master for an extended period of time.  For one or two days a week from 1960 through the fall of 1962, she received instruction from Murata.  After intensive practical and theoretical training, she was awarded a teaching certificate by her sensei.  During this time she wrote Bonsai: Trees and Shrubs, A Guide to the Methods of Kyuzo Murata, which was published in 1964 by The Ronald Press.  While in Japan she also served as a member of the staff of the Agricultural Attaché at the American Embassy in Tokyo.

       Upon her return to the U.S., she was first employed by the landscape architect David Engel, and assisted with bonsai courses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  She then become proprietor of Suzu-en Bonsai Company (a tool importer in Erie, Pa), lecturing, demonstrating and teaching throughout the country, especially in the East.  See Also: Apr 20 listing. 6

       Also in 1964, the English publication was made of Kyuzo Murata's Bonsai: Miniature Potted Trees by Tokyo's Shufunotomo Co., Ltd.  (Its twenty-fourth printing would be made in 1986.)

1967 through 1991
Afterwards & Notes

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