The Father of Modern Bonsai in Japan, Part II

Compiled by Robert J. Baran

This Page Last Updated: July 12, 2011

Early Years
Afterwards & Notes

       Seventeen members of the Bonsai Society of Greater New York went to Japan in March 1967 to study for a week with Kyuzo Murata.  The tour had taken a year to plan and coordinate, with Lynn Perry Alstadt making arrangements.  The group, including Alstadt, Jerry Stowell, Marion Gyllenswan, George Hull, and Constance Derderian, flew from San Francisco to Honolulu where they met with members of the local clubs there, and then on to Ōmiya.  On Sunday night the group had dinner with Mr. Murata and his wife at the Japanese inn where the Americans were staying.  The morning after they walked through the gates of Kyuka-en: "Apricots and plums were at the peak of their flowering, magnificent old bonsai with pink and white blossoms, spotted in between the evergreens and dormant deciduous trees."  As this was the first organized group from the U.S. to take a class from Mr. Murata, he had a classroom built especially for the visit.  The National Television Company of Japan came every day to film the Americans and then frequently would run a segment on national television.  Each day there was a lesson on the principles of wiring, potting and grafting.  Afternoons they visited the trees in the other bonsai nurseries there.  In attendance at Kyuka-en were Murata's colleague, Masakuni Kawasumi, and two of the former's best students, Masao Komatsu and Yasuji Matsuda.

Classroom scene at the Murata Nursery during a Beech Forest Planting class.
From left: Marge Schweenensen, Lee Firth, Ed Watizak, Marion Gyllenswan, and Jerald Stowell.

       The next week consisted of seeing collections in Tokyo and touring the countryside.  Murata arranged for the group to visit the Emperor's bonsai collection at the Imperial Palace, a most rare privilege.  The group arrived at the palace grounds at 8 o'clock in the morning, but there was a long line of people waiting to see the grounds.  Murata's daughter-in-law went to the head of the line and spoke to a guard at the closed gate.  Within seconds, the American group was ushered in through a small secondary gate and shortly thereafter the enthusiasts were viewing the incredible collection.
       The group met with some Tokyo Bonsai Club members at Ueno Park the day preceding one of their auctions, and inspected the many trees, rocks and containers offered.  Some of the Americans entered successful bids through Murata.  The following week was spent south of Tokyo and included visits to Kyoto (where the local bonsai society put on a special exhibition in honor of the visit), Takamatsu's Kinashi Bonsai Village (where the trees are mass-produced by 3rd or 4th generation owners of small plots for marketing in the capital) and Nagoya (where the enthusiasts saw a kiln firing the hand-made containers shaped in hand-pressed molds by skilled artisans).
       On June 15 in Cleveland, Ohio, the American Bonsai Society (ABS) was founded by many of the persons who had been on the Japan tour.  (This was, in part, to spread the knowledge learned about bonsai through a national organization, and also to have a national society take over the responsibility, expense and labor of the nearly one thousand subscriptions for the New York Bonsai Society's magazine.)  At the closing of the ABS rolls a year later, there were ninety-nine individuals and fifteen groups as the charter members.  Kyuzo Murata was the only non-American member at the time.  Jerry Stowell was elected as the first ABS president.
       That summer also saw a visit to Kyuka-en by Mrs. Becky Lucas of South Africa.  (In 1960 she had founded the Bonsai Society of South Africa in Cape Town.)
       The September issue of The Reader's Digest included an article on Murata, "The Lilliputian World of the Bonsai" by Noel F. Busch (with four color photos).

Murata in his garden, from pg. 184 of the Reader's Digest article.
(Pg. 188 notes that Murata had four assistants at the time, and they watered the trees with miniature hoses.)

       "Today Ōmiya has far surpassed its prewar prosperity, with a dozen or so large-scale bonsai growers in the business instead of two dozen small ones.  Bonsai buyers from all over Japan and from overseas go there to buy trees, and growers send their finest products there for sale."

       The cover b&w photograph of the Spring 1968 issue (Vol. 2, No. 1) of ABS' Bonsai Journal was of a 400-year old, 40-year-in-training Sargent juniper (Juniperus chinensis var. Sargentii) from Murata's nursery.  The container was a gray, unglazed antique Chinese pot. 7

"Yuji Yoshimura with Mr. & Mrs. Kyuzo Murata at Kyuka-en Bonsai Garden, Ōmiya, Japan 1968."
(from William N. Valavanis' "Yuji Yoshimura, A Memorial Tribute,"
in NBF Newsletter, No. 3,

       February and March of 1969 saw the second ABS tour of Japan, led by Lynn Alstadt and Jerry Stowell.  After touring Takamatsu, Kyoto, and Nagoya, a five-day stay with Kyuzo Murata was further highlighted by visits to the nine other prominent bonsai nurseries in Ōmiya and the opportunity to see the prestigious annual Kokufu-ten Bonsai Exhibition in Tokyo. 8

       The March 1970 issue of Science Digest contained a reference to Murata and showed BBG director Dr. Walter Avery with a 21" tall Japanese white pine from Murata's nursery.  There were also images of a 150-year-old Chinese juniper and a 93-year-old trident maple (gifted from the City of Tokyo to the City of New York) -- again, from Murata.  Then, an early November issue of the New Yorker magazine noted the arrival of the celebrated three foot tall tree "Fudo" to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  The page and a half long article was appropriately titled "Old Juniper."
       Considered to be between 600 and 1,000 years old, the tree was reportedly found in 1910 by the famous bonsai tree hunter Tahei Suzuki and was first wired by Kinsaku Saida, said to be the greatest wiring master of all time.  Making its first public appearance in 1929, the bonsai received the first prize -- and promptly vanished.  Its owner at the time was a Japanese oil magnate who was afraid that exhibitions would spoil the tree.  A special place deep inside his mansion was built for the "Phantom Shimpaku" (as it would be called by people who saw the tree during its only exhibition). 

From pg. 88 of the article "Japanese Miniature Trees," Life, October 7, 1946
about Keibun Tanaka's 20-year-old 5,000-tree collection in suburban Tokyo, this picture of what we would know as "Fudo."
Has the erroneous caption of "300-YEAR-OLD PINE TREE IS VALUED AT $2000."
(The image in a copy of an article long in our files was brought to RJB's attention again
by Roberto Pagnin, Italy, 27 May 2008 in personal e-mail.
This copy gotten from Google's Life Magazine photo archives at
Photographer is listed as Alfred Eisenstaedt.)

In 1946, having survived the war, the tree was purchased by Yoshimatsu Hattori and received the name of "Fudo."  The name comes from the "God of Fire Fudo," an imaginary guardian of the Buddha against all evils, standing amid burning flame without moving.  "Fudo"'s appearance suggested swirling flames.
       Yoshimatsu Hatori died in 1960, and his entire bonsai collection was put up for sale, except "Fudo" which was taken by his son Osamu.  Although Osamu was not keen about bonsai, it took Kyuzo Murata several years to persuade him to sell that particular tree.  It was finally in the summer of 1969 that "Fudo" came to Murata at Kyuka-en, by which time not many people had actually seen the tree except in a photograph.
       Per Dr. George S. Avery, director of the BBG who was instrumental in introducing tens of thousands of Americans to bonsai and in developing the Garden's outstanding collection:
       "[This tree] was first seen by Botanic Garden representatives in November 1969 when a tour group of garden members visited the Murata Nursery, while in Japan.  After admiring many of the trees available for purchase, two members of our group kept wandering back to look at a gnarled and twisted "old timer," a shimpaku (Sargent juniper).  To see it was to read at a glance its autobiography -- lonely centuries of a frugal existence in an out-of-the-way mountainous region somewhere in Japan, buffeted by continuous winds and winter storms, but always with the strength to survive.  The tour member whose gift made possible its ultimate purchase prefers to remain anonymous, but as a Botanic Garden trustee she has long-admired and appreciated fine bonsai.
      "A few days after the visit [it was decided that the tree] ought to be [sic!] in the Botanic Garden's bonsai collection...and, through a Japanese friend, we telephoned Mr. Murata the next morning, reporting probable interest in acquiring his tree for the Botanic Garden.  He was noncommittal but said he would mail a photograph of the tree, to reach us after our return to the United States.
      "In December, the photograph arrived.  A letter was promptly dispatched from the Botanic Garden to Mr. Murata, accompanied by a purchase order for the tree.  No acknowledgement was received so in the ensuing weeks other letters were written [in English and Japanese].  It seemed that we had failed (or were failing) to convince Mr. Murata that the tree should come to make its life in America...
      "In early July, 1970, a beautiful letter arrived from Mr. Murata.  [It expressed his sincere apology for not responding earlier.  He had had to travel to Osaka several times to set up the Bonsai Show exhibit at EXPO '70.] 
       [When people found out that Murata was contemplating sending the shimpaku to America, they tried to persuade him to keep the tree, but at long last he decided not to.  As he wrote in his letter to the BBG,]
       "'Personally, I do wish to keep this fine tree in my private collection as long as I live; but since I am in the trade, I am willing to sell it only if some vital qualifications are met.  Recently, air pollution in Japan is becoming unbearable for both human beings and especially for trees in the garden.  The pollution is caused mostly by motor cars.  I am not against progress, but trees do not understand it.  They just have to suffer and sometime die quietly.  I have been told that Brooklyn Botanic Garden is large enough that it cannot possibly have a pollution problem within its premises.  There is no place in America like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where all necessary facilities are available for proper care.  Above all, it is highly important that American people, most of whom are still relatively strange to our fine art of bonsai, will have a chance to appreciate the tree.
       "'These were a few of my many reasons, and at the end everyone [to whom I explained my reasons here] understood.  I have said to my friends that I would not sell it even for a million dollars, if the Brooklyn Botanic Garden were a commercial nursery; but I know BBG staff would love and care for my tree, not just professionally, but wholeheartedly.  Anyway, it is all right now, and I feel as if I am giving my own daughter to an American to be married.'"

"Fudo" (b&w from ABS Journal article;
color photograph copyright Yukio Murata and reprinted by permission.)

       "Fudo" arrived in New York via Pan American Airways and was officially met at Kennedy International Airport by Robert S. Tomson, Assistant Director of the BBG, together with representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The prescribed fumigation treatment was carried out, and "Fudo" was put on display at the BBG in a screened quarantine cage, still damp from her insecticidal bath.  There she would remain until released by the Plant Quarantine Division of the Department of Agriculture.  This hardly seemed a fitting wedding reception for so distinguished a bride; yet it complied with plant importation law and was a justifiable precaution against the introduction of plant pests which, though perhaps no problem in their original homeland, might be difficult or impossible to control if they were to escape in a new environment. 9

Close-ups of "Fudo" showing protective gauze wrap around weak branch and the magnificent deadwood.
(Copyright Yukio Murata and reprinted by permission.)

       The BBG's bonsai specialist, Frank Okamura, was quoted in that aforementioned November 1970 New Yorker article as being "deeply concerned about the strip of gauze, since it indicated the bonsai had been seriously injured -- possibly during packing.  'You can see that the wood under the gauze is starting to turn color, and I'm afraid that at least that branch of the tree is dead.'
       "We asked whether this could prove fatal to the entire bonsai.
       "'I don't think so,' Mr. Okamura said.  'You know, we'll all be watching it and doing everything we can.'"

       In October 1971, the fine shimpaku "Fudo" was declared dead without ever having become acclimated to its new home, despite extraordinarily special care.  Her ancient body with its unique beauty is still preserved at the BBG where it remains inspirational in a special case in the rotunda of the Garden's Administration Building.  Probably the oldest living plant of any kind ever shipped to the U.S., it was said to be about eight hundred and fifty years of age when it died after a year here.  A photograph taken in 1970 in Japan "shows the lower branch, where all the trouble apparently began, not showing any visible change, but the foliage on that branch was thinner than the rest of the foliage."
       "She departed this world leaving many pleasant memories and the love of many people.  I consider that 'Fudo' is still a valuable asset to us all."
       (On October 7, 2008 a memorial ceremony was held for "Fudo" at the BBG.) 10

Preserved Fudo at BBG, photo c.November 2008 by ydde72183

       The September 1971 issue of Shizen To Bonsai (Nature and Bonsai) magazine contained an article by Murata regarding the early days of ezo spruce bonsai.  (The article would be translated into English, edited and reprinted nineteen years later in International Bonsai magazine.)
        And on October 3 of this year Isamu and Rumiko Murata welcomed their son, Yukio, into the world.  "At that time, Mr. William Valavanis [later of International Bonsai fame] was living in Bonsaimura and he [would later tell] me that he remembered how excited my mother was to show me to him," Yukio would later recall.  The Muratas already had a daughter. 11

       In November, 1971 a Workshop and Study Tour of Japan took place, endorsed by the ABS.  Lynn Perry Alstadt, Constance Derderian, George Hull, and Jerry Stowell led the tour which featured a four day seminar at Murata's Ōmiya garden.

       One year later, Luther and Dorothy Young led a trip with classes to Japan and Hong Kong.  Visits were paid to Kyuzo Murata, Toshio Kawamoto, Wu Yee-sun, and other hosts and locales.

       In 1973 Kainan Shobo published a work that Murata surpervised.  Bonsai no Tsukuri Kata (How to Create Bonsai) was written by Nagai Kazuo.  Also this year, Kyuzo edited Ko Katō Tomekichi-Ō 27-kaiki tsuizen chinretsu kinenchō (Commemorative Bonsai Exhibit on the Occasion of the 27th Anniversary of the Death of Tomekichi Katō), a catalog of an exhibit held at Manseien on September 20 and published by Shutsurankai. 12

       In May of 1975, Kyuzo Murata (left, above) flew to the U.S. to inspect the rare and valuable bonsai at the U.S. National Arboretum that had been given by Japan to commemorate the Bicentennial.  He returned in July with Masakuni Kawasumi (right, above, born in 1923 and successor to his father's now international distribution business) and four others from Ōmiya. 
       Murata visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where a gathering of 300 people heard his talk on the art of bonsai.  Quoting from The New York Times, July 9, 1975: "Bonsai is the art of pruning and wiring branches and cutting roots which eventually result in controlling growth so that trees are trained to live in pots,' said Mr. Murata.  Because Mr. Murata, a Zen Buddhist, believes that trees have feelings, he said it hurts them to be cut.  'But it has to be cut,' he continued, 'The tree must understand that I do it out of love -- it's like spanking my own children [sic] .'"
       Murata and Kawasumi were the guest artists at both the BCI convention in Miami Beach, FL ("New Bonsai Horizons," running from July 2 through 6 and attended by 319 people) and the ABS convention in Kansas City, MO (held July 10 through 12).  In Miami, a styling criticism Murata noted was that the foliage crowns of American bonsai were too full and ill-defined.  Murata's closing remarks to ABS following a wide-ranging overview of "my favorite and the only subject I have known all my life" were: "Again, I wish to emphasize that bonsai is not a mere sketch of nature but a reflection of the heart of the creator.  Please create your own Americanized bonsai and fill the world with this peaceful art. Sayonara, I shall see you in Tokyo." 13

       The visit was also a promotional tour for Kawasumi's new book, Bonsai with American Trees (Tokyo: Kodansha International, Ltd.).  Murata had penned the Introduction to this work.  (In 1971 Japan Publications, Inc. had come out with Kawasumi's Introductory Bonsai and the Care and Use of Bonsai Tools.  That first volume was supervised by Murata.)

From pp. 14-15 of Bonsai with American Trees,
with the modest caption "A view of a typical Japanese bonsai nursery."
(Photo courtesy of Roberto Pagnin, Italy, 27 May 2008 in personal e-mail to RJB.)

       The biggest problem for sending bonsai abroad anywhere is the soil:  every country prohibits soil of another country from being brought in due to microbial and larger pests.  In the case of ordinary trees, the soil attached to the plant is completely removed and is subjected to strict examination.  This would not do for fifty-three bonsai which were part of Japan's Bicentennial gift to the U.S. -- perhaps the lesson with "Fudo" was still fresh on everyone's mind.  As an exceptional case, the U.S.D.A. decided that the bonsai together with pots would, instead, be carried to the National Nursery and subjected to quarantine and cultivation with help from Japan for one year.  At the end of the period, quarantine would be finished.  The Nippon Bonsai Association representatives were very pleased with these arrangements, saying that America not only recognized bonsai as Japan's traditional art, but also fully understood the trees themselves.  The fact that all the gifted trees survived with this nonstandard treatment could be considered a nod to "Fudo."

       The 10th American Bonsai Society Symposium was held in Tokyo from Oct. 17-21.  About 200 persons participated and a special exhibit of 15 to 20 trees was arranged by Kyuzo Murata at the opening ceremonies held in the Chinzanso Restaurant, previously an estate of a Japanese general during the Sino-Japanese War.  One of the trees was a magnificent 350-year-old black pine.  Much of the rest of the time was spent visiting various sites from Ueno Park to the Masakuni tool factory, from a stop in Ōmiya with a welcome by Mr. Murata and his family to a viewing of Kamakura's Great Statue of Buddha.

       On Nov. 3, 1977, a group of 52 Hawaii enthusists on a two-week tour of various Japanese bonsai sites sponsored by the Hawaiian Bonsai Association visited Kyuka-En and three other Ōmiya nurseries.

       Kyuzo Murata contributed the Foreword to Jerald P. Stowell's 1978 book, The Beginner's Guide to American Bonsai (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.).  As a matter of fact, in July 1975 when Mr. Murata was in the U.S., Jerry had shown him a copy of his first book which the publisher was letting go out of print and stated that Jerry was interested in publishing another one with more information.  Murata took the book back to Japan and soon afterwards a contract came from Kodansha.  As the publisher also had an office in New York, the new manuscript was faxed back and forth during its two years of gestation.  (By 1997 about 29,000 copies had been printed and the book was in its eighth or ninth printing.)

       The following year, an Ezo spruce ( Picea glehni ) trained by Murata from collected material and in the sinuous style won an award at the Sakufu-ten, Japan Bonsai Creator's Exhibition. 14

       (By 1980, there were nine nurseries in the village: Fuya-en (Fusazo Takeyama), Kyuka-en (Kyuzo Murata), Seiko-en (Tomio Yamada), Kanraku-en, Mansei-en (Saburo Kato), Toju-en (Hiromi Hamano), Ryuho-en, Ikko-en, and Sensho-en, plus at least one studio, all near the Ōmiya-Koen train station.)

       In 1984, Kyuzo Murata's book Bonsai no shiki was released.

       Three years later, the United Press International newsservice circulated a long one-column-length article which began "More than 60 years ago, Kyuzo Murata discovered the joys of creating a universe in a clay pot.  Today, he likes nothing better than to share his secrets with novices..."

       In 1988, the Japanese Ministry of Education awarded Kyuzo Murata the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of his contribution to Japanese culture and society.  He was the first bonsai gardener to receive this honor. 15

Kyuzo Murata
Fumi and Kyuzo Murata
(Photographs copyright Yukio Murata.  Reprinted by permission.)

Alan Walker, Kyuzo Murata, Lynn Perry and Dorothy Young, 04/07/89
(Photo courtesy of Alan Walker, 05/11/07)

       An English translation and adaptation of Murata's last book was published by Kodansha as Four Seasons of Bonsai in 1991.

       And on that September 6, at the age of 89, the grand master Kyuzo Murata passed on from this life.  At the time, his private collection of some one thousand trees on an acre and-a-half Ōmiya plot called Kyuka-en, Garden of the Nine Mists, was considered by many to be the finest collection of bonsai in the world.  He was Highest Counselor to the Japan Union of Bonsai Growers and also Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Kokufu Bonsai Association, which holds the most prestigious and invitation-only bonsai exhibition annually.  His last visit to the Imperial Bonsai Collection for consultation had been on August 29. 16

        "...I could not help but compare the bonsai of his early and later years to the sculptures of Michelangelo in his early and later years.  The early works are superb, controlled, and perfected; the work done near life's end, Murata's flowering material and Michelangelo's uncompleted studies, in stone, of slaves in chains are less detailed.  They are vital, impressionistic studies of great power with an appearance of freshness and spontaneity that belies the control we know guided the mature hands of these masters.
        "Bonsai like all great art grows and changes and is influenced by its successful practitioners.  Does Mr. Murata's [ Four Seasons of Bonsai ] herald a change for bonsai to fresher more spontaneous expression?" 17

Early Years
Afterwards & Notes

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