With a heavy heart I learned of John's passing on May 19, 2004. He was a giant amongst an
exceptional international bonsai generation that includes Saburo Kato of Japan, Yee-sun Wu
of Hong Kong, Akiji Kataoka of Japan, and Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro and Ted
Tsukiyama of Hawaii. This extraordinary generation helped bonsai to survive the traumas of
World War II, nurtured its regrowth, and dedicated it as a vehicle for international
friendship and peace.
In 1990, at the International Bonsai Congress held in Honolulu, Fuku-Bonsai honored and presented our International Honor Roll plaques to these individuals. Ours was just one of countless honors.
John has received the National Heritage Fellowship, our nation's highest cultural award. He also received Japan's Imperial Cultural Award. The bonsai world's universal admiration galvanized and created the John Naka American Bonsai Pavillion that became the centerpiece and the catalyst that is now the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington D.C.
We first met at the 1974 National Bonsai Convention in Pasadena where I saw "Goshin," his masterwork featuring an American forest with bleached jins that validly interpreted California's redwood forests. In the years that followed, John's skills, activities, and fame grew as he developed into an influential leader and traveled throughout the world sharing both the technical and philosophical aspects of bonsai. He joined others in supporting and promoting bonsai as a bridge to international friendship and peace. At the 1980 International Bonsai Congress in Hawaii, John worked on a collected Ohia-Lehua.
A few years later, he accepted a Big Island Bonsai Association invitation that included visits to Kona and Waimea bonsai clubs and to view collections. At each location, he unexpectedly improvised and initiated presentations. In Hilo, when offered choice collected materials, he was excited, wanted to train each in a different way, and just couldn't choose between them! So at the formal presentation, he set the styling and supervised three teams to train three trees!
At the 1990 International Bonsai Congress, he refined and set a long-term training strategy for the same three trees and supervised the potting into unique handmade pots created especially for them by Japan's master potter Akiji Kataoka of Tokoname's Yamaaki kiln. The three Naka trees are part of the Hawaii State Bonsai Repository at the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center.
Increasingly John became an international bonsai leader and assisted Saburo Kato as the Vice-Chairman of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation. When the North American Bonsai Federation was named to host the 2005 World Bonsai Friendship Federation convention, the first website issue was "A Tribute to John Naka." At a time when the bonsai world is changing, we could close ranks to honor John.
John Yoshio Naka was a unique individual who set high standards for all of us to try to follow. He was America's first great bonsai professional who emerged out of the bigotry of World War II to help create a more peaceful world. He went beyond his bonsai specialty and touched the hearts and souls of people internationally.
I've had the pleasure of knowing John for thirty years and we've had many opportunities to work together. Without exception, he was always the gracious statesman. Although he had considerable bonsai knowledge and skills, they were far exceeded by his love of bonsai and of bonsai people and we'll all miss him!
On behalf of all who are associated with Fuku-Bonsai, I send deepest sympathies to Alice, his family, and to his closest friends.
Schinus terebifolia, commonly known as Hawaiian Christmas Berrry or Brazilian Pepper Tree. Originally collected in Kona by Robert Moeller and twice trained by three teams in public presentations working under John's supervision.
The three trees have been developing under the care of Fuku-Bonsai curator Michael Imaino and received extensive training including major root management in the past year to improve the health of the trees. Articles and photographs of the detailed work of each of the three trees will be in future website articles.