The roots of California bonsai, the artists Issei and Nisei of yesteryear

A 100-YEAR-OLD LEGACY — A 36-inch-tall boxwood bonsai, approximately 100 years old. This tree was Roy Nagatoshi’s father’s first bonsai. picture of Roy Nagatoshi

The art of bonsai has faced a number of challenges over the years. Unlike other works of art, bonsai the plants are alive and continue to grow even after the artist has long passed away. rooted in Issei and nisei amateur practitioners, bonsai is a curious art divided along generational lines in America.

“I think I counted like five sansei who has bonsai in California… from 1980 to 2015”, Dennis Makishima, a longtime practitioner living in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. The former president of the Golden State Bonsai Federation said his parents’ and grandparents’ generations worked as gardeners and domestic helpers, and sansei generally hated the idea of ​​gardening, although he eventually found his calling as a professional aesthetic tree pruner in his 30s.

“We used to joke about it, cruelly, among ourselves. “I don’t want to be a gardener” and my parents also encouraged us to go to school, but I grew up with a group of friends who none of us were really inspired to go to. college, so most of my friends were auto mechanics and things like that, but those who had potential, a bit of intelligence, their parents encouraged them to do something better than just work with their hands” , said Makishima.

Roy Nagatoshi, a comrade sansei bonsai artist and bonsai owner of a nursery in Los Angeles, recounted a similar environment in southern California.

“When I was going to high school, I remember, I worked for this hardware store owned by Japanese Americans. … A lot of (regular) Japanese gardeners come there … A man. He’s a guy who looks he was a graduate of UC Berkeley, but he does gardening. It kind of shocked me for a while,” he said. “And there was another man, that was the my grandfather’s friend. Anyway, he was a graduate of USC and he ran a florist business, where my mother worked part-time.

Fred Miyahara, a bonsai San Diego-based artist, said two bonsai masters once taught in the Los Angeles area. Frank Iura, a Japanese language practitioner, formed the Los Angeles Bonsai Club. John Naka, who died in 2004, parted ways with the group to accept non-Japanese English speaking students into the California Bonsai Society. Iura’s club ultimately failed due to lack of membership, while the California Bonsai Society continues to this day. According to Miyahara, while sansei did not join bonsai clubs after the war, white practitioners, including World War II veterans, filled their ranks. Some were prisoners of war, like the late Dr. Herb Markowitz of the San Diego Bonsai Club.

“He was a surgeon, I think in the army, … in Kyushu somewhere,” Miyahara said. “He helped after the bombing of Nagasaki and he learned from some monks in Japan and became interested.”

The art of bonsai itself, however, has changed dramatically over the past four decades. According to Makishima, the Issei and nisei practitioners before him were busy supporting their families.

“When you look at these old trees, the ones I have, it’s not even a style, I can’t even call it a traditional style,” Makishima said. “They knew the bonsai the basics, as taught by Japan for the past two hundred years, there are rules, it’s an art form. So these trees started like that, and then the term I use, and it’s quite popular among my friends, and I call it “benign neglect.” They planted those trees and tended them for a while, but they had to feed their families, they had to work – they couldn’t pamper those trees, but they were so good that they just kept them alive for 60 to 70 years.

Makishima said bonsai today, especially in Japan, it is a business, where trees are pampered and cared for to be perfect. They are bought and sold for thousands, even millions of dollars. Some in the bonsai the community can even consider the trees started by the Issei and nisei to be “folk art”. But Makishima took care of dozens of these trees after the old masters died and their families, unable to care for them, gave them to Makishima.

Makishima is now 75 years old. He said he was looking to whittle down his plant collection as he looked forward to the next decade of his life. Among his collection of 50 Japanese black pines that he received from Issei and nisei practitioners, he intends to keep only half a dozen at most. The rest he gives to people he thinks will take care of them.

Among the destinations of these ancient bonsaiare the collections of Lake Merritt Gardens in Oakland, the Shinzen Friendship Garden in Fresno, and the Huntington Japanese Garden in San Marino, near Los Angeles, all managed by the Golden State Bonsai Federation, the umbrella group that oversees all of California. bonsai clubs.

Bob Hilvers, curator of the Clark Bonsai Collection located in the Shinzen Friendship Garden in Fresno, Calif., said about 40 percent of his collection of 150 trees are old-style. Most trees date from the 1950s and later. The former curator of bonsai collection at the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, California, emphasized the importance of preserving the ancient bonsai as part of the history of the United States.

“We strive to maintain these trees as the original artists made them, because they are living history,” Hilvers said. “Although in some cases it was not the best bonsai art, even for the time, was how art was practiced with that particular ethnic group in California, and so that represents, at least for us, a significant aspect of Californian culture that is important to everyone, not just for the Japanese American community. This is our story.

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