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

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

The art of bonsai has contended with a number of challenges throughout the years. Unlike other works of art, bonsai plants are alive and continue growing even after the artist has long since passed. Rooted in Issei and Nisei hobbyist practitioners, bonsai is a curious art split along generational lines in America.

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

“We used to joke about it, in a cruel way, amongst 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 bunch of friends that, 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 some potential, a little bit of smarts, their parents encouraged them to do something better than just work with their hands,” Makishima said. 

Roy Nagatoshi, a fellow Sansei bonsai artist and bonsai nursery proprietor in Los Angeles, recounted a similar environment in Southern California.

“When I was going to high school, I remember, I worked for this Japanese American-owned hardware store. … A lot of Japanese gardeners (used to) come there … One man. He’s a husky looking guy. He was a graduate from Berkeley University, but he’s doing gardening. That kinda shocked me for a while,” he said. “And there was another man, he was my grandfather’s friend. Anyway, he was a graduate from USC, and he was running a florist business, which my mother was working there part time.”

Fred Miyahara, a bonsai artist based in San Diego, said two bonsai masters once taught in the Los Angeles area. Frank Iura, a Japanese-speaking practitioner, formed the Los Angeles Bonsai Club. John Naka, who passed away in 2004, split from the group to accept English-speaking non-Japanese students in the California Bonsai Society. Iura’s club eventually fizzled 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 in Nagasaki and he learned from some of the monks in Japan and got interested.”

The art of bonsai itself, however, has drastically changed over the last four decades. According to Makishima, the Issei and Nisei practitioners that came 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 basics, as were taught by Japan for the last couple hundred years, there are rules, it’s an art form. So these trees started that way, and then, the term I use, and it’s pretty popular amongst my friends, and I call it ‘benign neglect.’ They started these trees and nurtured them for a while, but they had to feed their families, they had to work — they couldn’t pamper these trees, but were so good that they just kept them alive for 60-70 years.”

Makishima said bonsai today, especially in Japan, is a business, one where trees are pampered and groomed to look perfect. They are bought and sold for thousands, possibly millions of dollars. Some in the bonsai community may even consider the trees started by the Issei and Nisei to be “folk art.” But Makishima has been taking care of dozens of these trees after the former masters passed on and their families, unable to care for them, gave them to Makishima. 

Makishima is now 75. He said he is looking to downsize his collection of plants as he looks forward to the next decade of his life. Among his collection of 50 Japanese black pines he received from Issei and Nisei practitioners, he plans to keep only half a dozen at most. The rest, he is donating to people he feels will take care of them.

Among the destinations for these old bonsai, are the collections at The Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland, Fresno’s Shinzen Friendship Garden, 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’s 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 of the older style. Most trees are from the 1950s and later. The former curator of the bonsai collection at Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, Calif. noted the importance of preserving the old bonsai as a part of U.S. history.

“We endeavor to maintain those trees as the original artists did them, because they’re living history,” Hilvers said. “Even though in some cases, it wasn’t the best bonsai art, even for the time, it was how the 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’s important to everybody, not just the Japanese American community. It’s our history.”

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