Thursday, March 8, 2001 was anything but a typical day at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. That morning two Japanese brothers landed at Dulles International Airport and, after checking into their hotel, headed straight to the Museum. Shigeru Yamaki, 21 years old, and his brother, Akira, 20, are the grandsons of the late bonsai master Masaru Yamaki, who in 1976 donated one of his most prized bonsai as part of Japan’s Bicentennial gift to the American people.
When the brothers arrived at the Museum, they approached one of the volunteers on duty that day, Yoshiko Tucker, asking her in Japanese for directions to where their grandfather’s bonsai might be found. Yoshiko and another volunteer, Michiko Hansen, quickly alerted Curator Warren Hill that important visitors had arrived. Warren then greeted the brothers and guided them to the magnificent Yamaki bonsai.
This Japanese white pine (Pinus parvifolia) is approximately 375 years old, and is the oldest specimen in the Japanese Bonsai Collection. Masaru Yamaki had made the gift of this bonsai before the brothers were born and so they had never seen it, although they were very familiar with it through photographs and family stories. As they stood respectfully in front of their grandfather’s ancient bonsai, Warren could not imagine the bonsai’s hidden past that was about to be revealed to him.
Warren invited the two brothers to lunch. Yoshiko and Michiko also joined the group, and they translated the ensuing dialog with the brothers. The Museum’s records showed that the Yamaki bonsai had been donated by Masaru Yamaki of Hiroshima, but little was known about the donor or the history of the pine.
The brothers explained that their family had operated a commercial bonsai nursery in Hiroshima for several generations, but now the nursery is a private bonsai collection. Their father (Masaru’s son), Yasuo Yamaki, is a landscape architect and a member of the Hiroshima Prefectural Assembly; their mother, Michiko, is an artist. They live in the family home, which is adjacent to the bonsai garden. Former students of Masaru Yamaki now take care of the family’s large bonsai collection.
On that day, Shigeru said that all the family members (his grandparents and their young son-Shigeru’s father) were inside their home. The bomb exploded about three kilometers (less than two miles) from the family compound. The blast blew out all the glass windows in the home, and each member of the family was cut from the flying glass fragments. Miraculously, however, none of them suffered any permanent injury.
Masaru Yamaki became a very influential member of the Japanese bonsai community, living until age 89. His widow, Ritsu Yamaki,is now 91 and still living in the family home with Shigeru’s father and mother.
When Shigeru returned to Japan, he obtained from his father a wealth of information, including photographs, documenting the illustrious bonsai career of Masaru Yamaki. On September 1 of this year, Shigeru came back to Washington, D.C., bringing with him copies of these invaluable historical materials. The Foundation hosted a luncheon in honor of Shigeru on September 3, attended by Warren Hill, Jack Sustic, Young Choe, Yoshimi Komiyama, Kazuma Maki (a friend of Shigeru from Japan), and Felix Laughlin.
Shigeru confirmed that his grandfather’s bonsai originally came from Miyajima Island which is just south of Hiroshima. Japanese white pine bonsai from Miyajima are considered very valuable because they are so rare.
Masaru Yamaki was proud to have given his Japanese white pine bonsai to the American people as part of Japan’s Bicentennial gift. (For the story behind the Bicentennial gift, see The Bonsai Saga-How the Bicentennial Collection Came to America by Dr. John Creech, published by the Foundation in 2001.) After the Japanese white pine arrived at the U.S. National Arboretum, he came to see it in its new home in the Japanese Pavilion at the Arboretum (now part of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum).
Masaru Yamaki learned the art and science of bonsai from his father, Katsutaro Yamaki. After World War II, Masaru Yamaki was one of the leaders of the effort to revive bonsai as a commercial enterprise in Japan, and he served for many years as the director of a cooperative association that promoted the production of improved varieties of bonsai in the Hiroshima area.
He was well-known for his masterpiece Japanese black pines (Pinus thunbergii) as well as his Japanese white pines. Bill Valavanis visited Masaru Yamaki in 1970. He recalls being struck by Mr. Yamaki’s magnificent Japanese black pines with extremely heavy trunks planted in very small pots. This combination illustrated the technical knowledge and skill required to produce small feeder roots on a heavy trunk necessary to keep the tree living in a small container. He also remembers some very unusual Nishiki Japanese white pines having corky bark. Mr. Yamaki had one of the original cultivars.
Friends of Mr. Yamaki included the other leading figures in the bonsai world in Japan, such as Saburo Kato and Toshiji Yoshimura (father of Yuji Yoshimura). In 1983, he was awarded the prestigious “Yellow Ribbon Medal” by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone-the first such award given to a member of the bonsai industry. To commemorate Mr. Yamaki’s receipt of the Yellow Ribbon Award, the famous sculptor, Katsuzo Entsuba (himself a recipient of the Order of Culture Award, the highest award given in Japan for contributions made in developing Japanese culture) produced a limited-edition cinnabar ink-seal bronze box.
The Yamaki pine is truly a testament to peace and beauty, and we are fortunate to realize the miracle of its survival in 1945.
We are very grateful to Shigeru Yamaki and his father, Yasuo Yamaki, for the most interesting information and photographs they have provided concerning the Yamaki bonsai and its donor, the bonsai master Masaru Yamaki.
Over time, we hope to uncover additional historical information about the other bonsai in the Museum, and intend to report on those efforts in future issues of the NBF Bulletin and on the NBF website.
Masaru Yamaki’s Pictures
Bonsai is not limited to expensive trees in a classic shape. Indeed, by using excessive wire or growing unnecessary branches in order to create a classic shape, the artist may fail to express the tree’s essential beauty.
Trees best expressing bonsai no kokoro (the spirit of bonsai) are often marked by unaffected simplicity. Even if the tree has a slender trunk, it can still touch one’s heart deeply, conveying with overflowing vitality the beauty of nature in fields and mountains.
The visitors arrived late in the afternoon. The Museum was closed. Fortunately, they located Assistant Curator Jackson Tanner outside of the Museum’s gates. Despite a language barrier, Jackson soon realized they had a family relationship to a tree in the collection. He quickly arranged a private group viewing with Curator Jack Sustic and Assistant Curator Jim Hughes, who are the bonsai caretakers.
The Curator recognized the Yamaki family name and led them through the entire Japanese Collection starting at its exit gate. They stopped at the entrance to the Collection and there was the family’s gift– Masaru Yamaki’s pine collected from Miyajima, almost 400 years old, maintained by the family for five generations, a survivor of the blast at Hiroshima, a gift to the American people. The tree now holds pride of place at the entrance to the Japanese Bonsai Collection at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. The tree is stunningly beautiful and healthy. Mrs. Tatsuzaki held a beaming smile, spoke rapidly to the others & patted the soil of the tree her father had tended.
The curators as well as the family were extremely happy and excited. Curator Jack Sustic notes:
There was much pride in the pavilion that day.
Our visiting guests were proud of the pine and of being a part of its life. Jim and I were proud of the pine and of being a part of its life.
It is amazing to think how many lives this bonsai has touched. All the lives of the people that are no longer with us and all the lives it has yet to touch. I believe that these things help to shape the character of a bonsai as much as wiring and pruning do.
The timing was fortuitous. Though totally unplanned, they had arrived on the day in which the Foundation held its annual board meeting and dinner. The National Bonsai Foundation was honored to invite them to attend its annual dinner that evening. The NBF dinner gave the American bonsai community an opportunity to meet Masaru Yamaki’s daughter and her family.
The dinner also gave Mrs. Tatsuzaki a chance to meet Hiromasa Oguchi, the son of another famous donor to the Museum, Kenichi Oguchi who in 1976 had donated the Shimpaku juniper that is used as the model for the Museum’s and Foundation’s logo. Thus, the daughter and son of two very special donors of the bonsai in the Japanese Collection were able to reminisce over a dinner, much to the delight of everyone present that evening.
Mrs. Tatsuzaki had vivid memories of the Yamaki pine from her childhood and could recollect playing in the garden where the bonsai had stood so majestically for so long and where it had survived the Hiroshima blast. She anticipates locating more documentation about the bonsai and its garden history in Japan, and it is eagerly awaited.