The Father of Modern Bonsai in Japan, Part I
Compiled by Robert J. Baran
This Page Last Updated: June 7, 2014
Kyuzo Murata was born on June 23, 1902 in
Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture. He entered
Keio Gijuku University, Tokyo, some 140 miles to the southeast of his
birthplace and two miles south of the Imperial Palace.
(Murata's parents were said to have been very successful in the silk industry in Takayama City and thus their son was able to go
to a private school far away.) At Keio University Murata majored in economics, however, he had to later leave without
graduating in order to receive treatment for a severe gastric ulcer. He then became interested in bonsai and studied with
Tomekichi Kato, proprietor of Mansei-en Bonsai Garden.
On his doctor's advice, Murata then went about twenty miles northwest of the capital
to the town of Ōmiya (founded as a modern municipality in 1899), where the water was reputed to have health-giving properties
for humans as well as for miniature trees. Sangan-shimizu (a natural spring) is one of the features of the ward's natural heritage.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Kyuzo Murata and his associates from the
Bonsai-Mura (Bonsai Village) at Ōmiya regularly went to
on Kunashiri Island (to the east of the big north Japanese island of Hokkaido, and taken over by
following WWII). This was the native home of the Ezo spruce (
). The place where they grew is called Yachi, a marshland having a thick mass of accumulated sphagnum moss.
This is an inhospitable natural environment where the land is covered with deep snow from the middle of September until
the middle of May, a place where the wind blows endlessly. Murata and company would pack up the trees they collected
about the first or second of September every year and ship them down to Honshu, Japan's main island. The roots were
packed in sphagnum moss, then wrapped in burlap and tied with string. The trees were then placed in specially
constructed boxes for shipping. They would travel by rail and reach Ōmiya by the tenth or eleventh of September.
At the time of collecting most only had one or two white living roots showing. By the time they were transported,
and despite the poor condition after they arrived, they would have a profusion of vigorous white roots growing out through the burlap.
And Murata began to assist Masakuni I
(Shichinosuke Kawasumi, 1880-1950) in developing additional tools for bonsai. A well-known manufacturer of
flower arranging scissors and medical-use cutting tools, Masakuni in 1919 had established a company to carry
Japanese bonsai tools. In the early 1920s he invented the first shears specifically designed for use on bonsai,
and a little later came out with the epoch-making concave cutter. (Previous to this time ordinary garden shears
were used to prune bonsai.) Several Masakuni tools (wire cutter, turntable and jacks, etc.) are still known as "Kyuka Type."
In early December 1934 the second
Kokufu-ten bonsai exhibit was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art
Museum. Murata had a tree on display at that event.
Guide Book of The Omiya Bonsai Village, c.1935;(In 1940, Ōsato village merged with other villages to form Ōmiya city. Also this year, the main hall of the Hikawa Shrine was rebuilt.)
Kyuka-En is at the center of the right hand edge.
(The Story of "Bonsai", The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama, March 21, 2014, pp. 19-20)
The bonsai growers at Ōmiya were just beginning to become prosperous again
-- most had resettled there from Tokyo two years after the great earthquake of 1923 -- when World War II broke out.
The military draft and the emphasis on raising foodstuffs reduced the number of Ōmiya growers from a peak of
twenty-three families in the late 1930s to one, Murata. Tomekichi Kato (Mansei-en) and Seian Shimizu (Seidai-en) recommended
Murata for head of the town-block association of Bonsai-chō (Bonsai Village) to trust him with the future of bonsai.
At that time, a head of a town-block association was not commandeered for war service.
He collected and preserved as many as he could get together from other
growers, and got permission to store and house them on his garden plot in Ōmiya.
after the Pacific War, the
luxury tax on bonsai was so high that it nearly caused the disbandment of the growers at Ōmiya.
In 1947, the
Bonsai Association was officially established. Kyuzo Murata was its first leader.
From 1949 to 1955, Murata was chairman of the Nihon Bonsai Kumiai (Professional Bonsai Gardener's Association of Japan).
He was often in contact with Toshiji Yoshimura, a prominent bonsai and suiseki artist from Tokyo. At one point, Murata's wife Fumi introduced a lovely young Ōmiya lady, Kazuko Nagano, to Toshiji's son, Yuji. On March 11, 1948 Yuji Yoshimura and Miss Nagano were married. (Yoshimura would go on to make his mark in the bonsai world outside of Japan.)
Aged more than 800 years: Hight 14 inches: trunk 5 inches in diametre.
From both ends of the trunk, the roots have grown up and made an arch,
so we call it 'Heiwa Mon' (Peace Arch)." (pg. 18)
Hight 29 inches: trunk 2 inches in diametre." (pg. 74)
Aged more than 80 years
Hight 29 inches: trunk 2 inches in diametre." (pg. 60)
Aged more than 50 years: Hight 22 inches" (pg. 96)
After the war, many of the blade-making areas began to develop their own bonsai tools
using Masakuni as the prototype. (In the decades that followed there would eventually be many hundreds of different
types of bonsai tools on the market to choose from.)
Murata was head between 1954 and 1960 of the Japan Union of Bonsai Growers, in
which capacity he contributed greatly to the cause of the art. He also was in charge of bonsai belonging to
some celebrities, such as one-time Japanese prime minister Shigeru Yoshida and the Imperial family Chichibuno-miya.
(In 1957, the official suburb name of Bonsai-chō, lit. "Bonsai Town," was given to the precinct.)
Mr. and Mrs. Edward Holsten, two of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Trustees, returned from a world cruise in 1958 having procured a number of superior specimens from some of Japan's finest bonsai nurseries. This collection of trees was finally imported in 1961. Mr. and Mrs. Howard Phipps, Sr., also traveling to Japan in the 1950s, brought back several trees to start the collection that bears their name. Most of the high-ranking specimens in both collections came from Murata's Kyuka-en. 5
Isamu Wakabayashi had been born on July 21, 1936 in
Kawagoe City, west of Ōmiya in
Saitama Prefecture. He was interested in plants from his early childhood. After graduating from an
agriculture school, he took a job in a city office. But he soon realized that he was not suited for a clerical
job and so left the office. His father felt that Isamu should have a job related to plants and thought of bonsai.
Now, Lynn Perry was a graduate of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, and also studied in the Dept. of Landscape Architecture of the University of Pennsylvania. She became the first American to study bonsai with a Japanese master for an extended period of time. For one or two days a week from 1960 through the fall of 1962, she received instruction from Murata. After intensive practical and theoretical training, she was awarded a teaching certificate by her sensei. During this time she wrote Bonsai: Trees and Shrubs, A Guide to the Methods of Kyuzo Murata, which was published in 1964 by The Ronald Press. While in Japan she also served as a member of the staff of the Agricultural Attaché at the American Embassy in Tokyo.
Also in 1964, the English publication was made of Kyuzo Murata's Bonsai: Miniature Potted Trees by Tokyo's Shufunotomo Co., Ltd. (Its twenty-fourth printing would be made in 1986.)