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Frank Okamura, 94; Expert Took Spiritual Approach to Bonsai

January 29, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Frank Okamura often began his classes by saying, "I am not licensed to preach in church." That was true. But he made such frequent reference to heaven, Earth and deity that his students could easily imagine they had signed up for a course in religion instead of one on Okamura's specialty: bonsai.

Okamura, 94, who died Jan. 9 of natural causes at his New York City home, was a master of bonsai, the horticultural practice of training dwarf potted trees that was developed centuries ago in China and Japan. Okamura introduced thousands of students to the ancient art through a spiritual approach that set him apart from other major bonsai teachers in America.

"His philosophy was if you looked at a tree, you had to communicate with it. You had to feel what the tree wanted you to do," said Philip Tacktill, former president of the Bonsai Society of Greater New York, who considered Okamura one of this country's most influential bonsai teachers.

Japan recognized Okamura's contributions to the art in 1981 by awarding him one of its highest honors: the Order of the Sacred Treasure with Silver Rays.

A scholarly looking gentleman in thick-rimmed glasses and a wispy beard, Okamura demonstrated his great skill when he turned a neglected assemblage of miniature trees at New York's Brooklyn Botanic Garden into an internationally renowned collection. He began his work there soon after the end of World War II, when most things Japanese stirred intense hatred among Americans embittered over four years of warfare.

Over the next three decades, Okamura contributed to the rise of bonsai cultivation as a popular hobby through classes for more than 6,000 students and demonstration lectures around the country. In particular, he developed methods for raising bonsai indoors that made it an attractive pastime for people in cold climates. He also wrote entries on bonsai for the World Book Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Japan.

Making a living was uppermost in Okamura's mind when he went to work at the Brooklyn garden in 1947.

He had left behind California, where he had been forced to give up his home and a small landscaping business for confinement at the Manzanar relocation camp for Japanese Americans. He was among nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent in four Western states who were sent to internment camps in 1942, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into the war. No internees were ever found guilty of espionage or sabotage.

If Okamura was bitter about his losses, he kept his feelings private. Although some Japanese immigrants, upset about their treatment in the U.S., returned to Japan, "he chose to stay," his daughter, Reiko Okamura, said in an interview from her New York City home. "He wanted to show what the best of Japanese culture was."

Frank Masao Okamura was born in Hiroshima on May 5, 1911, and immigrated to Sacramento at 13 to join his father, a farmer. An only child, Okamura worked in the fields picking cherries until he was 17, when he was hired as a gardener's assistant. He returned to Japan briefly to find a wife and married Toshimi Nishikubo. Back in the U.S., the couple established a gardening business in West Los Angeles.

Then came Pearl Harbor. In the anti-Japanese hysteria that followed, the Okamuras, like thousands of other internees, were given 24 hours to pack for their evacuation to the California desert.

"They weren't able to take anything but my diapers" in the two suitcases allotted them, said Reiko, who was only 1 at the time.

Eventually, 10,000 Japanese Americans, mainly from the Los Angeles area, were incarcerated at Manzanar, one of 10 relocation camps the federal government operated during the war.

Okamura would share little about the experience with his daughter, except to say that men in the camp were shot at by guards when they escaped the barbed-wire compound to catch rabbits for their families to eat. "He had a black leather jacket with a bullet hole in it. He was shot at because he went to get food," Reiko recalled.

When he and his family were released at the end of the war, Okamura decided that life in California would be unbearable. He left for New York, where he found menial jobs in a restaurant and a bowling alley.

His fortunes shifted in 1947, when he learned of an opening for a gardener at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

George S. Avery, the director, initially assigned Okamura to tend the Japanese Hill and Pond Garden, which had been vandalized during the war. By the early 1950s, Okamura was in charge of a rather sad bonsai collection, consisting of 11 plants out of an original 32 that had been imported from Japan and donated to the garden in 1925 by an American enthusiast. Under Okamura's care, the collection eventually grew to more than 1,000 trees and shrubs, from fuchsias a few inches tall to California redwoods a few feet tall.

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