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Frank Masao Okamura, 1912-2006

NEW YORK, USA
18 January 2006
Frank Okamura

Frank Okamura, who came to New York City as a gardener after his release from a wartime internment camp in California and ended up contributing to the spread of Japanese cultural influences in America as a bonsai master, restaurant owner and even as a landlord, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

His death was announced by his daughter Reiko.

Mr. Okamura was on the staff of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from 1947 until 1981, first as the gardener in charge of its Hill and Pond Japanese Garden, then as a bonsai specialist, responsible for the care of the garden's large and important collection of bonsai, the miniature, potted trees that are grown using techniques developed in Japan.

Mr. Okamura also taught the Botanic Garden's bonsai classes and lectured nationwide, instructing thousands of students in the art of creating bonsai. He wrote articles on the subject for the World Book Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Japan, a work in English published by the Japanese company Kodansha.

"He was one of the three major teachers of bonsai in America," said Philip Tacktill, a former president of the Bonsai Society of Greater New York. "He taught that the art involves more than just physically arranging a tree; it demands spiritual involvement by the creator. A good bonsai reflects the person who made it."

Emperor Hirohito awarded Mr. Okamura an Order of the Sacred Treasure medal in 1981 for his work in furthering knowledge of bonsai.

Frank Masao Okamura was born in Hiroshima on May 5, 1911, and moved to California as a 13-year-old to join his father, who had gone there in search of work. He lived with a British family while attending high school and went back to Japan briefly to marry. He and his wife, Toshimi Nishikubo, then returned to America to set up a small gardening business in the Los Angeles area.

Mr. Okamura lost his business in 1942 when he, his wife and their two young daughters were sent to the Manzanar Relocation Camp in the California desert. The family lived there for three years and eight months, until the war ended.

Eager to leave California after their release, the family moved to New York, where Mr. Okamura first took jobs waiting tables and setting pins in a bowling alley.

He was finally hired by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to tend its Japanese garden, which had been vandalized during the war and was in poor shape. He slowly nursed it back to health.

He also became involved with the garden's small bonsai collection, which had been in existence for 20 years but had never been fully appreciated by the staff until American soldiers began returning from Japan with souvenir trees. Many of the soldiers came to the garden for advice on caring for their bonsai, and their questions were often directed to Mr. Okamura. Eventually, the garden arranged for him to begin teaching classes.

Though never formally trained in the art of bonsai, Mr. Okamura was knowledgeable and skilled. He knew how to control the growth of trees through pruning and selective fertilization, and how to shape them with wire. He also understood the aesthetics of bonsai, which involves arranging the elements of a miniature landscape into a harmonious whole.

Mr. Okamura taught his students that practicing bonsai required patience, sensitivity to nature and five fundamental qualities: humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom and fidelity.

He might also have mentioned fearlessness. His daughter Mihoko remembers him virtually hanging off precipices in the Catskills to get saplings he thought would make good bonsai trees. He created countless examples of bonsai, both at his home and at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Dozens of his works remain in the garden's collection.

His wife died in 1987. He is survived by his daughters Reiko, of Manhattan, and Mihoko, of Kyoto, Japan.

 

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