Kato sama, Kato sensei, but never Kato san 4/8/09

saburo-katoThis photo of Saburo Kato was taken by Morten Albek in June of 2005 during an interview he and two friends conducted with Mr. Kato, Japan’s most famous bonsai master of his generation. Kato sensei passed away in February 2008.

I only saw Saburo Kato once. It was in 2005 at the WBC (World Bonsai Convention) in Washington DC. I was busy selling books and magazines from our booth when he walked by. He was immistakenly unmistakenly himself, very old and thin, with an air that radiated dignity. I was so taken by surprise that I blurted out “Kato san!”  He stopped for a moment, smiled and moved on. That was it, nothing more. Yet I can still see that moment in my mind. I can also remember my embarrassment at just blurting out his name, and incorrectly at that (san is the basic term of respect you might accord almost anyone). What would have been appropriate is Kato sama (an honorific used to address someone of much higher rank than oneself) or Kato sensei (teacher). Oh well, next time the greatest bonsai master of his generation (who happens to be almost twice my age) walks by, I’ll get it right.

kato-pineThis impressive 400 year old Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora) is the shadowy bonsai in the background of the photo above. It is one of hundreds of Mr. Kato’s amazing bonsai. The Tokonoma (display alcove) is in Mr. Kato’s house. The photo is by Morten Albek, author of Stone Lantern Publishing’s Shohin Bonsai.

The following quote is from the above mentioned Saburo Kato interview that Morten Albek and two friends conducted in 2005.

“From childhood and up to now I have used every hour at bonsai. It has filled out my entire life, round the clock. So in some way, bonsai isn’t something special in my life, because it is my life.”

For a wonderful tour of Kato sensei’s bonsai see Forest, Rock Planting & Ezo Spruce Bonsai, published by The National Bonsai Foundation.

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3 thoughts on “Kato sama, Kato sensei, but never Kato san

  1. Yeah. I would’ve missed him too, expect he happened to be walking by and I happened to be looking up at that moment.

  2. My son, Bjorn, had the honor to meet and speak with Kato sensei in February 2007 when he served as Bill Valavanis’ interpreter during Bill’s annual tour for Kokufu-ten. Bjorn was studying at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, and was fairly fluent in Japanese. Mr. Kato displayed an elevated interest in talking when Bjorn spoke in his native language. It was a moment Bjorn will never forget.

    Bjorn has since moved back to Japan to apprentice with one of Kato Sensei’s students, Mr. Keiichi Fujikawa, proprietor of Fujikawa Kouka-en in Osaka, Japan. Mr. Fujikawa apprenticed with Kato sensei for 6 years over 20 years ago and has a thriving bonsai nursery business.

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