Minakata: Japan’s pioneer of ecology

by Sachiko Tamashige

Contributing Writer

In an old black-and-white photograph on show at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Minakata Kumagusu — with a shaved head and dressed only in a waistcloth — stands by a huge tree, arms crossed in seeming defiance. He could easily be a lumberjack or a rural monk whose life of seclusion has been momentarily disturbed by the photographer. It’s hard to imagine that the sharp-eyed, almost wild-looking man was, in fact, an acclaimed academic of natural science and humanities.

Despite having no formal higher eduction, degree or even a position at an academic institution, Minakata (1867-1941) was respected by leading international academics, including Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, keeper of British and mediaeval antiquities and ethnography of The British Museum. He became friends with the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, exchanged ideas with the esoteric monk Dogi Horyu of Shingon Buddhism, and even gave a lecture to Showa Emperor Hirohito.

Though best known as a naturalist and folklorist, he was a man of multidisciplinary interests, with expertise in topics that ranged from East and West comparative cultural study to the ancient classics. He spent 14 years living in the U.S. and U.K.; independently collected thousands of plant specimens, notably fungi and slime molds; exchanged letters with international professional researchers; and contributed 51 essays to the British journal Nature during the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

With such an unconventional life and way of thinking, it’s not surprising that Minakata’s eccentricities and idiosyncratic habits, such as obsessive behavior, fits of anger and drinking to overcome shyness, led to rumors and exaggerated anecdotes about his work. He simply couldn’t fail to fascinate, and he still intrigues today.

The year 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of Minakata’s birth, and Japan celebrated with various exhibitions and symposiums that re-assessed Minakata’s contribution to science and culture. The last of these events, “Minakata Kumagusu: An Informant-savant 100 Years Ahead of His Time” at the National Museum of Nature and Science (NMNS), takes a scientific approach to Minakata’s work — not to debunk stories about him, but to scrutinize his legacy of diaries, letters and other items, primarily from the Minakata Kumagusu Archives in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture.

“Nearly 12 years ago, we introduced Minakata Kumagusu as a researcher of nature with a temporary exhibition titled “Minakata Kumagusu: Quest of the Universe” (2006),” says Tsuyoshi Hosoya, head of the division of fungi and algae at the department of Botany at NMNS and the representative of the planning team of the museum’s current exhibition. “After a decade of further examination, however, we have realized that in the realm of natural sciences, Minakata published relatively few papers in a modern academic manner. From today’s standpoint, we would hardly call him a research scientist, for example like Newton or Einstein, who would propose hypotheses and academically verify (or invalidate) them.”

Nevertheless, during the early 1990s there was a Minakata Kumagusu boom, during which time he was “re-branded” with little credible research. It wasn’t until recently that more information about Minakata could be closely analyzed.

“In 2006, the Minakata Kumagusu Archives was established after Minakata’s daughter Fumie entrusted her father’s legacy to the city. She had preserved and protected most her father’s belongings and equipment, such as his microscope, diaries, letters and even memos,” says Yoshiya Tamura, the chief academic trustee of Minakata Kumagusu Archives and a co-planner to “An Informant-savant 100 Years Ahead of His Time.”

“It was like a time capsule, and the unpublished manuscripts and writings in this time capsule implied huge unrealized aspirations,” continues Tamura. “It seems that he left incredible possibilities open, as well as his fragmented thoughts to be compiled someday.”

Since the archives were open to the public, full-scale scientific research of Minakata’s work has been ongoing. When considered in the context of today’s environmental and scientific concerns, many of his achievements reveal themselves to be progressive for his time.

Minakata’s protest against the Meiji Government’s Shrine Consolidation Policy, which aimed to merge small Shinto shrines into large regional ones for administrative and financial purposes during the early 1900s, was an early stance to protect the ecology of Japan. He wrote letters explaining how deforestation would affect not only plant and animal life, but also the nation’s cultural heritage and spirituality.

The letters, which made use of his knowledge of botany and folklore as well as other information he had acquired, were distributed via the scholar Kunio Yanagita, who acted as a mediator between experts who were asked to support Minakata and his campaign. Despite being arrested and jailed for throwing a bag of specimens at a Wakayama representative, Minakata continued to protest until the regulations were abolished in 1920.

Although a number of shrines and forests were destroyed during the decade of policy implementation, Minakata’s efforts still saved some ecosystems, including forests along the Kumano Kodo trail (now listed as a heritage site) and Kashima Island in the Kii Peninsular, where he once gave a guided tour to the Showa Emperor Hirohito.

Such achievements place Minakata as a visionary and pioneer of ecology, but also illustrate his remarkable adeptness at both collecting and directing information.

“Minakata’s diaries, correspondence, extracts (transcriptions of a wide range of documents) and mycological illustrations were key items of his research activities,” says Hosoya. “We found that he was a ‘super informant,’ someone who had mastered retrieving, handling and distributing data whenever necessary.”

Rather than a scientist or a botanist, Minakata’s role appeared to be one of a maven extraordinaire.

“He seems to have treated information the same way that we do in today’s cyberspace,” says Hosoya. “He collated it, interlinked it in a network manner and disseminated it like information technology’s online tools such as Google — but he did it 100 years before us.”

For more information on “Minakata Kumagusu: An Informant-savant 100 Years Ahead of His Time,” which runs until March 4, visit www.kahaku.go.jp/event/2017/12kumagusu. To learn more about Minakata, visit the Minakata Kumagusu Archives website at www.minakata.org.