First of two parts

The term Minakatella longifolia G. Lister may be known to few beyond the scientific fraternity, but behind the story of this slime mold — and of how specimens of it came to be at the Natural History Museum in London — is one of the most fascinating men in Japan’s modern era. This week and next, I will be recounting the life story of the scientist after whom Minakatella was named: Kumagusu Minakata.

An exhibition of Minakata’s legacy in science and art, titled “Kumagusu’s Forests,” is currently showing until Feb. 3 at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Aoyama, Tokyo, where it offers a fascinating window on the life and times of this flamboyant Japanese genius.

Let’s start with the most intriguing question: How did a person born in Wakayama City in the dying days of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate become recognized around the world as a pioneer in his field of biology?

That was a time when Japan was barely emerging from 250 years of self-imposed national isolation, a policy that created a scientific and technological gap of immense proportions between Japan and the West. And another question: How could a man like Minakata — eccentric, feisty and volatile to the point of being wild — turn himself into one of the most respected, even worshipped, figures in the intellectual establishment of the Meiji Era (1868-1912)?

Minakata was born in 1867 as the second son in a family that ran a general store in Wakayama City. Eventually he would have five siblings. Stories of his intellectual achievements as a child are legendary. While in primary school, he copied out several lengthy classics, including the 40-chapter, 14th-century “Taiheiki (Chronicle of the Great Peace)” word for word. His early diaries also show a marked talent for drawing, both realistic and imaginary, and when still in primary school he began making comparisons between Western and Japanese concepts and myths.

Aversion to formal education

In 1884, Minakata entered what is now the University of Tokyo, but unlike two classmates who became famous authors, Soseki Natsume and Shiki Masaoka, he flunked out after two years and returned to Wakayama. His aversion to formal education did not deter him from taking on monumental studies of nature, history and art, or from learning foreign languages. Some sources credit him with mastering 19 languages, but this is no doubt an exaggeration. In fact, he was probably proficient in half that many, including French, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Chinese and English — the last of which he wrote with near-native fluency.

In the Meiji Era, virtually all a family’s promise and property fell onto the shoulders of the eldest son. Kumagusu, being the second son, was not specifically tied to his father’s business. However, his father, Yahei, admired his son’s amazing intellectual prowess and didn’t prevent him from moving up to Tokyo to further his education. But now back home from Tokyo, Kumagusu was intent on leaving Japan — and this at a time when only the very top echelon of the elite could contemplate such a journey.

On Dec. 12, 1886 he sailed to the United States, arriving in San Francisco on Jan. 7. He did not linger on the West Coast, finding student life at Pacific Business College, which he had entered, tedious. It was to the study of nature, not business, that he wished to dedicate his life. In August of that year he found himself in East Lansing, Michigan, where he enrolled into Michigan State School of Agriculture, today’s Michigan State University.

It was while there that he was assaulted, together with a couple of other Japanese young men, by a group of American students. The American boys were suspended, and that incident seemed to be over; until, that is, the president of the university found Minakata plastered one night in the corridor of his dormitory. The next day he found himself on the road out of East Lansing. (In fact, Minakata is known to have enjoyed his liquor, going on binges later in life that could last over a week, during which he did not return home.)

His next stop was Ann Arbor, where he joined a group of Japanese students studying at the University of Michigan. His better judgment stayed the hand that might have enrolled him there, but it was from Ann Arbor that he began writing to William Wirt Calkins (1842-1914), a retired Civil War colonel and serious student of fungi and lichens. Calkins, who traveled often from his native Illinois to Florida to collect fungi, urged Minakata to go to the southern state to pursue mycology as a field of study. Minakata took his advice, arriving in Jacksonville on May 2, 1891.

Elephant driver’s assistant

That September he went on to Cuba, where he collected fungi and joined a circus. He followed the circus — working in it as the elephant driver’s assistant — to Haiti, Venezuela and Jamaica, becoming what may well be the world’s only biologist who collected his samples when not driving circus elephants. This circus was truly international, comprising more than 50 white, black and Asian people from Britain, the U.S., France, Italy, China and Japan.

On Sept. 14, 1892, after six years in and about the U.S., he took a ship across the Atlantic to England, arriving in Liverpool on the 21st and immediately moving on to London. He notes in his diary: “Settled into an inn at Euston run by Jews and spent the whole first night studying my specimens . . . For days, without money, without food, reading . . . “

It wasn’t long before his presence caught the eye of Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97), the first keeper (i.e. curator) of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. By 1893, Minakata had published “The Constellations in the Far East” — the first of 50 articles in the then-popular science magazine Nature. He was subsequently to become a regular contributor to the weekly publication Notes & Queries, a widely read encyclopedia-like journal that is, incidentally, still going strong as an academic periodical published by Oxford University Press.

Minakata spent a total of eight years in London, pursuing his studies and working at the British Museum. After his return to Japan in 1900, he researched slime molds, discovering a new genus, wrote prodigiously and became the first truly modern ecologist of Japan.

Next week I will continue the story of Kumagusu Minakata and how he turned himself into an activist and agitator to protect the environment from just the sort of developers and nationalists who led Japan into the most devastating war in its history.

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