Second of two parts

During his eight years in London from 1892 to 1900, self-taught biologist Kumagusu Minakata lived a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from one dingy rented room to another — even once living above stables on the edge of Kensington Gardens.

Here’s one typical diary entry from the time:

“Penniless, shared a tin of Australian rabbit with guest Takahashi. Cost, one shilling. Big tin and cheap, so buying and eating only this day after day.”

Minakata spent his time mainly at the British Museum cataloging its Oriental collection, and this brought in some money. He also did translation work and dealt in Japanese woodblock prints. His “London Extracts,” comprising 52 volumes, form a fascinating record of life in the British capital at the end of the 19th century. As well, he wrote 50 articles for the respected journal Nature, and made more than 300 contributions to the encyclopedic weekly Notes & Queries on subjects ranging from astronomy, biology and zoology to folktales and myths. In 1897 he met and befriended the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen.

Minakata left England on Sept. 1, 1900, sailing from Liverpool and arriving in Kobe in the early morning of Oct. 15, dressed in what he described as “a Western suit like a mosquito net.”

In his long absence from Japan, his father, Yahei, had died and his elder brother had managed, in a few years, to fritter away the whole of a generous inheritance. In 1906, Minakata married Matsue Tamura, the daughter of a Shinto priest. The next year they had a son; and in 1911, a daughter.

Minakata was soon to throw himself into the study of myxomycetes. Called nenkin in Japanese, these are fungilike slime molds, such as ones he collected in the forests of Wakayama and sent to Guilielma Lister (1860-1949) in London. One that was named after him — Minakatella longifolia G. Lister — was referred to here last week.

Neither plant nor animal

A word on these intriguing molds. They were thought at the time to be neither plant nor animal, but something else that had characteristics of both. They have an amoeboid phase but are also spore-forming — that is, the amoeboid phase aggregates to form a spore body, and this requires some cellular coordination, making them difficult to classify as either plant or animal. (Minakata was a man attracted to the mysterious and the ambiguous in nature and life.) You may find slime molds quite close to home, growing on wet grass cuttings from your lawn. (The Minakata exhibit, showing at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Aoyama, Tokyo until Feb. 3, has many specimens and drawings of slime molds collected by him.)

The year that he married was a watershed year for Minakata in more ways than one. It was then that the greatest, and most significant, battle of his life began.

In 1906 the Meiji government issued the Edict of the Amalgamation of the Shrines, ordering the dissolution of local shrines around the country and their merger with large, officially sanctioned ones. Minakata saw this clearly, and rightly, as an attempt to politicize the institution of the shrine. In effect, it was an early and giant step toward the establishment of state Shinto, turning the animistic faith into an ideology of nationalism.

To Minakata, local shrines, surrounded by sacred trees, were the symbol of genuine Japanese nature-worship. He knew that Wakayama prefectural officials were hand-in-glove with developers (the kind of cozy tieup that exists throughout Japan to this day), and that trees formerly protected by local shrines would be felled in a wholesale manner. He pointed out that this would decrease the bird population for lack of nest sites — and so lead to an increase in the insect population. Farmers would then resort to using insecticides, which in turn would get into the water and harm the livelihood of both freshwater and inshore fishermen.

The result of the merger of the shrines was the formation of a link between the destruction of nature and the eventual creation of a fascist state. Ironically, those who supported that state in Japan’s most disastrous-ever war sang the praises of nature while simultaneously decimating it.

Minakata created a mandala to demonstrate the interconnectedness of all natural phenomena. He wrote of the “three ecologies”: the ecologies of biology, society and the mind. By fusing these three into a world view that necessitated the conservation of nature, he stands as a global pioneer in the ecology movement. His philosophy and actions can teach us a great deal today.

As for the latter — his actions — they were sometimes, in the thinking of the day, extreme. On Aug. 11, 1910, he barged into a meeting where officials were discussing the “development” of Wakayama timber, threw a portmanteau and a chair at some of them, and protested vehemently against the travesty of destruction they were wreaking on his beloved forests. Fanatic, yes; passionate and committed, absolutely. And where did this agitation opposing the greed and hypocrisy of much “development” get him?

Handed a suspended sentence

The police were called and Minakata was arrested for “breaking and entering.” In court he was merely handed a suspended sentence; after all, this celebrated native son of Wakayama had brought international renown to his remote prefecture.

He wrote in his diary at the time: “[The result of the official policy] would have been the laying to waste of every last native forest of Wakayama.”

He was a flamboyant and iconoclastic man who strove to honor what he saw as the nature-harmonious taboos of ancient Japan, embracing them as he embraced his Western learning, as a methodology to husband, preserve and live with nature. He was often seen dressed in no more than a loincloth, carrying a hammer and an insect net, roaming the forests. (Minakata suffered from hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, and often pranced about in his natural state.)

When Emperor Hirohito visited Wakayama in 1929, Minakata was asked to deliver a lecture to him, apparently the first time this privilege was ever afforded a commoner. After the Emperor left, with 110 specimens of slime mold in hand as an offering, Minakata wrote this poem:

Oh breeze from the inlet Do you realize the branches you are blowing through? This is a forest praised by the Emperor!

Minakata’s life, from 1867 to 1941 (he died exactly three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor), spanned the greatest and most dramatic era of change in the last 1,000 years of Japanese history. His “three ecologies” teach us that the fundament of scientific research is a love and respect for nature. To Minakata, what the eye sees, what the mind reasons and what the heart feels are one.

On Minakata’s death, the Emperor, who had led Japan in its most fatal years of “development,” wrote of the island of Kashima in Minakata’s native province of Kishu (Wakayama):

When I gaze upon Kashima Isle, dim in the rain I think of the man that Kishu gave to the world Kumagusu Minakata

Minakata became one of the most worshipped heroes of his time. But his greatest achievement may be that he lived his life discovering, protecting and fighting for the phenomena of nature that this country so assiduously and cynically destroyed in his day and has continued to do so since. Minakata is, in this sense, a heroic figure in more ways than one.

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