Minakata Kumagusu (南方 熊楠, April 15, 1867 - December 29, 1941) was a Japanese author and naturalist. Minakata was born in Wakayama, Wakayama Prefecture. In 1883, Minakata moved to Tokyo, where he entered the preparatory school Kyouritsu Gakkou. The head master of Kyouritsu, Korekyo Takahashi, encouraged Minakata in his botanical studies as well as got him interested in English. The following year, Minakata passed the entrance exam to Tokyo University Preparatory School (Tokyo Daigaku Yobimon), counting among his classmates, the novelist Natsume Souseki.
At end end of 1886, Minakata set off to study in the United States. He arrived in San Francisco in January of the next year, and he studied there for about 6 months. He next went to Michigan State Agricultural College, where he was accepted, becoming the first Japanese to pass the entrance exam there. These were just the first steps, however, in Minakata's unusually adventorous studies in various parts of the world, which would eventually include Cuba, Haiti, what is now Panama, Venezula, and England, before returning to Japan.
In addition to his studies in slime moulds, Minakata was intensely interested in folklore, religion and natural history. He wrote several papers, including 51 monographs in "Nature." He is famous for discovering many varieties of mycetozoa.
Minakata was also an epileptic, suffering from "grand mal" seizures. He was able to predict when he was about to have a seizure (as is common in epilepsy) due to a sense of "deja vu."
Minakata was a virgin till 41 years old.
To develop his talent, Yahei, a self-made man, sent Minakata to the newly opened Wakayama Middle School (now Toin High), which was unconventional for a merchant family those days. Minakata’s thirst for knowledge was growing bigger as he at home recited the Chinese classics and transcribed the books that he had learned by heart at a collector’s place. That he transcribed Wakan Sansai Zue, an encyclopedia of 105 volumes, and Honzo Komoku, illustrated books of flora, in over five years is a famous episode from this period. At school, however, he remained a low achiever. He would finish lunch early and observe a frog or a crab in the empty lunch box.
After finishing middle school, he went to Tokyo in March 1883. The following year he entered the Preparatory School of Tokyo University. Among his colleagues were Shiki Masaoka, Soseki Natsume, and Bimyo Yamada, who later became eminent figures of Japanese literature. Again Minakata was not interested in school and spent more time outside the university transcribing books in libraries, visiting zoos and botanic gardens, and collecting artifacts, animals, plants and minerals. At the news that Miles J. Berkeley, a world-famous British cryptogamist, and American botanist Moses A. Curtis had collected 6,000 species of fungi including slime molds, Minakata decided to produce an illustrated book that would cover more. In February 1886, following a failure at the end-of-year exam, he came home and told father that he would go to America. Initially opposed, Yahei finally gave in to his son's enthusiasm and let him go.
In August 1887, he moved to Lansing, Michigan and enrolled at the Michigan State School of Agriculture, where he was immersed in his study. One night in November 1888, however, he was in trouble for a drinking binge with a couple of Japanese and American friends in the dorm. He took the responsibility alone to save others from expulsion and early next morning left for Ann Arbor.
Minakata met bright Japanese students in Ann Arbor, home of the state university. While keeping company with them, he stayed away from university and studied on his own by reading books and collecting plants in the mountains, particularly cryptogams including fungi and lichens. In October 1889 he read a biography of Conrad Gessner, a Swiss naturalist and a leading figure of modern biology, and swore he would become Japan’s Gessner, which was when his quest for the wonders of cryptogam began.
When he heard from William W. Calkins, a retired American colonel and a collector of lichen, that many undiscovered plants were in Florida, Minakata was ready to go. With two microscopes, books, a pistol, insect catchers as well as a medicine box and a plants press that he had just bought in Ann Arbor, Minakata went to Jacksonville in April 1891. He collected plants and animals while staying with Jiang, a supportive Chinese vegetable storekeeper. After three months enthusiastically collecting plants and animals, he moved to Key West, Florida (the southernmost city in the U.S.), then to Havana, Cuba in mid September.
After a month in Havana, a Japanese circus rider suddenly visited him. That encounter brought him to a new adventure of traveling in Port-au-Prince, Caracas, Valencia, and Jamaica with the circus working as a mahout's hand. This enabled him to collect precious fungi and lichens in the West Indies. In January 1892 he returned to Jacksonville and worked on the plants he had collected in Florida and Cuba at Jiang's. When Jiang wound up the business in August, Minakata moved to New York for his cherished dream to be realized. In September he put an end to six years in America and got aboard the City of New York bound for the UK.
He lived in downtown London where rents were cheap. While working on herbaria and exchanging specimens and letters with William W. Calkins and Allen, he visited the British Museum, the South Kensington Museum and other galleries. He then was introduced to a Japanese Asian antique dealer Kataoka Prince. In August 1893, Minakata read in Nature magazine, his favorite since his time in U.S., a thesis titled "Five articles about the composition of constellations." Its questions inspired him to write a reply.
Kataoka Prince, who had noticed the erudition of the shabby-looking man, introduced him to Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, the first keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. Thereafter, Minakata visited the museum often to ask advice from Sir Wollaston. Using a fragmented dictionary borrowed from his landlady, he completed an article entitled "The Constellations in the Far East" in 30 days. The article was published in Nature and he suddenly became known among the intelligentsia. He contributed regularly to the magazine after that and also started writing for Notes and Queries. He continued to contribute a number of articles and letters to the magazines after returning to Japan and won a reputation worldwide as an authority on Oriental studies.
His rising reputation opened the door to friendships with notable figures including Frederick. V. Dickins, registrar of the University of London, as well as people from the British Museum including Sir Robert K. Douglas, director of the Oriental Printed Books section and Charles H. Read, the successor to Franks. He visited the British Museum almost every day. While immersing himself in rare books of all ages from East and West, particularly in the fields of archeology, anthropology, folklore and religion, he copied them into notebooks. A collection of 52 thick notebooks from this period called London Extracts is kept in the Minakata residence and the Minakata Kumagusu Museum. The pages are densely covered with tiny letters he put in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and Latin.
Douglas, who was impressed with his extensive knowledge, offered Minakata a job at the British Museum, but he declined the offer in light of freedom. Instead, he helped make a catalog of the books and manuscripts of the library and conducted historical research on the Buddhist statues of the museum using his expertise accumulated through reading and transcribing of a large number of books including classics and encyclopedia since childhood.
One of the highlights in London was getting to know Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese Revolution. Minakata put it in his diary how they hit it off straight away on first acquaintance at the Douglas’s office in the British Museum in March 1897 and quickly developed a friendship through visiting each other and talking till late almost every day. The descriptions, though very brief, reveal the closeness between two friends. Their company lasted only four months until Sun had to leave London for Asia in early July.
In October 1893 he met Toki Horyu, later the chief abbot of Koyasan temple complex, a relationship which deserves special mention. Minakata and Toki, much senior to him, opened up to each other and exchanged frank opinions about religion. They wrote to each other until later years. Many famous figures from Japan visited Minakata in London. They all were astonished at his erudition and shocked at his total lack of interest in daily life. Although highly regarded by some scholars, Minakata sometimes experienced discrimination because of his ethnicity, the cause for his frequent reckless behaviors leading up to the departure from the British Museum in December 1898. Frequent delay of money expected from the family in Japan forced him to make ends meet. He undertook a job translating the titles for the calligraphy collection at the South Kensington Museum and sold ukiyoe with his friends. High hopes of becoming an assistant professor at the soon-to-be opened Japanology program in Cambridge or Oxford were gone when the plan was turned down. Forced into straitened circumstances, he made a decision in despair to leave UK, where he had spent eight years. In September 1900, Minakata got on board the Awa Maru at the Thames and went home.
After a while, Minakata heard that Sun Yat-sen was in the Yokohama settlement as a political refugee and wrote him. In February 1901 Sun came to Wakayama. Although the first reunion in four years was disturbed by a police detail, Sun was happy to take risks to see his old friend. As a gift, Sun left his favorite Panama hat. He later sent Minakata a reference letter addressed to Inukai Tsuyoshi, his guardian in Japan and later the prime minister. The letter, never used, is kept in the Minakata residence and the hat is on display in the Minakata Kumagusu Museum. Their friendship survived for a while; Sun sent specimens of lichen from Hawaii and Minakata wrote back, but ultimately they drifted apart and never met again. After Sun's death, Minakata expressed his sorrow in the reminiscence and wrote: "Friendship changes like seasons."
Minakata was very active in Nachi. He collected insects and plants, made microscope slides and colored illustrated manuals, read hundreds of books, completed a draft for the English translation of Hojoki: The Ten Square Feet Hut co-authored with Frederick Victor Dickins, and proofread Primal Text of Japan also by Dickins. He resumed writing for Nature and Notes and Queries. Embraced by the wildlife in the Kumano Mountains, Minakata, based on his extensive knowledge of the world, studied interaction between the spiritual with the material world, and participated in heated debates on nature and life, including religious one with Horyu Toki. He also completed The Origin of the Swallow-Stone Myth (Ensekiko), a study he had planned at the end of the time in UK, that is considered the pinnacle of his research presented in English.
In the fall of 1905 Minakata donated 46 specimens of slime molds to the British Museum. Arthur Lister, president of the British Mycological Society, had them introduced in the Journal of Botany, vol. 49, as "The Second Report of Japanese Fungi," following the first report on the specimens sent by Prof. Miyoshi of Tokyo Imperial University. This article, which led Minakata to a new world of friendship with Lister and his daughter Gulielma, was a milestone in his career toward a world-class slime mold researcher.
In July 1906 at 40 Minakata married Matsue, 28, the fourth daughter of Munezo Tamura, chief priest of the Tokei Shrine. Tamura, a former samurai of the Kishu-Tokugawa clan, was also a Sinologist whose knowledge of Chinese wisdom had influenced Matsue’s upbringing. Her late marriage (for a woman in those days) was due to her devotion to father and the destitute family she had supported by teaching sewing and flower arrangement.
In July 1907 the couple had their first child, Kumaya. At first sight of his baby boy Minakata wrote: “Stayed awake till dawn watching my baby” and expressed the joy of becoming father. After the birth of Kumaya the marriage was rocky. After Matsue turned to her parents a few times, he gradually reduced alcohol. He kept in his diary every detail of Kumaya, how he moved and talked, which shows his deep love and expectations for his son. Minakata usually woke at 11 am and worked at home from sometime in the afternoon till 5 o’clock next morning sorting specimens, drawing pictures, conducting research, reading and writing. While weaving, Matsue, together with a housemaid, was very nervous about the care of weepy Kumaya. Their daughter Fumie was born in October 1911.
Minakata resumed copying books around in 1909. The extract of Daizokyo, scriptures owned by the Hōrin-ji Temple, which took full three years, was a particularly demanding job. “To read is to copy. You’ll forget when you just read it, but you’ll never forget when you copy it.” He propagated this belief and put it into practice by himself. The Tanabe Extracts from this period consist of 61 volumes. On top of the contributions he had made to British journals and magazines since coming home, Minakata started writing for journals and newspapers in Japan. Using a lot of citations was his signature style of research papers, but first-hand folklore evidence and antiquities were also included. He used his extraordinary memory and archives accumulated through interviews.
Minakata was worried that the consolidations would not only ruin historical buildings and antiquities but, by cutting trees, also damage the scenery and the natural life around them. He contributed an opinion to every edition of a local paper, Muro Shinpo. He also sent objection letters to major papers in Tokyo and Osaka and appealed to leading researchers for support, including Jinzo Matsumura, a notable botanist and professor of Tokyo University, to whom Minakata wrote long letters criticizing the deeds done by the central and prefectural governments. Kunio Yanagita, then a counselor of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau and later father of Japanese folklore, supported the campaign by disseminating copies of two letters as Minakata Nisho to those who concerned.
In August 1910 Minakata was arrested for trespassing when he threw a bag of specimens into a meeting held in Tanabe Junior High School (now Tanabe High). Although drunk, he did it out of rage when not allowed to talk with one of the attendees, a government officer who was in charge of the promotion of the regulations. During 18 days in jail pending trial he read books and hunted slime molds in the building. When released, he refused to leave saying: “This place is quiet with no visitors and cool. I want to stay longer.”
As his enthusiasm moved public opinion, the irrational regulations gradually lost momentum. In 1920, 10 years from his arrest, the regulations were confirmed useless by the House of Peers and abolished. Ultimately, Minakata’s efforts saved a couple of forests, but a number of shrines and forests had become extinct during the decade. He then approached various social movements and public bodies in charge of the national heritage list in order to promote protection of the precious environment including the Kashima Island in Tanabe Bay. His battle continued until his last years, which is why he is called a pioneer in ecology today. In February 1911, when The Mountain God Loves Stonefish was published in the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Tokyo, Minakata received a letter from Yanagita. This was when their correspondence between two (which was going to make a significant contribution to the study of Japanese folklore) began.
In July 1914 Kumagusu's reputation was spread nationwide, following a newspaper report on the announcement by Walter T. Swingle, head of the Office of Crop Physiology and Breeding investigation of US Department of Agriculture, that they would invite Minakata to the US. Dr. Swingle came to Tanabe in May 1915 to announce the appointment in person. Although having intended to accept the offer, he declined it because of a family matter.
He published numerous research papers about folklore based on previous research papers of natural science already published and articles about shrine consolidation. The more scholars and celebrities he received and the busier he became with his writing, the more often he had to stay home and conduct his botanical research in the backyard. This change enabled him to discover the famous Minakatella longifila Lister — a new genus of slime mold named by Gulielma Lister, president of the British Mycological Society — from a persimmon tree in his garden in 1917.
It was around this time that the governor of Wakayama Prefecture and his friends finished the planning of the Minakata Botanical Institute. The prospectus was drafted by Chozaburo Tanaka and promoted by 30 big names including those from the political and literary worlds, including Takashi Hara, Shigenobu Okuma, Yorimichi Tokugawa, and Rohan Koda.
Minakata came to Tokyo for the first time in 36 years and spent five months raising money. Day after day he visited notable figures in politics and academia including Prime Minister Korekiyo Takahashi asking for support. He finally collected a considerable sum, but it was less than the prospect amount. He continued his fundraising campaign at home.
The famous ‘Resume’ was written then responding to a request from Yoshio Yabuki, deputy branch manager of Nippon Yusen in Osaka, whom he had asked for donation. The resume, written on 7.7m long paper using fine strokes, is an autograph of extreme importance to understand the real Minakata and perhaps the longest resume in Japan and the first resume ever known in light of the volume and quality of information it contains.
In March 1925, Kumaya became ill and went into a hospital in Wakayama City. After going home to recuperate, Minakata shut the gate against all visitors. This lasted for three years until Kumaya was moved to a hospital in Kyoto in May 1928. Fair success of the fundraising in Tokyo was offset in a way by an unfulfilled promise of Tsunegusu, one of the major promoters of the project. He didn’t provide 20,000 yen, his part of donation, which caused a rift between the two brothers. Minakata also had trouble making a living because of expensive medical bills. To lessen the financial burden, Minakata published three books in 1926. The books, compilations of theses previously published in various journals, gave the reader an insight into his arguments consistent throughout the years and revealed again his erudition, which aroused the admiration of the public.
In March 1929, Dr. Hattori secretly visited and requested Minakata to give a lecturer on slime molds to Hirohito, then Emperor, in his future royal visit to the Wakayama region. Minakata telegraphed his acceptance. With no precedent for a commoner giving an imperial lecture, he soon became the center of the public attention and extremely busy preparing specimens. On June 1, 1929, it had been raining since morning. Minakata headed for Kashima Island in a frock coat he had bought in America and kept for years. After taking the Emperor for a walk in the woods on the island, Minakata, while showing specimens, gave a 25-minute lecture, on board the royal ship Nagato, on slime molds and marine life to His Majesty. He also presented the Emperor with gifts including 110 specimens of slime molds kept in empty taffy boxes.
A chamberlain recalled: "Rumors of his eccentricity had made me doubt his capability, but my worry turned out to be utterly groundless when I met this well-mannered and polite man. He was a gentleman who had experience of living abroad as well as a traditional Japanese who showed a respect for the Imperial Family." It was the most glorious day in Minakata's life. In the afternoon, he took pictures of him and Matsue in their finest attire at a studio and shared the moment with his relatives and close friends by giving sweets he had received from the Imperial Household. Next year, in commemoration of the Emperor’s visit to Kashima, a monument was erected on the edge of a dense wood near the point where His Majesty had landed. Inscribed on the monument is a poem Minakata wrote hoping that the island would be protected forever by the benevolence and the power of the Emperor. In May 1962, more than 30 years later, Their Majesties The Emperor and Empress visited southern Wakayama again. Inspired by a view of Kashima from a hotel room on the Shirahama Beach the Emperor composed a poem:
Through the rain I see the dim figure of Kashima in the distance
Which reminds me of Kumagusu who was born in Wakayama
The poem is inscribed on the monument erected in front of the Minakata Kumagusu Museum overlooking the Kashima island.
In December 1941, soon after the Pacific War had erupted, Minakata was in a critical condition. On the 29th of December he murmured, “I can see purple flowers blooming on the ceiling” and closed 75 years of a life filled with ups and downs. The maverick scholar who had won international recognition was laid to rest peacefully at the Takayamadera Temple in Tanabe City overlooking Kashima island.
With "The Constellations in the Far East" as a start, he contributed a total of 50 theses to Nature and hundreds of articles and essays to the folklore magazine Notes and Queries. This large number of articles shows he won an important place in the British academia.
He was blessed with an extraordinary memory and manipulated more than 10 languages. In addition, plenty of experience of copying books enabled him to master how to scrutinize empirical documents and the methods of comparative cultural studies, which was the basis of his unbounded capacity in writing. Junishiko (A Study of Twelve Animals of Chinese Zodiac), one of his most important works, is an example.
After coming back to Japan he wrote a number of articles in quick succession for Japanese journals and magazines. Discussions of historical evidence from the East and the West with Kunio Yanagita, as shown in their abundant correspondence, had a great influence to the birth and the development of Japanese folklore studies.
The Illustrated Book of Bionomics of Japanese Fungi, one of his greatest achievements and the embodiment of his admiration mixed with rivalry to Curtis and Berkeley, made a huge contribution to the development of the study of fungi and thus deserves international recognition. It covers 4,500 species with 15,000 pictures. Although the entries were 500 less than planned, the book also introduced his extensive research on fungi, slime molds and algae including Minakatella longifila Lister, enigmatic behavior of slime molds and parasitic algae on fish.
His advocacy of anti-shrine-consolidation protests had its roots in his deepest anger towards the loss of inhabitants’ spiritual hubs and the extinction of the landscape with which people felt an affinity. The ecological relation between nature and human beings, which Minakata looked at through the studies of biology, folklore, ethnology and religion, is something to keep in mind.
Shinzo Koizumi, late chancellor of Keio University and an admirer of Minakata, paid his tribute: "We should write it in the academic history in Japan that a maverick scholar acquired such extensive knowledge and accomplished such great achievements."
The Minakata Kumagusu Museum in Shirahama introduces the life and achievements of Minakata through the exhibitions of his memorabilia, related materials, and books.