By Avi Landau
There is a billboard-sized, black and white photo, hanging sorely out of place above the fashion conscious streets of Harajuku. From it, a bare-chested, middle-aged man, in socks and thongs, with a towel wrapped around his waist looking like a yakuza taking a cigarette break at some remote hot spring, stares out at the passersby. This is no gangster, however. It is the brilliant and eccentric Minakata Kumagusu, pioneer environmental activist, biologist, ethnologist, philosopher, polyglot world-traveler, compulsive scribbler and indefatigable collector of slime-molds, fungi and lichen. When this photo was taken, in 1904, Kumagusu was taking a firm stand against the destruction of the forests brought about by the reforms of Westernizing and indutrializing minded reforms implemented by the Meiji government.
He will be there, glaring down at hyper-consumerist Tokyoites, until Feb.3, when the exhibition, now being held, of his specimen collection, notebooks, photos and other memorabilia at the Watarium Museum ends.
This means that there are only DAYS left (the show opened on Oct. 7) in which you will be able to enter Kumagusu’s Forest and examine first hand the fruits of this amazing man’s seven decade-long obsession with just about everything in the world around him.
Many imagine Japan to be a land of group-oriented conformists, obsessed with company or university affiliation (as I guess it is, along with the rest of the countries in the industrialized world). Kumagusu, however, in no way fits this mold, as he didn’t seem to ever fit in anywhere.
Never happy at school, despite being more intelligent and capable than his classmates, he just couldn’t finish up or get a degree of any sort. On his own, though, he COULD study, amazing the residents of his hometown with his astounding memory and his perseverance in copying out encyclopedias and other classical texts.
Thinking that the higher general levels of culture and education in the capital would settle him down, his parents sent him off to the preparatory school of Tokyo University, where to their dismay he proceeded once again to drop out.
At the age of 20, the restless young man set off for the U.S. This was back in 1887! He spent a couple of years at a college in Michigan, but just couldn’t stick to the course. He decided to hit the road and head down to Florida, in search of as yet undiscovered species of his childhood loves, slime-molds and lichens, which he heard could be found there. This quest took him to various Caribbean Islands, where he worked with a travelling circus to support his specimen collecting habit.
He vowed to amass the greatest collection in the world.
In 1892 he landed in London where he would spend eight years. Much of this time he was in the British Museum where he wrote and published numerous articles for the journal Nature and helped the curators catalogue their Far-East Collection.
Back in Japan at age 33, he continued his research in biology and ethnography, writing articles and translating. It was in 1907, at the age of 40, that he began his fight against the government’s plan to eliminate all community shrines in Japan along with their sacred groves. Kumagusu, who believed in the connectedness of all things, understood the devastating effect this would have on the flora, fauna, landscape, and to the Japanee people`s spirit, in general . He tirelessly wrote articles and tried to organize. In the end, he could do little to stop the juggernaut of the development-crazed Meiji government.
All his life, Kumagusu wrote and drew in notebooks, which are fascinating to look at (though mostly indecipherable). His botanical drawings are beautiful and accurate. There are mushrooms, lichens, and slime-molds as well as other plants.
Kumagusu wrote about insects, animals, disease, dreams, the human body, anthropology, sexuality, and of his philosophy of universal connectedness.
He became so respected for his talents, that he, a man with no degree and not of the aristocracy, was asked to lecture the Showa Emperor (who was at that time considered a living god). There was no greater honor at that time, and the Emperor actually wrote a poem about Kumagusu, which you can see inscribed in stone, overlooking one of the forests that Kumagusu helped save (on Kashima Island, Wakayama Prefecture).
For getting to the exhibition see:
tel 03 3402 3001