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Remembering the Life and Work of Minakata Kumagusu (南方熊楠)- He is more relevant today than ever

By Avi Landau

The exhibition, curiously titled Minakata Kumagusu- an informant-Savant 100 years ahead of his time, will be held thru March 3, 2018 at the National Museum of Science and Nature

The poster for an exhibition (now closed)  at the National Museum of Science and Nature *

It was in this photo, blown up as a billboard advertisement, that years ago I first encountered Kumagusu

I first encountered him way back in the year 2008 while roaming  the back-roads of one of Tokyo`s trendiest neighborhoods. I remember the moment well:

There was 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 and a towel wrapped around his waist, stared out at the passersby-  looking like a yakuza taking a cigarette break at some remote hot spring. But this was no gangster – it was the brilliant and eccentric Minakata Kumagusu (1867-1941), 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 Westernization and industrialization-minded reforms implemented by  the Meiji government.

He was up there at that time, on that billboard, glaring down at hyper-consumerist Tokyoites, to promote an exhibition at the Watarium Museum showing his specimen collection, notebooks, photos and other memorabilia.

At that time I was lucky enough to have been able to enter “Kumagusu’s Forest” ( the name of that particular exhibition) and examine first hand the fruits of this amazing man’s seven decade-long obsession with just about everything in the world around him.

Now in 2020, I having been seeing Kumagusu`s face ( in photos taken at various stages of his life) again- at just about every bookstore in Japan, as there seems to be a whole new slew of books and special magazine editions which focus on this most unusual man. Fortunately his ideas seem  to be finding a new and growing audience.

A photo of Kumagasu on a special edition of Taiyo Magazine devoted to 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.

Minakata Kumagusu in Jacksonville, Florida (1891)

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 Japanese 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). It reads: 雨にけふる神島を見て紀伊の国の生みし南方熊楠を思う(AME NI KEFURU KASHIMA O MITE KII NO KUNI NO UMI SHO MINAKATA KUMAGUSU O OMOU)- which I humbly translate as: Gazing out upon a rain enshrouded Kashima Isle, I remember one born of the Land of Kii- Minakata Kumagusu

Interestingly, with the renewed interest in his life and work kumagusu`s name has been used more and more as a sort of key-word for Japanese poetry. Here is an example:

熊野路を田辺にゆきし思出の南方邸の木の葉一枚 (土屋文明) – KUMANOJI O TANABE NI YUKISHI OMIDE NO MINAKATATEI NO KI NO HA ICHIMAI – which I translate as: A memory from  a journey along the old Kumano Road to Tanabe- the leaf of a tree at the Minakata Residence

As I have mentioned, some new books and magazines have come out which focus on Kumagusu`s life and works. All of these are in Japanese, but even if you are not literate in that language you still might want to leaf through some of these for a look at some of his drawings or parts of his specimen collection.

The distinctive sketches and handwriting of Kumagusu`s notebooks


And if you happen to be in Wakayama Prefecture ( which is a pretty good place to happen to be in!) you might want to make a detour to visit the Minakata Kumagusu Museum. Here is an link to its English language web-site.



Back in March 2018 we had the chance to see an excellent Kumagusu exhibition that could be reached in less than an hour from Tsukuba. When I was there I was able to catch another amazing show their curators put together on ancient Andean Civilizations that I have already mentioned in a previous post.

* The official English title of the exhibition: “Minakata Kumagusu – An informant-savant a 100 ahead of his time ” makes you wonder why the National Museum doesn’t have their texts checked by a proper editor. The booklet they provide is also full of English errors.