February 28, 2012


Scientist and Synthetic Thinker Kumagusu Minakata - Japan's First Ecologist

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.113 (January 2012)
"Japanese Philosophers/Leaders for Sustainability" (No. 3)

In 2004, "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range" was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This complex is commonly known in Japan as the "Kumano Kodo" ("Kumano" is the name of the local region and "kodo" means "ancient road"), which encompasses the six pilgrimage routes* to the three main shrines of Kumano (Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha). The reason Kumano Kodo was accepted for World Heritage Listing was the high value accorded to these sacred sites and pilgrimage routes together with the cultural landscape of their surrounding areas preserved in the thickly forested Kii Mountain Range. Some of the giant trees in this forest are more than thousand years old.

* Of the six pilgrimage routes, only Kii-Ji has not been included in the World Heritage Site.

One man contributed a great deal to conserving this precious natural property down to the present, Kumagusu Minakata (1867-1941), Japan's first ecologist. He was born in Kii Province (the present Wakayama Prefecture, location of the Kumano Kodo) and studied microbiology (particularly slime mold collection and research), ethnography, philosophy, historical science, psychology, sociology, comparative religion and scientific theories as a scientist with no formal institutional affiliation. Contemporaries called him a walking encyclopedia. Why is Minakata regarded Japan's first ecologist? The answer should become apparent by taking a look at his life.

A Person with Comprehensive Knowledge but without an Academic Degree

Between 1893 and 1914, Minakata contributed 50 articles to "Nature," famous as one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, and as many as 323 articles between 1899 and 1933 to "Notes and Queries," a scholarly journal now published by Oxford University Press and originally subtitled "a medium of inter-communication for literary men, artists, antiquaries, genealogists, etc".

His first article published in "Nature" was about astronomy, titled "The Constellations of the Far East." Minakata dealt with a wide range of fields; articles subsequently published in "Nature" included "The Antiquity of the 'Finger-print' Method," which was very well-received, and "The Story of the 'Wandering Jew.'" This hints at the breadth and depth of his learning. Furthermore, it is said that he had a good command of not fewer than 19 languages in his lifetime, including not only European languages such as English but also classic languages such as Latin and Sanskrit. Considering the times that he lived when it was not as easy to travel abroad as it is now and it was extremely difficult to obtain dictionaries and materials about foreign countries, his level of ability is nothing but marvelous.

He loved to study but hated school from childhood on. It is said that although he entered the Preparatory School of the University of Tokyo (the present University of Tokyo), he was often absent from school. He instead went to Ueno Library to read as many Japanese, Chinese and western books as he liked, while also spending time excavating remains and sampling fungi. As a result, he had poor grades and failed to advance to the third year, and he decided to leave school at the end of his second year. He went on his own to study in the US and the UK, and though he entered universities there, did not obtain any degrees. For this reason, his brilliant performance overseas was not widely recognized in Japan at that time.

Minakata transcribed many books by hand. When he was eight or nine years old, he was in the habit of walking every day to places, no matter how far, where collections of books were available. He would read and memorize the content and write down what he memorized after returning home. The collections he completely transcribed included the Wakan Sansai Zue (an illustrated Sino-Japanese encyclopedia of 105 volumes); this took him three years. He transcribed a total of 50 additional books by hand by the time he was 12. At this time he tended to get completely absorbed in whatever he was interested in. For example, once when he climbed nearby Mt. Gobo to collect animals and plants, he went missing for several days. He also read through the well-known 2nd century Chinese translation of the Daizo-kyo Buddhist sutra (consisting of 7,000 volumes in 2,000 books), and at the same time began reading English books treating natural history, anatomical science and anthropology.

From that time onward, he practiced "experience-based" study, in which he made thorough comparisons between what he read in books and what actually happened in nature, giving precedence to what he actually saw and heard and what he thought about the content of books he read, even though they may have been written by persons of authority.

He wrote about scholars who learned only from books in his "Rirekisho (personal history)," which consisted of 55,000 words written on a 7.7 meter-long roll of Japanese letter paper (said to be world's longest personal history). It reads: "I innately like to observe things while on foot and have never attentively listened to teachers because I know that what they say always includes many mistakes."

In the meantime, he often visited barber shops and public bathhouses in his neighborhood to meet people with various occupations because he liked to listen to them talk about their firsthand knowledge and expertise. This may be why Minakata was loved by farmers, fishermen and craftsmen despite the fact that he drank heavily, was indifferent to his appearance and regarded rather as strange due to his devotion to collecting plants.

Minakata was particularly eager to collect nonflowering plants that reproduce by spores instead of seeds, such as moss, ferns and algae, as well as fungi. He was famous for his studies of slime molds (myxomycete), organisms that, like an animal, eat microorganisms while they move and yet have plant-like characteristics at the same time. He collected and preserved more than 6,000 specimens of Mycetozoa and published the listings several times. He himself also discovered about ten kinds of fungi; Minakatella longifila G. Lister, which was named after him, is particularly well known.

Campaign Against the Consolidation of Shinto Shrines

After studying abroad for 13 years in the United States, Central and South America including Cuba, and England, Minakata returned to Japan in 1900. He returned to his home prefecture, Wakayama, and decided to settle down in Tanabe City in that prefecture, location of the World Heritage Site comprising the Kumano Kodo mentioned in the opening paragraph. In Kumano, he resumed collecting plants. In Japan at that time, the era had just undergone a major change from the Edo to Meiji period, and in order to streamline the nation's modernization, the government aggressively promoted the centralization of power. As part of these administrative measures, towns and villages were consolidated and Shinto shrines were merged under a policy of establishing Shintoism as the national religion.

For example, the total number of towns and villages in 1847 in Japan was 78,280, but it significantly declined to 15,280 by the end of 1889. At that time, each natural village had without exception one village shrine for its village guardian deity, and therefore, the consolidation of towns and villages resulted in many municipalities having two or more village guardian shrines. Against this backdrop and in accordance with the principle that each village or town should have only a single village guardian shrine, about 80,000 village shrines across Japan were closed or consolidated between 1906 and 1911. In Wakayama, the number of shrines was depleted by 80 percent, the second most drastic reduction in Japan, following Mie.

Traditionally, Japanese Shinto shrines are surrounded by forests, which are thus called sacred forests. In the Shinto faith, deities come down to earth from tall trees, so it was a long-established custom not to cut down trees growing around shrines. Likewise, weeds around those trees were also supposed to remain untouched, meaning that abolishment or consolidation of shrines would result in the destruction of these long-lived forests and their entire ecosystems. Moreover, since the logs from well-grown large trees were sold off by municipalities, municipal officials and local traders may have colluded in taking advantage of shrine consolidation policy. In this context, Minakata stood up to stop the consolidation of shrines.

During the 10-year period when he argued against shrine consolidation, Minakata was put in prison for a total of 18 days. Even so, he persistently fought it out until the shrine consolidation policy was abolished. Under this policy, a small shrine on Kashima Island, a tiny island in Wakayama where a unique ecosystem had evolved, was also subjected to consolidation, and the forest at this shrine was nearly cut down. To prevent this from happening, Minakata made an all-out effort to investigate the site and petition for its designation as a forest reserve.

Minakata's written opinion calling for the protection of the natural environment and abolition of the shrine consolidation policy was sent to his good friend, folklore scholar Kunio Yanagida. Yanagida compiled the written opinion together with Minakata's petition into a book titled "Two Works of Minakata," and published it at his own expense in order to to distribute it to influential persons in the fields of government, administration, and academy. This approach gradually led more and more lawmakers to question the policy of shrine consolidation. In this way, Minakata's persistent effort consequently bore fruit, and the forest at Kashima was designated a forest reserve. This forest was later designated a national natural treasure.

Kazuko Tsurumi writes in "Minakata Kumagusu -- Comparative Researcher with Global-Mind" (Kodansha, p. 224):

"As a botanist, Minakata lamented that destructive logging of shrine forests would ruin unique plants. As a folklore scholar, he was concerned about the possible decay of the common people's religious faith. He feared that the destruction of shrines, which played a role as a venue where villagers get together, would hamper the ability of villages to exercise self-governance. He was worried that the disappearance of forests would lead to the extinction of birds living there and consequently lead to the propagation of pests, which would in turn harm farm products, causing trouble for farmers. He also lamented cases where logging coastal trees would reduce coastal area shaded by trees, discouraging fish from coming close to the shoreline and consequently driving fishers into poverty. He deplored the possibility that morality might be undermined where local people lost their village shrine and their religious faith and sense of togetherness. Minakata viewed all of these affairs as a single, interconnected event. He warned that the destruction of nature would impair humans' work and daily lives, and that the impossibility of making a living would destroy their humanity."

Kumagusu never confined his understanding of "ecology" just to the natural components of a habitat. As cited above, his written opinion protesting shrine consolidation describes a process in which the destruction of the botanical component of ecosystems leads to the destruction of people's lives, livelihoods, and even their humanity. He opposed not only the destruction of ecosystems, but also the disturbance of the human social ecosystem in each local region as a result of power-based, compulsory consolidation of villages and towns.

This vision may not have come to his mind if he had pursued botany only. But in fact he was able to clearly see that there is nothing that cuts off people's lives from the environment - plants and animals, and fungi - and that these are all connected to each other. This may be because he read a large number and variety of Japanese, Chinese, and western books, and actively pursued the study not only of plants and animals but also of individual human activities. It may also have been because he was a researcher of slime molds -- unique fungi with plant and animal characteristics -- which have deep connections with the entire ecosystem, including its soil, temperature, humidity, and other vegetation.

Furthermore, while he devoted himself into studies on the microscopic world of fungi, he also had the ability to view the whole picture of natural ecosystems as well as the human ecology that is connected to the natural ecosystems and present in each local region. That is why he predicted the substantial risks of destroying natural ecosystems.

Today, on a global scale, precious natural ecosystems are being lost and desertification is being accelerated, causing starvation and water shortages. Conflicts and wars have broken out around the world as a result. This is indeed the situation that Minakata was concerned about. His outlook on the world was an essential perspective for the modern society.

Written by Hiroyo Hasegawa