Transport yourself to the mountainous region of Kumano forest in Japan; a place where spirituality and nature perfectly align. A place of spiritual pilgrimage and scientific study. This is the birthplace of Minakata Kumagusu, ecologist, conservationist, folklorist, philosopher, ethnologist, … the list goes on. His name is a combination of ‘kuma’, meaning bear as well as referencing the Kumano forest, and ‘kusu’, referring to the 800 year old sacred camphor tree found at one of the shrines in the region. The duality of his name and birthplace, combining the environment with sacred culture, foreshadows the interdisciplinary nature of Kumagusu’s life and studies.
Kumagusu was born into a merchant family on April 15, 1867 in Wakayama during a pivotal transition period for Japan; the country was coming out of a 250-year self-isolation period that created a scientific gap between them and the western world. As a child, Kumagusu’s intellectual prowess was quickly realized through his curiosity for the natural world and incredible memory. By age seven, he was already transcribing encyclopedias! Kumagusu was sent to a prestigious preparatory school in Tokyo, which was unconventional at the time for children of merchants to receive a formal education. While his intellectual aptitude earned him a place at school, Kumagusu was disinterested in classroom schooling and spent his time visiting zoos and gardens, transcribing library books, and collecting artifacts, plants, animals, and minerals. Due to this disinterest, Kumagusu flunked out of school.
Kumagusu was in no way a conventional man, refusing to let preparatory school failure dampen his love of learning. At 20 years-old, he sailed to San Francisco to attend the Pacific Business College. Discovering business was of little interest to him, he quickly transferred to Michigan State School of Agriculture. Yet, this was also short-lived and officially marked the end of his formal schooling. For four years, Kumagusu travelled to Florida, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Jamaica, and New York, absorbing knowledge through reading, transcribing books, corresponding with scholars, and collecting plants and fungi. Kumagusu still wanted more, so he travelled to London, where he would live for the next eight years.
In London, Kumagusu continued studying his collected specimens and frequently visited the British Museum. There, craving more knowledge, he conversed with resident scholars and copied 13,346 pages worth of rare texts in topics such as anthropology, archeology, religion, and folklore from both the West and the East. He added his own notes in 52 notebooks that complimented the copied texts in English, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and Latin. He also began writing and submitting his own work to prestigious journals and magazines such as Nature and Notes and Queries. His most noted work of this time was “The Constellations of the Far East” (1893), a well-received article on the constellations of India and China .
Kumagusu’s reputation as a knowledge seeker led him to form friendships with famous scholars of the time and the British intelligentsia. However, not all shared this admiration for Kumagusu and his work. Some scholars discriminated against Kumagusu due to his Japanese ethnicity and after striking an Englishman spewing anti-Japanese slurs, Kumagusu left the British Museum, eventually sailing back to Japan in 1900.
Although his 14 years abroad was spent full of learning, Kumagusu didn’t receive any formal degree and was met with cold reception in Japan. Unphased by the cultural disappointment, Kumagusu continued his scholarly work in the Kumano forest: collecting and organizing more fungi, plants, insects, and algae samples, reading, writing for scholarly journals, and creating scientific illustrations. The years he spent in the remote parts of the Kumano mountains inspired him to study botany, while also contemplating the interplay between nature, life, and religion.
In 1904, Kumagusu moved to Tanabe and started a family with his wife Matsue while still studying botany, particularly slime molds, writing both scientific articles and folklore essays for British and Japanese journals. However, the quiet life in Tanabe would not last long. In 1906, as an attempt to unify the local objects of worship under the Shinto religion, the Japanese government issued regulations on shrines. Shrines, however small, were essential cultural components in each community: unifying the people and providing a place for recreation and worship. The government announced the closure of smaller shrines and consolidate into fewer, larger, and more centrally located shrines. Kumagusu worried not only about the loss of historical buildings and antiquities, but also about the loss of nature, as most shrines were located deep in the forest. Shrine closure would leave the surrounding sacred environment and wildlife vulnerable to deforestation and other forms of destruction. Kumagusu spent years protesting these regulations by writing in major papers and reaching out to notable researchers for support. He was even arrested for trespassing while attempting to meet the government officials in charge of the regulations and spent 18 days in prison, reading and searching for slime molds within the prison walls. Kumagusu’s years of writing and his passion for nature helped him author articles opposing the shrine consolidation that swayed the public’s opinion enough to end the regulations in 1920.
Cultural and environmental conservation aside, Kumagusu’s passion for slime molds and furthering science led to him identifying a new slime mold species (Minakatella longifila) in his garden. In 1929, the pinnacle of his unconventional career occurred as he presented candy boxes of slime mold samples and an accompanying lecture to Emperor Shōwa (known as Hirohito in English). The emperor of Japan shared a similar passion for slime molds, and it was very unusual, but great honor for Kumagusu, a commoner, to have this interaction with an emperor.
Minakata Kumagusu lived a life full of ups and downs. He had travelled the world soaking up all the knowledge he could regardless of the topic. He studied everything from slime molds to religion, and folklore to constellations. Kumagusu did not abide by convention, but rather paved his own academic journey. Regardless of discrimination and societal rejection, Kumagusu lived his life on his own terms, following his own passions and harmonizing them all together. He went by many titles such as biologist, environmentalist, protester, historian, naturalist, folklorist, polymath, genius, etc. We at The Ethogram would like to add another title to that list: Science Hero.
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?
Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Sci Hero column on Animal Adventure Thursdays for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers.
Check out his full biography on his museum website. Or if you have the opportunity, go to his museum if you’re in Wakayama, Japan.
Watch this TD Perrin’s video about the life of Minakata Kumagusu.
WANT TO READ MINAKATA KUMAGUSU’S PUBLICATIONS?
 Kumagusu, M. (1893). The constellations of the far east. Nature (48)1249, 541-543.
For a comprehensive list of his publications, check out “The Complete Works of Minakata Kumagusu” published after Kumagusu’s death.
Nicole W. Korzeniecki is a PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She is broadly interested in eusociality, host-microbe symbiosis, and social behavior. Her research focuses on exploring the relationship between termites and their gut microbiome in the context of termite social hygienic behaviors such as allogrooming and cannibalism.
“南方熊楠記念館.” Biograpy｜Minakata Kumagusu Museum, www.minakatakumagusu-kinenkan.jp/english/kumagusu.
Morimichi Kato. “Minakata Kumagusu: The First Japanese Environmentalist.” Taylor & Francis, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131857.2020.1770612.
“Minakata Kumagusu: The MEIJI Polymath Who Broke the Mold.” Nippon.com, 30 May 2020, www.nippon.com/en/column/g00415/.
Journal, The Asia Pacific. “Japan’s Wild SCIENTIFIC GENIUS: Minakata Kumagusu.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, apjjf.org/-Roger-Pulvers/2637/article.html.
[Edited by Karli Chudeau]