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Minakata Kumagusu and the Tale of the Mountain God

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(The following is a post by Cameron Penwell, Japanese Reference Librarian, Asian Division)

On a shelf in the Japan rare book cage sits a small, unassuming wooden box next to a carefully preserved and tightly rolled scroll. Unfurled, the scroll reveals a hand-written Japanese text alongside fanciful images of anthropomorphic animals that together portray the “Tale of the Mountain God” (“Yama no kami monogatari,” a story about this deity’s quest to marry his love, the fish named Okoze. Inside the wooden box, carefully wrapped in cotton, one finds several dried specimens of the real okoze, or devil-stinger fish (specifically, the Inimicus japonicus, or oni-okoze in Japanese), now over one-hundred years old since the scroll was made in 1915. Also in the box is an important clue to two fascinating men whose peculiar life stories crossed paths in a way that brought these unique objects from a rural, mountainous peninsula in central Japan to the Library of Congress in the capital of the United States: a letter from one Minakata Kumagusu (1867–1941) addressed to a Mr. Walter T. Swingle (1871–1952). So, who were these men, and how did their lives intersect?

Minakata Kumagusu, age 24, in a portrait taken in Jacksonville, Florida, in July 1891.
Walter T. Swingle, age 22, in a lab at the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., in 1893. This photograph is courtesy of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Archive and hosted at the Walter Tennyson Swingle Digital Archive at University of Miami Libraries.

Minakata may not be well known outside of Japan, but in his home country he has a deserved reputation as an eccentric genius who eschewed official academic and political affiliations to pursue his own course of interdisciplinary research. His interests ranged broadly across the natural sciences and humanities, and he was a tireless defender of local ecological and cultural diversity. The year 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of his birth, and a number of related commemorative events and publications have further raised his profile in the public eye.

What makes Minakata so remarkable is that he accomplished so much despite working outside the formal structures of modern society. He never obtained a university degree, yet managed to study at educational and cultural institutions like Michigan State University and the British Museum. After more than a decade abroad, Minakata returned to settle in his native Wakayama Prefecture in 1901. Working from his home laboratory, he made original scientific discoveries in the field of mycology, the study of fungi. He is perhaps best known for his research on slime molds, which drew the attention of Emperor Hirohito, himself an amateur botanist. Nevertheless, Minakata did not confine himself to a single academic discipline but rather followed his intellectual curiosity across diverse fields of knowledge. He frequently contributed in English to “Nature” and other journals on such topics as anthropology, astronomy, biology, folklore, literature, and zoology. He even defended local interests against demands from Japan’s regional and national authorities —whether that meant preserving local culture or protecting the natural environment.

Envelope containing Minakata’s letter and translation of “Tale of the Mountain God”, addressed to Swingle in care of the United States Embassy in Tokyo. “Yama no kami monogatari” (Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).
By all accounts Minakata was known for being a bit eccentric, but he also had a sense of humor. Minakata concludes his letter with a blunt request for Swingle, who apparently had trouble keeping the correct spelling of his name straight. “Do not write my personal name as Kumaguso as you have lately done,” he admonished, “It then means bear’s dung.” He goes on to explain that the Chinese characters used in his name mean “bear” and “camphor tree”. “Yama no kami monogatari” (Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

Walter Swingle, too, was a man of science, though a more formally trained and credentialed one. A botanist who specialized in research on citrus plants, Swingle staked out a distinguished career in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that included serving as head of the Office of Crop Physiology and Breeding Investigation. Throughout his career he traveled widely around the world and made several agricultural innovations, such as developing the tangelo citrus variety. He also was a Sinophile greatly taken not only with the humanistic and artistic aspects of Chinese civilization but also by its accomplishments in the practical sciences, particularly agriculture and botany. Swingle spent hours combing through the Chinese collection at the Library of Congress, looking to uncover secrets of Chinese citrus cultivation. He even began assisting the Library with the acquisition of Chinese books, and between 1910 and 1928 he helped collect nearly 2,000 Chinese local gazetteers, which account for around half of the Asian Division’s extensive holdings in this genre.

One of the dried specimens of the devil-stinger fish (oni-okoze) prepared by Minakata and sent to Swingle along with the illustrated scroll. “Yama no kami monogatari” (Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

During a scientific research trip to East Asia in 1915, Swingle acquired a number of books to add to the Library’s Chinese and Japanese collections. He also sought out experts in these countries to assist in tracking down rare texts and to collaborate with him in research. In fact, several years prior to that trip, Swingle had initiated contact with Minakata, whose many contributions to the British science journal “Nature” suggested he would make an excellent partner in research. The two first exchanged letters in 1906 and continued to correspond over the ensuing decade. On more than one occasion Swingle invited Minakata to come work with him in Washington D.C., but for various personal reasons Minakata could not accept this otherwise appealing offer (Ryugo Matsui, “Letters from W.T. Swingle to Minakata Kumagusu,” Journal of the Socio-Cultural Research Institute, Ryukoku University, No. 7, 2005, 149–156).

Swingle embarked on his journey by ship early in 1915 and arrived in Japan around springtime. Amid a busy itinerary of research projects, meetings, and book purchases, Swingle made arrangements to visit Minakata at his residence in the town of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture. Over a two-day stay Minakata led him on a tour of the area, introducing him to the local natural environment and collecting all manner of biological specimens. A few months after this visit, as Swingle prepared to return to the United States, he sent another letter to Minakata thanking him for his hospitality. He also had a request: might Minakata find a way to make a reproduction of the illustrated folding screen that Swingle had seen during his visit to Tanabe?

Okoze emerges from the sea in an exquisite junihitoe kimono, typically worn by ladies at the imperial court. “Yama no kami monogatari” (Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).
The Mountain God consults with the otter as he composes a love letter to Okoze. “Yama no kami monogatari” (Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

The decorative screen that so caught Swingle’s attention depicted a story called “Tale of the Mountain God” (Yama no kami monogatari) and was owned by Yukawa Tomisaburo, an acquaintance of Minakata and proprietor of a nearby hot spring resort. Minakata obliged and made arrangements to transcribe the text himself. He then enlisted local artist Ikutaro Hirohata (1890–1981) to reproduce the screen’s artwork in the form of an illustrated scroll.

This particular version of the tale features a Mountain God resembling something like a cross between a wolf, a monkey, and a tengu—a goblin-like creature from Japanese folklore. The Mountain God becomes infatuated with Okoze, the devil-stinger fish, after seeing her emerge from the sea and resolves to win her affections. Distraught over how to proceed, he seeks the aid of an otter who agrees to deliver a love letter to Okoze on his behalf. Uncertain of her admirer’s intentions, Okoze hesitates to even receive the letter. The otter, however, persuades her of the sincerity of the Mountain God’s love, and she agrees to meet him on the shore.

Meanwhile, the Bald-Headed Octopus becomes jealously enraged upon learning of this development, for he himself had written many love letters to Okoze but never received a reply. He summons his octopus, squid, and cuttlefish soldiers—which Minakata describes as a “cephalopodic army”—and commands them to storm Okoze’s underwater palace. But Okoze flees before the attack and seeks refuge on land, where she is met by the otter and the Mountain God. They withdraw to the Mountain God’s home, and the tale ends as they marry and hold a wedding feast attended by various creatures from land and sea.

The “cephalopodic army” of the Bald-Headed Octopus. “Yama no kami monogatari” (Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).
Friends from land and sea celebrate with the Mountain God and Okoze at their wedding feast. “Yama no kami monogatari” (Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).
This excerpt from Minakata’s hand-written translation of the scroll’s text reveals his characteristic attention to taxonomic detail. Here he provides names in binomial nomenclature for various types of cephalopods appearing in the story. “Yama no kami monogatari” (Japanese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division, Library of Congress).

Minakata drafted his own English translation of the tale so that Swingle might enjoy the text in addition to the artwork. In this annotated translation he goes to great pains to include taxonomic descriptions for all the animals that appear in the story, in addition to providing cultural and linguistic details. Aside from its entertainment value as a story, from a folkloric perspective the tale suggests an attempt to reconcile the spirits of the land and those of the sea, which clearly corresponds to the natural geography of the Japanese archipelago.

After Swingle’s 1915 visit to Japan, he and Minakata never met again in person, though they did continue to correspond with each other for a few more years. One is left to wonder what sort of research Minakata might have embarked on had he accepted Swingle’s offer of employment in the United States, and how he might have contributed to the development of the Chinese and Japanese collections at the Library of Congress. Although their personal interaction was brief, the “Tale of the Mountain God” scroll and accompanying specimens survive as fascinating material reminders of how the lives of these two men, who were at once inquisitive scientists and dedicated humanists, intersected as each sought to unite the intellectual traditions of the East and West to expand the scope of shared human knowledge.

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