Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 55

A Restatement: The Art of ‘Ground Zero’ (Part 22)
Daisuke Shimizu’s illustrations of caterpillar fungi (2)

Aquamarine Fukushima today.
All images: courtesy Aquamarine Fukushima

Five years ago, at 2:46pm on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region. The enormous force of energy that shook not only the ground but vast quantities of seawater quickly metamorphosed into a gigantic tsunami that inundated the Sanriku and other regions along the Pacific coast of eastern Japan. Aquamarine Fukushima, an aquarium located in Onahama, Fukushima, was no exception. The facility was struck by a giant four-meter-tall tsunami, completely submerging the ground floor. All 80 employees and volunteer staffers, who had taken refuge on the third floor just moments earlier, were unharmed, but during the power outage that began the following day, in-house diesel generators had to be used to operate the water filtration equipment that is essential for the survival of marine organisms in captivity. (1) In addition, Aquamarine Fukushima is located 55 kilometers south of Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, where a large-scale radiation leak was feared. At the aquarium, where communication was broken off for a long time and where damage to the port of Onahama caused by the tsunami made even the procurement of fuel and feed difficult, the larger marine mammals were evacuated to aquariums in other prefectures, but attempts to rescue the fish and other smaller organisms had to be abandoned. As a result, it is said that countless marine organisms at the facility (as many as 200,000 according to one report) perished.

Aquamarine Fukushima’s “Gareki-za” (Wreckage Theatre), a stage built on the wreckage from the earthquake and tsunami, on which the aquarium’s reopening ceremony took place. (The stage has since been dismantled.)

However, seeing this as a massive trial in which the sustainability of modern-day aquariums in emergencies was being tested, Yoshitaka Abe, the director of Aquamarine Fukushima from the start, quickly took command and strove to return things to normal, finally reopening the facility on July 15, just four months after the earthquake and tsunami struck and in time for the anniversary of Aquamarine Fukushima’s opening in 2000. Furthermore, in May the following year, a “message of denuclearization from Aquamarine Fukushima” was sent out via the director’s blog on the aquarium’s official website. On its own initiative, Aquamarine Fukushima also established an environmental laboratory to monitor radioactive contamination in nearby coastal waters and in the Abukuma Mountains and make this information available to the public at all times. It is for this reason that the results of measurements of environmental radiation in the vicinity of Aquamarine Fukushima are displayed on the top page of the facility’s website along with the results of measurements of the amount of radioactive material in the seawater both in the tanks and at Janome Beach.

In fact, the first exhibition of work by Daisuke Shimizu, “The World of Dr. Daisuke Shimizu, Naturalist and the Great Ringleader of Vegetable Wasps and Plant Worms,” which predates the February 2015 exhibition at the Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum mentioned in the previous installment of this series, was organized by Aquamarine Fukushima. This was back in January 2008.

Installation view of “The World of Dr. Daisuke Shimizu, Naturalist and the Great Ringleader of Vegetable Wasps and Plant Worms.”

But why organize an exhibit about a botanist at an aquarium? The reason is simple. One of the main factors that caused the above-mentioned Yoshitaka Abe to set his mind on becoming a marine biologist was his encounter with this very same Daisuke Shimizu. Shimizu’s hometown of Chichibu was also Abe’s de facto “hometown.” I say “de facto” because Abe spent his impressionable years from around the time he was conscious of his surroundings to the age of 11 living in Chichibu where his father worked as a schoolteacher. (2) It was during this period, in March 1946, that Shimizu returned to Chichibu, having given up his job at the Imperial University of Tokyo’s College of Science-affiliated Koishikawa Botanical Gardens after just one year. From April he embarked on research on the artificial cultivation of edible fungi, having taken a job at the Saitama Prefecture Federation of Shiitake Mushroom Agricultural Cooperatives’ Shiitake Mushroom Laboratory, but the circumstances were completely different to those at the kinds of laboratories found at universities. Since it was also impractical to carry out botanical research at his own home, Shimizu established a base for his own research at Konsenji, a temple associated with the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism located in Shimokagemori, Chichibu, where he devoted himself to observing and recording nature. According to the Aquamarine Fukushima blog mentioned above, Abe grew up “listening to sutras in the precincts of this temple from morning to night,” and a friendship developed between his family and Shimizu’s family. This was just after the end of the war, so it is no surprise that the temple was serving a function similar to a mutual help center supporting the livelihoods of the local people. No doubt it gained a degree of trust greater than what may have been afforded a school. Not to mention that Konsenji was the temple that provided a grave for Eisuke Tashiro, the man executed for his role as the leader of the Chichibu Konminto (Poverty Party), which was blamed for instigating a rebellion against the Meiji government at a time when the “Chichibu incident” was known as the “Chichibu revolt.” So it is not surprising that Shimizu, an outsider within the mycology community, was a frequent visitor to the temple. It was amidst this maelstrom that Abe refined his youthful sensitivity.

Items shown in the exhibition: one of Daisuke Shimizu’s detailed illustrations of caterpillar fungi (left), and magnifying glasses he used for his research (right).

But that is not all. When Shimizu visited areas in the vicinity of the temple such as the base of Mount Buko and Mount Bessho with mycologists and students he had invited from Tokyo for nature observation, Abe often went with them, and when he discovered caterpillar fungi he was praised by Shimizu as if he were an adult. The joy of nature observation he learned from Shimizu and the experience of watching the others earnestly record the results of their observation work after returning to the temple – afraid to approach in spite of his youthful curiosity – were such that Abe was later prompted to remark, “The nature experiences I enjoyed from early childhood through boyhood were so important that they formed the basis of the ‘Education of Life’ policy at Aquamarine Fukushima.”

Despite the important difference that the former was most interested in the mountains while the latter was interested in the sea, Daisuke Shimizu had a major influence on the younger man (Abe is also a former director of Ueno Zoo). With regard to caterpillar fungi, it is said that of the approximately 500 species discovered worldwide, those discovered in Japan alone number around 400. And the man responsible for discovering most of those was Shimizu. But why did a man of such distinguished achievements ultimately turn his back on research positions and in 1956 even leave his hometown of Chichibu and move to his wife’s hometown of Yonezawa?

Born in 1915 in Chichibu, Shimizu’s final formal schooling was at the Saitama Prefectural Chichibu School of Agriculture and Forestry. Immediately after graduating he found employment at the Mitsumine Alpine Botanical Gardens in Saitama prefecture, meaning he did not go on to receive a university education of any kind. As stated in the first installment of this series, he was an “uneducated student.” From 1935, Shimizu, whose outstanding powers of observation and recording were recognized from before he reached the age of 20, worked at the above-mentioned Imperial University of Tokyo-affiliated Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, where he studied under Professor Naoe Matsuzaki. He soon came to gain the strong trust of Tomitaro Makino, known as the father of Japanese botany, and in 1940 he was dispatched overseas to the Botanical Research Laboratory at the National Institute of Scientific Research in Manchuria. In April 1945, not long before the end of the war, he returned to the Japanese mainland and was employed at the Imperial University of Tokyo-affiliated Koishikawa Botanical Gardens as a regular laboratory assistant. As well, prior to his moving to Yonezawa, he worked as a researcher at the world’s only bryological research facility, the Hattori Botanical Laboratory in Miyazaki Prefecture, producing important results in the area of research into Hepaticae during his time there. Given the number and importance of his achievements and the abundance of his research experience both in Japan and abroad, it would not have been surprising at all if Shimizu had spent his remaining years serving as the director of a facility like the Saitama Museum of Natural History – Saitama’s only prefectural natural history museum – located in Nagatoro, Chichibu.

But perhaps this is the reason why Shimizu is worthy not simply of the title “great scholar,” but also of the title “Great Ringleader” (Abe). Looking closely at Shimizu’s employment record, the thing that strikes one is that he left almost every job after a short period. One can speculate that the main reason would have been intractable conflict with his colleagues, who boasted superior academic backgrounds. However, this cannot be dismissed merely as resulting from a simple complex on Shimizu’s part or from an overly stubborn and opinionated nature.

Shimizu is most widely known for his caterpillar fungi research, but his area of expertise while he was at the Koishikawa Botanical Gardens was research on the cultivation of hothouse plants and orchids; his research on tropical fish that he began around this time commands Abe’s highest respect; and his area of expertise during his service in Manchuria was research on the breeding of pit vipers. In other words, Shimizu’s fields of research encompassed everything from plants to fishes and even reptiles, in addition to which he was also a skilled alpinist. In short, Shimizu had a gaze that was the polar opposite to that of the academic researchers who restricted their interests to a single field. His ruggedness is clearly demonstrated by an episode that occurred when Shimizu returned to his laboratory with a pit viper he had captured during a nature study trip in the countryside with the young Abe, skinned the animal in front of all those present and proceeded to eat the raw liver, after which the meat was grilled over an open-air fire and shared by everybody. No doubt this is something that would have made the budding scientists and researchers “flinch.” But it is almost certainly this that led to the utterly unostentatious “Education of Life” policy advocated by Abe.

Yoshitaka Abe (left) taking part in an Iwaki nature observation gathering of the Caterpillar Fungi Society (June 2008).

Among the many achievements of Shimizu, who repeatedly fell out with both government and private research institutions, one that was epoch-making was the commencement of his “Mushroom Exhibitions,” the first of which was held in 1956, where various kinds of mushrooms were displayed in an effort to prevent food poisoning among members of the public due to eating the wrong varieties. The effect of having visitors view actual mushrooms firsthand at these displays was immeasurable, so much so that it is said there have been virtually no cases of mushroom poisoning in Yonezawa since. Notwithstanding these impressive results, the displays were uncomplicated affairs, consisting of specimens simply arranged on tables in a small room at the Yonezawa City Library, a venue somehow befitting Shimizu. The secondary effects, however, quickly became apparent. Impressed by Shimizu’s “Mushroom Exhibitions,” a local teacher by the name of Yasuo Suzuki desperately wanted to see them continue, leading to the establishment of the Yonezawa Biology Fan Club. Even following his death in 1998, Shimizu’s legacy continues to be recognized by local residents with the holding of the autumn “Mushroom Exhibitions” and the spring “Wild Herb Exhibitions.”

If all that needs to be done is observing and recording nature, then an academic is sufficient; but when it comes to verifying something by putting it in one’s stomach, then this is beyond the academic domain. Shimizu was also extremely knowledgeable about medicinal herbs and medicinal herb liquor. For Shimizu, who physically experienced and literally practiced with his body the coexistence with living things, the title “Great Ringleader” of the Botanical Society of Japan is indeed fitting. But the times have changed, and Shimizu is no longer of this world. As for Japan in 2016, the nuclear emergency declaration is still in effect. People’s confidence in scientists remains badly shaken in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident. It is simply not conceivable that what we need now is the typical kind of scholarship and research that went on before the disaster. Let me say without fear of being misunderstood, what we need is the kind of visceral pursuit of knowledge practiced by the “Ringleader.” In fact, was it not precisely the “Education of Life” spawned by this “Ringleader” that ensured the effects of the greatest “trial of life” to which Aquamarine Fukushima was subjected during the disaster were kept to a minimum?


    1. Yoshitaka Abe, “Aquamarine Fukushima’s Suffering Report (the first report),” March 19, 2011.

  1. Yoshitaka Abe, “The World of Dr. Daisuke Shimizu, Naturalist and the Great Ringleader Holding of the Vegetable Wasp and Plant Worm Exhibition,” January 26, 2008.


Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 1-6

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