ernest henry wilson

Ernest Henry Wilson 01Ernest Henry Wilson was born in England in 1876 and at the age of 16 he began working at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens where he took an interest in botany. Within 5 years he was employed at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens and a few years later in 1899, he was dispatched by a London horticultural company called Veitch & Sons to China for 3 years for what would become the first of four visits. The mission of his first visit was to ‘discover’ the elusive dove tree and this he did near Tibet. He returned to China in 1903 after a brief spell back in England. This time he went on to ‘find’ the yellow Chinese poppy (meconopsis integrifolia) and this discovery put him on the ‘botanical map.’ It was after his second spell in China that he became connected with the Arnold Arboretum in Harvard University and it was they that funded Wilson’s visit to Japan 10 years later.

During his final visit to China he was caught in a landslide and injured his leg. This injury would later prevent Wilson from going deeper into the forests of Yakushima in 1914.

Ernest Henry Wilson 02In February 1914, Wilson arrived in Yokohama and quickly heard of the necessity to visit Yakushima. On February 14th he took a 2 day train journey down to Kagoshima and then sailed on to Yakushima via a stopover on Tanegashima where he first spotted the endemic ‘yakutanegoyo‘ pine tree. This tree is found only on Tanegashima and Yakushima. He was accompanied by Forestry Department officials and when the ship arrived to Miyanoura they had to row ashore as there was no docking facility.

Wilson’s hotel was along the banks of the Miyanoura River (this building was only recently pulled down) and when he and five other members of the party set off on their journey into the forest of the island, they had to first row across the Miyanoura River to access the Kusugawa Trail that would take them into the mountains. The Kusugawa Trail was/is a trail that led into the heart of Yakushima and had been used (and still is used) as a pilgrim route and later as a transportation route to bring out roofing shingles starting from the Edo period.

Ernest Henry Wilson 05At Kusugawa they hired porters to carry their provisions and to carry the bulky camera equipment. The porters were paid 2 yen a day. One legendary porter (Watanabe Higanosuke) carried a large iron cauldron that served as a bath! Some of the hotels on Yakushima still use these old baths (goemon buro). A fire is lit underneath the bath as the bather sits in and soaks. Wilson, accustomed to roughing in the wilds as he had done in China, attempted to decline the bath at first, but he quickly realized that the bath was coming with them whether he liked it or not, and so, as a matter of gratitude, he would take a bath in the evening whilst out in the forest.

Sanderson CameraThe other piece of heavy equipment was the Sanderson camera apparatus. Wilson was an avid photographer and whilst on Yakushima he took 57 photographs. This doesn’t sound many by today’s standards, but each shot had an exposure time of over 5 minutes and almost absolute stillness was required for each shot. Movement would have caused the images to blur and so windy days were a problem.

The forest that Wilson entered had been logged for almost 300 years and so it wasn’t as lush as it is today. However, since 1879 there had been a lapse in the logging due to an on-going court dispute between the islanders and the Foresty Department (the former wanted access to the interior of the island for logging purposes). During Wilson’s visit the logging in operation was on a small scale compared to the carnage that was to follow after the Forestry Department developed railway lines into the forest and they began major logging operations from 1923.

Wilson StumpThe furthest Wilson and his team got to is now known as Wilson’s Stump. This is a large stump that still sits in a wonderful valley on the trail to Jomon sugi. The tree is thought to be a large tree that was felled by the Shimzu daimyo on the order of Hideyoshi Toyotomi as a sign of allegiance after Toyotomi had just dragged the Shimazu clan into his fold during the unification wars.  The huge tree, thought to have stood at around 44 meters, was apparently sent, along with other trees, to Kyoto to build the Hoko-ji temple.

The stump was covered in overgrowth and was not recognized as a tree stump at first. Wilson thought it was a cave until they ventured inside the stump and found it to be the inside of a tree. Wilson’s Stump is now a major landmark on the island and is a very popular tourist spot on the way to Jomon sugi.  It was given the name Wilson Stump a few years after his death in 1930.

Ernest Henry Wilson 03Wilson and his team returned to Miyanoura on February 24th with his photographs and many specimen samples. He claimed that he had not seen such a magnificent forest before, not even after his many extensive adventures throughout China. He left Yakushima on February 27th and returned to continue his research through Japan for a further year. He sent over 600 photographs and 200 specimens back to the Arnold Arboretum and afterwards compiled his research into the book, Conifers and Taxads of Japan‘. Throughout this work he often cites Yakushima as being a pristine ecological model.

In 1917, whilst on a second visit to Japan, Wilson met an acquaitance in Kagoshima and after a very brief meeting he appeared to persuade his acquaitance to commence a conservation program on Yakushima. In 1923 reports and findings were issued and a year later Yakushima was designated as a National Monument. Although the title sounds grand, it did little to halt the logging industry that would set about cutting through large expanses of the island, but it was the first step to bringing about the cessation of the logging. In 1964 areas of the island were designated as National Parks and by 1970 much of the logging industry came to a halt.

Ernest Henry Wilson 04Wilson gave countless lectures, speeches and interviews when he returned to live in the USA. He is accredited with ‘discovering’ around 1,000 species, collected more than 16,000 plant samples and took over 2,600 photographs. Unfortunately, his life was cut very short when he and his wife suffered a fatal car accident in Boston in 1930. He died aged only 54 years old. In keeping with his desire to be buried on ‘British soil’, he was taken to Canada and buried in Montreal.


We would like to thank Furui Tomoko (古居 智子) for her publication, ‘Wilson’s Yakushima – Memories of the Past‘. Copies of this book can found from various outlets on Yakushima.