On “In Ghostly Japan” by Lafcadio Hearn

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BRAM STOKER, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lafcadio Hearn. In this list, Hearn – a contemporary of the other writers – stands out. Unlike the others, hers is no longer a household name. Yet by the end of the 19th century he was one of the best-known authors in the West. “Lafcadio Hearn has been forgotten,” the Romanian-American poet Andrei Codrescu wrote in 2019, “with two notable exceptions: in Louisiana and in Japan”.

Across Japan, alongside monuments dedicated to great Japanese writers, there are statues, plaques and museums celebrating Hearn. His writings about Japan and his stories based on traditional Japanese ghost tales – which, when originally published, were responsible for introducing much of the culture to the West, from Japanese literature and mythology – are taught in schools and cherished by the Japanese public. They are, despite Hearn’s foreign status, the first point of contact for many Japanese students with the 2,000-year-old Buddhist folk traditions of their country. Recently, Hearn’s writings have sparked renewed interest in the West. In ghostly Japan, in a new edition with a foreword by Michael Dylan Foster (author, among others, of the 2015 University of California Press monograph Youkai’s Book: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore), is one of Hearn’s lesser-known works. Originally published in 1899, it brings together Hearn’s interpretations of classical music youkai stories with short essays on Buddhism, journalistic-style pieces on the uses of incense in Japan and the obon festival of the dead and Hearn’s personal reflections on karma, suffering and animal sensitivity.

Hearn was born to a Greek mother and an Irish father in 1850. After a childhood marked by abandonment, first by his parents, then by an aunt who went bankrupt and left him with his former maid, he was sent one way to the United States. “At nineteen […] I was dumped with no money on the sidewalk of an American city to start my life, ”Hearn later wrote. He found work as a journalist and eventually moved to New Orleans, where he recorded and published Creole proverbs and their meanings, compiled recipes from chefs and housewives in what became the first Creole cookbook and wrote about Louisiana voodoo. In 1890, he moved to Japan, where he married Setsuko Koizumi, the daughter of a samurai, took his surname and created a new Japanese first name, Yakumo. Setsuko and Hearn have worked together in notorious ways; Setsuko scoured second-hand bookstores for traditional Japanese stories that she learned and then performed – often by candlelight – for Hearn, who himself couldn’t read Japanese. This is how many stories of In ghostly Japan have been created; from their original Japanese, they were translated and reinterpreted by Setsuko, then reinterpreted again by Hearn – in new forms he thought would appeal to Western readers – before finally being published in English. Now, the stories from this collection and others – including, the most famous, Kwaidan, which was adapted into a film by Masaki Kobayashi in 1965 – exist primarily as translated works, again, into Japanese.

Hearn’s identity is subject to debate. He is variously described as a Greco-Irish author – his interest in ghost stories and Japanese mythology is presented as a sort of legacy of Irish ghost stories and ancient Greek mythology; as an American author – it was in the United States that he began to write professionally; or as a Japanese author – after marrying Setsuko he became a Japanese citizen and during his lifetime was considered “oriental” by Westerners due to his Greek heritage. Indeed, the previous edition of Tuttle of In ghostly Japan was published as part of his “Tuttle Classics of Japanese Literature” series, positioning Hearn’s work in Japanese rather than Western literary canon. In this new edition, the Japanese character of Hearn seems acquired to Foster, professor of East Asian studies at UC Davis, so much so that he imagines Hearn as the personification of the wind in the town of Yaizu in the prefecture of Shizuoka – part of one of the trials. Describing a visit to Yaizu, Foster writes: “[A]I watched the dark ocean glistening in the moonlight, […] I really felt his presence: a cool, whispering breeze with so much to say. The editor, in the same vein, describes Hearn as “almost as Japanese as haiku”.

Describing Hearn as Japanese is not without controversy; Hearn was writing at a time when Japan had only recently opened up to the West – Orientalism was at its peak, and the Japanese were seen as an exotic Other: Japan’s culture, its traditions, its philosophies, all the amenities fashionable in the West, there for the taking. Foster quotes Jonathan Dee (although, notably, without expanding or giving an opinion on what Dee writes):

Close one eye and he’s a unique tragic hero […] who has always defended non-dominant cultures […] celebrate in prose the world beyond […] white european company […]. Close the other eye and it’s just another 19th century white man who made himself an expert on the places and cultures he was a tourist to, making a career out of describing or interpreting those cultures as if they were. to him to represent or to take advantage of it. of.

With this edition, one of many recent reissues of the author’s work, Tuttle has done Hearn a disservice. [1] The publisher added the subtitle “Japanese Legends of Ghosts, Yokai, Yurei and Other Oddities”, positioning the book as a window that delves into “weird” aspects of Japan and perpetuating the stereotype of Japan as curious and weird. . There’s a clue here as to why Hearn has, over the decades, been largely forgotten in the West. Tuttle – as do many other publishers of books having something to do with Japan, including the myriad fictional titles sporting images of the rising sun or fetishized images of Japanese women – sells Japan, the country, as a exotic curiosity, rather than selling the writing of a great author.

Hearn’s writing itself is humble. Often the stories have a meta element, so Hearn is a character, telling the story as it was told to him by a Japanese. He does not claim to be Japanese, nor to automatically know Japanese culture; he explores and learns, taking the reader with him. Hearn was a Buddhist – and the Buddhist teachings are found in almost every piece in this volume. Her writing is beautiful, sensitive and deeply thoughtful. By learning incense, he studies the ingredients and scents as well as the uses; another essay sees him observing how poetry is interwoven in Japanese life; how written poetry is “everywhere”, on screens, utensils, “even toothpicks”; how the poorest neighborhood without even “real tea” would not be without poetry; how is it part of ethics education: “Are you very angry? – don’t say anything mean, but compose a poem. “Poetry in Japan is as universal as the air,” he wrote. An essay on the perspective on life, on suffering, on enlightenment, of the village dog reads like the work not only of a compiler of stories, but of a philosopher; another on Buddhist principles of pleasure and pain told using the silk butterfly as an analogy is the same. Both are exceptional pieces of writing, and they explore – like all of the pieces in this collection – not only Japanese culture but, more broadly, what it is to be human. The fact that they are presented today in an edition that suggests they are specifically aimed at readers with a demonstrated interest in Japan does Hearn’s writing a disservice.

Foster’s foreword leaves out the more interesting parts of Hearn’s biography, and almost all of the women – his first wife, Alethea Foley, a woman who was a former slave and who Hearn married illegally ( when interracial marriages were prohibited under Ohio’s anti-miscegenation law), is not mentioned. More importantly, however, the role that his Japanese wife, Setsuko, played in his career is omitted. In Foster’s version of Hearn’s life, Setsuko – who in his own words had to “digest and assimilate the stor[ies] before saying [them]”Over and over to Hearn – is just a wife and the reason for Hearn’s Japanese citizenship. Beyond that, Japanese voices are missing in this foreword; Foster quotes David Lurie, Albert Mordell and Jonathan Dee, as well as a 1900 review in the Chicago Chronicle who claims Hearn was thinking “from the Japanese point of view,” as if the critic’s opinion was a fact. For this omission, Foster’s foreword could have been written a century ago when this book was published, targeting white and Western readers exclusively. Today, however, Hearn’s audience is different. In the West, his writings traveled across the ocean with Japanese immigrants in whose homes his name is still known and relevant. His works have been passed down to the second generation. They have influenced the works of Japanese authors and authors of Japanese descent outside of Japan. There is here a missed opportunity with this foreword to consider the fascinating place Hearn’s work occupies in Japan and among Japanese communities in the West.

Since the recent resurgence of interest in Hearn’s work, many critics have questioned whether Hearn is still relevant in the West today. When her work is presented, as is the case here with this edition, as repackaged Japanese stories and culture as “quirks” for Western readers, and when no room is given to Japanese voices on her work, the answer is no. But when you consider Hearn’s adoption and influence in Japanese culture, and when you consider his work on its own merits, the answer is an emphatic yes.

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Claire Kohda is a writer based in Kent, England. She reviews books for The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, and The spectator, specializing in books from Japan and about Japan. His novel woman eating – about an Asian-British vampire trying to make his mark in London’s contemporary art world – will be released in April 2022.

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[1] Recent reissues of Hearn’s work include Japanese tales by Lafcadio Hearn (Princeton, 2019), edited by Andrei Codrescu (my previous quote is from his introduction to the volume) with a preface by Jack Zipes; Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Stranger Things (Licorne, 2019), with photographs by Hiroshi Watanabe and an introduction by Paul Murray; and Lafcadio Hearn, Japanese ghost stories (Penguin, 2019), edited by Paul Murray. The sweetest fruits, a 2019 novel by Monique Truong (Penguin), while not a reissue of Hearn’s writings, explores the lives of women associated with Hearn.


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