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Authors: Donald; Lafcadio; Richie Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn's Japan

BOOK: Lafcadio Hearn's Japan

Lafcadio Hearn's


Published by Tuttle Publishing, an imprint of Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd.,
with editorial offices at 364 Innovation Drive, North Clarendon, Vermont
05759 U.S.A. and 61 Tai Seng Avenue #02-12, Singapore 534167.

©1997 by Charles E. Tuttle Publishing Co., Inc.
© 1997 Donald Ritchie (Text Only)
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or utilized
in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy-
ing, recording, or by any information
storage and retrieval system, without prior written permission
from the publisher.

First edition, 1997
LCC Card No. 96060931

ISBN-13: 978-4-8053-0873-8
ISBN-10: 4-8053-0873-7

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: The Land

Strangeness and Charm
The Chief City of the Province of the Gods
In a Japanese Garden
Three Popular Ballads
In the Cave of the Children's Ghosts
A Letter from Japan

: The People

Bits of Life and Death
Of Women's Hair
A Street Singer
Yuko: A Reminiscence
On a Bridge
The Case of O-Dai
A Passional Karma






Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) spent fourteen years in Japan—he arrived in Yokohama in April 1890 and died in Tokyo in September 1904.

If this span seems somehow short, it is because his reputation is based upon his writings on this country and because these are voluminous. Even now he remains somehow representative of Japan, and his books about the country and its people—not counting his collected letters and his uncollected articles—amount to over four thousand printed pages.

Attempting a single-volume anthology thus means leaving out much: over nine-tenths. At the same time it offers the opportunity to create a kind of narrative that reflects Hearn's expatriate life and what he saw and felt.

My choices for this anthology are determined by my belief that Hearn, besides being an occasional romancer, was also a reliable observer who has preserved for us a detailed account of turn-of-the-century Japan.

To indicate this and at the same time to illustrate the changes in attitude that informed his later writings, I have decided upon an anthology in two parts, purposely patterned after those of his time, dealing with place and people. The first half of the book is a description, Hearn's vision of Japan during the early years of his stay. The second half is devoted to his coming to terms with the further realities of the place, the Japanese themselves. Such a structure shows Hearn subjectively describing the look of the country, and then objectively dramatizing the people he met—and the many he didn't . . . those ghosts that so people his landscape.

Everything selected is given in its entirety except for one section, “Three Popular Ballads,” where I include the setting and leave out the ballads. I have also retained Hearn's original punctuation, his inconsistent spelling of place names, his treatment of Japanese words, and most of his footnotes, which often contain further information.

—D. R.


In the spring of 1890 the forty-year-old Lafcadio Hearn was offered a trip to Japan by
Harper's Magazine.
He was to write about his experiences and thus inform his readers about this land then already famous for being thought quaint and picturesque.

Just a year earlier Sir Edwin Arnold had written that if the reader wanted to know what Japan looked like, he or she should just “look at the nearest Japanese fan,” which argues for an abundance of such in England and other countries where the fad for
continued. There were indeed so many quaint and picturesque curios loose in the West that Amy Lowell could later report that the interest in Japanese poetry which so distinguished her own verse began in the rooms of her childhood—crammed with Japanese objects that her brother Percival had shipped back while representing the United States government.

In accepting the magazine's terms, Hearn wrote that in a country already so well trodden as Japan he could not be expected to discover anything completely new. Rather, what he hoped to do was “to create, in the minds of the readers, a vivid impression of [his emphasis]
in Japan . . . as one taking part in the daily existence of the common people, and
thinking with their thoughts.

The reason that he believed anything this unlikely possible was that he had long nurtured feelings about the place. He had wandered enthusiastically through the Japanese section of the New Orleans World Exposition, read the effusions of Pierre Loti with attention, found Sir Edwin Arnold's
Light of Asia
profound, and pondered Percival Lowell's
The Soul of the Far East.
Later he even said that he had been born Japanese, had accidentally appeared in the wrong place, but had now finally found his way home.

What one usually discovers upon a return to longed-for origins is a utopia. Hearn consequently found in Japan surpassing beauty, an extraordinary charm, a lovable picturesqueness, and a place for himself. He was an aesthete and so, he thought, were the Japanese. He worshiped beauty and, therefore, so did they. He was tired of ugly commonplace and here was an extraordinary prettiness.

In this Hearn was a man of his times. The movement of art for art's sake was coming to a climax, there was a growing protest against such ideals as progress and respectability, there was also a definite move toward the politics of the aesthetic; and while the teachings of Whistler and Wilde might seem too close for comfort in London, similar teachings by Hearn in far Japan were acceptable.

Lafcadio could hold that Buddhism was superior to both Christianity and Science, and that Japan offered an Oriental refinement that London or Boston could barely even imagine. But such assertions came from a safe distance. As Earl Miner has remarked: “He offered aestheticism and unorthodoxy to his large audience at an easy remove, and flights into the strange or the exotic which were a welcome escape from the strenuous life of the late nineteenth century in England and America.”

Also, finally, Hearn was also a short man and the Japanese were then a short people. And, though he was not in the Western sense an attractive-looking person, in Japan few knew how foreigners were supposed to look, and his unsightly eye and the odd twist it gave to his features remained uncommented upon.

Arriving, bent upon discovering an unspoiled utopia, he found that Yokohama and Tokyo were, from his point of view, already con-taminated by the West and were thus no longer the Japan that he had hoped to find. But fortunately, a place more fitting was awaiting him. This was a small castle town on the Japan Sea coast, the provincial capital of Matsue.

Off the tourist path, as yet unused to foreigners and their ways, it seemed to represent all the best of that Old Japan now so swiftly disappearing. Though Hearn was in Matsue only a little over a year, it became for him a true paradise. There he found everything he wanted: his work, his wife, his home, and there he began to discover the Lafcadio Hearn we now know.

In the process—searching out beauty imperiled by change, chronicling traditional lives so soon to disappear—he became a witness. Hearn's is one of the few descriptions we have of what existed everywhere a century ago and is now nowhere.

* * *

At the same time, those eyes through which Hearn viewed Meiji Japan were singular—he had only one. Basil Hall Chamberlain, early mentor and friend, later recalled that he “saw details very distinctly while incapable of understanding them as a whole. Not only was this the case mentally but also physically. Blind of one eye, he was extremely short-sighted of the other. On entering a room his habit was to grope all around, closely examining wallpaper, the backs of books, pictures, curios, and other ornaments. Of these he could have drawn up an exact catalogue: but he had never properly seen either the horizon or the stars.”

This was, however, a late evaluation, after Hearn had found reason to quarrel with Chamberlain—as indeed this highly irascible author did with a majority of his friends. Earlier, before the break, Chamberlain had written more generously: “Never perhaps was scientific accuracy of detail married to such tender and exquisite brilliancy of style.”

Both descriptions are accurate in that they indicate that Hearn, while reflecting the reality of the country around him, was also con-structing his own version of that land—he was creating what Roland Barthes was later to call a “fictive nation,” a national system of one's own devising.

This need to construct one's very own Japan is common—all visitors must have experienced the urge. The Orient has long been perceived as difficult for the Occidental. Even now, long after picturesqueness has been tamed, there is still talk of “culture shock,” some yet describe living there as “coping,” guides still speak of “travel survival.” To devise one's own land is thus a way of controlling it.

At the same time, the Orient has long seemed a haven for Westerners seeking more intense spiritual and sensual experience— something Hearn was certainly attempting. In Japan there is much that initially seems enigmatic and there is thus the tantalizing promise of something beyond our common ken. For those not daunted by difficulty, an initial reaction is that a kind of paradise has been found, a land where whatever one desires seems possible.

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