Saturday, August 7, 2010

Of Ghosts & Spirits

In 1894, Houghton Mifflin & Co published Lafcadio Hearn’s two volume work, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. Hearn had arrived in Japan four years earlier, at the age of 40, commissioned as a newspaper correspondent. This commission was very soon broken off, but that was of little concern to a man who had found both a home and his greatest inspiration. He lived the remainder of his years in Japan, marrying a Japanese, taking the name Koizumi Yagumo and becoming a naturalized citizen of the country.

It is through Lafcadio Hearn’s writings that most Westerners of earlier years were introduced to things Japanese. Easy now to accuse Hearn of romanticizing Japan, exaggerating the exotic, but his descriptions were among the first impressions of pre-industrial Japan offered to the outside world. Another writer-adventurer, Pierre Loti did much the same sort of thing a few years earlier, only with an even greater degree of exoticism.

Hearn’s years in Japan make and interesting study, especially for the gradual evolution of feeling for his adopted country. At the time of his death things were perhaps not as rosy as they once were. But to this day he remains an almost-hero to Japanese of an older generation, and signs of his influence linger in many, many places.

Among my books here in Florida—most shipped from Japan—is a two-volume first edition set of Hearn’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. Some of the books in my shelves were obtained for their value as first editions, signed or otherwise. In relation to that I looked up something on the web this morning about Hearn’s books. That got me thinking about the man and his experience in late 19th, early 20th century Japan.

My own first experience in Japan, though ninety years after Hearn, is perfectly described on page one of Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan… ‘The first charm of Japan is intangible and volatile as a perfume.’ Short and dead on target. From my own first days in Japan I understand how accurate the writer is in that description.

Hearn completed Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan while a teacher at a middle school in Kyushu. He later taught English literature at famed Tokyo University, but left under a cloud when administrators calculated his salary based upon his Japanese citizenship. This bothered Hearn as he knew other ‘visiting’ Western teachers on the faculty were receiving much more. His final post was as a professor at Waseda University, where he remained until his death.

During his years in Japan Hearn published fourteen books, most of them dealing with topics best described by the title of a 1902 book, Kottô: Being Japanese Curios, with Sundry Cobwebs. From early age Hearn was fascinated by the unconventional and the outlandish. Following this line, his writings tend to hover around such things as ghosts, spirits and fairy tales. From this world of the supernatural the writer set a tone that colored many of his pages. Perhaps the reason he has been accused of exaggeration, of romanticizing Japan.

Hard for me to recommend that someone run out and buy a book by Lafcadio Hearn, but should you stumble upon an old soy sauce stained copy of something by him in a yard sale or thrift shop, it would be worth taking home for that occasional afternoon or evening when exotic calls your name.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America