No Mere Oddity: On Lafcadio Hearn’s “In Ghostly Japan”

October 21, 2021   •   By Claire Kohda

In Ghostly Japan: Japanese Legends of Ghosts, Yokai, Yurei and Other Oddities

Lafcadio Hearn

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 rest, his is no longer a household name. Yet, at the end of the 19th century, he was one of the most well-known authors in the West. “Lafcadio Hearn has been forgotten,” Romanian American poet Andrei Codrescu wrote in 2019, “with two remarkable 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 the West to much of Japanese culture, literature, and mythology — are taught in schools and cherished by the Japanese public. They are — despite Hearn’s status as foreigner — many Japanese students’ first point of contact with their country’s 2,000-year-old Buddhist folklore traditions. Recently, Hearn’s writings have found renewed interest in the West. In Ghostly Japan, out in a new edition with a foreword by Michael Dylan Foster (author of, among other works, the 2015 University of California Press monograph The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore), is one of Hearn’s lesser-known works. Originally published in 1899, it collects Hearn’s interpretations of classic yōkai stories with short essays on Buddhism, journalistic-style pieces on uses of incense in Japan and the obon festival of the dead, and Hearn’s personal ponderings on karma, suffering, and animal sentience.

Hearn was born to a Greek mother and 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 her former maid, he was sent on a one-way trip to the United States. “At nineteen years of age […] I was dropped moneyless on the pavement of an American city to begin 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 by chefs and housewives in what became the first Creole cookbook, and wrote on Louisiana voodoo. In 1890, he moved to Japan, where he married Setsuko Koizumi, the daughter of a samurai, took her surname, and created a new Japanese first name for himself, Yakumo. Setsuko and Hearn famously worked together; Setsuko scoured secondhand bookshops for traditional Japanese stories that she learned and then performed — often by candlelight — for Hearn, who himself couldn’t read Japanese. It is in this way that many of the stories in In Ghostly Japan were created; from their original Japanese, they were translated and reinterpreted by Setsuko, then reinterpreted again by Hearn — in new guises he thought would appeal most to Western readers — before finally being published in English. Now, the stories in this collection and others — including, most famously, Kwaidan, which was adapted into a film by Masaki Kobayashi in 1965 — exist mostly as works translated, again, back into Japanese.

Hearn’s identity is subject to debate. He is variously described as a Greek-Irish author — his interest in the ghost stories and mythology of Japan framed as a kind of inheritance from the ghost stories of Ireland and ancient mythology of Greece; as an American author — it was in the United States where he first started writing professionally; or as a Japanese author — after marrying Setsuko, he became a Japanese citizen, and, during his lifetime, he was considered “oriental” by Westerners due to his Greek heritage. Indeed, Tuttle’s previous edition of In Ghostly Japan was published as part of its “Tuttle Classics of Japanese Literature” series, positioning Hearn’s work within the Japanese, rather than Western, literary canon. In this new edition, Hearn’s Japaneseness seems a given to Foster, a UC Davis professor of East Asian studies, so much so that he imagines Hearn as the personification of the wind in the city of Yaizu in Shizuoka Prefecture — the setting of one of Hearn’s essays. Describing a visit to Yaizu, Foster writes: “[A]s I looked out at the dark ocean glimmering in the moonlight, […] I really sensed his presence: a cool murmuring breeze with so much to say.” The publisher, in a similar vein, refers to Hearn as “almost as Japanese as the Haiku.”

Describing Hearn as Japanese isn’t without controversy; Hearn was writing at a time when Japan had only very 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 fashionable commodities in the West, there for the taking. Foster quotes Jonathan Dee (although, notably, without expanding on or offering an opinion on what Dee writes):

Close one eye and he is a unique tragic hero […] who consistently championed nondominant cultures […] celebrating in prose the world beyond […] white, European society […]. Close the other eye and he is just another nineteenth-century white man who appointed himself an expert on places and cultures in which he was a tourist, making a career out of depicting or interpreting these cultures as if they were his to represent or to profit from.

With this edition, one of several recent reissues of the author’s work, Tuttle has done Hearn no favors. [1] The publisher has added the subtitle “Japanese Legends of Ghosts, Yokai, Yurei and Other Oddities,” positioning the book as a window that looks into the “odd” aspects of Japan and perpetuating the stereotype of Japan as curious and strange. There is a clue here as to why Hearn has, over the decades, been mostly forgotten in the West. Tuttle — as do many other publishers of books having anything to do with Japan, including the innumerable fiction titles emblazoned with images of the rising sun or fetishized images of Japanese women — is selling Japan, the country, as exotic curiosity, rather than selling the writing of a great author.

Hearn’s writing itself is humble. Often, stories have a meta element to them, so that Hearn is a character, recounting the tale as told to him by a Japanese person. He does not claim to be Japanese, or to automatically know about Japanese culture; he explores and learns, taking the reader with him. Hearn was Buddhist — and Buddhist teachings thread through almost every piece in this volume. His writing is beautiful, sensitive, and deeply thoughtful. In learning about incense, he studies ingredients and scents as well as uses; another essay sees him observe how poetry is interwoven into Japanese life; how written poetry is “everywhere,” on screens, utensils, “even toothpicks”; how the poorest settlement without even “real tea” wouldn’t be without poetry; how it is a part of ethical teaching: “Are you very angry? — do not say anything unkind, but compose a poem.” “Poetry in Japan is universal as the air,” he writes. An essay about the perspective on life, on suffering, on enlightenment, of the village dog reads as the work of not just a compiler of stories but of a philosopher; another on Buddhist principles on pleasure and pain told using the silk moth as an analogy is the same. Both are exceptional pieces of writing, and they explore — as do all the pieces in this collection — not simply Japanese culture but, more broadly, what it is to be human. That they are packaged today in an edition that suggests they are specifically for readers with an established interest in Japan does Hearn’s writing a disservice.

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

Since the recent renewal of interest in Hearn’s work, numerous critics have asked whether Hearn is still relevant in the West today. When his work is presented, as it is here with this edition, as Japanese stories and culture repackaged as “oddities” for Western readers, and when no space is given to Japanese voices on his work, the answer is no. But when considering Hearn’s adoption into and influence on Japanese culture, and when considering 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 and about Japan. Her novel Woman, Eating — about an Asian-British vampire trying to find a place for herself in the London contemporary art world — is forthcoming in April 2022.

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[1] Recent reissues of Hearn’s work include Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn (Princeton, 2019), edited by Andrei Codrescu (my earlier quote comes from his introduction to the volume) with a foreword by Jack Zipes; Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (Unicorn, 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 novel by Monique Truong published in 2019 (Penguin), while not a reissue of Hearn’s writing, explores the lives of the women associated with Hearn.