In Lafcadio Hearn’s tale ‘The Mountain of Skulls’, a bodhisattva guides a pilgrim up a steep mountain. The pilgrim looks down: ‘For there was not any ground – neither beneath him nor about him nor above him – but a heaping only, monstrous and measureless, of skull and fragments of skulls and dust of bone.’

The pilgrim is horrified. ‘I fear! – unutterably I fear! . . . there is nothing but the skulls of men!’

‘A mountain of skulls it is,’ says the bodhisattva. ‘But know, my son, that all of them are your own! Each has at some time been the nest of your dreams and delusions and desires. Not even one of them is the skull of any other being. All – all without exception – have been yours, in the billions of your former lives.’

In this tale, Hearn uses a mythical Japan to illuminate his own history. Previous to his arrival in Japan when he was just shy of forty, he had lived many lives. Born in Greece and spending his childhood in Ireland, he became a news reporter in Cincinnati, New Orleans and the West Indies. But it was in Japan where Hearn found his real subject, the one that would occupy him for the rest of his life. He used his dreams, delusions and desires to illuminate a place and culture that, at the time of his writing in the nineteenth century, was mostly unknown to the Western world. Hearn would change that.

 

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It was in 1890 that Harper’s offered Hearn a trip to write about a rapidly modernizing Japan. Upon his arrival in Yokohama, Hearn searched for remnants of Edo period Japan, the era of the shogun, the Japan that denied access to all but a few Portuguese and Dutch merchants. Soon after his arrival, Harper’s terminated the contract. But he was already hooked by ‘all Japan . . . with its magical trees and luminous atmosphere, with all its cities and towns and temples, and forty million of the most lovable people in the universe.’

In his collection of essays Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, he writes about his very first impression of Japan: ‘There is some charm unutterable in the morning air, cool with the coolness of Japanese spring and wind-waves from the snowy cone of Fuji; a charm perhaps due rather to the softest lucidity than to any positive tone – an atmospheric limpidity extraordinary, with only a suggestion of blue in it, through which the most distant objects appear focused with amazing sharpness.’

From the very first, Hearn focused with amazing sharpness on the receding distant objects he found in Japan. His fascination eventually led him to resurrect and recreate old Japanese tales and ghost stories in works such as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, popularizing them not only abroad, but also in Japan.

When Hearn arrived in Yokohama, he avoided the world of luxury travelers and Christian missionaries. Instead, he enjoyed rickshaw rides in the back streets, delighting in the Yokohama hillside. But he constantly confronted the modernity that was consuming the older Japanese ways: ‘a shop of American sewing machines next to the shop of a maker of Buddhist images; the establishment of a photographer beside the establishment of a manufacturer of straw sandals.’ It is as if Hearn was discovering the postmodernism in Japan before there was postmodernism.

In the summer of 1890, he was offered a teaching position in Matsue, a castle town in western Japan on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Here, Hearn met and married Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of an impoverished samurai family and eighteen years younger than Hearn, who adopted the name of Koizumi Yakumo. By marrying into the culture, Hearn not only took on the burden of a long-term family commitment, but also demonstrated a dedication to writing about Japan.

It was also in Matsue where Hearn found ‘survivals’ of an undisturbed old Japan. He taught by day and began cataloging the festivals and folkways of Matsue at night, hiring translators to provide him with literal translations of Japanese poems and folktales. He looked for kokoro, a Japanese word difficult to translate, best understood as ‘things of the heart,’ which could reveal to him the deep roots of his adopted country.

Only thirty-three kilometers from Matsue is Izumo-Taisha, also known as Kizuki- no-Oyashiro, the second most venerated Shinto shrine in Japan. Hearn read about the sacred shrine in the Kojiki (‘Record of Ancient Matters’), perhaps in the English translation by his friend Basil Hall Chamberlain. He became the first foreigner granted the privilege to enter the honden, the shrine’s main building:

I cannot suppress some slight exultation at the thought that I have been allowed to see what no other foreigner has been privileged to see – the interior of Japan’s most ancient shrine, and those sacred utensils and quaint rites of primitive worship so well worthy the study of the anthropologist and the evolutionist. . . . But to have seen Kitzuki as I saw it is also to have seen something much more than a single wonderful temple. To see Kitzuki is to see the living centre of Shinto, and to feel the life-pulse of the ancient faith, throbbing as mightily in this nineteenth century as ever in that unknown past whereof the Kojiki itself, though written in a tongue no longer spoken, is but a modern record.

Hearn’s own prose, written in flowery Victorian vernacular, might today be described as ‘a tongue no longer spoken’. But, as writer and Japan scholar Roger Pulvers points out, it is the florid nature of his language that allows it to translate so well into Japanese.

And like the Japanese, Hearn understood meaning could be found in both natural and manmade surfaces. He saw beneath the surfaces of the ‘quaint rites of primitive worship’ and, by doing so, went beyond ‘the study of anthropologist and the evolutionist.’ He found, and shared through his writing, ‘the life-pulse’ of a vanishing culture, then often appropriated by Western artists and admired as a design fad.

In November 1890, Hearn and his wife moved to a traditional samurai house on a ‘very quiet street behind the mouldering castle’. Today this old house is preserved as Lafcadio Hearn’s Old Residence. It hasn’t changed much since Hearn immortalized it in his essay ‘In a Japanese Garden’. The shoji screen can still be opened to see ‘Part of the O-Shiroyama, with the castle on its summit, half concealed by a park of pines, may be seen above the coping of the front wall, but only a part.’

When opening another shoji, a garden with its lotus pond is revealed. Hearn delighted in watching every phase of the ‘marvelous growth’ of the lotus plants, ‘from the first unrolling of the leaf to the fall of the last flower’. He understood the Japanese garden, like Japan itself, is more of an ongoing process than an end result. And this process, despite its seemingly unceasing progress from season to season, and from ancient to modern, leaves a remnant, a ‘survival,’ in its wake. The ‘survivals’ he found, understood and resurrected, became the foundations of his work.

Next door to the residence is the Memorial Museum. In the museum is Hearn’s favorite writing desk, taller than usual, specially designed so he could better use his one good eye. In a nearby vitrine is the telescope Hearn always kept at his desk to help him see, as well as the magnifying glass he used when walking outside.

Due to a teenage schoolyard scrap, Hearn had a severely injured left eye. After the injury, the eye became infected, and combined with his myopia he could only see a very short distance. With his permanently discolored eye, Hearn was self-conscious in his appearance. He always posed for photographs in profile, hiding his damaged eye.

Donald Richie, who settled in Japan after World War II, describes Hearn as ‘a short man. The Japanese were then a short people. And although he was not in the Western sense an attractive-looking person, in Japan few knew how foreigners were supposed to look.’

Was Hearn’s attraction to strange things because he had one eye? Did he feel comfortable in Japan because being a foreigner overshadowed his physical difference? Disability is stereotypically understood as a motivation for overcompensation. However, Hearn’s disability necessitated his slowing down to see, literally, what he saw. He actually saw differently, allowing him to recreate what he saw not only as a relic of the past or a memory, but as something still alive beneath the surface of a society rushing forward to international prominence.

What can easily confound, and disturb, visitors to Japan is this simultaneous holding of two seemingly disparate things. Hearn eschewed explaining things, which, as a foreigner, he might not have understood. Instead, he observed and he accepted, allowing the ‘strange things’ he found to provide not local color but intangible meaning. Hearn’s ability to adapt to difference enabled him to understand Japan more deeply than most foreigners, as well as to translate the culture effectively for the Western culture from which he came.

The often-displaced Hearn felt at home in Japan. He was abandoned by his Greek mother and Irish father, and raised by relatives in Dublin. Disinherited, he was sent off to Cincinnati, where he found work as a reporter. His first marriage, to Mattie Foley, an African American woman, ran afoul of Ohio’s miscegenation laws. Divorcing Foley, he landed in New Orleans.

Japan was where he finally found a family of his own. His history of abandonment and wandering attracted him to other displaced people, as evident in his early reporting about the poor. And just as his pocket telescope allowed him to see both close and distant objects with ‘sharp focus,’ his sense of otherness allowed him a rare immersion in a culture very different from his own.

In his story ‘A Conservative’, Hearn follows the life of a samurai’s son who grows up in the feudal world of the samurai, in a city ‘where no foreigner had ever been’. The son reaches manhood ‘in that innocent provincial life of Old Japan’ where ‘a young samurai might grow up exceptionally pure-minded and simple-hearted’.

But the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships changes everything. From a British teacher the samurai’s son learns English and meets a missionary who introduces him to the New Testament. He converts to Christianity and travels to Europe.

What he finds surprises him: ‘That world had no faith. It was a world of mockery and masquerade and pleasure-seeking selfishness. . . . Foreign civilization had taught him to understand, as he could never otherwise have understood, the worth and beauty of his own.’

Hearn reflected back to the Japanese a vision of their culture that had become a craze in Western cultural capitals after Perry’s ‘opening’ of Japan. He provided a sense of Japan in relation to what was still an unfamiliar, and encroaching, world. He gave the Japanese something valuable to hold on to as old ways and mores began to be replaced. Here was an outsider who admired, and found meaning in, the traditions being overrun by ‘progress’.

In 1895, when Hearn was appointed to the prestigious position of Chair of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University, the offer of the position puzzled him. He had no training or degree in English literature. At the time, Japan, flush from victory in the Sino-Japanese War and resentful of the terms imposed by Western powers that feared a powerful Japan and wanted China for themselves, was sending its foreign teachers home.

Hearn soon realized the reason for his hiring. His Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan was a huge success. The book revived interest in Japan at a time when American fascination with the country was waning. He was the most prestigious Western writer to fall in love with Japan. His Japanese patrons trusted Hearn to continue to write in praise of the country.

As Hearn’s popularity in the US waned, his reputation in Japan rose. In 1904, just a week before Hearn’s death at the age of fifty-four, the Russo-Japan war began, ending with Japanese victory. Japan’s nationalistic pride was high. And here was a foreign writer to provide imprimatur to Japan’s spiritual superiority.

Ironically, Hearn’s popularity rose once more in the West after World War II, when Westerners were again eager to learn about the culture of the defeated country, now a friend. His popularity grew in postwar Japan, as the defeated nation came to terms with the consumerism of the occupying Americans.

Spirituality is the foundation of Hearn’s writing about Japan. Despite the mounting pressure of modernity, Hearn never lost sight of the ineffable qualities that first attracted him to the country. Today, his work speaks to the question of how a Westerner might, without appropriation, write of a different culture.

 


 

Kenny Fries’s new memoir In the Province of the Gods was published this month. It received the Creative Capital literature grant.

Two Poems
Stillness | State of Mind