Japanese Horror Tales and the Legacy of Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) is best known for his collection “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things” (Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things), which includes classic Japanese horror tales such as “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hōïchi” and “Yuki-Onna.” The anthology is a timeless work of art that is widely read in Japan and around the world. In it, Lafcadio Hearn shows his skill as a writer and the perceptual vision of a thinker who interrogates materialistic civilization.

In his recounting of more than 70 Japanese horror stories throughout his life, it can be seen that Lafcadio Hearn found a type of truth in the literature of the supernatural and was able to understand the fundamental aspects of a foreign culture without apply western preconceptions. Through an open mind and keen observation with each of his senses, he was able to understand the essence of Japanese culture and see the future prospects of the country. This ability is deeply connected to Hearn’s background and travel and life in the other half of the world, and the way his experience of other cultures shaped his thinking to oppose an anthropocentric view of the world.

From Ireland to Japan

In 1850, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was born in Lefkada, in the Ionian Islands of Greece. His father Charles was an Irish surgeon in the British Army and his mother Rosa was from Kythira, another of the Ionian Islands. When he was two years old, they moved into his father’s family home in Dublin, Ireland. However, his mother Rosa, suffered from mental anguish and returned to Greece when Lafcadio was four years old. I would never see her again. Hearn was raised by his father’s aunt Sarah Holmes Brenane, although his daily care was the responsibility of his nurse Catherine Costello, who was from Connaught, and who had the richest Celtic oral tradition in Ireland.

Portrait of Lafcadio Hearn

Hearn rarely spoke of his time in Ireland, but in later life he wrote in a letter from Tokyo to Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “I had a nurse from Connaught who told me fairy tales and ghost stories. So I learned to love Irish things. ” Needless to say, her affinity and acceptance of Irish spirits paved the way for her further investigation into Japanese horror tales.

His great-aunt’s bankruptcy led him to lead a vague life in London before studying for a time in northern France. At age 19, he emigrated on a solo trip to Cincinnati in the United States.

After a failed marriage to Alethea Foley, Lafcadio Hearn moved to New Orleans, where he became fascinated by the fusion of French, African, and indigenous traditions in Creole culture. He published a dictionary of Creole proverbs and the world’s first Creole cookbook. He also made frequent visits to Marie Laveau, popularly known as the Voodoo Queen. He became interested in studying the spells and popular beliefs of voodoo, which had its origin in Africa and which had established local roots.

Hearn’s reports on the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884-1885 brought a chance encounter with Japanese culture. He bought two volumes of Japanese myths summarized in French. It was then that he became interested in the fundamental culture of the unknown East. After his return to New York, he decided that it was time to make his trip to Japan. On April 4, 1890, he saw Mount Fuji for the first time from the cover of Abyssinia and made landfall in Yokohama. He was 39 years old.

Izumo, land of the gods

Hearn initially traveled to Japan as a special correspondent for Harper’s, but the contract was canceled and he decided to settle locally. With the help of Hattori Ichizō, an education ministry bureaucrat he had met at the New Orleans World’s Fair, and Chamberlain, he obtained a teaching position at Matsue Common High School in Shimane Prefecture. He arrived there on August 30, 1890. At the front of the Kojiki there was a map that showed “The World Known to the Japanese from the Mythical Era”, with the words “Legendary Cycle of Idzumo” written on it. Hearn must have felt great joy and enthusiasm for his opportunity to live near Izumo, the scene of Japan’s earliest myths.

In Matsue, Hearn found a kindred spirit in Deputy Headmaster Nishida Sentarō. He also began living with Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of a samurai family in Matsue who was introduced by Nishida. Many of the Japanese horror stories that Lafcadio would later write were transmitted to him by Setsu.

He was warmly received at the Izumo Taisha Shrine by head priest Senge Takanori, becoming the first Westerner to enter the honden, or the main structure of the shrine. Later he made two more visits to study Shintoism through direct experience.

Investigating the Japanese spirit

Lafcadio Hearn next to Koizumi Setsu, his wife
Lafcadio Hearn next to Koizumi Setsu, his wife

Dazed by the cold of Matsue in winter, after a year and three months, Hearn set out on new journeys. He lived successively in Kumamoto, Kobe, and Tokyo. While in Kobe, he considered his future home life, married Setsu in 1896 and took the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo. As he cheerfully explained in a September letter to his friend Elwood Hendrick, “‘Yakumo’ is a poetic alternative to Izumo, my beloved province, ‘the place of cloud emission.'” You will understand how the name was chosen. ”

Starting from his days in Kumamoto, he encountered a Japan that had lost its humility and was pushing toward westernization, modernization, and militarism; he hadn’t felt any of this in Matsue. His disappointment brought with it a mature and objective perspective of the country. Reducing his field work, he locked himself in his study to investigate the Japanese view of the kami (gods). At the same time, he listened to Setsu’s ghost stories, absorbed in creating versions imbued with a literary spirit.

Reading Lafcadio Hearn in an invaded Japan

In Hearn’s final work, “Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation,” he wrote a story about the spirit of Japan. It considered that the cult of the ancestors went from a “domestic cult” through a “communal cult” to a “state cult”, in which the imperial ancestors are worshiped in the Sanctuary of Ise. In other words, he saw ancestor worship as inseparable from the reverence shown to the emperor. One of the later readers who agreed with this assessment was American General Bonner Fellers, who served under General Douglas MacArthur during World War II.

Bust of Lafcadio Hearn
Bust of Lafcadio Hearn

Fellers read all of Hearn’s works and, shortly after arriving in Japan as part of the operations immediately after the end of the war, sought out his descendants and visited his grave. The general contributed to the drafting of a memorandum on the imperial institution and a memory of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito). He also proposed that the emperor should not be subjected to the Tokyo Trial, and that his authority should instead be applied in a new democratic direction. This would avoid removing the spiritual anchor of the Japanese people. Fellers made a great contribution to the realization of today’s symbolic role for the emperor.

Lafcadio Hearn passed away on September 26, 1904 due to heart failure at the age of 54.