Of mixed Greek-Irish heritage, Greek-born Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was raised primarily in Ireland and moved to the United States -- by way of London and Paris -- before he turned twenty. The ensuing twenty years saw Hearn embark on a career as a writer and reporter, which eventually sent him to Japan in 1890, to produce a series of stories for an American magazine. Japan appears to have agreed quite well with Hearn, as he remained there for the rest of his life, marrying a Japanese woman (a samurai's daughter) and becoming a Japanese citizen with the name Koizumi Yakumo.
During his many years in Japan, Hearn wrote a number of folkloric studies of Japanese culture, the best known of which are Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894) and Kwaidan (1904), the latter of which was filmed in 1964 by Masaki Kobayashi. The somewhat macabre nature of much of Hearn's writing was captured beautifully in the film's eerily atmospheric black and white tones. It's these writings that distinguish Hearn, and have earned him a lasting place in the hearts of the Japanese people.
A Japanese Miscellany (1901) was written near the end of his life, a handful of years before both Kwaidan and his premature death of heart failure at 54. The subtitle “strange stories, folklore gleanings, studies here & there” quite neatly sums up this slim volume, serving as the section headings.
The first section, “Strange Stories,” contains a selection of six tales which will seem at once familiar, and are yet so very different. The first three tales feature ghosts, both loving and vengeful, loyal and deadly. A brother defies death to keep his promise to a younger brother; a first wife tortures her widower's second wife for a promise not kept; and a daughter wrongfully killed is sent back to earth to joyfully live out her life in the body of the girl responsible for her death.
In the stories that follow, we meet an old trickster with an amazing talent for art -- or bamboozling -- who fools a great samurai lord and gets away with it; a kindly samurai who is blessed by the gods with supreme strength for aiding the local Shinto divinity in a moment of need; and a priest, near death, who experiences a brief life as a fish, waking only when the fish is caught and slaughtered for a neighboring lord's dinner.
These are familiar themes and characters to us all, but are presented here with uniquely Japanese trappings.
“Folklore Gleanings” is the most fascinating section of the book, opening with an essay, wonderfully illustrated in black and white, of the many varieties of dragonflies found in Japan. Their significance to history, general folklore, song and poetry -- there's a delightful digression into some of the distinctive forms of Japanese poetry -- and the everyday life of the people around Hearn is laid out alongside a detailed listing of the various species' descriptions and names (many with spiritual or folkloric significance). It's a very charming, and informative, chapter.
Following the dance of dragonflies is a discussion of the origin of a handful of Buddhist names of various plants and animals, all that came of Hearn's attempt to write a full-fledged glossary of such names. He exhibits a firm grasp of scientific taxonomy in addition to his fledgling knowledge of Buddhism, providing the Latin name for nearly every plant or animal he names.
Last in this section is a fascinating presentation and comparison of traditional children's songs, primarily from Izumo, but also from Kyoto, Tokyo and further afield as well. Hearn has endeavoured to classify the songs into one of six categories: Songs of Weather and Sky, Songs of Animal, Miscellaneous Play Songs, Narrative Songs, Batteldoor and Ball Songs, and Lullabies. Battledoor and Ball is apparently a game involving a shuttlecock, and, one presumes, a racket. Numerous examples, provided both in romaji and in English translation, illustrate each category. Hearn was quite obviously a keen observer, to have captured so many songs in their proper context. While the subject matter is oft times a bit odd -- imagine children singing about river snails, the King of Death and pickled plums, to name just a few -- the simple lyrical structure of the songs lends itself well to imagining childish voices raised in joy. There's the makings of a larger study in this chapter; unfortunately, it was not to be.
The book's final section contains narratives of what appear to be events experienced by Hearn himself, or related to him by friends, though his narrative style makes this difficult to discern at first (the narrator could just as easily be a generic “I”). Each story is a brief glimpse into everyday life in Japan at the turn of the 20th century, including such disparate topics as emergent modern medicine and typhoons. Most affecting are Hearn's description of an oceanside ceremony to honour those lost in a flood and the wretched fate of a young woman forced to desert her ancestors to keep a job ... and the disastrous results when she loses that job. This story in particular, “The Case of O-Dai,” illustrates the wide gulf between Western and Japanese cultures at the time. It's a poignant account that Hearn is careful not to overwhelm with moralizing.
While Hearn did provide a loose structure to the volume via the section titles, readers can begin reading this book at any point without fear of getting lost. Hearn's annotations and footnotes are excellent, though on occasion he forgets to define unfamiliar terms. Also, while his transliteration from Japanese into roman characters is fairly straightforward, he uses an antiquated style, which takes a little while to get used to.
An interesting linguistic aside: the given name Hearn chose upon becoming a Japanese citizen, Yakumo, is intimately related to the Izumo region, home to many of the stories and songs in this book, as well as numerous other Japanese myths and tales. The village of Yakumo in Izumo draws its name from a tale of the god Susanoo, who, upon building a shrine on the village site, began a celebratory poem “yakumo tatsu....” (eight clouds rising....). Hearn was assuredly aware of this connection, and his choice of name seems quite fitting for one so associated with the mysteries of Japan.
A Japanese Miscellany is a quick, excellent introduction to Lafcadio Hearn's delightfully atmospheric writing, and to the mysterious Japan of his memory. Start here, then find more.