Yokai Report – Lafcadio Hearn/Koizumi Yakumo
Today’s report isn’t about a specific yokai, but rather about one of the principle collectors of yokai folk law for western readers. Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (27 June 1850 – 26 September 1904) born on a Greek island to a Greek mother and an Irish father. Hearn moved to Japan in 1890 on a journalistic assignment and ended up adopting the country and staying on as a teacher and writer based in Matsue on the Western coast.
Although this position lasted only 15 months (to be followed by a succession of other teaching and journalistic jobs) it was maybe the most influential as it was here that he met and married, Koizumi Setsu, from a local samurai family. It was she who would act as an interpreter and guide as Hearn (known in Japan by his naturalised Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo) began to collect and record traditional Japanese folk tales – many of which had never been written down before.
In his writing, even when he spoke about everyday Japanese life and culture, there was always a tinge of the strange or the supernatural. So, for example, a short essay entitled ‘Incense’ begins with Hearn recreating for his readers an evocative image of his first visit to a Buddhist temple, then provides a detailed description of how a pre-Meiji era incense party would have worked and concludes with a sad tale of how incense can be (ab)used to conjure the spirits of the dead.
His works are all worth a read, though for the yokai lover I’d recommend ‘Kwaidan’ in which each story recounts spooky goings on of one kind or another.
I’ve been planning a trip to Matsue to visit his old house and see the museum about his life for some time now, but I haven’t had the time. So I was delighted when by complete chance one of his houses came to me.
During a recent trip to Inuyama, I ended up spending a whole day exploring a massive open air museum. The ‘Meiji Mura’ houses a huge collection of Meiji era buildings collected from all over Japan to be preserved, and one of the building there is this small shop.
It might not look like much, but it turns out that this (rather unimpressive) building was actually the place where Hearn had spent his summers in Shizuoka.
It was in a small back room here that he had penned many of those fantastic stories, and it was quite an unexpected thrill to find myself in his room and (almost) coming eye to eye with the Hearn himself).
As much as I admire the man as a writer, no yokai report would be complete without some actual yokai, and around the room were several sketches from his stories. So here they are, thought the photos aren’t good thanks to my terrible camera and low lighting in the room.
Our old friend the Kappa.
Futakuchi-Onna (The woman with two mouths)
Yuki Onna (The snow woman)
Miminashi no Hochi (Earless Hochi)
Nurarihyon (An odd little humanoid who likes to sneak into your house while you’re out and drink your tea)
Left – Moku Moku Ren (A damaged paper screen full of ghostly eyes) Right – Rokurokubi (The long-necked woman)
I’ll make it my mission to write-up each of these stories in future Yokai reports and link each one here as I do, and Hearn himself will get a follow-up article when I finally get to Matsue and his house.
There is one last, frustrating, footnote to this chance encounter with Hearn.
Later I was talking to my fiancée about Hearn and his writing and she told me that her mother had been in contact with him. Apparently as a child she had read his stories and really enjoyed them to. So she’d written a thank you letter to Hearn, who had written back thanking her for her kind letter. Unfortunately, only being a child at the time she hadn’t realised the value of the letter and it was soon misplaced or thrown away. An original letter from Lafcadio Hearn would have been a real find, but it seems to have been lost forever.