Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn: Writings From Japan, edited by Francis King

The year my girlfriend (now wife), Annie, asked me to spend the summer travelling around Japan with her, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course I’d eaten sushi, teriyaki, and tempura, and had seen a couple of Kurasawa films—if with the bright unknowing of a pilgrim at Plymouth Rock. I was as ignorant of the country as I was happy and eager to see it.

Annie, a former East Asian Studies minor in college, did her best, in the months preceding our trip, to prepare me for the adventure to come, lending me books about Buddhism and Shintoism, pressing me to read the various travels guides she’d collected, and speaking with wonder about her own first trip there the previous summer to visit a close college friend. Just before we left for Japan Annie’s stepfather, the late sociologist Robert Nisbet, gave me a book, Hearn’s Writings From Japan, a number of the essays of which he had read and liked very much when he was stationed on Saipan during World War II. I thanked him kindly for the gift and packed it away.
It wasn’t until we’d already been in Japan for some weeks, settled for a spell, after our first stint of travelling, in a handsome old house in the town of Hayama, overlooking the long, wide curve of Sagami Bay, that I actually opened the book and read. What I discovered in those pages not only transformed the country I saw before me each day, but kindled in me an affection for Japan—for the dreamlike strangeness of the land, its people, and its past—that haunts me to this day.

My initial hours in the country were a glorious, intoxicated blur, an experience perhaps best captured by Hearn himself when he first set foot in the country, in nearby Yokohama, nearly a hundred years before me, in the spring of 1890:

It is with the delicious surprise of the first journey through Japanese streets—unable to make one’s kurama-runner understand anything but gestures, frantic gestures to roll on anywhere, everywhere, since all is unspeakably pleasurable and new… ‘Tis at first a delightfully odd confusion only, as you look down one of them [the streets], through an interminable flutter of flags and swaying of dark blue drapery, all made beautiful and mysterious with Japanese or Chinese lettering. For there are no immediately discernable laws of construction or decoration: each building seems to have a fantastic prettiness of its own; nothing is exactly like anything else, and all is bewilderingly novel. 

By the time of Hearn’s arrival, Japan had been visited and written about at length by writers as esteemed and varied as Pierre Loti and Rudyard Kipling. Following the invasion of Commodore Perry and his fleet of American warships in 1853, the modest, introverted, once-insular Japan had been overrun by westerners, by “diplomats, advisers, teachers, businessmen and journalists”, each armed with something new to teach the Japanese, something by which to draw them out (meaning westward) into the bright and ‘civilized’ world.

Lafcadio Hearn was different, precisely in that regard, encountering all he saw before him in the country with a child’s wonder, with a mute and goggling awe. Yet in his thinking he was hardly simplistic, naïve. Indeed his critical acumen in these essays (his extraordinary ability to see) is unmistakable, buoyed—though it nearly always is—by his enchantment, his humility, his glee. 
What followed for me, that long, chimerical summer in Japan, were weeks of reading and rereading the essays in this collection, and of wandering the nearby towns and villages with my intrepid guide and girlfriend, Annie. Together we’d delighted in the shops and temples, and in the local festivals (Tanabata and Obon), while admiring the gardens and graveyards and shrines—and all through Hearn’s deeply observant, deeply affectionate eyes.

Surely a part of the charm of Hearn’s work for me that summer was the house in which we happened to be staying, a traditional Japanese house on a narrow street above the bay, complete with a genkan, tatami, shoji, and a tokonama, as well as a free standing teahouse from which we’d had an unbroken view of Mt. Fuji (This photo could have been taken from our backyard!). 

We could hardly believe our good fortune, our luck. Tired, our resources already strained by the cost of living in ryokans and hostels, we’d all but stumbled  into taking care of the house for a retired U.S. Navy nurse, then on emergency medical leave in the States, a distinctly Hearn-like woman who, since her arrival in Japan at the end of WWII, had come to love the country so much that she’d made it her home. Not surprisingly, the house was filled with Japanese antiques—porcelain, screens, various tansu or chests, woodblock prints, and a fantastical array of Buddhist statues. If that were not enough to set the scene for that magical summer of ours, we’d received a letter one day, from the owner herself, thanking us again for taking care of her house and encouraging us to have a look at her collection of netsuke in the shoeboxes beneath the guestroom beds. Netsuke? we wondered. What in the world were netsuke
Nestuke—so we learned (so many of you must know)—are small, sculptural objects made of porcelain, ivory, wood, boar tusk or stone that were traditionally designed to prevent one’s purse from slipping through the belt or obi worn over one’s kimono. Both functional and aesthetic, netsuke were commonly designed after people, plants, and animals, after gods and religious symbols, after folkloric figures and mythological beasts. 

The netsuke we found in the shoe boxes that summer left us speechless for their strangeness and variety, as well as for their extraordinary workmanship and beauty—charms, tokens, of a long-gone, bygone age. Purchased by the owner of the house from the many desperate Japanese she had met in Tokyo and Yokohama immediately following the war, men and women often on the verge of starvation and madness, she’d collected the netsuke in the shoe boxes beneath her guestroom beds for close to a decade, originally knowing little or nothing about their function or worth. Was it kindness or simple opportunism that had motivated her to buy them, these extraordinary artifacts? We didn’t know; not having met her before, we couldn’t even guess. Only later, in a follow-up letter that same summer, when she’d nearly recovered and was planning her return, did we learn that, years before, and whatever her initial motive for buying them, she had willed the entire collection of netsuke, appraised at over a million dollars, back to the nation of Japan, to the country and people she loved. It is something Hearn himself would have done.

Of course Hearn (the writer and ethnographer, the avid devotee) made his own fine bequest to the Japanese people—his nearly countless essays and observations about a Japan now largely vanished beneath the flash and clamor of the modern world, so that today the Japanese themselves rely on his writings to revisit and remember who they were and what they valued, to reacquaint themselves with their once-singular customs and ways. 

Surely one of my favorite passages from this collection of essays, one I’d like to leave you with, is Hearn’s awestruck description of a legendary sea-cave near Matsue, which he had heard about upon his arrival in the city and had hoped dearly to see:

Few pilgrims go thither there by sea, and boatmen are forbidden to go there if there be even enough wind ’to move three hairs.’ So that whoever wishes to visit Kaka must either wait for a period of dead calm—very rare upon the coast of the Japanese Sea—or journey thereunto by land; and by land the way is difficult and wearisome. But I must see Kaka. For at Kaka, in a great cavern by the sea, there is a famous Jizō of stone; and each night, it is said, the ghosts of little children climb to the high cavern and pile up before the statue small heaps of pebbles; and every morning, in the soft sand, there may be seen the fresh prints of tiny naked feet, the feet of the infant ghosts. It is also said that in the cavern there is a rock out of which comes a stream of milk, as from a woman’s breast; and the white stream flows forever, and the phantom children drink of it. Pilgrims bring with them gifts of straw sandals—the zori that children wear—and leave them before the cavern, that the feet of the little ghosts may not be wounded by the sharp rocks. And the pilgrim treads with caution, lest he should overturn any of the many heaps of stones; for if this be done the children cry.

Peter Adam Nash

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see you are up and about old friend. I love Hearn's writings as well, and that lovely book by Donald Richie, The Inland Sea--so much wonderful writing about Japan!