Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904)
Martine is gone, and the terrible heat of the last ten days is slowly beginning to abate. I find that I am reading more than ever. (How much more can I read than I’m reading now, I do not know. So far eighteen books this month.) The most recent is by an American who became a Japanese. I refer to Lafcadio Hearn, who went under the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo. He married a Japanese wife, raised four children with her. It appears that I have many of Hearn’s books about Japan, which were published by Charles E. Tuttle & Company of Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan in paperback editions during the 1970s.
When I was traveling to and from Dartmouth College, I took a White River Coach from Hanover to White River Junction, and from hence another White River Coach to Rutland. At Rutland, I would wait for the Vermont Transit bus that would take me to Albany, New York, where I would board the New York Central night train to Chicago, which let me off in Cleveland. There, my parents waited for me.
Because of Tuttle’s proximity, while at Dartmouth I grew interested in Japanese culture. I attended an exhibit of Sesshu Toyo’s “Long Scroll” at Hopkins Center, and saw all the Japanese films that came my way. One of the best of them is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965), made the year before I graduated.
Scene from Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965)
It is only now, more than fifty years after I graduated, that I picked up my copy of Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) and began reading it with increasing enjoyment. The Kobayashi film took four stories from Hearn’s works, two of them from the book entitled Kwaidan. I was enthralled by Hearn’s stories, such that I can see myself picking the other Hearns off the shelf (I have almost ten of them) and reading them with intense pleasure. The book is not all ghost stories: At the end are three delightful essays about butterflies, mosquitoes, and ants as seen in Chinese and Japanese cultures. Here is a brief excerpt from his essay on ants:
The work daily performed by these female [ant] laborers comprises road-making, bridge-building, timber-cutting, architectural construction of numberless kinds, horticulture and agriculture, the feeding and sheltering of a hundred varieties of domestic animals, the manufacture of sundry chemical products, the storage and conservation of countless food-stuffs, and the care of the children of the race. All this labor is done for the commonwealth—no citizen of which is capable even of thinking about “property,” except as a res publica;—and the sole object of the commonwealth is the nurture and training of its young,—nearly all of whom are girls. The period of infancy is long: the children remain for a great while, not only helpless, but shapeless, and withal so delicate that they must be very carefully guarded against the least change of temperature. Fortunately their nurses understand the laws of health: each thoroughly knows all that she ought to know in regard to ventilation, disinfection, drainage, moisture, and the danger of germs,—germs being as visible, perhaps, to her myopic sight as they become to our own eyes under the microscope. Indeed, all matters of hygiene are so well comprehended that no nurse ever makes a mistake about the sanitary conditions of her neighborhood.
In spite of this perpetual labor no worker remains unkempt: each is scrupulously neat, making her toilet many times a day. But as every worker is born with the most beautiful of combs and brushes attached to her wrists, no time is wasted in the toilet-room. Besides keeping themselves strictly clean, the workers must also keep their houses and gardens in faultless order, for the sake of the children. Nothing less than an earthquake, an eruption, an inundation, or a desperate war, is allowed to interrupt the daily routine of dusting, sweeping, scrubbing, and disinfecting.
For many years, much of what the West knew about Japan came from Hearn’s pen. I cannot imagine a more delightful introduction to any culture.