The Soul of the Great Bell

Lafcadio Hearn may be the most interesting individual I write about this month, and that’s including fictional characters. Born on the Greek island Lefkada to an Irish Sergeant Major and a Greek noblewoman, he was raised in Dublin. At the age of 19 he moved to Cincinnati where he became a journalist. He moved to New Orleans in his late 20s, where he spent ten years reporting on local culture, particularly Creole culture and voodoo religion. In 1890 he moved to Japan, where he apparently found his life’s calling. Interest in Japanese culture from an appropriative perspective was growing in the Occident and Hearn’s writings on this culture filled a vacuum. He became something of an ‘insider’ to Japanese culture, teaching in Japan, taking on the name Koizumi Yakumo after marrying Koizumi Setsu and becoming nationalized, and this perspective allowed him to write about Japanese culture with a perspective uniquely multinational. Interestingly, to this day he is considered by many to be something of a figure of Japanese nationalism; for a culture normally regarded as very xenophobic, turn-of-the-century Japan seems to have adopted him wholesale.

This isn’t to underplay his skills as a writer; his particular writings became so renowned through his skill at recording and conveying Japanese culture, treating it with respect without losing the sense of ‘Oriental’ otherness that so entertained Western culture. In my reading I have more than once encountered offhand references to Hearn in other books, making me think that he was something of a household name in the first half of the century, a sort of cultural emissary of all things Japanese. But not just Japanese—his most well-known efforts are his recordings of ghost stories. These ghost story recordings have become such a canonical part of the representation of Japanese folk culture that when Masaki Kobayashi directed his visually-stunning ghost story anthology in 1965, he named it Kwaidan after Hearn’s...
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