By Martin Fackler
Monday, February 19, 2007
International Herald Tribune:
MATSUE, Japan: As snow silently fell on the miniature garden outside, Bon Koizumi sat on the same tatami mat floor where, more than a century before, his great-grandfather had penned some of Japan’s best-loved traditional folk tales. It was the perfect image of Japanese repose, except for the sepia-toned photo of Koizumi’s ancestor, whose bushy mustache and aquiline nose showed an unmistakably Western face.
His great-grandfather was Lafcadio Hearn, the Irish-Greek author whose wanderings brought him here after a career as a muckraking journalist in the United States. And while Hearn lived in Matsue only 15 months, this castle city on Japan’s remote coast still claims him as its favorite son, displaying his face on park statues, street signs and local brands of beer, sake and even instant coffee.
Hearn’s colorful descriptions of this medieval city and its ancient tales of gods and ghosts first put Matsue on the map in the 1890s. Even now, Matsue remains a popular tourist destination, thanks to Japan’s enduring fascination with Hearn, who married a local samurai’s daughter, took Japanese citizenship and died in Tokyo in 1904.
Many countries have favorite foreign observers, who are embraced for shedding light on the local culture in ways that native authors cannot.
For many Japanese, Hearn’s appeal lies in the glimpses he offers of an older, more mystical Japan lost during the country’s hectic plunge into Western- style industrialization and nation- building. His books are treasured here as a trove of traditional legends and folk tales that otherwise might have vanished because no Japanese had bothered to record them.
“At a time when Japan was obsessed with gaining material wealth, it took a foreigner to warn that it was losing something else,” said Koizumi, 45, a college professor and advisor to the city’s Hearn museum. “Lafcadio Hearn is a way for Japan to regain touch with its soul.”
That small museum — three rooms displaying old books, photos and manuscripts — and Hearn’s former house, where Koizumi sat as he spoke, are some of ten or so sites scattered about Matsue that appear in Hearn’s books. Others include Buddhist temples and a shrine with mossy stone fox statues.
Takeshi Hatano, a 44-year-old consultant from Tokyo who made an hour detour here during a business trip to a nearby city, said that only a foreigner had the foresight to preserve folk tales a century ago, when Japanese were dismissing them as superstitious.
“We grow up reading Yakumo Koizumi’s ghost stories,” Hatano said, using Hearn’s Japanese name. “He loved Matsue, and Japan, and told us to love them.”
Matsue appears so often in Hearn’s books that most Japanese naturally associate him with the city, even though Hearn cut short his stay here to escape the bitter winters. Hearn spent most of his 14 years in Japan in another provincial city, Kumamoto, and Tokyo before his death at age 54.
Matsue’s Hearn connection led the national government to proclaim it one of Japan’s three top international tourist cities, with the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara. City officials say last year, the Hearn sites helped draw 8.1 million tourists, mostly domestic, to this city of 150,000, nestled on a lake near the restless green Sea of Japan.
Matsue also promotes Hearn with festivals of Irish cooking, classes in Gaelic language and, next month, its first St. Patrick’s Day parade, rare in Japan. The 300-strong Hearn Society of Matsue invites scholars for conferences. The city also hosts a national speech contest for high school students to read Hearn’s stories in English.
The Matsue mayor, Masataka Matsuura, says Hearn gives his city a unique appeal in an era when chain stores and malls are making Japanese cities look more alike.
“Tourists come to find the same original essence of Japan, which Hearn found here,” said Matsuura.
Hearn’s writings show he was enchanted as soon as he set foot in Japan in 1890. Born in Greece to an Irish father and Greek mother, Hearn made his name writing for newspapers in Cincinnati and New Orleans about macabre murders and exotic local legends, but ran into social disapproval after marrying an African-American, scholars say.
He found Japan to be a crimeless, almost utopian society — a “fairyland” populated with “the most lovable people in the universe,” as he wrote. He looked for the source of Japan’s “strangeness and charm” in the ancestor worship of its native Shinto religion, whose most venerated shrine is in Izumo, near Matsue.
But it was Matsue, dominated by its “grim castle, grotesquely peaked,” as Hearn described it, that provided a perfect setting for his celebrated retellings of Japanese ghost stories. Generations of Japanese have been spooked by his images of haunted Matsue, says Morio Nishikawa, a professor at Kumamoto University who specializes in Hearn.
In one popular story, a phantom under a Matsue bridge hands a boastful samurai a box containing his son’s severed head. In another, a mother returns from the dead to feed her infant in a Matsue graveyard. Scholars say these were local legends that Hearn heard from his Matsue-born wife, Setsu, and wrote in English. They were later translated into Japanese.
As Hearn’s descendant, Koizumi has become Matsue’s de facto steward of Hearn’s memory. Besides the museum, Koizumi leads tours to Hearn-related sites and runs a summer camp for children to learn about Hearn. While growing up, his only connection to Hearn was the Irish folk tales his father told at bedtime. Koizumi started looking for ways to promote Hearn about 20 years ago because he was afraid young Japanese were forgetting him and Japan’s traditions.
“Children now are losing touch in their virtual world of video games,” he said.
Natsuko Omura, a sophomore at Matsue Kita High School, said there was some truth to these concerns. She said she and her friends had heard of Hearn but don’t talk about him or read his books.
“I don’t understand Hearn,” said Omura, 16, who won the city’s Hearn speech contest last year. “He’s a little strange.”