Lafcadio Hearn, Yuki-Onna (#Review)

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week. I usually “do” a few a year, but this is the first for 2019, even though I’ve identified several that I’ve wanted to do. However, when Lafcadio Hearn popped up last week – and with a Japanese story – I knew I really had to break the drought.

Image of Lafcadio Hearn's houseLafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) has appeared in this blog a couple of times before, the main time being in a Literary Road post from our 2011 trip to Japan when we visited Matsue. Hearn only lived there briefly but he met his Japanese wife there and it has a museum dedicated to him. Hearn is a fascinating man. Greek-born to a Greek mother and Irish father, he spent childhood years in Ireland before moving to the USA in 1869, where he then lived for two decades. Here he married a former slave who worked in his boardinghouse kitchen, and built his career as a journalist. In 1890 he went to Japan on a publisher’s commission. He married again, and lived out the rest of his life here, taking the name of Koizumi Yakumo. He became chair of English Language and Literature at the Tokyo Imperial University.

In their usual introduction, the Library of America quotes an article by another writer who appeared here only recently, Roger Pulvers. The article, in Japan Times, is titled “Lafcadio Hearn: ‘Japanese thru and tru'”. Pulvers provides a thoughtful, clear-eyed run-down of Hearn’s life, of his attitude to Japan, and particularly of his achievements as a writer. He says that Hearn:

was the shadow-maker, the illusionist who conjured up his own visions of Japan and gladly lost himself in them. He strove to leave Japan and return to the United States. Perhaps he realized that it was there that he had created his most accomplished work, attaining something he savored: notoriety. Again an ironical paradox emerges: He is remembered now in United States, if at all, not for his superb reportage on modern America but for his adoration of a long-gone Japan.

Pulvers says that Hearn loved “old” Japan –

He worshipped the static and wanted to see his beloved quaint Japan remain as sweet as it always was in his eye and the eyes of the world, bemoaning all progress: “What, what can come out of all this artificial fluidity!”

– but

loathed the modern Japanese male and what he stood for, and in this he recognized the futility of his task, a futility keenly felt toward the end of his years, where he heard “nothing but soldiers and the noise of bugles”.

Remember, when he died in 1904, Japan’s imperialism was at its height.

Hearn published roughly a book a year for the fourteen years he lived in Japan, but is best known for two of them, Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things (from which this post’s story comes) and Japan: An attempt at interpretation. Kwaidan comprises a number of ghost stories plus a non-fiction study of insects. Intriguing, eh?

Yuki-Onna, says the Library of America, means “snow woman”, and is “an ancient spirit who appears often in Japanese fiction, plays, and movies”. Hearn explains in the Introduction to Kwaidan that he’d heard this story from a farmer as a legend from his village. He says that he doesn’t know “whether it has ever been written in Japanese” but that “the extraordinary belief which it records used certainly to exist in most parts of Japan, and in many curious forms.” Wikipedia confirms in an article about this spirit that it dates back to the 14th to 16th centuries, and can be found in many Japanese prefectures including Aomori, Yamagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Niigata, Nagano, Wakayama, Ehime. If you know your Japan, you’ll know that these take us from northern Honshu down through the island and across to Shikoku.

The story is pretty simple, plot-wise, and given it’s just 4 pages long I’m not going to describe it here, except to say that it is about a vengeful snow spirit. Why she is vengeful is not made clear in Hearn’s story, but Wikipedia says that some legends believe she is the spirit of someone who perished in the snow. The legends vary over place and time, particularly in terms of how evil or aggressive she is.

I suggest you read it at the link below, as it will only take a few minutes. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have had this opportunity to remind myself of this intriguing 19th century character. Next, I’d love to read some of those American articles of his that Pulvers praises.

Lafcadio Hearn
First published: Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things, 1904.
Available: Online at the Library of America

16 thoughts on “Lafcadio Hearn, Yuki-Onna (#Review)

  1. Oh, surely there are lots and lots of vengeful spirits inJapanese stories !
    Erhmm … what happened to his first wife, the former slave, eh ?!

  2. Yamagata – by the way… though I delighted in your Yamatagata – it looks like the kind of name which should go on and on! All those places you listed I have visited in that flow of the Yuki-Onna tale.

    Roger PULVERS has written well on all kinds of Japanese subjects – especially literary and linguistic – including on KOIZUMI Yakumo (adopted into his wife’s family – so KOIZUMI and Yakumo a kind of pen-name allusion to the Land of Clouds where he had his first and very important year in Japan – posted to the teacher-training “High School” in Matsue with the assistance of Basil Hall Chamberlain).

    The best biography of Lafcadio (born on the Greek island of Lefkada – hence his given name) is Jonathan COTT: Wandering Ghost Knopf – 1990. Lots of examples of his writing from his time in Cincinnati and in/around New Orleans – and during his time in the Caribbean – especially Martinique. His primary education took place in France and his secondary level at Ushaw (prom “usher”) just four miles west of Durham – a huge Catholic Institution established at the start of the 19th century – before being (in some senses) packed off to the US mid-west. His writing describing the differences between a slaughterhouse (images of fear amongst the cattle being forced towards their deaths – not unlike the images we’ve just been watching of horses in Queensland) and a sparkling clean white-tiled kosher abattoir would make him to-day a spokesperson almost if not quite for anti-vivisectionists. Quite amazing – 150 years ago!

    I arrived in Matsue in 1991 – just the year following the centenary of his arrival there. I tracked all kinds of places he knew and visited – became friendly with his great grandson KOIZUMI Bon – a Japanese Folklore expert – and his great grand-father’s memorialist and Museum chief in Matsue – among all kinds of engagement. In fact on one occasion I accompanied a bus trip up the coast led by Bon – retracing some of Lafcadio HEARN’s own steps in tracking down local legendary stories. (And he also wrote quite movingly about the unethical discrimination suffered by the Untouchable caste in Matsue. Merely by reading the book I was able to find that quarter – still largely of descendants of the Untouchables he had met. He shamed the city’s notables for their lack of support and schools for the children. At that moment I became smitten by this man.)

    He had good friends among his teacher-trainer students. From here he moved for three years to Kumamoto (in central western Kyushu) then a period of time editing a newspaper in Kobe (six months) – finally for about a decade to Tokyo. In 1904 Tokyo University – having established that he was by then (adopted into his wife’s family – meaning he had duties and obligations to his new parents – as well as inheriting) a Japanese citizen – told him they were stripping his salary thus back to half the foreign specialist rate at which he had been paid – and Waseda invited him to their university – where sadly – though appearing in the staff photo at the start of the academic year – he passed away in the September before classes commenced.

    I lived in Yamaguchi-ken for some 14+ years from 1995-2009. Good friends were then from and at Akama Jingu (a grand shrine overlooking the Straits of Shimonoseki – about 40+ kms south-west as the “karasu” might fly from where I was living and teaching) also visited by Lafcadio HEARN where he was tracking the ghostly story of “No-Ears Hōichi” – the Shrine above the spot where, effectively, the approximately 400 years of the Heian Era had come to a close – in the late 12th century – with the drowning of the child Emperor at that location.

    1904-1905 was when the Japanese defeated the Russian Fleet. In Australia there was a kind of music hall ditty: “The Little Brown Man of Japan” praising his spirit in defeating the Russian Fleert – though one must factor in the mentorship of the Japanese Navy by the British – of course – and their own glee at the victory over “their” cousin Nicholas II.

    (Apologies WG – but Japan – my other land – so much to say I have – my own on-and-on!!!)

  3. I started the story, but it didn’t turn me on, sorry. I get the impression you should have got Jim to guest post this one, he’s lost down here in the comments. All fascinating – a famous writer I never knew existed.

    • That’s OK, Bill, these sorts of stories don’t necessarily turn me on either. But I’m interested in people like Hearn – these nineteenth century writers and what they did – and wanted to have him in my blog with a work, beyond my previous more brief references.

      As for Jim … fair point!

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