top of page

Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, With Sundry Cobwebs

Lafcadio Hearn lived a wandering life. Born in Greece in 1850 and raised in Ireland, he emigrated at a young age to the U.S. and became a successful newspaper writer, living in and writing about Cincinnati and New Orleans. Defying a law against interracial marriage, he married an African American woman in his early 20s (1874). He then divorced and made his way to Japan, where he had a family and is well known to this day as Koizumi Yakumo. The Paris Review published an article about Hearn on its website on July 2, 2019, which gives a much broader account of his life, interests and achievements.

Hearn's 1902 book, Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, With Sundry Cobwebs, is a miscellany of old tales, poetry and short essays. It was released a couple years before he died at age 54, and in it he touches on various philosophies connected to Buddhism, Shinto and the East in general, and at times it seems with some prescience of his own death.

The first nine tales, Hearn tells us in the preface, are his own translations from "old Japanese books." And the first of these, "The Legend of Yurei-Daki," is a four-page story about a woman who—on a dare—goes off at night with her baby wrapped up and on her back to a haunted waterfall, Yurei-Daki ("The Cascade of Ghosts"). She makes it there, and although she hears a spirit calling out her name, she makes it back unharmed, to where her friends have been anxiously awaiting her return. Everything seems fine. Except the clothes on her back are sopping wet. As her friends take a closer look in the dull lantern light, they discover it is not water that has soaked her. The story ends: And out of the wrappings unfastened there fell to the floor a blood-soaked bundle of baby clothes that left exposed two very small brown feet, and two very small brown hands—nothing more. The child's head had been torn off!


The second tale, "In a Cup of Tea," is also the fourth story in Masaki Kobayashi's film Kwaidan (1965). Next, in Kottō, a few more ghostly tales, mostly about human interaction with the spirit world and not tales of horror like the one with the missing baby head.

The book then takes sharp turns. "A Woman's Diary" is, as you might expect, a series of excerpts from a woman's diary. Very personal and sad. She writes about losing her baby daughter and son soon after they were born. She considers herself a wretched failure to her husband and to their arranged marriage, and we're left to wonder if her diary entries suddenly come to an end because she herself came to an end by her own hands. Her descriptions of areas in Tokyo are interesting and include Shinjuku, Yotsuya and Okubo. Reading these, you get a feeling that Tokyo of the late 1800s isn't so far off.

Hearn next tells us about crabs and insects, writing about the latter:

Even the little that we have been able to learn about insects fills us with the wonder that is akin to fear. The lips that are hands, and the horns that are eyes, and the tongues that are drills; the multiple devilish mouths that move in four ways at once; the living scissors and saws and boring-pumps and brace-bits; the exquisite elfish weapons which no human skill can copy, even in the finest watch-spring steel—what superstition of old ever dreamed of sights like these? ―"Gaki" (III)

He also gives us translations of haiku on the theme of fireflies. And searches for links between the microcosmic (insects, tiny spirits, a dewdrop) and the macrocosmic . . .

But I cannot rid myself of the notion that Matter, in some blind infallible way, remembers; and that in every unit of living substance there slumber infinite potentialities, simply because to every ultimate atom belongs the infinite and indestructible experience of billions of vanished universes. ―"Fireflies" (VII)

Something I didn't know until recently is that Hearn's grave was a few blocks north of where I lived in Bunkyō-ku in the 1990s, where I first read some of Hearn's books. I used to take walks around the area but somehow missed Zōshigaya Cemetery, where he rests in the area of Minami-Ikebukuro.

Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, With Sundry Cobwebs can be downloaded here legally and free thanks to Project Gutenberg.

Lafcadio Hearn / Koizumi Yakumo (小泉 八雲)
Lafcadio Hearn / Koizumi Yakumo (小泉 八雲)

bottom of page