Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, With Sundry Cobwebs


Lafcadio Hearn lived an interesting life. Born in Greece in 1850 and raised in Ireland, he emigrated at a young age to the U.S. and became a successful writer for newspapers, 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), later divorced her, then headed 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 just a couple days ago (July 2, 2019), which gives a much broader account of his life, interests, and achievements.


This week I read Hearn's 1902 book, Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, With Sundry Cobwebs, basically a miscellany of old tales (translated by him), poetry, and short essays. It came out a couple years before his death at age 54, and he touches on various philosophies connected to Buddhism, Shinto, and the Orient in general, at times it seems with some prescience of his own death.


The first nine tales, he 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. It's called Yurei-Daki (The Cascade of Ghosts). She makes it there, and although she hears a spirit call out her name, she also makes it back unharmed, to where her friends have been anxiously awaiting her return. Everything seems copacetic, except that the clothes on her back are sopping wet. As her friends get a closer look with the lantern light they realize it's not water at all that's 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!


Aaaaahhhhh!!! This grabbed my attention and kept it for the whole book.


The second tale, "In a Cup of Tea," was the fourth story in Masaki Kobayashi's film Kwaidan (1965). After "In a Cup of Tea" there are a few more ghostly tales. They are more or less about human interaction with the spirit world rather than tales of horror like the one about the waterfall and missing baby head.


Then the book takes sharp turns. "A Woman's Diary" is, as you might expect, a series of excerpts from a woman's diary. This one is very personal and sad, as she writes about losing her baby daughter and son soon after they were born and, extremely depressed, she feels like a failure to her husband and to their arranged marriage, and we're left to wonder if her diary entries suddenly came to an end because she herself came to an end by her own hands. She describes parts of Tokyo where I've lived and currently work, including Shinjuku, Yotsuya, and Okubo, and reading these bits gave me a sense that the late 1800s weren't so very long ago.


He moves on to discuss 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)


And he provides pages of his translations of haiku on the theme of fireflies. He also seeks 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 till recently is that Hearn's grave was only a few blocks north of the building where I lived in Bunkyō-ku in the 1990s, where I first read some of Hearn's books. I used to take walks around that 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)

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