The return of Lafcadio Hearn

He came to Japan from far-flung places and with a checkered past. Now he's back to behold what has become of the country he long ago loved, as recounted in this tale by Roger Pulvers

by Roger Pulvers

I came to Japan in ’90 — 1890, that was — died 14 years later, and here I am again after more than a century, exploring my old haunting ground just like in the good old days.

I may be 160, but what’s the big deal? I’m sure most of you will agree that age doesn’t count as much these days as it used to. As we grow older we get a perspective on things. The reality may be in the statistic; but in the perspective, there is art.

I pride myself on a genuinely multicultural background. I wouldn’t want you to think that such a thing was invented yesterday. Imperialism deposits multinational issue in its wake; and my father, a surgeon in the Royal Navy, was a seaman spreading significantly more than his duty required. As for me, wayward child of the British Empire, I believe that I have not only Irish and Greek blood coursing through my veins, but also that of the Maltese, the Italian, the Spaniard and the Arab — if not a touch of Romany for good measure.

That this heady potpourri spilled into the Japanese casserole, producing my four children, was an outcome outlandish and extravagant, even for my wanderlust century.

I was born in 1850 on a Greek island. Some of my biographers, well meaning though they may have been, have called it a “small” Greek island, but I defy them to find one that isn’t. Such extraneous detail irks me to this day, though I am the first to confess my own transgressions in the parenthetical.

The devil may be in the detail, but even the devil can be drowned by a wordiness gone adrift.

I was taken as a tot to Ireland, the ancestral land of my father. Soon, though, he was off to the high seas and his low adventures. That left my disconsolate Greek mother to look after me in potato-famined Dublin. I have an image of her in my mind staring relentlessly up at the sky in search of the sun — a fruitless exercise in that city at the best of times — but, truth to tell, I can recall nothing of her at all.

She left my life forever before I acquired the imprint of memory; and, orphaned at age 4, I was thrown to the indelicate mercies of an overpious great-aunt in Dublin. Though she eagerly grasped the reins of my upbringing, she was, poor woman, unable to tame me. Obstreperous and uncontrollable, I resisted all righteous prodding, spurred on solely by the oily characters in my fantasies and dreams.

At the sounds of my great-aunt and her circle belting out, full bosom, their joyous rendition of “Bringing in the Sheaves,” I pictured not farmers solemnly performing God’s work in the harvesting of wheat, but deformed little dark-skinned freaks sticking boney fingers into the wet earth to tickle the worms that would someday make a feast of their eyes.

But I must be fair to the sources of my sincere and profound loathing for all things Christian and not blame old great-aunt Sarah alone for it.

Private schooling at St. Cuthbert’s, the Catholic school in County Durham, northeast England, to which she packed me off, sewed it up. Remember, those were the days when the sun never set on the British Empire, and God’s wrath against the uncivilized heathen seemed merciless and absolute. These two dogmas were branded by fire and tong into every schoolboy’s soul.

But me, being groomed for the priesthood? What in God’s name was my great-aunt thinking? You could sooner train a mule to run on Ascot Heath than mold the slippery likes of Patricio Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn into the stiff folds of a cassock!

So, you see, I had a fairly normal childhood for the time and cannot complain. Yes, I was bullied like hell at St. Cuthbert’s, but after all, such a fate was bound to be meted out to a short, stout, swarthy and brainy Greek- Irishman in the England of the latter half of the 1860s. I accept this as one of the natural drawbacks of Empire, though being on the receiving end of a stick on a rope hurled, with force, into my left eye, blinding it for life, was certainly an object lesson gone awry.

Did I defiantly play the clown in those early days, or was my trickish imagination nudging me on toward eccentric, bizarre behaviors? I couldn’t entirely blame my boys-will-be-boys schoolmates, bred as they were to act in a certain manner toward those seen as underlings. Testing out their warped, violent shenanigans on me may have been the best way for them to prepare for what their subsequent duties, as representatives of Empire in the four corners of the globe, would require of them — namely the subjugation by force, in the name of their Queen and their God, of all the people of the world unendowed with the fortune of a white skin.

At age 19 I ventured alone, away from Europe forever, to the United States, where I became a newspaper writer and chronicler of the unsavory, living primarily in Cincinnati, Ohio, and in New Orleans, Louisiana, with some time spent in the West Indies on the lush island of Martinique.

I displayed a glorious flair — recognized as undisguised inspiration by my readership — for writing about the criminal, the gruesome and the insane. I seemed to understand, as instinct, how people could become so obsessed by their own convoluted thoughts that they would be obliged to act according to their perverse dictates. Needless to say, while in America I would never have acted in such a compulsive manner myself. I contented myself with descriptions of others going mad, keeping my demons safely at bay.

I positively detested doing interviews, freezing stiff in front of the people I was called upon to interrogate. They, at times, ended up laying me gently on their settee as I, breathless, tried to explain my inability to ask them so much as the simplest of questions.

On one occasion, one of my interviewees — a genteel and decorous lady who had compiled a cookbook for aspiring debutantes — was so shocked to find me wheezing, prostrate on her drawing-room parquet floor, my arms flung out to the sides and a spotted antimacassar draped over my face, that she bolted out of her own home, not stopping until she reached the riverfront docks.

But when it came to the nonliving, I was right at home. If there was a murder in the city, I was off to the morgue in a flash, sniffing the corpse up and down and examining every bit of evidence at close range with an intense, bug-eyed stare. Oh, please do not think me morbid. Edgar Allan Poe, now he was morbid! I was no Poe, though I did name my cat after him. I was more your bloodhound version of Henry David Thoreau . . . with ancient Japan my Walden Pond.

Ah Japan! What more can I say? I spent a total of 14 years in the country, the last 14 years of my life on this Earth. By dying in 1904, I missed out not only on the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 but also on World Wars I and II, the death of the novelist Yukio Mishima (You call that a hara-kiri?!), the bursting of Japan’s property-market bubble in the early 1990s and the emergence of the popular music group SMAP (Sports Music Assemble People) a few years later.

If you’re dead for more than a century, I guess it should come as no surprise that stuff happens.

Naturally, I know the first thing you are dying to ask me is, “Has Japan really changed since you were last here?”

Well, to tell the truth, the answer is “No” — although Tokyo is a bit more crowded than it used to be, and I had the devil’s own job finding a rickshaw runner to whisk me around town.

Of course, we didn’t have the Internet in our day, and the few phones that we did have were attached to the wall. Nor had I seen, until my return, television quiz programs, the primary conduit of knowledge in Japan and the staple, it appears, of Japanese intellectual life in this day and age.

Well, a few things have changed, I suppose. Even I, a man who believes that life is truly the same in any century — or should be the same in any century — can see that.

I discovered this after making the decision to retrace some of my old steps to determine what Japan is really like now. That decision was not motivated by nostalgia; I don’t believe in nostalgia, despite the fact that the word comes from the Greek, meaning “return home.” Home, to me, was a place you went from, not back to.

Even while alive I was already living in the past, as it were . . . or, to me, as it is and always will be.

I had spent a short spell at the outset of my Japanese years in the lovely and quaint Sea of Japan coastal town of Matsue, subsequently moving to the castle town of Kumamoto in Kyushu. In both places I taught English to young people.

Then, the middle years of the last decade of the 19th century found me in the international port city of Kobe, where I worked once again at a newspaper until moving to Tokyo to take up a position as a lecturer in English at Tokyo Imperial University — an institution now referred to as the University of Tokyo.

So, the first thing I did on this, my second visit to Japan, was transport myself back to Matsue in Shimane Prefecture, where I was soon engaged in lively conversation in Japanese with an 85-year-old tobacconist.

“There are a lot of foreigners speaking Japanese these days,” he said, admiring my lacquered oval inro tobacco box, embossed on top with the image of a gold centipede.

“But they don’t speak it like you do, Mr. Koizumi (I was tickled pink to hear him call me by my Japanese name). You sound just like my grandfather!”

Moving on from Matsue, I then had the opportunity in Kumamoto to encounter students of the English language. It gives me scant joy to report that their command of the language was no firmer than that of my own pupils back in the ’90s. You see, things have not changed. And the English-language phraseology printed on their white cotton T-shirts was barely comprehensible. I am the first to note that being away for more than a century assuredly “dates” an individual; but I ask you, what could “Awesome Ninja Turtle Dude” mean to anyone? I knew ninjas. I drank tea with ninjas. Some of my best friends were ninjas. But not one of them aspired to be a turtle — not, at least, in this life.

“Aw, he’s just an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy ghost-story writer and frequenter of morgues, that’s all.” I can hear you calling me that. I don’t mind. Wait till you get to be 160 and see what they say about you! I’ve had a lot of catching up to do, too, so I beg of you, please go easy on me.

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I soon realized that the best way to be abreast of what was happening in Japan was to go to Tokyo and live life there for myself.

Thanks to my books having become known here, and a century of accumulated royalties, I could have lived the life of Riley. But I chose to take a job teaching English at one of the city’s many private educational institutions, namely the Shinjuku Center of English Conversation and Placement at Second-Rate American Colleges for the Sons and Daughters of Rich Japanese Homestay Institute, or SCECPSRACSDRJHI for short.

I immediately plunged into my pedagogical duties, requiring my students to buy my books as texts. This afforded me even more royalties, and I was able to purchase a modest apartment, which, curiously, people here were calling “mansions” . . . all of which just goes to show that standards do drop in the course of a century.

My students were, without exception, equal to the ones I had in my time. Not one of them studied a whit, but they compensated by staying up the entire night before an examination to cram in as much rote vocabulary as is humanly possible. They all passed the examination with flying colors — yet could muster only one phrase of conversational English: “Do you like Japan?”

But I did have one superb student, a Miss Yuki Hoichi, who lent an ear to my every word and quickly mastered the spoken tongue.

“The gleanings which I have heretofore possessed,” she said to me, “thanks to you, Dear Professor, shall, I daresay, remain with me for ample time. Oh, these words are no mere transitory apparitions, honorable Sir. I can vouchsafe that!”

Now, honestly, have you ever heard such natural, flowing English spoken by a Japanese? Even so-called native speakers these days are unable to use their language with such an exalting freshness. Witness what a young American lad working in a stock and bond company in the Barrier of Mist (Kasumigaseki) district of Tokyo said when I repeated Miss Hoichi’s words to him.

“I don’t get what she’s driving at, man.”

“You don’t get what she’s driving at, man?”

“No way, Jose. She like digs history, right? I’m so over that.”

I refuse to so much as comment on such a mangling of the tongue.

At that, the young American hopped onto a moving staircase and disappeared onto the floor above. I stepped onto the staircase myself. At the top there was another such staircase. What I found once I reached the highest floor in the building both confirmed and, at the same time, negated my views regarding this country . . . but this, too, when you come to think of it, comprises the essence of the natural in Japan: For everything you see, there is something you do not that negates its presence.

I stood before a door made of opaque glass. On the door were three words, the first two in Latin and the third in English: Video DVD Rental.

A most curious combination of words, I thought, and an intriguing one for an old etymological grubber such as myself. As any school child should know, it means “I See 500-5-500 Rental.” I could not but wonder what could be on the other side of this frosted Roman door. Here I myself had written works with such colorful and eerie titles as “Snow Woman,” “Earless Hoichi,” “The Corpse-Rider” and “Story of a Fly”; yet who was the person, I asked myself, with the imagination to create a room where numbered visions could be rented out?

Upon entering, I was naturally drawn to a section titled “Classics.” I was happy to see, among the multicolored boxes on the shelves, the works of my contemporaries, such as Emile Zola and Herman Melville, in addition to those of Victor Hugo, Walter Scott and some dubious Roman epics I had never heard of. It puzzled me, however, that all of the works were in slim boxes, presumably pared down to the one length.

Next door to this highly amusing “I See 500-5-500 Rental” shop was an even more esoteric establishment, with the most respectable name “Discotheque Kutani.”

My Greek was a trifle rusty, my not having used it for some 156 years, but I immediately recognized the reference to “a place where platters are stored.” I had always had a soft spot for pottery from the famous kilns of Kutani, not far from my beloved Matsue.

What I gleaned at “the place where platters are stored” had little to do with kilns rising up gentle slopes or fine-edged dark-green and yellow glazes. The Discotheque Kutani was full of gyrating young people, some of them Japanese and others not. I readily found myself gyrating with them, though this was somewhat awkward in my wooden clogs and floor-length crested hakama pleated skirt. Above the din of music that I actually found quite pleasing to the ear — having been fond of the racket of Japanese country festivals — I entered into a conversation with a young Japanese female who reminded me of my dear wife, little Setsu, now, alas, no longer with us.

“Lafcadio Hearn, huh?” the young woman said in American-accented English over the blare. “Cool.”

“Is it cool for you, too?” I shouted to my squirming new friend.

“Totally. Your name so rang a bell. But I thought you were a fossil, I mean, some dude from the Stone Age. Your gear is geeky, but it’s hot.”

“I can’t hear you very well,” I said, lifting the hem of my hakama off the squeaky floor and writhing closer to her, “but I’m beginning to like the way you speak English — though I guess I’m really no longer much of a judge of these things. Stone Age, eh? Thanks for the compliment.”

“No sweat. I speak English ’cause my dad worked for Google. I went to Harry Truman High in Silicon Valley. Bye, Hearny. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

At that, the young woman wiggled her way across the floor with an expression of excruciating pain on her face. Then I noticed for the first time that everyone on the dance floor was displaying a similarly intense facial expression, as if experiencing serial orgasms. Perhaps this is what I had been waiting for all my life, not to mention after it: people expressing what looked like pain and ecstasy at the same time.

That all happened some months ago, when I didn’t have a clue what “Hairy True Man High in Silicon Valley” meant. It had made no more sense to me than “Awesome Ninja Turtle Dude.” But since then, I have been frequenting the local bibliotheca and have Googled my way into the 21st century. If you met me today, you would find that I am a groovy hepcat who is outta sight and “with it.”

You see, I am sick and tired of the stick-in-the-mud past-his-sell-by-date dreary old me. Long live the new Lafcadio Hearn! I’m a new man, at least for the foreseeable future.

Hey, hang on. There is no such thing as the “foreseeable future.” I can see that now.

As a result of all this, I have finally achieved Enlightenment. So, okay, it took me 160 years. Better late than never, no? Not everyone is given a second stab at life.

And yet, I now realize that I am in no position anymore to write about this country. I’ve lost it . . . and it’s all for the better. This country may not have changed all that much since I was last here, but I certainly have. That’s right, man. This Greek-Irishman, to mention but a few of my tangled roots, is one hell of an awesome turtle.

As such, this will, I am afraid, be the last thing I shall ever write about Japan. Rest assured, if not in peace, yourself. I shall not return. Not again. Once is enough. And, for God’s sake, don’t do anything I can’t do. Just promise me that.

U.S.-born Australian novelist, playwright, theater director and translator Roger Pulvers appears in the weekly NHK television show “Gift-E Meigen no Sekai.” His regular “Counterpoint” column on this page returns next week.