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Bon Koizumi – Kwaidan links Japan and Ireland

After travelling more than halfway around the world on a one-way ticket, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) arrived in Japan at the age of 39. He first settled in Matsue, a castle town in western Japan, where he observed the sincere and devout practises of the local people, such as clapping their hands in prayer to the sun and moon and reverentially worshipping their ancestral spirits during the Bon Festival. The area’s plethora of supernatural stories also fascinated Hearn, igniting his interest in and appreciation of Japan’s culture of ‘the invisible’.

During his 14-year stay in Japan, Hearn collected approximately 100 ghost stories by interviewing locals and researching documents. He transformed these stories into literary masterpieces, imbuing them with his own artistic flair. Just before his passing in 1904, he finally published his seminal work, Kwaidan, which includes 17 retold stories and essays on supernatural themes. Hailed as Hearn’s crowning achievement in the literature of retold stories, Kwaidan has since been translated into multiple languages and remains a classic read for many people. At the heart of his book lies the conviction that ghost stories surpass the realm of horror, serving as a helpful shorthand for comprehending Japanese folk culture and the concepts of grief, love, life, death, and the soul that defines it. Hearn’s fascination with supernatural stories can be traced back to his Irish roots. As a child, he found solace in the ghost stories and fairy tales told to him by his Connaught nanny, Catherine Costello. Therefore, it is no surprise that the animistic culture of ‘Ghostly Japan’ attracted Hearn, who grew up in a cultural environment that could be described as ‘Ghostly Ireland’.

In his lecture at Tokyo Imperial University, Hearn argued that ‘the ghostly represents always some shadow of truth’ (The Value of the Supernatural in Fiction) and maintained that it is ‘an unimaginative and dryly practical man’ who dismisses fairies, goblins, and other spiritual beings as absurd (Some Fairy Literature). Hearn’s concept of ‘some shadow of truth’ implies that the supernatural realm carries an important message for humanity. In a letter to his friend Basil Hall Chamberlain, he stated, ‘What made the aspirational in life? Ghosts’ (14 December 1893). At the root of Hearn’s view of ghostly tales lies his belief that humans should live in awe of nature. In another lecture in Kumamoto prefecture in 1894, titled The Future of the Far East, he declared: ‘Nature is a great economist. She makes no mistakes. The fittest to survive are those best able to live with her, and to be content with a little. Such is the law of the universe’. This humble attitude, he believed, was the key to cultivating reverence for the other world and escaping anthropocentrism.

Hearn was correct in his prediction that human interest in the ‘some shadow of truth’ represented by supernatural literature would not diminish even in the age of scientism. Irish and Catalan translations of Kwaidan were published in 2018; Hearn’s ghost stories and illustrations inspired an exhibition in Milan; my experience of riding the Dublin Ghostbus Tour led to the Matsue Ghost Tour, which has become a popular tourist activity in Matsue. It seems to me that literature serves not only for readers’ enjoyment, researchers’ study, and fans’ appreciation; it can also have social significance in various ways. Thus, I am thrilled to see Irish artists collaborating to create an art exhibition inspired by Hearn’s Kwaidan at Matsue and Yaizu Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museums, among other sites. This innovative art project will undoubtedly give new life to Hearn’s work and promote cultural and artistic exchange between Ireland and Japan.

Amidst the perpetual crisis of our times, ghost stories may hold the key to our survival: they can provide us with valuable insights and guidance by shedding light on the human world from an otherworldly perspective.

Koizumi Bon is a great grandson of Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn), the Director of the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Mseum in Matsue, Honorary Director of the Yaizu Koizumi Yakumo Memorial Musuem, and Professor Emeritus of the University of Shimane, Junior College. His main writings on Lafcadio Hearn are “Koizumi Yakumo, Folklorist” (1995), “Kwaidan Yondai-ki — Yakimo no Itazura” (2014), “Koizumi Yakumo no Kwaidan Zukushi” (2021). He won the award of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 2017 for his contribution to cultural exchange between Ireland and Japan and the Academia Prize of 2022 in Japan.