Review: Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan: An Anthology of his Writings on the Country and it’s People

Lafcadio Hearn's Japan: An Anthology of his Writings on the Country and it's People
Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan: An Anthology of his Writings on the Country and it’s People by Lafcadio Hearn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hearn often receives a bad rap in in the realm of Asia Studies, which was initially what drew me to this compilation. The reasons for his disregard in academic circles are varied. Most find him to be a rather oblique example of Nihonjinron discourse. That is to say he overtly praises everything Japanese, making no attempt to define the nations culture through modern sociologically analysis and logic. Instead, the Japanese are in such a distinct category whose history diverges so starkly with other peoples, that one can’t possibly come to a true understanding of their minds. Having no means, thus to approach them, one can only observe in astonishment. And that is how the writing of Lafcadio Hearn reads, at first glance.

Hearn’s essays, some which might more properly be called vignettes, are filtered through a sense of awe of Japanese aesthetics. But this does not diminish from the quality of his writing, or the authority of his observations. His piece on Japanese gardens is extremely well written, putting the reader in Hearn’s environment. The sights, sounds, and textures of the gardens are conveyed with stunning detail.

The traditional ghost stories are also a fine example of Hearn at his best. He manages to capture the grotesque with the ethereal, mixing them with antidotes, and retelling them though the tone of friendly conversations. After a few short passages, you’ll want to seek out more of Hearn’s writing on the subject.

What Hearn’s writing seems to most reveal, is a overwhelming identification with the aesthetics of Japan, and a profuse disregard for the fashions and attitudes that where being developed in the West. He was essentially an outcast, someone not of his own time, and had found a place he could finally agree with. One could take umbrage with the fact that Hearn managed to learn only rudimentary Japanese in his fourteen years in the country, and that is a fair criticism if one is examining his writings for a better sociological understanding of the Japanese people. In that sense, Hearn’s writing can only peel back a limited amount of layers. But for the reader hoping to capture a sense of experience, and feel the beauty of a place, than this book is a very good primer.

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