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Lafcadio Hearn and the Japan sickness

Posted by Alberto Bertolazzi on
Lafcadio Hearn e il mal di Giappone

How far is Japan? Let's start from here: just over a hundred years ago it was very far away. When the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 brought objects and images from Japan to Europe, no one knew the customs, history, social structure, religion or politics of the Land of the Rising Sun. The merit of the Expo was to ignite the interest of Europeans towards the antipodes. It was the Paris Expo that made Lafcadio Hearn, alias Koizumi Yakumo, famous. A comedy in Ireland ( The Dream of a Summer Day ) and a television series in Japan ( Nihon no omokage ) have been dedicated to his life . And all in all, a Hollywood film wouldn't be a bad idea.

The first part of his life - the one in which Lafcadio is a journalist in the still bordering United States, marrying an African woman and paying the consequences - is certainly an adventure film. The second part – the one in which Lafcadio, an Irishman born in Greece, finds a new homeland from which he will not leave until his death – is probably a love film. The city where he meets his destiny is Matsue, in western Japan. Thanks to the good offices of Basil Hall Chamberlain, one of the most important British yamatologists, he obtains a teaching position. During his fifteen-month stay in Matsue, Hearn marries Koizumi Setsuko, linked to a samurai family, with whom he has four children. He became a Japanese citizen and in 1896 took the legal name of Koizumi Yakumo. Koizumi is his wife's surname and Yakumo means "where many clouds grow". After being Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic, he becomes Buddhist.

In the meantime he completed his book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan , which would make him famous and bring his fascinating and evocative stories to the West; then he got a journalistic job with the English-language newspaper Kobe Chronicle and in 1896, with Chamberlain's help, he began teaching English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. He is therefore inextricably linked to Japan and does not stop writing. In his articles he talks about traditional clothes and the sense of honor, he talks about small everyday facts but also about the philosophy that pervades every aspect of Japanese society, including martial arts: "Who in the West could have developed this strange teaching: to never oppose force with force, but only to use the force of the enemy against the enemy himself? Surely none! The Western mind seems to work in straight lines; the Eastern, in wonderful curves and circles."

Hearn has a true, deep, love for the small objects he sees at street markets: "...Everything is exquisitely beautiful, whether it's a pair of chopsticks in a paper case or a packet of wooden toothpicks of cherry... The largest of the ships that cross the Pacific would not be enough to contain all the little things that tempt you here, because, even if you don't admit it, what you would like to take home is not just the goods from the shop, but the shop itself, and the seller, and the whole street of shops with everything they contain. Indeed, it is the whole city, with the bay and the mountains that embrace it... finally, the whole of Japan and those forty millions of individuals who form the kindest and most hospitable people in the universe." That's why after his death in 1904 from heart failure, Hearn became a hero. As Martin Fackler wrote in the NY Times, "his books are treasured in Japan as a treasure trove of legends and folk tales that might otherwise vanish, because no Japanese has bothered to record them."

The images that accompany the article and the quote from Hearn in the last paragraph are taken from the book Japan in 100 objects , which tells the story of Japanese society and culture through the most significant objects - from the most well-known and banal to the most unknown - of the Sol Levant.

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