Talking with Ghosts

Talking with Ghosts

Ahead of Halloween celebrations across the world, Lafcadio Hearn’s great-grandson discusses the enduring popularity of the writer’s supernatural tales.

Crime reporter. Travel writer. Cultural anthropologist. Art critic. Aesthete. Patrick Lafcadio Hearn wore many hats during his literary career, but it was a fascination with Japanese ghost stories for which he is most remembered.

The wayfaring journalist of Greek and Irish heritage landed in Japan in 1890. Then nearly 40, he found the regional folktales to be part of the poetry he saw everywhere in Japanese life and began translating them into English with the help of his wife, Setsu Koizumi.

Bon Koizumi, Hearn’s great-grandson, believes his ancestor’s curiosity and lack of prejudice were among his most commendable traits—something he will discuss during this month’s TAC Talk, which will also feature readings of some of Hearn’s ghost stories by members of the Tokyo International Players theater group.

Koizumi also shares Hearn’s belief that ghost stories contain a shadow of the truth, especially those that touch on universal human themes like death and the afterlife, a mother’s love or metaphysical reality.
Though Hearn, who changed his name to Yakumo Koizumi in 1896, lived in various places in Japan, he was happiest when in Matsue, a small castle town on the Sea of Japan coast that he regarded as “the chief city of the province of the gods.”

“Matsue made a strong impression on him,” Koizumi says. “It has a calm and beautiful landscape with shades that Hearn liked. Many old Japanese traditions remain, and many ghost stories are told there.”

While living in Matsue, Hearn made pilgrimages to Izumo Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines. He became friends with the chief priest and learned about Japanese interpretations of spirituality. Such encounters influenced the stories he wrote during his 14 years in Japan. Among his more famous writings are Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, a travelogue and cultural exploration of Japanese life, and Kwaidan, a series of “ghostly sketches” and “studies of strange things,” translated from old Japanese texts or collected during his travels across the country.

Image: Lafcadio Hearn with his wife, Setsu Koizumi, and first son, Kazuo

It’s a testament to Hearn’s enduring popularity—and his ability to probe the darkest recesses of the human mind—that many of his stories are still read and told today.

In Kwaidan, arguably his magnum opus, Hearn wrote about Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi, a blind bard who plays his biwa lute for the spirits of the fallen Heike warriors in Shimonoseki, and a noppera bo, or faceless ghost, haunting the old Akasaka Road in Tokyo. And in “The Story of Aoyagi,” about a samurai who enters into a clandestine marriage, Hearn delves into Eastern mysticism, tanka poetry and the consequences of forbidden love.

“Yuki Onna,” one of his most terrifying kaidan folktales, follows a woodcutter stricken with an Oedipal-like curse by a female apparition, who prowls the snowy forests of Musashi Province by night. Though the prose is more muted than the florid, effulgent writing of his early years, it still highlights his precision of imagery and ability to set a scene.

“The boy, Minokichi, lay awake a long time, listening to the awful wind, and the continual slashing of the snow against the door,” Hearn writes. “The river was roaring; and the hut swayed and creaked like a junk at sea. It was a terrible storm; and the air was every moment becoming colder; and Minokichi shivered under his raincoat.”

Koizumi isn’t surprised that Hearn’s stories have survived the test of time and believes they have utility beyond mere entertainment.

“Hearn sympathized with the cyclical view of life and continued to explore different tangible and intangible cultures with an open mind,” Koizumi says. “[He] predicted that people’s interest in ghost stories would not change when the era of universal science arrived.”

Though initially reluctant to follow in Hearn’s footsteps, Koizumi felt the presence of his great-grandfather guiding him in later life. Now the director of the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Matsue, he is also an honorary professor and folklorist at the University of Shimane.

“Hearn’s influence was responsible for my attempt to utilize ghost stories for tourists to Matsue and when teaching students about yokai,” Koizumi says. “I visited many places associated with Hearn, such as Greece, Ireland, Cincinnati and New Orleans, and my own interest in different cultures grew as I interacted with local people.”

Hearn’s legacy lives on in many of his adopted homes. In Ireland, where his fondness for folklore began, the Lafcadio Hearn Japanese Gardens opened in 2015, while a Hearn-inspired exhibition, featuring works by artists from Ireland and Japan, toured both countries this summer.

“Japan and Ireland are 10,000 kilometers apart, yet animistic beliefs have taken root in the base cultures of both countries,” Koizumi says. “If the Eurasian continent is compared to the human face, Ireland is the left ear and Japan is the right ear. Old cultures tend to accumulate in such marginal lands.”

TAC Talk: Bon Koizumi
October 25 | 7–8pm

Words: David McElhinney
Top image of Bon Koizumi: Kayo Yamawaki

October 2023