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Lafcadio Hearn: The Dramatically Poetic Japan Enthusiast
A Comparison Between Hearn, Bird, and Chamberlain

Writing about foreign countries is hardly a novel idea, so an interested reader has a vast selection of literature to choose form. One can afford to be fastidious in selecting an author to suit one's personal tastes, but there appear to be several characteristics that draw more people to Lafcadio Hearn than any other commentator on Japan. Perhaps due to his usage of the English language, attention to descriptive detail, and childish glee in describing seemingly fantastic peculiarities in an endearing fashion, he can attract a larger audience than any of his fellow nineteenth century contemporaries.

Lafcadio Hearn is a man of many words; not just any words, but oftentimes a most elaborate conglomeration of esoteric expressions. He revels in utilizing the English language to its utmost extent, never shies away from prosaic appositions, and strives to beautify an otherwise rather ordinary method of communication. In Glimpses of An Unfamiliar Japan, Hearn writes "...The jinriksha, or karuma, is the most cosy little vehicle imaginable; and the street vistas, as seen above the dancing white mushroom-shaped hat of my sandaled runner, have an allurement of which I fancy that I could never weary" (4). It is difficult not to be pulled into Hearn’s depiction of his surroundings, and while there is nothing to tell the reader of in terms of facts and figures, he pulls at the whimsical imagination of his audience and allows readers to experience Japan right alongside him.

This aspect of his writing is brought into sharp relief when compared to the works of Isabella L. Bird, a travel writer who bravely left her native Scotland behind in order to trample through the countryside of Japan in 1878. While this sort of intrepid endeavor is, in and of itself, reason enough for most potential readers to be drawn to Bird, she lacks Hearn’s penchant for sentimental narration in favor of a more statistical approach. In Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Bird writes "Over tolerably level ground a good runner can trot forty miles a day, at a rate of four miles per hour. They are registered and taxed at 8s. a year for one carrying two persons, and 4s. for one which carries one only, and there is a regular tariff for time and distance" (5). While she is also in the midst of experiencing a ride in a jinriksha, she chooses to concentrate on informing readers of numerical data that may come in handy if they find themselves in Japan some day. While this style is definitely useful for those who plan to travel to Japan and wish to know as much as possible about the country, it hardy appeals to the larger portion of society, which is merely seeking entertainment.

Apart from the differences in styles used by each author, their attitudes range from enthusiastically enthralled to critically curious. When faced with the task of describing the monochromatic aspect of Japanese cities, Bird chose to write "It has a dead-alive look. It has irregularity without picturesqueness, and the grey sky, grey sea, grey houses and grey roofs, look harmoniously dull" (7). The repetition is virtually dripping with ennui and completely devoid of any positive comments. This sort of writing is hardly appealing, as it arouses a sense of mirrored dissatisfaction in the audience. However, Hearn confronts the same potentially dismal color scheme with a more cheerful, fanciful attitude, writing "Elfish, everything seems; for everything as well as everybody is small, and queer, and mysterious: the little houses under their blue roofs, the little shop-fronts hung with blue, and the smiling little people in their blue costumes" (5). Hearn also uses repetition in this passage, writing the word "little" and "blue" several times, but this added redundancy enhances the aura of charm presented by the description as opposed to adding monotonous undertones. The reader can’t help but share his delight though his words, a quality that easily attracts those who read for pleasure.

Hearn’s lack of heartfelt criticism is another reason why more readers might prefer his writings as opposed to other nineteenth century authors’ works. Cultural imperialism is one of the most apparent features of most writing from books of this genre and time period, often showcasing an author’s disdain for foreign customs, beliefs, and aesthetics. Bird never shies away from expressing disapproval, while Hearn hastily counterbalances any negative remark he writes with a plethora of flowery appraisal.

Most people, if given the choice, prefer to read books that inspire enjoyment. This is one of the main effects of Hearn’s enchanted writing style, whereas many other authors, such Basil Hall Chamberlain, strove to provide his Western audience with glaring realities while sparing all niceties in the process. Hearn dedicated his writings to describing a fantastic Japan of immeasurable charm, while Chamberlain blatantly writes,

The result of all this is that, whereas the Japanese know everything that it imports them to know about us, Europeans cannot know much about them, such information as they receive being always belated, necessarily meagre, and mostly adulterated to serve Japanese interests.
This statement undermines the Western attempt to understand Japan, and in all likelihood inspires nothing but futility and cynicism in Chamberlain’s audience. While there may or may not be truth in Chamberlain’s generalization depending on the point of view one is inclined to take, the reader who is more interested in finding a pleasant book to distract him from reality for a few moments is not apt to enjoy such revelations.

Another example of this difference in approach can be found in Hearn and Chamberlain’s opposing views on Japanese religion. In Things Japanese, as quoted in Masaru Toda’s The Western Appreciation of Shinto: - Lafcadio Hearn, Bruno Taut, and André Malraux, Chamberlain writes "Shinto, so often spoken of as a religion, is hardly entitled to the name. It has no set of dogmas, no sacred book, no moral code...Shinto has no root in itself – being a thing too empty and jejune to influence the hearts of men" (242). Chamberlain utterly dismisses Shinto as being all but ridiculous in its lack of similarity to what he considers to be "religion." There is no redeeming quality in it, nothing worth learning about, nothing of value to be found. To his audience, Chamberlain’s Japan must take on a hollow appearance, devoid of important factors and characteristics.

However, according to Hearn:

...The reality of Shinto lives not in books, nor in rites, nor in commandments, but in the national heart, of which it is the highest emotional religious expression, immortal and ever young... the whole soul of a race with all its impulses and powers and intuitions. He who would know what Shinto is must learn to know that mysterious soul in which the sense of beauty and the power of art and the fire of heroism and magnetism of loyalty and the emotion of faith have become inherent, immanent, unconscious, instinctive.
There is no cynical, cryptic remarks concerning the Western inability to comprehend Japan, nor is Shinto merely dismissed as irrelevant and empty. Such poetic words and his obvious respect for the religion lend to a much more pleasant read for his audience.

Between Isabella Bird and B.H. Chamberlain, readers are left with statistics, criticism, and an overall feeling of discontent or disdain for a country they have, in all probability, never visited before. Japan remains an esoteric world of inferior practices and/or people, without a shred of lasting enjoyment. However, Lafcadio Hearn presents Japan in such an endearing fashion through his works, an approach of which the comparative popularity is undeniable. Readers are presented with an almost fairytale image of a mysterious, charming set of islands with beliefs and customs that hold an irresistible appeal to people of all cultures, a world in which they can take pleasure through the magic of literature.


Bird, Isabella Lucy. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. Ebooks at Adelaide. Derived from the 1911 John Murray edition. (http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird_i/japan/)

Chamberlain, Basil Hall. The Invention of a New Religion. 1912. Project Gutenberg. (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext01/invnr10.txt).

Hearn, Lafcadio. Glimpses of An Unfamiliar Japan. Project Gutenberg. (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext05/7glm110.txt).

Toda, Masaru. The Western Appreciation of Shinto: -Lafcadio Hearn, Bruno Taut, and André Malraux. Handout provided in class, date and publisher unknown.

Lafcadio Hearn, 1850-1904. December 2003. (http://www.trussel.com/f_hearn.htm).

Hearn, Lafcadio. Japan, an Attempt at Interpretation. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1904. (http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/jai/index.htm).