A Life’s Journey with Endpoint in Ghostly Japan – Lafcadio Hearn in a New Edition

By Andreas L. Katonis
University of Thessaloniki, Greece

One could give the above title to the survey of a recent book written on, and by Lafcadio Hearn released by Polaris Publications in Budapest.[1]

Hearn is mostly considered to have been an American writer. This is due to the fact that he lived for years in the United States before he arrived at his final destination, in 1890, in Japan.

A thinker, translator, journalist, prolific writer, university professor, and expert in Japanese folklore and in Buddhism, he was born – like another important compatriot of his, the thinker and poet Angelos Sikelianos – on the western Greek island of Leucas (hence his first name[2]) from a Greek mother and an Irish father.

Selections, translation and Epilogue of the book under review are those by Zoltán Molnár, Member and Editor of Polaris Publications.[3]

Though the Foreword remarks that with this volume an “old debt is paid off”, one cannot infer that nothing on Hearn was known to the audience of the country before. On the contrary: three of Hearn’s short stories were published as early as 1905, then again more stories in 1906, 1909, 1911 and 1921. It is also true that the present selection provides Hearn’s “tales” in new translations.

Though Hearn was fascinated by Japan, his special interest was Buddhism, hence, we are authorized to say, he saw Japan through the Buddhistic mirror. While the indigenous religion of Japan was Shintoism, a nature worship, through the centuries, after initial rivalry, there followed a kind of syncretism which, by our time ceded to a secularized Japan, still respecting tradition but with less emphasis as to which denomination one belongs to.[4]

If the Hungarian audience had a certain familiarity with Lafcadio Hearn, for sure, the same with Buddhism, not to speak of Japan itself, is both older and broader.[5]

The book, with one exception, publishes material from Hearn’s works written in Japan, between 1894 and 1904: from 172 writings with various contents, 39 have been comprised in the edition. The only exception is “My Guardian Angel”, an autobiography that explains the “ghost motives”, so important in Hearn’s life-work, in a unique way.[6] One feels urged to come to the conclusion that the young boy, having lost both his father and his mother, found a way out in invented stories, partly devised by himself, partly met in his readings.

 “My First Day in the Orient” follows.[7] The first visit to a foreign country is always determinant. Hearn’s attraction both to Japan and Buddhism becomes firm and clear to the reader.

 The juncture of such different things as Buddhism, Herbert Spencer, and Japan as a “journey’s” endpoint in one person, may appear strange at first sight. As the Epilogue explains, it was in New Orleans that the fledgling writer came under two intellectual impacts, helped and inspired by a friend who worked in a printing house and with whom he shared a similar attraction towards the bizarre: the philosophy of Spencer and Buddhism. Cause and effect, energy conservation law, the principle of the indestructibility of matter, and Buddhist karma – in a complicated interaction, invited the boy to delve both into the Spencerian agnosticism and into similar – as understood by him – Buddhism. Buddhism, does not acknowledge a supreme god or deity. Its followers focus on mastering a spiritual echelon at the end of which they experience nirvana, accepted as freedom. Such an attitude – the Epilogue explains – was fully opposed to American Protestant individualism. As Goedhals thinks, maybe, Spencerianism was not more for the young writer than a means to render Buddhism presentable, to the world and to himself, to make a primeval Buddhistic colouring in his weltanschauung acceptable.[8]

A third constituent would be seeking, literally and figuratively, searching for ways and means.[9] We may have a look at his personal path of life: born on a Greek island (then belonging to Italy), he lost his parents; Dublin (Ireland) and England followed, then the United States (Cincinnati, New Orleans), West Indies, Martinique, and Japan. Even in Japan, he changed his residence before he found a berth: a position in Tokyo Imperial University. There was no further; he remained in Japan which he loved so much and where he published twelve books between 1894 and 1905. He did not leave but he continued his spiritual discovery until his dying day.

Kwaidan (“tales”, short stories) and “Meditations” make up the two major parts of the book. The first constitutes a collection of folk tales and other stories taken from Hearn’s 1904 literary work Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things which is also his most popular reading. Under this title, an award-winning film was directed by Masaki Kobayashi in 1965.[10] Though sources write on “ghost stories”, and with regard to the Kobayashi film, “horror”, still – as the Epilogue of the book emphasizes (p. 393), one will not encounter dread or horror in the traditional sense: in Hearn’s life-work, it is always about deep layers, about temporal interpenetrations, living and dead, transmigrations of souls, past that becomes present, present that is pregnant with future, Buddhistic karma as seen through Hearn’s peculiar evolutionism, and similar. The best story of Kobayashi’s film, “The Black Hair”, is published in the collection here reviewed separately, following sixteen Kwaidan stories, under the original title “The Reconciliation” (pp. 153-137). As a footnote remarks, the original Japanese tale is part of a collection with the title “Konsekimonogatari”.[11] In the shocking story the repentant samurai, who had abandoned his wife years earlier, returns to their former house. The woman accepts him without any reproach, and they talk in unclouded happiness about past, present and future, about “seven lives”. The next morning the samurai, in great terror, realizes the rotted corpse of his wife: she had no face, only her threatening black hair remained. It is left to the reader’s reasoning to guess if the ghost of the dead woman returned for one night to punish her husband or if the man experienced a nightmare.[12]

Another story, common both to the Hearn collection and to the Kobayashi film, is that of Miminashi Hōichi, ‘Hoichi the Earless’. Hoichi, an attendant at a temple, is an especially talented blind singer. He is invited, seemingly, by a samurai to come to the court of his lord and to have a performance at their house. He surpasses himself in singing and is invited again and again. In the end, the priest at the temple understands that the singer is invited by ghosts into a courtyard and that he is in great danger. They write the words of the Heart Sutra everywhere on his body; this would save his life making him invisible. Hoichi does not obey the invitation on the last night, and the spectral samurai, unable to see him, rips his ears off so that he shows his lord that his commands have been fulfilled as much as this was possible. It appeared that the Heart Sutra made Hoichi invisible but the attendants had forgotten about his ears. Nevertheless, the spirits will now leave him alone. Hoichi continued to perform his art and became a famous singer. But the by-name “Earless” remained with him forever.

I wonder if it is a simple coincidence that Homer, held for the most important Greek epic poet, even if such a poet as one person may not have existed, was, according to tradition, also blind. Might there exist a deeper and older Eurasian layer, common both to the Greek and to the Japanese epic tradition?

The second part of the book contains the “Meditations”, fifteen in number. One would not call all of them meditations even if they invite the reader to contemplation, such as the well-known tale about Urashima Tarō, the fisherman, put, in the book, in a broader narrative.[13]  

More “meditative” is the “Dancing-girls” (pp. 244-267).[14] The touching story embedded in information about geishas is that of a young painter who was offered hospitality during a night at an abandoned place by a lady who appeared to have been formerly a shirabyōshi dancer (a female dancer of outstanding performance and attire) living alone after the death of her beloved husband. After many years, the dancer, now an old and poor lady, visited the painter who had become famous. The woman asked only one thing, to be painted young and beautiful as she had been once. The painter wanted to help her also financially but the woman did not accept anything else. They followed her secretly to see where she lived. By the time the painter came to speak to her, he realized that she was lying dead on her mat.

  The most interesting and important contribution in the book is Nirvana. A Study in Synthetic Buddhism (pp. 333-368)[15] shows Hearn to be a well-versed and devoted scholar, sometimes surprisingly modern with regard to natural sciences and to psychology. What the subtitle means is anticipated. We can understand it if we consider “analytic and synthetic Buddhism”, and what the two terms mean. It is the Vaibhāsika school that divides the dharmas (the experienced existents[16]) into “synthetic” and “non-synthetic”. “Synthetic” originates from causes and conditions, and after a time, ceases to exist. In other words, it is a reality for observation, too, and is not only a simple naming.[17]

  A critique of this contemplation or those of Herbert Spencer, influential thinker in Hearn’s epoque, would be a too ambitious task in a review. The interested are invited to read the whole study, given that it can easily be accessed online. Like Hearn gave the title himself to his book, only a gleaning seems possible in the present survey.

  Hearn begins his study with a quote from “The Diamond Cutter” according to which those who have faith only in the Self will not understand the Law that follows.[18] He then makes clear the general belief that nirvana means absolute nothingness or complete annihilation is erroneous. In the following, he frequently quotes other passages of the same sutra.

  Certainly, all Christian believers would be dissatisfied with the talk between Milinda and Nagasena according to which such a thing as a soul does not exist.[19] The questions, Hearn remarks, a Western reader would ask at this point, are not answered. Maybe, he continues, it is The Book of the Great Decease that contains the answers:[20] learning the meaning of nirvana, without transgressing the limits of the “common Occidental ideas of God and Soul, of matter and spirit” is not possible.

  In matters of morals, a thinking person will agree with Hearn and with those whom he quotes, namely the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Hearn writes in the 1st edition of his Gleanings (1897, pp. 229-230): We can find no moral meaning in the universe as it exists. Modern knowledge can discover no justice in the cosmic process – the very most it can offer us by way of ethical encouragement is that the unknowable forces are not forces of pure malevolence. Neither moral nor immoral […] but simply unmoral” (p. 345 in the volume under review). Modern Christian theologians who speak of “divine grace” or “goodness” cannot lay our fears: their answer will be, “good and evil – you must consider them in unity” …

  The path to nirvana is not to be understood as a rectilinear motion forward: Hearn compares it with rhythmic psychogenic processes and reminds his audience that there is no progress without regress and that all this is comparable with oscillating swings. To arrive at nirvana, he writes, is – with rare exceptions – a journey of this kind.

  Writing on monism, Hearn remarks: “A reconciliation is offered by the hypothesis of what might be called a pluralistic monism, – a sole reality composed of groups of consciousness, at once independent and yet interdependent, – or, to speak of pure mind in terms of matter, an atomic spiritual ultimate. This hypothesis, though not doctrinally enunciated in Buddhist texts, is distinctly implied both by text and commentary. The Absolute of Buddhism is one as ether is one. Ether is conceivable only as a composition of units. […] But here the student finds himself voyaging farther, perhaps, beyond the bar of the thinkable than Western philosophers have ever ventured. All are One; – each union becomes equal with All!”[21]

  Closing his study, Hearn arrives at the conclusion that Buddhism not only presents remarkable accordance with nineteenth-century thought but repudiates equally our doctrines of materialism and of spiritualism, our theory of a Creator and of a special Creation.

  Three more “Meditations” follow finishing the volume: “Within the Circle” (taken from the Gleanings), “A Drop of Dew” (taken from Kotto, 1903) and “Horai” (taken from Kwaidan).

  Eternal questions, this writer adds, have not been answered despite all honest attempts so far until today. We do not know, and in any case, this writer, nullius in verba iuratus, does not know, and very probably, will not know either. However, this is not meant to disparage Lafcadio Hearn, whose merits are indisputable.

  The recent volume, under an attractive appearance, does not provide new insights and bibliographical orientation only but pieces published earlier are offered in new translations. A contribution to a better understanding of Lafcadio Hearn, a misunderstood and undervalued Victorian writer. It reveals that at the metaphysical core of Lafcadio Hearn’s writings is a Buddhist vision as yet unappreciated by his critics and biographers. The book demonstrates Hearn’s deeply personal and transcendently beautiful evocations of a Buddhist universe, and shows how these deconstruct and dissolve the categories of Western discourse and thinking about reality – to create a new language, a poetry of vastness, emptiness, and oneness that had not been heard before in English, or, indeed, in the West.[22]


[1] Lafcadio Hearn, Japán szellemei /‘Ghosts of Japan’/, Budapest, Polaris 2022, pp. 393. The Hungarian title is a play on one of Hearn’s early books, “In Ghostly Japan”, containing fourteen fictional narratives (Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1899).

[2] His anglicized name would be in Greek original “Lefkadios” (Λευκάδιος) meaning ‘from Leucas’. Hearn’s full name was Patricio (Patrick) Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn, and in Japan, he adopted the new name, after his Japanese wife, Koizumi Yakumo. He lived between 1850 and 1904, and he ended his life near Tokio. According to his last will, he was given a Buddhist funeral.

[3] Molnár, born in 1966, is writer, translator and editor, he graduated in economics and in philosophy in Budapest, and he is also a contributor to the periodical Ars Naturae that focuses on environmental protection, on issues of civilization and on the Eastern way of life and thinking.

[4] There is a description about how surprised the Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain, who helped Hearn get a position in the Imperial University in Tokyo, was when he asked his students which religion they confessed and the answers were uncertain!

[5] It is not the place here to give a respective survey which would be rich. Enough to mention a recent encyclopedia on Buddhism in second edition by Tibor Porosz (2018) which extends also to the Pāli Theravāda Buddhist Canon, and a volume of studies on Buddhism issued by the prestigious L’Harmattan Company in Budapest (2013) where we can read a chapter on the Buddhism in Japan (pp. 209-226). Chamberlain’s surprise described above is mentioned in this chapter.

[6] The autobiography was first published in 1891, and for the last time, as far as is known to me, in 2016 in the volume “Lafcadio Hearn in his Early Days”.

[7] Published in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (Boston, Houghton, Mifflin, 1894).

[8] Anthony Goedhals, The Neo-Buddhist Writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Leiden/Boston, Brill, 2020, quoted by the Editor in the Epilogue. With regard to Spencer’s, agnosticism, cf. his central idea of the “unknowable”, and the “inscrutable power manifested to us through all phenomena” (as found in Rudolf Eisler’s, Philosophen-Lexikon, Berlin, E.S. Mittler, 1912, pp. 688 and 689, so that a contemporary source is quoted). Hearn comments on this in detail in his “Gleanings” (1st edition, 1897, p. 225).

[9] One feels challenged to remark: how effective this driving power is, is proven by another important thinker, Rabindranath Tagore. He considered travelling his karma. He visited, indeed, almost the whole world, from South America to Japan. He visited Hungary, Greece and Alexandria in 1926, and he visited also Japan repeatedly. A volume edited by Suryakanthi Tripathi, Radha Chakravarty and Nivedita Ray, carries this title: Tagore the Eternal Seeker. Footprints of a World Traveller (New Delhi, India, Wij Books – ICWA, 2015). No need to underline, Tagore was deeply influenced by Buddhism; some scholars think, even more influenced than by the Upanishads. His play, Natir Puja, based on a Buddhist legend, gives such an impression.

[10] “Kwaidan” is an archaic transliteration of the term kaidan meaning “ghost story”. Though based on Hearn’s life-work, the remarkable horror-film by Kobayashi contains only two episodes which were published in the 1904 volume. “The Black Hair” (Kurokami), rather the best story in the film, appeared first in Hearn’s collection Shadowings (1900) under the title The Reconciliation. The other three parts of the film are: “The Woman of the Snow”, “Hoichi the Earless”, and “In a Cup of Tea”.

[11] With a Google-search for this word, one finds the story (“Corpse Rider”), rather different in horror scale, and one sees justified the Editor’s remark: Hearn is not interested in dread or dismay or blood-curdling in the traditional sense. His adaptation reflects a different understanding. The literal sense of “Konseki-monogatari” seems, at first step, to be as unsophisticated as “Traces of stories’.

[12] In a further search for what Konseki-monogatari means, “A Bygone World” could be a good guess, but given that “konseki” has three categories of meanings, namely 1, ‘this night’, 2, ‘vestiges’, ‘traces’, 3, ‘Past and Present’ and the original kanji is missing to decide, there is, I assume, a great play on concepts and words: 1, it is indeed one night when the samurai and his abandoned wife talk in a serene satisfaction, 2, the woman is a “vestige” from the past, 3, interplay/interpenetration of times (past-present-future) is a clue in Hearn’s thinking, 4, the samurai is punished (the kind of which is left in uncertainty – given that this is not really what interests Hearn!) “Past and Present” are something Hearn was especially interested in. We know that Hearn’s Japanese was not advanced. It was his wife who read the texts for him and helped. The above semantic field, for a writer, was enough to get inspired for the story. So, the real meaning is, I suggest: “this night (once only) past and present met again, and maybe (if you the audience agree) a reconciliation has been found (and the rest of the story is left to you, audience”). We see, why Hearn used the title “The Reconciliation” and why in the book under review “Konseki-monogatori” has not been translated: “Past and Present met for one night”.

[13] This tale was published in Japanese Fairy Tales, as the volume itself informs the reader (p. 183), first published in 1898. Since it is not always easy to find original and following publications, one may have a help and an orientation on Hearn’s Bibliography online at: https://www.trussel.com/hearn/byhearn.htm.

[14] This discourse has the original title “Of a Dancing-Girl” and seems to have been published first independently in 1893, and then again in the Glimpses in 1894. This was also the first work by Hearn be translated into Hungarian in 1904.

[15] First published in Gleanings in Buddha-Fields: Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East (Boston – New York, Houghton, Mifflin, 1897, pp. 211-266). Five more publications followed.

[16] “Existent”, in this sense, introduced, at least into the Western philosophical thinking, would be in Greek, τὸ ὄν (to on, singular) and τὰ ὄντα (ta onta, plural). The Greek participle gave the philosophical concept of ontology.

[17] A discussion of either Buddhism as such or of its schools in not possible in this survey. Hearn’s analysis shows a surprisingly deep and – for his time – modern discussion of Buddhism with regard to the misunderstood by many nirvana. Sources, old and new, to the issue are numerous. So that one mentions a contemporary to Hearn treatment of the topic, one name, perhaps, is enough: H. Jacobi remarks that according to the Vaibhāsikas “an atom had six sides, but space within an atom could not be divided”. On the other hand – Jacobi continues –, “Sautrāntikas [belonging to the same “synthetic” school] seem to have regarded the aggregate of seven atoms as the smallest compound (aṇu), (in: Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Ed. by James Hastings, Vol. II, 1909, p. 201). The two views prove also that the respective thinkers considered atoms as having dimensions. Several other entries and terms in the same Encyclopaedia, with good names like that of L. de la Vallée Poussin and others are relevant. Naturally, there are other guiding aids, such as that by R.E. Buswell (2004), but this was published well after Hearn. Also, we must not forget that other schools, too, such as Veiśeṣika Sūtra, to which physics is central, preceded Buddha in atomic theory.

[18] The Diamond Cutter or Diamond Sūtra is a Mahāyāna sūtra from the genre of “Perfection of Wisdom”. Its Sanskrit name, Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā sūtra can be translated as “The Perfection of Wisdom Text that Cuts like a Thunderbolt” (Vajra meaning ‘thunderbolt’). As a point of interest, it may be remarked that a respective manuscript, dating back to 868 A.D., was sold by a Chinese monk to the Hungarian Indologist-Orientalist Aurel Stein in 1907. The original text seems to have been composed in the 5th cent. A.D. The Chinese Diamond Sūtra is also the oldest known dated printed book in the world.

[19] Milinda is the Pāli name of King Menander I Soter, a Greco-Bactrian ruler (c. 165-130 B.C.), convert and patron of Greco-Buddhism. The “Milinda Panha” (“The Questions of King Milinda”), conversation with the Buddhist Sage Nagasena, is an important Buddhist work.

[20] This is the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (Maha-Parinirvana-Sutra) about the death of Buddha. Originally edited by Max Müller, there is now a new (2015) edition, with translation.

[21] Gleanings 1897, pp. 256-258. “Western philosophers have ever ventured” – however, less than hundred years later, Noam Chomsky, impressingly, expresses similar opinions. See e.g. what Ruth Nanda Anshen writes in the Preface to his Managua Lectures on Möbius Strip and on “All” being a “Unity”. “The Möbius Strip, in fact presents only one monodimensional continuous string having no inside, no outside, no beginning, no end. Converging with itself it symbolizes the structural kinship, the intimate relationship between subject and object, matter and energy, demonstrating the error of any attempt to bifurcate the observer and participant, the universe and man, into two or more systems of reality. All, all is unity” (N. Chomsky, Managua Lectures, 1986, pp. XXIII-XXIV). To extend beyond this point is perhaps not expedient in this review.

[22] For the concluding evaluation I availed myself of the online Flyer-title of Anthony Goedhals’ 2020 Hearn book, not accessible to me. The 2022 Budapest publication provides the readers with something of the kind.