In Japan, the Hands Can Be Used Like A Knife


Am I the only one having a Lafcadio Hearn moment lately? I've been getting a Hearnia thanks to frequent cable showings of Masaki Kobayashi's stupendiferous ghost movie Kwaidan, one of the best Japanese movie of the sixties. Kwaidan in turn is based on a collection of stories by the oddly named Hearn (A.K.A. Koizumi Yakumo), an Irish-Greek-American-Japanese writer who became the greatest bignose journalist writing about Japan in the early twentieth century. I was interested to come across this article in The Atlantic, which gives a fascinating look at his checkered career and increasingly high-flown style.

Whenever a magazine article makes claims about some cultural figure's importance in some other country, it's a sure bet that nobody in that country pays any attention to him; and sure enough, I've never known any Japanese who has heard of Lafcadio Hearn. But Kwaidan is a great movie and a great specimen of the cultural cross-pollination Tyler Cowen and others talk about. Akira Kurosawa is the most frequently cited example of this phenomenon, since he borrowed from Shakespeare and Dashiell Hammett and gave back western-style movies that seemed novel to westerners. Hearn, who eventually became a Japanese citizen, is the reverse of that: a westerner refining pieces of Japanese culture that were already starting to fade in Japan. Proof that even in a notoriously closed culture, immigrants brighten up the joint.