About 12 decades before I ever set foot in Matsue, a writer named Lafcadio Hearn lived here for one year and three months as an English teacher. He lived the rest of his life in Japan, but his impressions of Matsue became the standard by which he measured his later experiences in Kumamoto and Tokyo.
His world-famous writings about Matsue, compiled in his “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” in 1894, had an even longer lasting impact on the city. Hearn lived here in a tumultuous time for Japan as it was rapidly changing in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) by tearing down remnants of its feudal past and aggressively Westernizing.
Although the citizens of Matsue did value their home and culture enough to band together to purchase the rights to Matsue Castle, thus saving it from destruction, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that much of the culture of “Good Old Japan” found in Matsue today is present due to Hearn’s influence.
On a stroll through town, it is difficult not to notice his ubiquitous image. Most obviously, the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum and his former residence are both located on Shiomi Nawate Street, the scenic, Edo-esque road that runs beside the northern moat of the castle. A visit to either place is a trip back in time in itself, as his beloved garden—which he wrote about extensively—and writing tools are all maintained in the ways he enjoyed them. There is a bronze bust of Hearn across the street overlooking the moat, and a walk around the area reveals shops named in his honor and flags detailing the world-wide course of his varied life.
A walk in the other direction, however, brings you to Karakoro Square, nestled in the Kyomise shopping area. The wide, red umbrella taking up a large portion of the square makes it a prime event space for the locals in both sunny and rainy weather, and the relief of Hearn on one of the stone walls makes him present at anything from jazz to soup festivals. His influence is even present in the name, as he described the sound of "geta" (wooden sandals) against the nearby Matsue Ohashi Bridge as "kara, koro, kara, koro."
His attention to the little details of daily life in the city and in his garden has charmed readers for over a century, but Hearn had more than a taste for the quaint side of Japanese life.
As any fan of the Japanese occult might be aware, he left a wide cultural impact by recording ghost stories from Matsue and beyond. “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things” was published in 1903 and director Masaki Kobayashi later brought four of those stories to life in a 1965 horror movie. Even the aforementioned bridge, the bustling symbol of everyday life connecting the commercial and government sides of the Edo town, had a dark story about human sacrifice which caught Hearn’s attention. The poor story of Gensuke, who was tossed into the river semirandom so as to appease the tides such that construction might progress smoothly, is also the sort of thing that catches my attention. I enjoy smilingly pointing it out to friends when they’re visiting and we pass over the pillar named in his honor.
Is this story even true? That’s a good question and I tend to believe it’s not true. What I find more interesting is not the origins of this story and many others like it, but the strength with which they’ve been maintained. At least for a time, Hearn made them world-famous.
Matsue took pride in that, and adopted those stories deep into its collective consciousness. The statue of “Hoichi the Earless” and the diorama-theater version of this story which plays in the folk tale hall at Izumo Kanbe-no-Sato, a living shrine to old story-telling culture, is a testament to how the city has adopted stories which did not even originate here. I have to wonder—if not for Hearn, would anyone in modern Matsue celebrate its haunts, like the ghost on a bridge who hated a certain song, and who took violent revenge against a brazen samurai who sang it to upset her? Would they remember with the same fondness the buried mother whose spirit went out every day to buy sustenance for her newborn buried with her? Would Japan, in a wider sense, have bothered retaining these stories from its feudal times had Hearn not recorded them with his own narrative spin?
Perhaps the more obvious haunts would have maintained a reputation on their own, like the enormous, destructive stone tortoise which is supposed to guard the Matsudaira feudal lords’ graves at Gesshoji temple. With the comfort of historical distance and skepticism, I find even the most terrifying of versions of this story endearing. Hearn had the same affection for the folk culture he saw here. Although I prefer to experience Matsue through my own eyes, I like that Hearn’s observations about Matsue from the Meiji Era are posted on tasteful signs throughout the city to add an observant and well-worded touch to places on his daily walking route and beyond.
What I love even more is that his descriptions still ring true today in the current Heisei Era (1989-present). Decades and decades' worth of locals have striven to retain the original character of the castle town. You can sense their efforts while walking around the city streets, observing art around the railway stops, or listening to the songs the boat drivers sing while traversing the canals. You can taste it in the tea, and feel it in the chill while standing before a menacing stone tortoise, surrounded by the silence of the feudal lords’ graves and the flood of hydrangea. I also hear it any time someone’s face lights up as they mention Lafcadio Hearn.