Let’s Read Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things [Part 1]

[very YouTuber voice] HEY EVERYBODY, IT’S YA BOY

I’ve had a copy of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things lying around my room for a while now, but I thought I’d finally crack it open and give it an honest read for Halloween (which, as we know, is Oct. 1 – Dec. 31).

Kwaidan is, simply put, a collection of old Japanese ghost stories and folklore. “Ghost stories” isn’t the most accurate term for Kwaidan, but essentially, yeah, it’s a bunch of ghost stories. There are 17 stories, ranging from spooky to funny to sad to just kind of mundane. In any case, I love a ghost story and looking at old horror is fun because you can’t help but notice how we’ve never stopped conjuring the same strange things. We’re going to take a look at each story, one-by-one, from beginning to end. I’ll recap each one followed by some thoughts and maybe some extra research into things that cross my mind or pique my interest (and hopefully yours.) It’s public domain so you can read along if you’d like. Some of the stories I highly recommend you read before reading my thoughts, and I’ll label them as such!

Buuut, before we get into the actual stories, I want to talk about the writer Lafcadio Hearn for a second. So our guy Lafcadio was born in 1850 to an Irish father and a Greek mother. He grew up in Greece and Ireland before moving to the U.S. in 1869 (age 19). He worked as a journalist and translator wrote, and eventually ended up in Japan (1890, age 40) pursuing another reporting gig. His original job didn’t pan out, but he married Koizumi Setsu, a Japanese native, and found various teaching jobs teaching English and English Literature and schools and universities. In addition to Kwaidan (which he finished right before his death in 1904), he penned a bunch of other works on Japan and Japanese culture at a time when the West didn’t know too much about “the East” in general.

Of course, there’s a lot more to this guy’s life. You can read about that on your own time. I, however, only want to touch upon one point.

modern day Lafcadio Hearn??

I’m not trying to put this dude on blast, but like c’mon. He did important work, was apparently a beloved figure, penned what became much of the West’s first encounter with Japan, and lived way before the age of the weeb, but also take a look at how the publisher foreward describes him:

“Lafcadio Hearn is almost as Japanese as haiku. Both are an art form, an institution in Japan. Haiku is indigenous to the nation; Hearn became a Japanese citizen and married a Japanese, taking the name Yakumo Koizumi. His flight from Western materialism brought him to Japan in 1890. His search for beauty and tranquility, for pleasing customs and lasting values kept him here the rest of his life, a confirmed Japanophile.”

. . . and the introduction from 1904:

The Japanese, on the other hand, have possessed no such national and universally recognized figures as Turgenieff or Tolstoy. They need an interpreter. It may never be doubted whether any oriental race has ever had an interpreter gifted with more perfect insight and sympathy than Lafcadio Hearn has brought to the translation of Japan into terms of our occidental speech.

Look, I’d be remiss to not at least touch on 1.) how these stories come from a white dude and 2.) how it’s considered a canonical Japanese text despite . . . not being written in Japanese or by a Japanese writer and 3.) how he’s talked about. Sure, these excerpts reflect more on those writers and not Hearn, but they’re indicative of how he’s received and how we’ve placed him in the literary canon (specifically spooky folklore, specifically Japanese spooky folklore). While I can’t claim to have read all his work and definitively say that he is in fact exoticizing Japan, I don’t think it’s particularly unreasonable of me to be a little skeptical? wary? of his perspective. It’s a collection of Japanese folklore written in English for an English-speaking audience, after-all.

You could say it doesn’t matter all the much because these aren’t his “original” stories, but ghosts, spirits, and supernatural folklore are so wrapped up in people and live-storytelling that it’s always worth looking at the different players of the telephone game we’re [currently] the last leg of. So, for some more context: his wife Koizumi told him many of the stories he recounts. The various random people he met on his travels who took the time to regale this guy with their folk stories are worth mentioning too. Even if their stories weren’t actually transcribed or adapted, I’d still say they all play a part in how Hearn ended up writing Kwaidan. And of course, much of Kwaidan finds its roots in old Japanese texts, such as Hyaku-Monogatari, a supernatural bestiary (!!!) from 1841, and Kokon-Chomonshu, a collection of poems, stories, and paintings compiled in 1254 (!!!).

Anyway, truly the whole point of this little series is to just, have some fun reading some strange stories. I had to get [gestures to the last few paragraphs] all this out there first. So now, let’s just get into it!

Tale I: The Story Of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi

Once there was a blind man named Hoichi who was given free lodging at a temple for his exceptional biwa skills. One night while the temple priest is out, a samurai summons Hoichi to play for his traveling lord. Hoichi isn’t sure where he’s being led, but he finds himself in some noble household and delivers a stunning lyrical performance of “The Battle At Dan-No-Ura.” So stunning, in fact, that it moves his audience to tears and the lord demands he secretly perform every night. On the second night, the priest gets suspicious about Hoichi’s night-time activities and sends two acolytes to follow him. They find him furiously playing his biwa in a nearby cemetery, utterly surrounded by oni-bi (ghost flames) in front of the tomb of Antoku Tenno, the child emperor of the losing side of the aforementioned battle. The acolytes drag Hoichi back to the temple, where the priest informs him the spirits intended to eviscerate him on the final night. He paints entire Hoichi’s body with holy scripture and instructs him to remain perfectly silent and still when the “samurai” comes to summon him next. Hoichi does just that, and the scripture renders him invisible to the spectral figure; however, the priest forgot to cover Hoichi’s ears with scripture, so the samurai tears them off to take back to his lord. Thus, Hoichi becomes known as Mimi Nashi Hoichi, or “Hoichi The Earless.”

Our first story! Pretty straight forward and even has a wildly happy ending, with Hoichi gaining immense fame and wealth for performing his story for actual living nobles. What’s the point of going through something traumatic if you can’t monetize it?

Anyway, I’m not sure if Hearn was particularly interested in the order he presented these stories in, but “Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi” is a good opener and introduces two big features we’ll see in the following stories. The first is the religious aspect. Buddhist mythology and ethics are going to feature prominently in these stories, usually with a priest or holy figure playing a central role. Priests in ghost stories isn’t very surprising, but what I do think is interesting is that the priest is the be-all-end-all expert on all things Strange and Supernatural. Hoichi, through no fault of his own, would have just straight up died without the priest’s interference. There’s probably a “Hey, Listen To And Respect Priests / Holy Men / Authority” subtext to these stories, but I also just like the idea of priests being Spectral Ecologists who just, know all there is to know about the Weird.

Which leads me into the second feature. In Kwaidan, the Strange and the Human worlds are one and the same. For example, the description when the acolytes enter the cemetery is a really laid back “yeah there are ghost fires flitting about but they’re always here.” No big deal, love those guys! The term “supernatural” as we typically use it almost isn’t applicable to these stories because everything that happens and everything we meet is very much natural. What’s scary here isn’t the presence or existence of ghosts and spirits that want to kill people, but their treachery and trickery. Even then, when the priest reveals the truth, it’s kind of as if he said “yeah, the spider is gonna kill the fly that got stuck in its web.” The description of the ghost-fires is as mundane as a description of fireflies in a field. The narrator casually mentioning Heike crabs, crabs with human faces on their backs, is like me just telling you a strange bug fact for no reason other than it being neat. Sure, it’s strange and sometimes scary, but it’s all out in the open. We can name the things that haunt us and skulk around in the shadows, and we don’t have to waste our energy pretending like they don’t exist.

Tale II: Oshidori

Sonjo was having bad luck hunting until he came across a pair of oshidori, or mandarin duck. As everyone knows, it’s “not good” to kill oshidori, but Sonjo was hungry. He shoots the male with an arrow, but the female duck flies away. That night, he has a very strange, gloomy dream of a bitterly sad woman. She approaches Sonjo, sobbing about how he cruelly killed her husband. She tells him to go back to the lake he was hunting by the next day and he will see her sorrow. Sonjo returns, and sees a solitary oshidori swimming. It begins swimming toward him, and proceeds to eviscerate itself with its beak. Sonjo becomes a priest soon after this encounter.

Female (left) and male (right) Mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata) [Source: Richard Bartz]

Some of the stories in Kwaidan are simply, sad! What’s striking about this story to me is that there’s no bad guy. An act of apparent necessity to Sonjo was one of wanton cruelty to Miss Duck. I’m curious about the translation here, because all the information we’re given on oshidori lore is in the following line:

“To kill oshidori is not good.”

Not good! That could mean anything! I was inclined to believe Sonjo invited misfortune or a curse into his life, but the truth seems way simpler. Apparently, in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean folklore, mandarin ducks are a symbol of everlasting love because they were thought to mate for life (similar to the perception of swans in Europe.) So, I suppose, in this way oshidori aren’t normal animals. They’re characterized with being able to love like humans do. It’s anthropomorphism not in behavior or appearance, but in soul. Miss Duck appears as a human to Sonjo in his dream because what’s more human than being in love and mourning a loved one?

His punishment isn’t 7 years of bad luck; it’s being intimately aware of the pain he’s inflicted upon another being. It’s guilt! And as we see, this drives him to a life of atonement as a holy man. Alas, poor Sonjo would have been fine if he killed like a mallard or something, because fuck those loveless monsters.

pictured: dumb idiot who doesn’t even know what love is [Source: Alain Carpenter]

Tale III: The Story Of O-Tei

Nagao and O-Tei had been bethrothed from an early age, but O-Tei’s health was failing fast. On her deathbed, O-Tei declares that the two of them will meet again . . . not in the afterlife, but in this world. She tells Nagao that she’ll be born again, and once she turns 16, they’ll be reunited. Nagao truly did love O-Tei, and in hopes of pleasing her spirit, made a written promise to marry her if she does return and set it beside her mortuary tablet. While Nagao does remarry and have children, he is struck by tragedy and finds himself alone in the world with his wife, children, and parents dead. He begins wandering the land and finds himself in a mountain town where he meets a girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to O-Tei. He approaches her, and as if possessed, she states that she is in fact O-Tei and, in honor of Nagao’s written promise, she has come back. They marry and lived happily ever after, but this woman could never recall what she said to him when they first met, nor could she recall her supposed “past life.”

Wow, I’m really having a hard time thinking of another “My Partner Came Back From The Grave” that’s not played for laughs?? Way more common is the “Botched Resurrection” kind of story a la Pet Sematary, but the sincere “yeah I loved my partner so much I willed myself back into existence and it’s chill” kind of story? I suppose we needed a Perfectly Fine Resurrection GF before we could start telling stories about Botched Resurrection GF.

Does true love exist? Idk guys, I got nothing.

Tale IV: Ubazakura

Tokubei, the wealthiest man in the district of Onsengori, and his wife fervently prayed to the god Fudo Myo O for the ability to conceive a child. Eventually their prayers were answered, and they had a healthy daughter named Tsuyu. Tsuyu was attended by the milk nurse O-Sode, who loved her as if she were her own daughter. When Tsuyu turned 15, she fell deathly ill. O-Sode prayed to Fudo-Sama every day for 21 days, and Tsuyu miraculously recovered. Tokubei threw a feast to celebrate his daughter’s recovery, but O-Sode fell deathly ill on that same night. On her death-bed, she revealed she asked Fudo-Sama to allow her to die in Tsuyu’s place. Her request was granted, but in return, Fudo-Sama asked her to plant a cherry-tree as an offering of gratitude. The tree Tsuyu’s parents planted in O-Sode’s stead bloomed for 254 years, always on the anniversary of O-Sode’s death. Because its flowers were pink and white “like the nipples of a woman’s breasts, bedewed with milk,” the tree was called Ubazakura, the Cherry-tree of the Milk Nurse.

Look, I’m just wondering why uhhh Tsuyu’s actual parents weren’t praying every day for 21 days that their lives be sacrificed in exchange for their most beloved daughter. O-Sode declares she “was happy to die for O-Tsuyu’s sake” but something about this . . . I suppose piety and duty to your noble household’s name plays a role here. Service industry people have always been expected to do The Most and receive little in return, huh?

O-Sode is at least honored, both by the physical planting of the cherry-tree and by its supernatural qualities. Long after Tokubei and Tsuyu are dead and gone, the monument to O-Sode’s selfless love continues to blossom and bless those who behold it. It’s her name that we remember. I guess that’s something, hmph!

An Aside, re: Fudo-Myo-O a.k.a. Fudo-Sama a.k.a. Acala: In Japanese Buddhist mythology, we’ve got the “Myo-O” class of divine entities, also referred to as the Great Wisdom Kings. They’re protective deities, representative of Buddha’s wisdom, that watch over the faithful and look absolutely terrifying to ward off evil spirits and scare off ignorance.

they walked so Scared Straight could run (is that joke anything? there’s something there, right? please let me know)

There are five Wisdom Kings, but Fudo-Sama is the central and most powerful. He’s not specifically attuned to fertility or families, so I guess O-Sode, Tokubei, and the others beseech him specifically because of his power and importance. I wonder if, while this story was being passed around, the deity changed depending on who was telling it and where. I specified “Japanese Buddhist mythology” because while the name Fudo-Sama is unique to Japan, the deity itself can be found all over. Annnnd that’s about as deep as I can get into it without embarrassing myself / doing weeks of research. On to the next one!

Tale V: Diplomacy

Right before his execution, a condemned man argues he did not willingly commit his crime because it was born out of his “very great stupidity.” He says “to kill a man for being stupid is wrong,” and if they go through with the execution, his ghost will wreak vengeance on them all. The samurai tasked with the execution isn’t impressed. He tells him if he really wants them to be afraid of this ghostly revenge schtick, the condemned man should give them some sort of sign of his power after he dies. Mr. Samurai suggests the man try to bite the stepping-stone in front of him after his head is cut off. Then, he says, they’ll be properly frightened. The man fervently agrees, and after Mr. Samurai decapitates him, his head does in fact manage to bound forward and bite the stone. Everyone, except the samurai and his master, look on in absolute horror; however, several months pass and the executed’s promised vengeance has not come to pass. The witnesses ask Mr. Samurai why he is not afraid, and he responds there’s no need to be afraid. While the desire of a dying man holds power, it is “only the very last intention of that fellow [that] could have been dangerous.” Our condemned man’s last thought was of Mr. Samurai’s task: biting the stone. Once he accomplished that task, he was unable to do anything else.

Our man got SCAMMED. I love this story because we have Mr. Samurai using what’s almost like a loophole in The Ghost Rulebook to his advantage. The story posits that the ghost of someone who dies with a grudge has immense power as A Given, and hey, we’ve seen this before!

“The curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the places that person was alive. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born.”
(from the opening of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002))

The “twist” here is that Mr. Samurai reveals there are certain conditions to that. Namely just that it’s only the deceased last thought that holds any sort of power. Here, the spectral and the supernatural is very precise and scientific. It’s like I mentioned earlier: the strange isn’t unknowable in Kwaidan, it’s just strange. Mr. Samurai knows the intricacies of The Ghost Rulebook like a herpetologist might know a certain snake’s venom is absolutely harmless to humans. There’s also a sense of balance here too. I suppose everyone has it in them to manifest a powerful, dangerous spectral entity to follow through on their threats after they die. On the other hand, you can easily sidestep this by getting the soon-to-be-dead to think about literally Anything Else right before they die. There’s probably an intensity threshold your feelings have to reach first (as suggested by the continued use “strong” to qualify the condemned man’s resentment), so this dude really must have wanted to bite that stone too. Funnily enough, he could have gotten his revenge if he just, didn’t care about the samurai’s challenge. His downfall is that he’s more concerned about them being afraid of his threat than he is about actually just following through. Truly just, finessed.

Also, on the case the condemned man makes for himself:

“Honored Sir, the fault for which I have been doomed I did not willingly commit. It was only my very great stupidity which caused the fault . . . But to kill a man for being stupid is wrong, — and that wrong will surely be repaid.”

I’m curious about the translation here. Reading this in 2019, it’s just, wildly funny. On the other hand, words like “stupid,” “idiot,” “dumb,” and the like have roots in what passed as early medicine and psychiatry. Is the condemned making an insanity plea? Or pointing to neurodivergence? I did some digging into the story and I can’t really be sure. Based on a later (rather . . .unfortunate) story that does have a character coded autistic, along with the nonplussed attitude of literally every other character in “Diplomacy,” I think it’s safe to assume that the condemned in this story is sort of just spinning his wheels. Sort of a last-ditch “Your Honor, I was out of my mind!” defense. Alas, it didn’t work. But I guess we can’t blame him for trying.

this is how our man wished it all would have gone down

This is,,, already a way longer post than I thought it’d be, and that’s after I cut two more stories from this one. So let’s call it here! Stay tuned for the next post, which will include a big excuse for me to start talking about Pokemon as well as the story that inspired me to do these posts in the first place. Thanks for reading.

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