Ghosts and Spirits in Early Japanology

  • Michael J. Blouin


In the 1890s, Japanese curios filled American living rooms in parallel with a rising cosmopolitanism. This chapter focuses upon how early Japanologists utilize the trendy formulation of an imaginary Japan to contemplate unseen forces in a modernizing world. Ernest Fenollosa, a professor from Salem who taught philosophy at Tokyo University, spent the bulk of his career documenting these curios to reveal the energy behind world “progress.” Lafcadio Hearn was a nomadic journalist who was sent to Japan in 1890 to write about its unfamiliar aspects. Hearn’s writing, though radically different from Fenollosa’s in style, likewise exploits an assortment of Japanese curios to express a supernatural essence within modern life, marked by its absence. Early Japanology thus marks a significant shift in how a discourse of the invisible came to represent Japan.1 These two authors expose the emptiness beneath Gilded Age artifice while also projecting, through gathered Japanese materials, narratives of other-worldly forces upon an illusory archipelago.2


Japanese Culture Emphasis Mine American Audience Japanese Material American Discourse 
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  1. 1.
    At the fin de siècle, this phenomenon was described by Mary Crawford Fraser as “cherry-blossom metaphysics” [Fraser, M. A Diplomat’s Wife in Japan: Sketches at the Turn of the Century (New York: John Weatherhill Inc., 1922), p. 159].Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Spencer’s followers share similar disagreements over the fundamental outline of “progress.” Some followers were like Fenollosa, such as the wildly popular Reverend Henry Beecher Stowe, in their optimism regarding the promises of American civilization; others, like Thomas Huxley, were more akin to Hearn’s subservience to the “great unknown.” For more on these disparities, see Barry Werth’s Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America (New York: Random House, 2009).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Hearn’s and Fenollosa’s texts navigate a fragile line at the turn of the century between ethnography (a self-certain stretching of knowledge concerning the globe) and auto-ethnography (a critical turn back upon the Self and recognition of the doubts haunting observers). For an interesting parallel across the Atlantic, see Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    David Punter illustrates a similar ambivalence in the poetry of Lord Byron: “There is a sense of aristocratic nostalgia which sits uneasily with the political radicalism.” This type of conflicted construction has thus, in fact, been fostered from the early eighteenth century onward [Punter, D. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions (New York: Longman Group, 1980), p. 109].Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Hearn’s proto-modernism is widely acknowledged by scholars interested in his work. George Hughes, for one, points to Hearn’s emphasis on relativism and states: “He enriches modern culture precisely because he also disturbs those centres of gravity we like to consider fixed” [Hughes, George. “Lafcadio Hearn and the Fin De Siecle,” from Re-Discovering Lafcadio Hearn. Ed. Sukehiro Hirakawa (Kent, UK: Global Books, 1997), p. 101].Google Scholar
  6. Elsewhere, noted Japanese scholar Donald Richie illustrates a significant stylistic shift in Hearn’s prose, predating modernism: “Simplicity… after the heightened, the complicated, the curious, Hearn had learned from Japan itself the virtues of the spare” [Richie, Donald. Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan (Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1997), p. 15].Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Brad Evans defines this phenomenon as the “ethnographic imagination.” He points to “the experimentation, sometimes serious but often in the form of aesthetic dalliance, with new ways of perceiving, representing, and producing structures of affiliation and difference” [Evans, B. Before Cultures: The Ethnographic Imagination in American Literature, 865–1920 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 7]. The “dalliances” of Hearn and Fenollosa negotiate borders of perception in precisely this fashion.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Judith Snodgrass notes, “Fenollosa led the campaign testifying to the universal value of Japanese art from the perspective of, and in the vocabulary of, Western aesthetics” [Snodgrass, Judith. Presenting Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition (Raleigh, NC: University of North Caroline Press, 2003), p. 140].Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    For a fruitful study of the work, see Flemming Olsen’s Ars Poetica or The Roots of Poetic Creation?: Ernest Fenollosa—The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (Sussex, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2011).Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    For more on Hearn’s early life and experiences with religion, see Jonathan Cott’s Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn (New York: Kodansha International, 1992)Google Scholar
  11. Edward Tinker’s Lafcadio Hearn’s American Days (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1924)Google Scholar
  12. O. W. Frost’s Young Hearn (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1958).Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    For more on Hearn’s relationship with his Irish ancestry, and his link to the work of Yeats and the Irish renaissance, see Paul Murray’s evocative work, A Fantastic Journey: The Life and Literature of Lafcadio Hearn (1997).Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    See T. J. Jackson Lears’s No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994).Google Scholar

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© Michael J. Blouin 2013

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  • Michael J. Blouin

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