The foreigner who links Japan to its soul





MATSUE, Japan -- As snow silently fell on the miniature garden outside, Bon Koizumi sat on the same tatami mat floor where, more than a century before, his great-grandfather had penned some of Japan's best-loved traditional folk tales. It was the perfect image of Japanese repose, except for the sepia-toned photo of Koizumi's ancestor, whose bushy mustache and aquiline nose showed an unmistakably Western face.

His great-grandfather was Lafcadio Hearn, the Irish-Greek author whose wanderings brought him here after a career as a muckraking journalist in the United States. And while Hearn lived in Matsue only 15 months, this castle city on Japan's remote coast still claims him as its favorite son, displaying his face on park statues, street signs and local brands of beer, sake and even instant coffee.

Hearn's colorful descriptions of this medieval city and its ancient tales of gods and ghosts first put Matsue on the map in the 1890s. Even now, Matsue remains a popular tourist destination, thanks to Japan's enduring fascination with Hearn, who married a local samurai's daughter, took Japanese citizenship and died in Tokyo in 1904.

Many countries have favorite foreign observers, who are embraced for shedding light on the local culture in ways that native authors cannot.

For many Japanese, Hearn's appeal lies in the glimpses he offers of an older, more mystical Japan lost during the country's hectic plunge into Western-style industrialization and nation- building. His books are treasured here as a trove of traditional legends and folk tales that otherwise might have vanished because no Japanese had bothered to record them.

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