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Edging Toward Japan: Kumamoto, one man's heaven and another man's hell

Kumamoto Castle (Mainichi)

By Damian Flanagan

    The southern Japanese city of Kumamoto, on the island of Kyushu, is a place with a rich literary heritage, but was not necessarily loved by the literati who lived there.

    In the 1890s both writers Lafcadio Hearn and Natsume Soseki taught English literature, one after another, at the "Fifth School" -- an early form of national university -- there. In stark contrast to the love Hearn felt for the city of Matsue, where he spent his first charmed year in Japan and met his wife Setsu, Hearn described Kumamoto as "my realisation of a prison in the bottom of hell." (They don't put that on the tourist info.)

    Hearn had delighted in Matsue and the province of Shimane in general as the Japanese "Land of the Gods," a land of ancient traditions little touched by the modern world. Hearn was thrilled to be the first Westerner to have ever set foot on some craggily remote places reached by boat along the Shimane coast.

    The only drawback was that Matsue was bitterly cold in winter and, newly married, Hearn was taken by the idea of transferring to the sunnier southern climate of Kumamoto and a well-paid job. But he soon discovered, to his considerable distaste, that Kumamoto was a city in the process of pell-mell modernization and westernisation.

    Natsume Soseki fared no better in his unfavourable reaction to Kumamoto. He moved home six times when he was there and his wife, suffering from post-miscarriage depression, threw herself into a river.

    Yet while Hearn objected to Kumamoto because it was casting aside too quickly its native identity, for Soseki the city was simply too provincial. Conscious that Tokyo was streets ahead in term of development and the place where anyone truly successful in life was to be found, Soseki was desperate to get back to the capital, a feat he achieved only by agreeing first to go and study in London...

    Lafcadio Hearn Memorial House (Damian Flanagan)

    But one person's hell is another person's heaven. Yukio Mishima arrived in Kumamoto for a long weekend of illicit sex and literary research in the summer of 1966, dividing his time between discussions with local historian Seishi Araki and bedroom sessions with his long-term on-off lover Jiro Fukushima. They also managed to pick up a man called "Ken" in a Kumamoto club.

    An interesting photograph survives of Mishima at Kumamoto station with Araki, an expert on the Shinpuren Rebellion of 1876, the details of which Mishima recounted at length in his 1968 novel "Runaway Horses" (Volume 2 of "The Sea of Fertility").

    Mishima subsequently raved about Kumamoto as being his "spiritual home."

    It's curious that these three major literary figures all saw the same city with completely different eyes -- depending on your viewpoint, Kumamoto was either too westernised (for Hearn), too provincial (for Soseki) or the embodiment of the Japanese spirit (for Mishima).

    When I was back in Kumamoto three years ago, I observed how restoration work was going at the castle there after the devastating earthquake, then enjoyed the superb displays at the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial House, before discovering that the Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum was still closed. Alas, there seems to be nothing in Kumamoto commemorating Mishima's wild weekend there.

    @DamianFlanagan

    (This is Part 36 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

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    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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