Ancient Greek Japan

This post has a local origin, but is a global story – one that, I think, raises interesting questions about the role of Greek and Roman religion in shaping the interpretation of non-Western cultures. Inspired by an excellent book that I read a little while ago – Jason Ananda Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan – I became interested in reading a little about Shinto. Then I put together a local connection: some time ago, Jack Davis, a fellow Irish citizen, introduced me to another Irish person who had come to Cincinnati – Lafcadio Hearn, a famous Victorian writer on Japan. I had not heard of this figure, who could be fairly described as Twain crossed with Poe crossed with Yeats crossed with the Brothers Grimm.

I cannot do any justice to Hearn’s biography, which is almost overwhelmingly eventful (this wikpedia entry gives a flavor and appears to be generally reliable). In brief, he was born in 1850 on the Ionian island of Lefkada to a Greek mother and Anglo-Irish mother and raised in Ireland and in England by his great-aunt. Eventually, aged 19 and facing poverty, he was sent away to the United States. Led to believe that distant relations in Cincinnati could help him, Hearn arrived in the Queen City. Although his relations could not provide him with any support, he managed to make it in the thriving Cincinnati of the mid-nineteenth century. Eventually, he became a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer (still our main city newspaper), where he made a name for himself with sensational crime stories and social reportage. His career at the paper was going well, until he married an African-American woman in violation of Ohio anti-miscegenation laws, which got him fired from the Enquirer. He took his talents to a rival paper, the Commercial, where he was a star reporter. Hearn tired of Cincinnati – writing to a friend that “It is time for a fellow to get out of Cincinnati when they begin to call it the Paris of America” – and moved to New Orleans in 1877. After some years in New Orleans, where again he was a star reporter, and in the Caribbean, in 1890 Hearn decided to take up a teaching position in Meiji Japan (thanks in part to another famous Ohioan, Commander Perry Japan had been opened to the outside world in the 1850s). It was there that Hearn found his calling – explaining a Japan that he loved to Western audiences. Despite not having good spoken Japanese and no literacy in the language, he fervently adopted the manners of his new country, including a new name, Koizumi Yakumo, and a Japanese wife. Hearn became a Japanese nationalist, convinced of the superiority of traditional Japanese culture and determined to demonstrate that superiority to Western audiences. He also became an avid collector of Japanese folklore and his fame in Japan rests on his collections of traditional stories.


So when I came to read about Shinto, Hearn was a tempting guide. It turns out that his major work Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, published in the year of his death, 1904, is particularly worthwhile for the historian of ancient religion (you can read it online here, it’s also downloadable on google books). The work is a substantial book on the history of Japanese religion, but throughout, Hearn makes constant reference to classical religion as a yardstick and model for understanding the Japanese case. This is what I found so interesting – Hearn inscribes the nineteenth century scholarly view of Greek and Roman religion into his history of Japanese religion. In particular, he was heavily influenced by the evolutionist thought of Fustel de Coulanges, which explained ancient religion as an outgrowth of ancestor cult, until it was fractured by Christianity. Right from the beginning, the relationship between Greek and Japanese culture is raised:

Some of us, at least, have often wished that it were possible to live for a season in the beautiful vanished world of Greek culture. Inspired by our first acquaintance with the charm of Greek art and thought, this wish comes to us even before we are capable of imagining the true conditions of the antique civilization. If the wish could be realized, we should certainly find it impossible to accommodate ourselves to those conditions,–not so much because of the difficulty of learning the environment, as because of the much greater difficulty of feeling just as people used to feel some thirty centuries ago. In spite of all that has been done for Greek studies since the Renaissance, we are still unable to understand many aspects of the old Greek life … We could no more mingle with the old Greek life, if it were resurrected for us,–no more become a part of it,–than we could change our mental identities. But how much would we not give for the delight of beholding it,–for the joy of attending one festival in Corinth, or of witnessing the Pan-Hellenic games? . . .

And yet, to witness the revival of some perished Greek civilization,–to walk about the very Crotona of Pythagoras,–to wander through the Syracuse of Theocritus,–were not any more of a privilege than is the opportunity actually afforded us to study Japanese life. Indeed, from the evolutional point of view, It were less of a privilege,–since Japan offers us the living spectacle of conditions older, and psychologically much farther away from us, than those of any Greek period with which art and literature have made us closely acquainted.

The reader scarcely needs to be reminded that a civilization less evolved than our own, and intellectually remote from us, is not on that account to be regarded as necessarily inferior in all respects. Hellenic civilization at its best represented an early stage of sociological evolution; yet the arts which it developed still furnish our supreme and unapproachable ideals of beauty. So, too, this much more archaic civilization of Old Japan attained an average of æsthetic and moral culture well worthy of our wonder and praise. (pp. 15-17)


Despite the marking of difference here, Hearn’s strategy throughout the work depends on the implied parallel between Greek (and sometimes Roman) culture and Japanese religious life. In parallel with the theories of Fustel de Coulanges, he sees Japanese religion as the gradual development from a primitive ancestor cult to an organized system of deities to a breakdown in the face of outside influences.  For example, the Roman di manes and the ancestral spirits of Japanese families are strictly parallel – even Cicero speaks with the same voice as Hirata:

The ghosts of the departed were thought of as constant presences, needing propitiation, and able in some way to share the pleasures and the pains of the living. They required food and drink and light; and in return for these; they could confer benefits. Their bodies had melted into earth; but their spirit-power still lingered in the upper world, thrilled its substance, moved in its winds and waters. By death they had acquired mysterious force;–they had become “superior ones,” Kami, gods.

That is to say, gods in the oldest Greek and Roman sense. Be it observed that there were no moral distinctions, East or West, in this deification. “All the dead become gods,” wrote the great Shintô commentator, Hirata. So likewise, in the thought of the early Greeks and even of the late Romans, all the dead became gods. M. de Coulanges observes, in La Cité Antique: “This kind of apotheosis was not the privilege of the great alone. no distinction was made. . . . It was not even necessary to have been a virtuous man: the wicked man became a god as well as the good man,–only that in this after-existence, he retained the evil inclinations of his former life.” The Latins called the maleficent ghosts of the dead, Larvae, and called the beneficent or harmless ghosts, Lares, or Manes, or Genii, according to Apuleius. But all alike were gods,–dii-manes; and Cicero admonished his readers to render to all dii-manes the rightful worship: “They are men,” he declared, “who have departed from this life;-consider them divine beings. . . .” (pp. 27-28)


So too, Japanese communal cult could be compared to Greek religion. Hearn suggests that a Shinto procession recalls Dionysiac worship and the young male dancers recall the fauns of Greek vase painting:

Before the procession a band of young men advance, leaping and wildly dancing in circles: these young men clear the way; and it is unsafe to pass near them, for they whirl about as if moved by frenzy. . . . When I first saw such a band of dancers, I could imagine myself watching some old Dionysiac revel;–their furious gyrations certainly realized Greek accounts of the antique sacred frenzy. There were, indeed, no Greek heads; but the bronzed lithe figures, naked save for loin-cloth and sandals, and most sculpturesquely muscled, might well have inspired some vase-design of dancing fauns. After these god-possessed dancers–whose passage swept the streets clear, scattering the crowd to right and left–came the virgin priestess, white-robed and veiled, riding upon a horse, and followed by several mounted priests in white garments and high black caps of ceremony. (p. 103)

I could go on – there’s much more material like this in the book. Even the arrival of Jesuits in the sixteenth century – a disaster from the perspective of Hearn – prompts a comparison with the situation of the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries AD facing a new missionary religion.


I must admit, I find Hearn’s writing incredibly engaging and the book is fascinating in its own right. But more than this, Hearn’s Japan is provocative for a Classicist. On one level, this is an interesting case of ‘classical reception’, where we can see how modern ideas of antiquity are shaped not just by the general culture of the Classical that was embedded in European education, but by specific historical works and theories. In this case, Fustel de Coulanges’ rather tendentious ideas about Greek and Roman culture – itself bound up with a particularly French conservative outlook (particularly his concern for the origin of private property) – became a matrix for ‘interpretation’ of Japanese religion. Clearly, today, it is difficult to accept Fustel’s view of Greek and Roman religion, which systematically downplays individual experience and cultural diversity, and Hearn’s use of this model reads as hopelessly outdated (for example, his ideas about an Aryan pre-Homeric religion that matches early Shinto cult are now simply falsifiable). Still, it is a neat index of the circulation of classical scholarship into the mainstream culture of letters.


But going further, it is striking how Hearn’s writing evokes a longue durée of interpretatio graeca/romana – the description of other religions in terms of Greek or Roman religious practices. Like Herodotus, Caesar and Tacitus before him, Hearn ‘makes sense’ of another religion in familiar terms. As modern readers of the ancient ethnographic writers have emphasized, this interpretatio was never a neutral practice, but was entangled with the politics of cultural interaction and, especially in the Roman case, imperial expansion. So too, the heritage of this practice has been traced for the New World by McCormack and Lupher, who show how European ideas about classical antiquity shaped perceptions of central and south American indigenous cultures and the formation of colonial societies. What is striking about Hearn’s project, then, is both its late-ness and how the interpretatio graeca/romana is not deployed in the service of conquest, but to make the case for Japanese superiority. In the final pages of the book, Hearn calls on the Japanese to resist Russian imperialism and Anglo-American capitalism. In other words, he suggests that they not follow the West down the path of evolution traced by Fustel de Coulanges.


(note: I made some edits to the last paragraphs after posting, for the sake of clarity)


Lafcadio Hearn and Koizumi Setsu (I’m fascinated by the column in this picture – Classical or Japanese? Or both?)

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