Although most ghost stories are told around a dark campfire with the purpose of terrifying the listener, on Feb. 4, some 30 students gathered in the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies to hear Professor Miri Nakamura tell a few Japanese horror stories for a completely different reason.
Nakamura, Assistant Professor of Asian Language and Literatures, gave a lecture entitled “The Supernatural Writings of Ueda Akinari,” which focused on the works of Ueda Akinari, a scholar, writer, and poet who lived from 1734 to 1809 during the Edo period in Japan. Akinari’s ghost stories contain reflections of a movement in Japan that gave readers and listeners a glimpse of the past.
“Antiquity and truth becomes accessible through words exchanged with supernatural beings,” Nakumura said.
Akinari was a strong supporter of the nativist movement, which believed that the Japanese had lost their direct connection to nature because of the linguistic changes in Japan from the introduction of Chinese characters into their language.
“Nativists were trying to recover the essence of antiquity lost through linguistic reforms,” Nakumura said.
Nakamura began her talk with a discussion of Japan in the Edo period, when there was little distinction between the supernatural and the natural, just as there is in the Western world. She displayed pictures of old Japanese encyclopedias detailing supernatural creatures, as most people during this time period believed that supernatural creatures existed but could not be grasped or conceptualized by thought.
“It was definitely interesting to see the differences between a Western view of the supernatural and the Japanese view,” said Erica Chon ’13, who attended the lecture.
Nakamura explained that there are generally two interpretations of Akinari’s work: Akinari as a nativist scholar and Akinari as a ghost story writer. Many people view Akinari as a nativist scholar because of his interest in recovering the Japanese self that he believed had been lost. He is also seen as a prominent author of stories involving supernatural creatures—many scholars have studied his gothic and fantastical stories. In her lecture, Nakamura brought together these two views of Akinari by arguing that his ghost stories often reflected his nativist philosophy.
Akinari’s main work is “Tales of Moonlight and Rain,” a collection of nine short stories he published in 1776. The collection contains confrontation scenes between ghosts and real people. In these scenes, one character confesses to another that he is actually a ghost and tells the story of his death.
These climactic moments between the main characters—who are usually literary scholars—and the ghosts, provide moments of truth in which one can access the past that the nativists believed had been lost. This lost antiquity becomes accessible through the words exchanged between the ghost and the literary scholar.
Nakamura also talked about Akinari’s strong beliefs in the power of fictional tales. Akinari’s contemporaries often mocked him for writing fiction, but he believed that it was the best way to reclaim a past in which words had greater meanings.
Nakamura ended her lecture by connecting Akinari’s ideas to clips from Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi’s film “Ugetsu” (1953), which was inspired by Akinari’s stories. The clips from the film showed that Mizoguchi was subtly critical of the time period in which the film was made, just as Akinari tried to mask his criticism for the shogunate during his lifetime.
Much of the audience at the lecture was composed of students from Nakamura’s class, “Japanese Horror Fiction and Film.” Many of her students carried with them a reading of Akinari’s ghost tales that Nakamura had advised them to read before the talk.
“I barely knew anything about the subject matter beforehand, but Nakamura was great at bridging the gap between people who are taking her horror class and complete strangers to the topic,” Chon said.
Akinari holds a special significance for Nakamura, as he is one of the main reasons that she decided to focus on studying Japanese literature. She initially studied French but then decided to pursue Japanese instead after becoming interested in Akinari’s works.
Nakamura regularly draws a crowd at her lectures, as both her students and newcomers enjoy her talks.
“The lecture provided an insightful look at the blurry line between the normal and the fantastic in Japanese culture,” said Sarah Chrystler ’13. “I had never heard of Akinari before this lecture, but his stories are very intriguing.”