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Sunday
Oct192008

Yuki-onna

Interpreting legends or literature – which are, in a way, modern myths – of nations one has only read about but not seen in person is a dangerous task for the uninitiated.  These pages have been devoted to the mostly European traditions on which I was raised and which continue, for better or worse, to comprise my view on the whole planet.  Yet how can one presume to judge the earth entire from life in so few places (perhaps not that few; but I have lived in or visited about three dozen lands)?  What truths about Bihar or Benin can one hope to extrapolate from London?  What can Copenhagen or New York, two of our most beautiful cities for completely different reasons, show us about life in Kuala Lampur?  In our increasingly globalized world many of these differences are being eradicated through the spread of technology and the triumph of governments staffed by elected officials (not quite the democracy the Greeks had in mind, but something of the sort).  As a result metropolises have begun to blur.  I can walk through the streets of a large Latin American city and see much of the Cairo of my childhood; returning to Boston brings me tastes of Prague, perhaps in part owing to my having studied in Prague when I was still living in Boston.  What many of us brought up on the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and monotheism have come to expect from countries in which such terminology is not part of their histories is strangeness, an alienation that we then haplessly promote as greatness without understanding one tile of its enchanted mosaic.  About thirty years ago, this scholar published one of the more famous treatises on the obsession with the otherness of the East.  Among many piquant observations was Europe's and America's shared supposition that being unhappy in one's inherited tradition can be remedied by embracing a very different set of codes and customs.  Given his heritage, Said was referring to what we have come to call the Middle East – the birthplace, as it were, of the values promoted in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and monotheism.  But what he mentions less are the alien landscapes of the Far East, countries that have thrived for thousands of years with minimal interference from enterprising Europeans, and which are expected to have other means for going about the conflicts and lessons of an average day.  Which brings us to this well-known short story from Japan.

Perhaps it will disappoint the reader to learn that the translation of the story is "snow-woman"; that its most famous English version is allegedly plagued by historical inaccuracies may be even more off-putting.  The tale, contained in this fine collection, has a plot that will sound familiar to all ears.  Minokichi, a young man of eighteen, and Mosaku, an older man and Minokichi's mentor in the humble trade of woodcutting, are bound to travel every day on foot over dangerous terrain, "a forest situated about five miles from their village."  One day, of course, their routine is broken.  They arrive at the bridge on the river whose current "no common bridge can resist" and find their boatman has left and stranded his boat on the other side.  As "it was no day for swimming," they take shelter in a two-mat hut about six feet square.  They fall asleep and reality and fate merge into a coherent unit.  Snow begins to drift into the cabin as sleep covers their eyes, and while Mosaku dreams about the long life he has already experienced, Minokichi's mind is alert with the fears of a youthful imagination.  In time he feels snow on his face and opens his eyes to behold a beautiful "woman in white."  This woman, as white as the snow sprinkled over the two men, blows her breath over Mosaku then turns to Minokichi to do the same.  At the last moment she refrains, and gives him her reasons:

I intended to treat you like the other man.  But I cannot help feeling some pity for you – because you are so young .... You are a pretty boy, Minokichi; and I will not hurt you now.  But, if you ever tell anybody – even your own mother – about what you have seen this night, I shall know it; and then I will kill you .... Remember what I say!

I would be the last person to promote readings that equate sixteenth-century Japanese legends with the works of the Brothers Grimm and their contemporaries, but the famed otherness of the East is not evident here.  The story progresses and Minokichi awakes the next morning wondering whether it hadn't all been a dream.  His fears are confirmed, however, when Mosaku is found dead, an event that he obliterates from his memory until the tale's fateful dénouement.

The translator of Yuki-onna and many other classic ghost stories is this renowned Nipponophile, born in Greece but raised in an English household.  Research will tell you that Hearn likely conflated Yuki-onna with Yuki-joro, a "snow-harlot" with far more vengeful ends in mind.  I suspect we should not fault Hearn for making the rather banal Yuki-onna a more glamorous fit in his collection, yet we know that translators who tend to exaggerate will not resist to repeat their hidden crimes.  Moreover, the fact that Hearn is still read and enjoyed might be as much a testament to his insight into the culture he adored as an indication of the difficulty of transposing Japanese sense and sensibility into good English.  In an age when video games and bizarre horror movies are how we picture the developing culture of one of the world's most ancient traditions, a reminder of its other contributions is always welcome.  Perhaps just not too late at night.

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