Exploring Japan’s literary museums
Follow our Associate Head of Programmes’ most recent trip to Japan

In March 2023, NCW Associate Head of Programmes Kate Griffin travelled to Japan for a literary translation workshop supported by the Tadashi Yanai Initiative for Globalising Japanese Humanities at UCLA and Waseda University.

As the workshop was hosted by the Waseda House of Literature (Haruki Murakami Library), she took the opportunity to continue her research into literary museums in Japan. Read on to follow her journey visiting several different museums, guided by friends old and new.

Waseda International House of Literature – Haruki Murakami Library

The Murakami Library opened in autumn 2021, furnished in close collaboration with Haruki Murakami himself, inspired by his literature and his love of jazz. Downstairs near the Orange Cat café (glazed doughnuts highly recommended) you’ll find the grand piano from Murakami’s jazz café, Peter Cat, and a recreation of the author’s study, complete with a vinyl collection. You can listen to his jazz collection in the audio room upstairs.

Coming in through the main entrance, you’re welcomed by a wooden staircase with bookshelves on either side, the steps serving as seats while you browse. The collection was curated by Yoshitaka Haba, my host during my last visit to Japan, and includes titles recommended by other authors and translators, including former translator in residence Motoyuki Shibata (who chose Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald) and the author Mieko Kawakami. There’s also a reading room with all of Murakami’s novels and his Japanese translations of American literature.

Upstairs, my colleague David Karashima has curated an exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Literature Repackaged for the Anglosphere and Beyond, which includes translations of Murakami’s work from the 1980s onwards, reflecting the evolution of covers and designs. Other Japanese authors in translation include Sayaka Murata, who we’re translating in the workshop, with English-language translator Ginny Tapley Takemori’s copy of Convenience Store Woman signed by the author, alongside the Danish translator Mette Holm’s annotated version. I’m also pleased to spot the Keshiki chapbook series published by Strangers Press.

The Library is not a traditional literary museum, but is a light, white space for people to use, full of spaces to work, attend events and to relax with a good book. The cocoon-like chairs for quiet reading were especially alluring to one suffering from jetlag. While we were there it was quiet, as numbers are still limited post-pandemic. There is a virtual annex on the Library’s website, with recordings of events, essays and interviews with translators, including Polly Barton on translating Aoko Matsuda, both former residents in Norwich.

Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum

One afternoon I wandered down the road from the university to the Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum. I’ve enjoyed several of Soseki’s novels, and on a previous visit travelled with the writer and translator Kyoko Yoshida to Matsuyama, where his novel Botchan is set and celebrated. This museum in Tokyo is based in the house where Soseki lived with his family in the last years of his life, originally a mix of Japanese and Western architecture, and includes a replica of his study, complete with original desk, bamboo arm rest and other writing items.


I learned intriguing snippets about Soseki’s life and work from the displays and audio guide:

  • Early life (unhappy)
  • Marriage (arranged)
  • Study (Persian carpet, rosewood table, thousands of books)
  • Writing process (one episode per day, interspersed with walks, painting, etc)
  • Food (bread and English tea for breakfast, but he ate so much jam the doctor banned it)

Soseki was sent to London in 1900 by the Japanese Ministry of Education to study English, but his lonely, stressful time in London gave him a nervous breakdown. Back in Japan Soseki began teaching in the English department of the Tokyo Imperial University but his students preferred his predecessor, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, and the poor treatment he received made Soseki mentally unstable again.

As light relief, Soseki wrote his first novel, I Am A Cat, based on the kitten that wandered into his house and became the first of the family’s many pets. The pet memorial in the garden was rebuilt in the 1950s. Every Thursday, Soseki hosted meetings of his friends and followers, offering lively discussion in free atmosphere. The writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke was one of his last pupils.

My only disappointment was that the Soseki café was closed, so I had no chance to discover what the Soseki-themed food and drink on offer might have been, though I suspect a fine spread of tea, bread and jam. I consoled myself by buying several postcards of cats.

Donkou – Café Yoshi

In Kyoto, I decided to look up my friend Yoshitaka Haba, who is opening a private library and coffee house in his home in the north of the city, in a quiet suburb near the mountains. It’s called Donkou, which means slow or quiet thinking, and is truly a temple of books, where you can disconnect and slow down.

Visitors are asked to reserve a place in advance, as Haba and his wife Fang can only host six people at a time. You leave your mobile phone and laptop with your shoes by the door, and you have 90 minutes to drink one coffee (hand roasted and hand dripped, taking Fang seven minutes per cup to prepare), read a book or simply relax and think, looking out at the cherry blossom and cedar forest below the veranda and listening to the clack of bamboo and water from the neighbouring shrine.

The library comprises 3,000 books from Haba’s collection, those that one day he’d like to reread himself. A wall of books looking out onto a wall of trees, a calm tranquil space. I could’ve stayed there all day, but I had to leave before the next visitors arrived, a team of journalists promoting the library and café’s imminent opening to the public.

As I left, I mentioned to Haba that the next day I was off to Matsue. He told me that Natsume Soseki had visited the city, along with many other Japanese writers.

Matsue – in search of Lafcadio Hearn

After Kyoto, I headed to Matsue in western Japan, with my friend, the writer and translator Kyoko Yoshida. Our plan was to visit the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum and find out more about the life of this Greek-Irish writer who settled in Japan in the late nineteenth century and wrote a large number of books about life in Japan, as well as retellings of folk tales and ghost stories. Kyoko has translated into Japanese the novel The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong, about the three women in Lafcadio Hearn’s life – his mother, first wife and second wife.

Our guide was former publisher Hada Akhihiko, now working for the tourist bureau. On the way from Izumo airport to Matsue, driving around Lake Shinji, he regaled us with snippets of Lafcadio Hearn gossip. Hearn was only 160 cm tall and had small feet. He lived in Matsue for his first year in Japan, teaching English. When he left, he travelled by boat and palanquin to Kumamoto, before moving to Kobe and finally Tokyo.

Hearn’s wife Koizumi Setsu was from Matsue but never came back to the city as it was too remote. Koizumi Setsu’s first husband had run away, so she’d lost her status and was his live-in maid when she first met Hearn. They had a good relationship, exchanging tender letters, and she was the source of many of his stories. Hearn changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo (which means Izumo, the region he loved) when he naturalised as a Japanese citizen in 1896. As he was technically British, he contacted the British Embassy to inform them of his change of citizenship, but they said they didn’t care.

Minami-kan, the ryokan we were staying in, overlooks the lake and is next to the site of the house where Lafcadio Hearn first lived when he moved to Matsue. We had a view of two bridges, one of them the oldest in Matsue, with a gentle curve like the bridges in old Japanese prints. Did Natsume Soseki come to Matsue? I asked. Our guide, Hada-san, suggested checking with the ryokan as if he did, he’d doubtless have stayed there.

The next day we visited the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. Director Koizumi Bon, Hearn’s great grandson, heard that I’m from Norwich and asked if I know the restaurant Shiki. It transpired that Shiki’s owner Shun grew up in Matsue and is an old friend of Bon. Matsue has always been a literary city: Bon told me that lots of literati visited, including Akutagawa Ryunosuke, though there is no record of Soseki ever coming to the city.

The Lafcadio Hearn museum was built 90 years ago, using donations from Hearn’s former students in Tokyo, and was renovated in 2016, with the slogan Open Mind, reflecting Hearn’s openness to cultural differences. Upstairs is a library of Hearn’s work, translated into languages ranging from Catalan to Inuit. The stairwell is full of family photos, with evocative portraits of Hearn’s wife, children and grandchildren, although Hearn himself was always sensitive about his appearance, having lost his sight in one eye as a teenager. (His desk was always high, to be closer to his eyes, and he used a magnifying glass to read.) I wondered how he’d feel about seeing his image reproduced with such pride all over 21st century Matsue.

Downstairs we perused the temporary exhibition about Hearn’s fascination with insects, including illustrations, waka and haiku poetry and folk tales related to insects. Apparently, Hearn had over 100 books about insects, and wanted to be reborn as an insect. I regretted not having time to listen to the recordings of five ghost stories from Kwaidan, Hearn’s most famous book. As a child, Hearn was raised by his great aunt, and spoke of being lonely, visited by hallucinations and seeing ghosts and spirits.

The permanent exhibition included materials Hearn used to teach English. He taught from his students’ perspective, with an emphasis on best thinking rather than best English, which no doubt contributed to his popularity. When Hearn was teaching his students dictation, he told them stories a couple of times without allowing them to write anything down, then told them to rewrite the stories in their own words, just as he had with Setsu’s stories. He home schooled his oldest son, Kazuo, using European folk tales as educational material.

I discovered that there were many parallels in the lives of Lafcadio Hearn and Natsume Soseki. Both taught at the Fifth Higher Middle School in Kumamoto and at Imperial University in Tokyo, and they are buried in same cemetery. I read that Hearn’s influence can also be seen in Soseki’s writing.

From 1896-1903, Lafcadio Hearn taught English literature at Imperial University in Tokyo. During his lectures, his notes remained on the desk while he spoke fluently using simple expressions. No wonder his students loved him, to the detriment of poor Soseki. Hearn was dismissed in 1903 and left the university despite an appeal from his students. Why was he dismissed? I asked Koizumi Bon. It turned out that foreign professors were expensive, receiving a salary of 400 yen a month, and the university wanted to offer him a local salary. He was replaced by the unfortunate Soseki, who was paid a mere 80 yen. Meanwhile, Lafcadio Hearn went off to Waseda University, where he taught until his death in 1904.

Next door to the museum, Koizumi Bon showed us Hearn’s former residence, which he describes in Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan. Sitting on tatami in this open, wooden house surrounded on three sides by a traditional Japanese garden, it was easy to see why Hearn found this tranquil space – and this beautiful city – so inspiring.

My thanks to David Karashima, Kyoko Yoshida, Yoshitaka Haba, Hada Akhihiko and Koizumi Bon for their help with my research into literary museums.

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