by David White
Anyone familiar with Japan, even if in passing, has probably heard of Lafcadio Hearn.
His fame rests on being one of the first foreigners not only to come to Japan during the Meiji era but to attempt to understand and explain Japanese culture - an enterprise that endures to this day in his prolific writing, encompassing both fiction and non-fiction.
More than this, Hearn attempted what no white man had ever tried before: to actually become Japanese.
Hearn is probably best known for his ghost stories and folk legends which borrow heavily from Japanese history, myths and legends.
Lafcadio Hearn was born in 1850 on the Greek island of Lefkas to an Irish father and Greek mother.
In 1852 he was taken to Ireland to stay with his father's family. His father then disappeared to the West Indies, never to be seen again by the young Lafcadio.
At the age of four, his mother decided to return to Greece, leaving him in Ireland with relatives, who sent him to school in the UK for four years.
Because of his aunt's burgeoning financial problems, he was forced to leave school in the UK, and left for Cincinnati in the USA through a family connection.
At times destitute, he began writing for a local newspaper, but was fired because his marriage broke state laws. (He was married to an African-American woman, a "mixed marriage.") Eventually ending up in New Orleans in 1877 following separation from his wife, he wrote for a local newspaper there.
In 1887, Hearn moved yet again, this time to the West Indies for two years to write for Harper's magazine. Through this connection he arranged to go to Japan in 1889 to write for Harper's. It was in Japan that his life's purpose appeared to be waiting.
Shortly after arriving in Japan, Hearn broke off relations with Harper's and found a teaching job in Matsue, Shimane prefecture, through the connections of Basil Hall Chamberlain, a year later marryingKoizumi Setsuko, daughter of a prominent samurai family. In 1895, he became a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo (Eight Clouds), by which he is widely known in Japan today.
The couple had three sons and a daughter, and their descendents (now grandchildren and great-grandchildren) are still very much involved in keeping the Hearn/Yakumo name and writings well-known throughout Japan and beyond.
Prior to landing in Japan, Hearn had been a prolific writer and haddeveloped an abiding interest in folklore and ghost stories while in the West Indies.
It was these themes that were to make him enduringly well-known in Japan, with Kwaidan, his collection of Japanese ghost stories and legends, in particular, making its mark amongst Japanese and those with an interest in Japan. Kwaidan was also made into a film in 1965, directed by Masaki Kobayashi.
Hearn was blind in one eye, and so many photographs show him from one side only as he didn't like his blind eye to be seen in photos. One reason he is said to have liked Japan was that he found Japanese people too polite to comment on his eye, thus he felt at ease, knowing that no direct mention would be made of it.
In 1896, Hearn took up a professorship of literature at Tokyo University, only to be forced out as the university argued that they would not pay his higher foreigner's salary after he had been naturalized.
Hearn/Koizumi resigned and was replaced by Natsume Soseki. He went on to teach at Waseda University before he died in Tokyo in 1904, aged 54.
Hearn found his true home in Japan and became known as the man to explain, through his writings, the fascination of the "exotic" East, providing accounts of a world that people in Europe and the USA could glimpse only through his writings.
Hearn's depictions of Meiji-era Japan are still well regarded today. Interestingly, though, his Japanese-language ability was apparently very limited, and he largely relied on his wife for communication.
Despite his lack of Japanese language ability, Hearn appears to have had a natural affinity for picking up the cultural nuances of Japan, largely through his deep interest in everything about his adopted land. His writings are still relied upon today as a source of accurate and wide-ranging information about Meiji-era Japan.
Hearn was disillusioned with what he saw as an increasingly materialistic Western society and saw in Japan a country that had yet to succumb to this rampant materialism.
However, in his waning years he could see that Japan was beginning to abandon its past and was rapidly adopting more materialistic ways. He became increasingly frustrated with Japan, dying an unhappy and disillusioned man.
A version of this article first appeared in Avenues: Voices of Central Japan magazine
Lafcadio Hearn's Legacy
Hearn's house and garden in Matsue, Shimane prefecture, have been preserved. Next door is the Koizumi Yakumo Memorial Museum with displays featuring Hearn's writings, and information about his life in Japan and his residence in Matsue.
Lafcadio Hearn's grave is in Zoshigaya cemetery near Ikebukuro in Tokyo. His epitaph reads:
A man of faith, an undefiled flower blooming like eight clouds, who dwells in the mansion of enlightenment.
Books by Lafcadio Hearn
Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894); Out of the East: Reveries and Studies in New Japan (1895); Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life (1896); Gleanings in Buddha-Fields: Studies of Hand and Soul in the Far East (1897); Exotics and Retrospectives (1898); Japanese Fairy Tales (1898); and sequels In Ghostly Japan (1899); Shadowings (1900); Japanese Lyrics (1900) - on haiku; A Japanese Miscellany (1901); Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, with Sundry Cobwebs (1902); Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903); Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904); The Romance of the Milky Way and other studies and stories (1905); published posthumously.