If you don’t know much about Japanese history, the best way to start is by getting to know some of the famous historical figures of Japan, to catch a glimpse of their personal backgrounds. As an early Westerner in Japan, the prominent literary figure of Lafcadio Hearn is an interesting person to learn more about. While he only spent a handful of years in Japan (the last years of his life), he is considered to have deeply influenced Japanese literary history and is fairly well known.
In 1850, Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece (his mother was of noble Greek lineage) and named after a Greek Ionian Island – Lefkada. In English, his full name is Patrick Lafcadio Kassimati Charles Hearn.
While he was born in Greece, it was not long before Lafcadio’s destiny as a life-long traveler took him far from home. His father (Surgeon-Major Charles Bush Hearn) was from County Offaly in Ireland, and at a very young age, Lafcadio was uprooted and moved to Ireland to be with his father’s family.
This was the start of several stages of abandonment in Lafcadio’s life. His parents (their marriage being a matter of much disapproval for the Hearn family) soon became estranged and missing her native land, Lafcadio’s mother abandoned him and returned home. Lafcadio never saw her again – she was eventually committed to a mental asylum in Corfu where she died in 1882.
Part of the annulment deal was Surgeon-Major Charles’ custody of his sons, Lafcadio and James. However, when Lafcadio’s father remarried, Lafcadio was abandoned by his father and was left in the care of his aunt Sarah, who raised him from the age of seven. Lafcadio never saw his father again – he died of malaria in the Gulf of Suez in 1866.
So while Lafcadio was part of a large family, as his parents both remarried after separating and he was one of eleven siblings in total (although he never met most of them), in reality Lafcadio grew up without much of a family at all. These young experiences shaped his future in many ways and highly influenced his disassociation with a sense of belonging.
Life with his aunt Sarah was no less turbulent for the young Lafcadio. At first, he was provided with a good Christian education, but had to take a year out of school after he was injured in a school playground accident, becoming completely blind in one eye and suffering from serious myopia, an injury which caused Lafcadio to look away from the camera in all photographs taken of him.
In 1867, when Hearn was still a teenager, his aunt became bankrupt and sent him to live with her former maid in London. Lafcadio was a lost soul – he wandered the streets of London but tried to remain intellectual by visiting the British Museum and libraries as often as he could.
Aunt Sarah’s financial manager wanted to be done with the problem of the young ward Lafcadio Hearn, so in a bid to get rid of him for good, Lafcadio was given a one-way ticket to New York and was instructed to go to Cincinnati. However, on arrival Lafcadio was just as friendless and penniless as he had been in London, and once more the young man, not yet twenty years old, found himself in despair.
Lafcadio did odd jobs to get by, until after having been in America for about three years, he managed to find work as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Cincinnati. He quickly became known for his sensationalist and lurid descriptions of gruesome murders – a preview of talents to come, as in later life (in Japan) Lafcadio would become a popular writer of ghost stories. When Lafcadio married an African-American woman (which was, at the time, a violation of the anti-miscegenation laws) he lost his job at the Enquirer newspaper, but was soon hired by a rival newspaper, which flourished with his contributions. Three years later Lafcadio and his wife divorced, and he continued working in New Orleans and the French West Indies.
Having spent much of his young life as a wanderer, without a place to call home or people to call a family, it was only when Lafcadio Hearn came to Japan in 1890 that he truly found his place in the world. He journeyed to Japan on a commission, working as a newspaper correspondent, but it was not long before that contract was broken and Lafcadio was once again left to his own devices. He found a teaching job in the small town of Matsue, the place where he met Koizumi Setsu, who he would marry a year later. In 1891, Lafcadio and his new wife moved to Kumamoto, where he took up a teaching position at the Fifth Higher Middle School (now Kumamoto University.)
The Japanese way of life spoke to Lafcadio and accorded with his own values and sense of tradition. The move to Kumamoto was made for the warmer weather, and although he missed the charms of Matsue, it wasn’t long before Lafcadio had developed a deep sense of meaning for his life in Southern Japan. He felt that particularly, the traditional values of Kumamoto and the Kumamoto people were vitally important to the Japanese way of life, shown in his quote “The future of the greatness of Japan will depend on the preservation of that Kyushu or Kumamoto spirit, the love of what is plain and good and simple, and the hatred of useless luxury and extravagance in life”.
Lafcadio completely converted to the Japanese way of life, even converting from his Roman Catholic origins to being a Buddhist. Lafcadio had a traditional altar built in his family home, in front of which he would bow and clap each morning. He could often be seen wearing traditional Japanese clothes and using a jinrikisha for transportation. Lafcadio became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1896, which is when he changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo (小泉八雲).
Having spent most of his working life as a journalist, it was only once in Japan that Lafcadio’s creativity came into its own, and his writing flourished. In 1894, while, in Kumamoto, he finished his first book (Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan). Aside from studies on Japan, he also wrote many ghost stories which are still popular today. He wrote fifteen titles in his lifetime. Works such as The Stone Buddha and The Dream of a Summer Day, show a keen insight into the lives of Kumamoto people at that time. He lived in Kumamoto for three years (during which time his first son was born) and later moved to Kobe, where he once again took up work as a journalist. He died of a sudden heart attack in 1904 while living in Tokyo, where he was working at Waseda University.
While Lafcadio Hearn (or indeed, Koizumi Yakumo) may not be a familiar name to either Westerners or Japanese, he is an important historical figure of Japan and significantly helped to shape the literature of the country. As well as the legacy of his books (one of which was made into a film in 1964), there are also memorial museums to his life in Masque, Kumamoto and Yaizu, as well as the Lafcadio Hearn Gardens in Tramore, Ireland. Many of his works are free to download on Amazon Kindle – I have personally downloaded a number of his works which I am looking forward to reading (and with Halloween coming up, what better than a bunch of traditional ghost stories to put a shiver down your spine?).