Japan Yesterday Lafcadio Hearn
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Lafcadio Hearn becomes Koizumi Yakumo in 1890s Japan

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By Patrick Parr

If you ask your Japanese friend about writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), they might pause for a moment and say, “Who?” But after telling them a few details — that’d he’d traveled to Yokohama in April 1890 and spent the next 14 years writing ghost stories and folk tales (such as Kwaidan), and introducing Japanese culture to a generation of American readers before passing away in 1904 — they would most likely make the connection. “Ah, you mean Koizumi Yakumo (小泉 八雲).”

Yes, to anyone discussing the life of this “wandering ghost,” as Jonathan Cott’s 1990 biography referred to him, there seems to be a cultural division to his soul. Besides his immense place in Japanese culture, there are some who claim him as Greek — since he was born on the island of Lefkada — while others argue that his hardscrabble, parentless years growing up in Ireland made him who he was: his father abandoned him at an early age and his mother later left him to be raised by his great aunt.

Then there is the question of his left eye, which suffered irreparable damage during a game of rope when he was 16 (the knotted part of the rope damaged his retina). The scar tissue covered his now blind eye with a white film. He would forever hide his injury from photographers, much the same way bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi hid his disfigured left hand. Had this never been an issue, would the wandering ghost have felt more connected to the world he floated through?

Perhaps, but life cannot pause. When he was 19-years-old, Hearn, with little to no money in his name, hopped onto a boat and moved to the United States, which in 1869 was a country still licking its wounds from a vicious Civil War that had left millions dead and a nation still culturally divided. Eventually, after surviving bouts of ghastly poverty — in an 1893 letter to friend and Japan expert Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850–1935), he admitted he “slept in the street, etc., worked as a servant, waiter, printer, proof-reader [and] hack-writer” — he was given a crack at a Cincinnati newspaper. Soon, his writing abilities began to provide him a way to have a career, but just as soon as he’d found a place in Cincinnati did he choose in 1874 to marry 21-year-old Black woman Alethea Foley, a controversial act at the time, due to interracial marriage laws. Though she eventually left him in 1877 due to, as the New York Times put it, his “morose and moody temperament,” they never formally divorced.

Soon after, Hearn moved to New Orleans, where he became (and remains) somewhat of a local literary legend. It was only after reading Basil Hall Chamberlain’s 1882 translation of Kojiki, a collection of ancient Japanese myths, that Hearn began to consider traveling to this mystical land of the rising sun. With Harper’s magazine funding his trip, Hearn, almost 40, left the United States behind for good.

By the time Hearn’s ship had docked in Yokohama on April 4, 1890, he could be called a Greek-Irish-American who’d thought himself a pantheist as early as 15: “I remember…lying on my back in the grass,” he once wrote about his younger years, “gazing into the summer blue above me, and wishing I could melt into it, become a part of it…And my imaginings…led me not only to want the sky for a playground, but also to become the sky!”

The romantic who regularly reinvented himself was about to transform yet again.

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Quotes from Lafcadio Hearn's "A Winter Journey to Japan" in Harper's Magazine, 1890. Photo: Japan Today

5 months of awe and poverty

Hearn’s first impressions of Japan have been published in magazines and in the 1894 book, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, his breathtaking emotive prose carefully edited and prepared for the general reading public. But a more honest reaction to his first months in the country rests in primary sources, specifically his 1890 letters to good friend Elizabeth Bisland.

In the following passage, written most likely a month or so after his arrival, Hearn is writing from his heart, and without the belief that his words would one day be published (Bisland would later publish Hearn’s letters two years after his death, in 1906):

“I feel indescribably towards Japan…and the trees seem to know what people say about them — seem to have little human souls. What I love in Japan is the Japanese — the poor simple humanity of the country. It is divine. There is nothing in this world approaching the naïve natural charm of them. No book ever written has reflected it…I think there is more art in a print by Hokusai or those who came after him than in a $10,000 painting — no, a $100,000 painting. We are the barbarians! I do not merely think these things; I am sure of them as of death. I only wish I could be reincarnated in some little Japanese baby, so that I could see and feel the world as beautifully as a Japanese brain does.”

Hearn had spent nearly all of his life on the move, a cultural nomad, even spending several years in the late 1880’s on the Caribbean island of Martinique, but in Japan he had found what he’d never believed was possible — a home for his floating spirit. In some ways, America had broken him, and there had even been a moment when he stood on the roof of a building in Cincinnati and was pulled back from jumping to his death. In Japan, the culture gave him reasons to live.

But one cannot survive on passion alone. Hearn needed money badly, so once again he wrote to Bisland, hoping she could find him “some newspaper” or a “publishing firm, able to give me steady employ.” He was “starved out,” after finishing his obligations to Harper’s, but “I shall get along somehow.” Harper’s had been paying him a paltry salary, and Hearn had become “so very tired of being hard-pushed, and ignored, and starved…”

Hearn wasn’t entirely helpless. Ever since arriving in Yokohama, he had been corresponding with Chamberlain, who’d arrived in Japan in 1873 — after suffering from an illness in London — and responded courteously to many expats arriving in Japan for the first time. Chamberlain had already expressed admiration for Hearn’s 1887 short book, Some Chinese Ghosts, and was able to help Hearn gain employment at a middle school in Matsue.

Marriage

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Lafcadio Hearn with his wife Setsuko in 1904—he preferred to hide his injured left eye in pictures. Photo: Public domain

It was here, in Shimane Prefecture, where Hearn first began to absorb Japanese culture.

Starting in September 1890, Hearn taught dictation, reading, composition and conversation, a total of 12 classes. He also delivered an October speech on the “Value of the Imagination as a Factor in Education,” citing Western intellectuals such as Charles Darwin, John Lubbock and Thomas Huxley. “Japanese education,” Hearn said, according to an article by Koizumi Bon, his great-grandson, “attaches too much importance to rote memorization and does not cultivate the imagination.”

More importantly, Matsue was where Hearn met 22-year-old Setsuko Koizumi.

In January 1891, Hearn had felt miserable due to an excessively cold winter. Embittered, he wrote to Chamberlain that “I fear a few more winters of this kind will put me underground.” Fortunately, Hearn had made a local friend, Sentaro Nishida, and during Hearn’s wintry solitude, Nishida suggested a somewhat radical way of improving his quality of life — marriage.

It’s unknown if Nishida had learned about Hearn’s previous rule-breaking marriage to Foley, but after meeting Setsuko, Hearn decided to take the leap. Far different in character than William Elliot Griffis, Hearn abhorred Christianity, so there were no schismatic issues with marrying a Japanese woman.

It was the right time and situation for Hearn. “Marriage seems to me the certain destruction of all that emotion and suffering — so that one afterwards looks back at the old times with wonder. One cannot dream or desire anything more after love is transmuted into the friendship of marriage. It is like a haven from which you can see the dangerous sea-currents, running like violet bands beyond you out of sight.”

Also, Hearn had often felt a psychic disconnect with women in the United States, and in a June 1891 letter to Chamberlain, he rather brashly reveals his perplexment: “How diamond-hard the character of the American woman becomes under the idolatry of which she is the subject. In the eternal order of things, which is the highest being — the childish, confiding, sweet Japanese girl — or the superb, calculating, penetrating Occidental Circe of our more artificial society, with her enormous power for evil, and her limited capacity for good?”

Nine months after arriving in Yokohama, Hearn had married Setsuko, eventually taking her name. It was not until early 1896 that his Western name was officially changed to Yakumo, meaning “Eight clouds,” a “poetical alternative for Izumo, my beloved province,” he wrote to friend Ellwood Hendrick in September 1895.

Struggles

As the years passed, Hearn became more and more entrenched in Japanese culture and mythology. In reconsidering Percival Lowell’s The Soul of the Far East, which helped inspire him to come to Japan, now that he had become far more knowledgeable of the country, he had criticisms, and they centered around individuality.

“Much of what is called personality and individuality,” writing to Chamberlain in August 1891, “is intensely repellent, and makes the principal misery of Occidental life.”

We are the barbarians! I do not merely think these things; I am sure of them as of death. —Lafcadio Hearn, 1890

While reading Lowell’s 1891 work on Japan, Noto, which was dedicated to Chamberlain, Hearn described how coming to Japan was a cathartic moment for the self: “To escape out of Western civilization into Japanese life is like escaping from a pressure of ten atmospheres into a perfectly normal medium. I must also confess that the very absence of the Individuality essentially characteristic of the Occident is one of the charms of Japanese social life for me; here the individual does not strive to expand his own individuality at the expense of that of every one else…Here each can live as quietly in the circle of himself as upon a lot[u]s-blossom in the Go[k]uraku: the orbs of existence do not clash and squeeze each other out of shape. Now would this be also the condition of life in a perfected humanity?”

Hearn’s deep commitment to Japan did not come without consequence. Although he and Setsuko would eventually have four children and Hearn would write the very pro-Japan and influential Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, a reservoir of loneliness and insecurity pervaded his mind, as Kumamoto professor and Hearn scholar Alan Rosen argues: “The more [Hearn] saw, the less comfortable he became.” Whether teaching in Kumamoto or Kobe, at Tokyo and Waseda University, Hearn apparently never felt as welcome as he did that first year in Matsue. As Rosen’s research reveals, even Koizumi Yakumo was kept at an arm’s length by most by Japan’s educational system.

Rosen highlights one striking example of how frustrated Hearn became with his rigid teaching position. In a June 4, 1894 letter to Chamberlain that Bisland left out of her collection, Hearn, with bitter sarcasm, describes what he believes Japanese administration expects of him:

  • "Never…ask any questions concerning business."
  • "Never…ask why."
  • "Never…criticize even when requested.
  • "Never…speak either favourably or unfavourably of other officials, of students, or of employees."
  • "If obliged to speak, to remember that favourable criticism may prove much more objectionable than the other."
  • "Give no direct refusal under any circumstances, but only say 1. “It is difficult for the moment — ”; or 2. “Certainly” — but take care to forget all about it."
  • "Direct refusals are not forgiven. The other devices are respected and admired…"
  • "Do not imagine that the question of application, efficiency, or conduct in relation to students is of any official importance. The points required from the foreigner are simply 2: (1) Keep the clams in good humor. (2) Pass everybody."

Hearn had only two ways to combat these bouts of displeasure: Writing and family. His books brought him a fair amount of income not to sweat being dismissed from his university position, and his wife and four children gave him the emotional stability to appreciate the smaller things in life. Although Hearn never became entirely fluent in Japanese, he and his family found their own way to communicate.

As Setsuko remembered, she and the children often reported to Hearn on the whereabouts of a yellow butterfly, a mound of ants, frogs on hedges, early-to-bloom cherry blossoms, or how “a young bamboo-sprout raised its head from the earth.” Until the end of his life, “Matters like those had great importance in our household…” Setsuko wrote. “They were great delight for my husband. He was pleased innocently. I tried to please him with such topics with all my heart. Perhaps if any one [outside our family]  happened to witness, it would have seemed ridiculous. Frogs, ants, butterflies, bamboo-sprouts, morning-glory — they were all the best friends to my husband.”

On September 26, 1904, Setsuko was with him in his final moments at dinner. “At supper he felt sudden pain in the breast. He stopped eating; went away to his library. I followed him. For some minutes, with his hands upon his breast, he walked about the room. A sensation of vomiting occurred to him. I helped him, but no vomiting. He wanted to lie on bed. With his hands on breast, he kept very calm in bed. But, in a few minutes after, he was no more the man of this side of the world. As if feeling no pain at all, he had a little smile about his mouth.”

Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series:

Volume 3 (January 2022 – present)

Volume 2 (September 2019 – July 2021)

Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)

Patrick Parr’s second book, One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation, was released in March 2021 and is available through Amazon, Kinokuniya and Kobo. His previous book is The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, now available in paperback. He teaches at Lakeland University’s Tokyo campus.

© Japan Today

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4 Comments
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“The more [Hearn] saw, the less comfortable he became.”

Indeed. I wonder if he looked back at his previous infatuation with the country and agreed with the words of Oscar Wilde: "The whole of Japan is a pure invention."

3 ( +5 / -2 )

His "Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation", written not very long before he died, just might be the best non-fiction book ever written about Japan and its people.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

A fascinating character, and if he wasn’t quite as starry-eyed about Japan in his later years as he was as a newcomer, who is once they’ve been in a new country for a few years? His house and museum in Matsue are well worth a visit, and his books about the country, particularly Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, are well worth reading.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

His list of bullet points for working with Japan is still totally spot on.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

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