by Sandra Simpson
During a visit to Japan in November of 2015 I was honoured to hear an address by, and briefly meet, Professor Bon Koizumi, the great-grandson of Lafcadio Hearn, the acclaimed translator and likely the first Westerner to legally become a Japanese citizen.
The half-Anglo-Irish, half-Greek, American journalist Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) arrived in Japan aged 39, having become interested in the country after reporting on the New Orleans World Fair in 1884 and reading The Soul of the Far East (1888) by Percival Lowell (older brother of poet Amy, who wrote haiku and was part of the Imagist group in London along with, for a time, Ezra Pound).
In his essay Lafcadio Hearn and Haiku, Cor van den Hueval says: “Hearn was one of the first Westerners to read and appreciate haiku. Even in works he wrote before he went to Japan and discovered haiku one finds sections that reveal he already possessed, to some degree, the haiku spirit. His close awareness of nature and the world around him, combined with a love and facility for language, led him to write a number of descriptive passages that show the sensitive perceptions of a haiku poet.”
With the help of Basil Hall Chamberlain, who had been living in Japan since 1873 and was an established translator of Japanese poetry and other works, Hearn found a position as a teacher, firstly in Matsue on Japan’s west coast. Known as ‘the city of water’, Matsue these days has a population of 600,000 and is extremely proud of Hearn. Signs in Japanese and English abound, sometimes apt quotations by Hearn about a site or sometimes information about Hearn, and there is a Hearn St (Herun no michi). Professor Bon, although born in Tokyo, moved to Matsue, believing it important to be where his ancestor first came to know Japan.
Hearn originally went to Japan with a contract from the American Harper’s magazine, for which he’d worked as a freelance writer for some years. His first article, A Winter Journey to Japan, appeared in 1890, although once he was settled in Japan he cancelled his contract.
Hearn’s Japanese first name Yakumo means ‘eight clouds’ and is a poetic version of Izumo, the province which contains Matsue. Photo: Wikipedia
Hearn took the name Yakumo Koizumi after marrying a Matsue woman in 1891 – Setsu Koizumi had cared for him during an illness and during his convalescence began to tell him Japanese folk tales, including ghost stories, the sort of tales he would later translate and publish in English. Although from a good samurai family, Setsu, who was nearly 18 years Hearn’s junior, was a divorcee so knew she couldn’t marry another Japanese man. However, marriage to a foreigner, eccentric or otherwise, offered her the chance to have a family. Their first child, Professor Bon’s grandfather, was born in 1893 with Hearn becoming a Japanese citizen in 1896. The couple eventually had three sons and a daughter.
But after only 15 months in Matsue Hearn and his wife moved to Kumamoto where he again taught (they later moved to Kobe and in 1896 to Tokyo). Hearn didn’t care for Kumamoto, writing in 1892: “I don’t like the Kyüshü [Kumamoto] people – the common people. In Izumo [Matsue] all was soft, gentle, old-fashioned. Here the peasants and the lower classes drink and fight and beat their wives and make me mad to think that I wrote all the Japanese were angels.”
A pamphlet at the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Matsue records that it was the severity of the winter that drove him away from the city. Professor Bon says one of the reasons Hearn liked the Matsue area, which is Japan’s leading dairy producer, was “because he liked to eat steak”. The museum is adjacent to his original (rented) home in Matsue, which is part of a samurai house in a street of samurai houses, with the few rooms open to the public.
In 1927 Hearn’s family presented the city of Matsue with his special desk and chair – constructed so he could have his face near what he was writing or studying. Hearn was blind in one eye after a schoolyard accident in his teens (and was ever after photographed only in profile to hide that eye) and suffered from extremely poor sight in his other eye, often using magnifying glasses. The memorial museum developed from that gift, opening in 1933. The museum was originally built in a German style but in 1984 was demolished and rebuilt in the style of a traditional Japanese wooden building. In 1990 a bust of Hearn was placed by the castle moat on the other side of the street from the museum to celebrate the centenary of his arrival in Japan. Matsue is also, a sign at the museum says, home to the biggest St Patrick’s Day celebration in Japan.
When our ebullient Japanese guide in Kyoto heard we were visiting Matsue she told us about the television mini-series – Nihon no omokage (Out of the East) – that screened in 1984. Greek-American actor George Chakiris had won the hearts of all Japanese women with his portrayal of Hearn. “When he whispered, ‘Setsu, Setsu’,” she said, “we all fell in love.”
Setsu introduced Hearn to Japan’s rich folklore tradition, although he had already demonstrated his interest in other cultures and traditions and was, Professor Bon says, the first person to collect and publish a book of Creole recipes (in 1885) during his stay in New Orleans. He also wrote numerous articles about the Afro-Caribbean culture of that city.
It is known that Hearn borrowed a copy of Chamberlain’s 1882 translation of The Kojiki, one of the two primary sources for Shinto, the Japanese national religion. It starts in the realm of myth, with the creation of Japan from foam and even, as one reader puts it, the overwhelming number of Chamberlain’s footnotes can’t detract from its wonderful storytelling. According to Professor Bon, Hearn was the first foreigner allowed into the sanctuary of the Izumo-taisha shrine, one of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in Japan, which is sited southwest of Matsue on the coast.
Despite not being fluent in Japanese (he confessed in a letter in 1903 that he could not read a Japanese newspaper), Hearn is considered an insightful translator. From 1894 until his death he translated and published folklore tales in small books that included haiku, tanka, artworks and other short, and often diverse, pieces. The series of books was particularly popular in Britain and America and for many years he published more than one a year. Professor Bon notes that Hearn published 30 books (one posthumously) with Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894) reprinted 26 times. His complete works were published as 16 volumes in 1922 as The Writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn’s essay Japanese Lyrics – Haikus was published posthumously in 1915 and positioned him as a significant interpreter of Japanese culture to the West.
“Hearn is not reliable as a Japanologist; his knowledge of Japanese is said to be poor,” Professor Hirakawa Sukehiro writes in a chapter in the 1992 book Lafcadio Hearn: Japan’s Great Interpreter (eds Louis Allen and Jean Wilson, Psychology Press). “It is true that some of his letters in Japanese were published, but his son was so ashamed of the quality of his father’s Japanese that he emended them.
“It is true that Hearn could not read Japanese texts mingled with Chinese characters, but it is also true that his wife Setsuko could not speak or read English. Consequently, the communication between husband and wife was conducted exclusively in Japanese – a pidgin Japanese perhaps, but the important point to notice is that it was still in Japanese that communication was made.”
This comment from an article about a 2014 exhibition called Hearn and Family (supervised by Professor Bon), backs that up: “Setsu and Hearn called each other Papa san and Mama san, as a mark of respect and affection, and they communicated in a unique form of Japanese which they called ‘Hearn’s language’.”
In Japan his works were accessible to the few Japanese who could read English. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that Japanese translations of his works were published and became popular. Celebrated in Japan for his appreciation and understanding of ‘traditional’ Japanese culture, Hearn has been frequently depicted as ‘more Japanese than the Japanese’, according to Rie Kido Askew in her 2007 Monash University paper, The Politics of Nostalgia: museum representations of Lafcadio Hearn in Japan. Although Hearn was not the only foreign author perceived to be sympathetic to Japan, no other foreigner has been able to match his popularity and reputation. Read Ms Kido Askew’s paper here.
Revered today in Japan as the person who opened the eyes of the West to Japan’s poetry and folklore, a 2014 article by Roger Pulvers in the Japan Times notes however: “He longed to leave Japan, but illness and lack of opportunity prevented it.” Pulvers continues in relation to the Japan-Russia War (which began just before Hearn’s death in 1904): “It was then, as Hearn was being increasingly seen in the West as an apologist for the ‘Oriental upstart’ – which he most definitely was not – that the Japanese adopted their not-so-native son as a spokesman. Here it was – written in English by a foreign man – proof that the Japanese soul was more profound, more subtle and more potent in its pure spirituality than anything the materialistic West could possibly muster. They saw in him someone who had come to Japan without a hidden Western agenda, which was true. They also saw someone who loved Japan unequivocally, which was definitely not true. (Since then they have conveniently ignored his unequivocal and vigorously anti-Japanese side.)”
Whatever the truth of this, Hearn is well-known throughout Japan and his life story well known – the child rejected by both parents, raised by an Irish maid in the home of his great-aunt, home tutored and then in Catholic boarding schools but, when his great-aunt was bankrupted, forced to leave school and go to the East End of London to live with a former maid of his great-aunt’s. At 19 Hearn was given a one-way ticket to the US by his great-aunt’s dodgy ‘financial advisor’ and initially was homeless and poverty-stricken in Cincinnati (Ohio). He was taken under the wing of an English printer and became a newspaper reporter, his byline over the story of a murder trial guaranteed to increase sales. From Ohio he moved to New Orleans and the Caribbean island of Martinique before heading to Japan.
With a life story like this it’s hardly surprising Hearn was so restless. Upheaval was his “normal”. His letters reveal that he hoped to revisit America, although whether to stay is a moot point. He was also discussing taking his oldest son out of Japan for the good of his education and, it seems, because he did not look Japanese enough. But by 1903 he was unwell, had another child due to be born and his Tokyo employers were refusing to pay him what he believed he was owed.
“… I dream of old ugly things,” he wrote to a friend in the US. “I am alone in an American city; and I have only ten cents in my pocket – and to send off a letter that I must send will take three cents. That leaves me seven cents for the day’s food. Now I am not hard up by any means: I can wait another six months [without employment] in Japan without anxiety. But the horror of being without employ in an American city appalls me – because I remember.”
Professor Bon, who teaches Japanese folklore at a university junior college, heard from his grandfather that Hearn was “ready to pay all his fortune for a portrait of his mother”, the illiterate Greek woman, Rosa Cassimati. (Spare some sympathy for Rosa – her husband kept his marriage secret from his superior officers, fearing it would hold his career back. When Rosa took 2-year-old Lafcadio to Dublin to live with the Hearns they were less than welcoming to her, as a non-Catholic and foreigner.) After his parents’ divorce in 1857, Hearn never saw his mother or his father again – he was only 7 years old. His father remarried and had another family in India before dying of malaria in the Gulf of Suez in 1866; his mother remarried in Greece and had another family, dying in a mental asylum on the island of Corfu in 1882.
Five years ago Professor Bon was gifted a portrait of Rosa by a well-known Japanese artist who based his painting on descriptions of a photograph of Rosa recalled by elderly locals on the Greek island of Lefkada, Hearn’s birthplace and the origin of his birth name. (His birth name was Patrick Lafcadio Hearn but when he turned away from Catholicism he dropped his first name.)
Professor Bon is acknowledged as a leading expert on the life and work of Hearn and is honorary curator at the Matsue museum. He has visited Hearn’s former homes in New Orleans and Martinique, where Hearn was among the first to photograph the island, his photos now valuable historical records that show the largest town, Sainte-Pierre, and its people before the violent eruption of Mt Pelee in 1902. The eruption destroyed the town and killed some 30,000 people. Professor Bon was delighted – and surprised – to discover a parking lot in the island’s Fort-de-France area named “Parc Lafcadio Hearn”.
In June of 2015 he was invited to the opening of the Lafcadio Hearn Gardens in Tramore in Ireland’s county Waterford, an area where Hearn had spent his summer holidays at the estate of his great-aunt. Hearn’s 1892 essay In a Japanese Garden is a loving portrait of the garden in Matsue that wraps around three sides of his home and the descriptions have been used to develop a Japanese garden within the 2.5 acre site in Tramore. “The rising spring on the site will signify Hearn’s Japanese name, Koizumi, which means ‘little spring’, while waterfalls and ponds will reflect both the turbulent and the calm periods of Hearn’s life,” the website says. Read In a Japanese Garden by Lafcadio Hearn.
The first museum in Europe for Hearn – the Lefcadio Hearn Historical Centre – was inaugurated in his birthplace of Lefkada, Greece, on July 4, 2014. Professor Bon was also present at that ceremony.
Hearn’s 1897 tale A Living God includes a story about a village headman who saves his people from a tsunami: “The last [tsunami] occurred on the evening of June 17, 1896, when a wave nearly two hundred miles long struck the northeastern provinces of Miyagi, Iwaté, and Aomori, wrecking scores of towns and villages, ruining whole districts, and destroying nearly thirty thousand human lives,” Hearn wrote by way of introducing the natural phenomenon to his readers. It was, Professor Bon says, the first time the word ‘tsunami’ had been used in the Western world. The story has since been rewritten and used in a Japanese government textbook for children about natural disasters, and after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 the rewritten story was translated into more than 10 languages and used to increase the knowledge of youngsters about tsunami.
In his 1935 book, Father and I: Memories of Lafcadio Hearn, Hearn’s oldest son Kazuo (Professor Bon’s grandfather) writes: “Born into this world, he first learned Greek, was brought up to speak English, was taught French, Latin, and Spanish; this Hearn on his deathbed uttered, ‘ah, byoki no tame’ (Ah, on account of sickness) regretfully, resignedly, left his final utterance in Japanese – died as a Japanese. Thus did Hearn pass away.” At the time of their father’s death, Hearn’s children were aged 10, 6, 4 and one.
Hearn died of heart failure, at 7pm on September 26, 1904. He had a Buddhist funeral (Shinto and Buddhism have been intertwined in Japan for many centuries) with his coffin draped with chrysanthemums, symbolising his adopted home, and olive branches to perhaps indicate where his heart had always been, back on the sun-drenched Ionian island where he was born.
Lafcadio Hearn bibliography. Accessed November 2, 2015.
Matuse and Hearn, a Japan Times article. Accessed November 25, 2015.
Lafcadio Hearn’s New Orleans, a Guardian article. Accessed November 25, 2015.
NY Times article about Hearn and Prof. Bon. Accessed November 25, 2015.
The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, Vol 3 (Wildside Press, 2008).
Lafcadio Hearn and Haiku by Cor van den Huevel, Modern Haiku 33.2 (2002). Accessed December 23, 2015.
Editor’s note: Sandra Simpson is an award-winning haiku poet who lives in Tauranga, New Zealand. Editor of Haiku NewZ since its inception, she is also on the Katikati Haiku Pathway committee and is South Pacific editor for the Red Moon annual anthologies.