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Lafcadio Hearn: The Greek National Poet of Japan

Lafcadio Hearn, known also by the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo, was an international writer best known for his presentation of Japan and its culture in the West. His books about the land of the rising sun, especially his collections of Japanese legends and ghost stories, have made him an inseparable part of the Japanese literature world. In the United States, Hearn is also known for his writings about the city of New Orleans based on his 10-year stay there.

But Lafcadio Hearn was neither Japanese nor American. He was was born on the Greek island of Lefkas in the Ionian Sea (he took his name from that very island), on June 27, 1850, to an Anglo-Irish surgeon major in the British army, Charles Bush Hearn, and to a Greek mother of noble lineage, Rosa Antoniou Kassimati.

Lafcadio was baptized Patricio Lefcadio Hearn in the Greek Orthodox Church, but he never used his first name. It is not known whether Hearn’s parents were ever legally married but the Irish Protestant relatives on his father’s side considered him to have been born out of wedlock.

When his father got transferred to the West Indies, Lafcadio (who was then six) and his mother moved to Dublin to live with his father’s family. His mother, however, was not accepted by her husband’s family, and soon the couple got a divorce, leaving Lafcadio to be brought up by a great-aunt in Dublin. Rosa Kassimatis returned to Greece and never saw her kids again. Young Hearn had a rather casual education, but in 1865 attended the Roman Catholic Ushaw College, Durham. He was injured in a playground accident at the age of 16, suffering loss of vision in his left eye (that’s why all of his pictures hide his left profile). Soon after his accident, his father died.

At the age of nineteen he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. For a time, he was impoverished and did any job he could find to make ends meet. He eventually befriended the English printer and communalist Henry Watkin. With Watkin’s help, Hearn did low-grade journalism work. By the strength of his talent as a writer, however, Hearn soon obtained a job as a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, working for the newspaper from 1872 to 1875. He soon became known for his accounts of local murders, developing a reputation as the paper’s premiere sensational journalist, as well as the author of sensitive accounts of some of the disadvantaged people of Cincinnati. The Library of America selected one of these murder accounts, “Gibbeted,” for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime, published in 2008.

During the autumn of 1877, Hearn left Cincinnati for New Orleans, Louisiana, where he initially wrote dispatches on his discoveries in the “Gateway to the Tropics” for the Cincinnati Commercial. He lived in New Orleans for nearly a decade, writing first for the newspaper Daily City Item and later for the Times Democrat. His writings for Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine helped create the popular reputation of New Orleans as a place with a distinct culture more akin to those of Europe and the Caribbean than to that of the rest of North America.

In 1890, Hearn went to Japan as a newspaper correspondent. Although the job went down the drain, Hearn found there a place where he would spend the rest of his life and expand his inspiration as a writer. Hearn was soon befriended with Basil Hall Chamberlain of Tokyo Imperial University, and officials at the Ministry of Education. At their encouragement, in the summer of 1890 he moved to Matsue, to teach English.

Hearn married Setsu Koizumi, the daughter of a local samurai family and embraced Buddhism. He became a Japanese national and changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo. In December 1896, the Imperial University of Tokyo offered him the job of Professor of English Language and Literature. In 1904, he was a professor at Waseda University. On September 26, 1904, he died of heart failure at the age of 54. His grave is at the Zōshigaya Cemetery in Toshima, Tokyo.

Hearn’s most famous work is a collection of lectures entitled Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904). His other books on Japan include Exotics and Retrospectives (1898), In Ghostly Japan (1899), Shadowings (1900), A Japanese Miscellany (1901), and Kwaidan (1904).

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