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Lafcadio Hearn: The original Japanophile

TOKYO (TR) – As a light evening rain begins to gently fall, Bon Koizumi approaches a grave in Tokyo’s Zoshigaya Cemetery. With a bunch of colorful flowers and a wooden pail filled with water in place nearby, he picks up a ladle from the bucket and starts to pour water over two headstones. Stepping back, Koizumi places his hands together, bows his head and prays.

The grave is that of his great-grandfather, Lafcadio Hearn, and his wife, Setsu Koizumi. Since it is the season of Obon, the annual festival in August when Japanese believe the spirits of ancestors return to their relatives’ homes, Koizumi has come to pay his respects at the resting place of his famous forebear.

“To express a worship of ancestors is important to Japanese,” says Koizumi, 47, an associate professor at the University of Shimane Junior College in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture. “Hearn, too, appreciated this concept. I would like to do the same.”

Established as a cemetery in 1874, the 10-hectare Zoshigaya plot cuts a wedge-shaped patch of green into the urbanized sprawl just south of the Ikebukuro entertainment district. Beyond the tombstones is an elevated expressway along which trucks, buses and sedans roar past round the clock.

Bust of Hearn at Koizumi Yakumo Memorial Park
Bust of Hearn at Koizumi Yakumo Memorial Park

Such a setting, many may think, was not what Hearn’s wife envisioned for her husband when she laid the Irish-Greek writer to rest in 1904. But the area is surprisingly tranquil, perhaps ideal for Hearn, who routinely praised the spiritual qualities of Japanese rural life. Taking in the wafting streams of incense smoke below the canopies of trees in the dying light, it’s easy to conjure up spectral, shadowy imagery—a recurring theme in Hearn’s prolific output of work.

Cemeteries are oftentimes where stories end, but in this case the tale continues. Set in a bucolic, Meiji-period Japan, Hearn’s tales of ghouls and spirits dazzled readers overseas when published more than a hundred years ago. In the years since, Japanese students have enjoyed translated versions. Hearn is the man who first interpreted Japan for the West—a legacy that his great-grandson is determined to preserve.

Having lived in Tokyo until he was 26, Koizumi now resides in Matsue, where Hearn taught English at a middle school for 15 months after his arrival in Japan. During this time, his great-grandfather appropriated the Japanese name Yakumo Koizumi and married Setsu, a samurai’s daughter with whom he later fathered three sons and a daughter.

For Hearn, Matsue represented the essence of Japan, and such eerie locales as the cemetery and castle were sublime inspirations. The town was also where Hearn, who arrived at Yokohama by ship in 1890, wrote his first book set in Japan. The two-volume “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” (1894) begins in Yokohama and captures his first impressions of an evolving nation:

The traveler who enters suddenly into a period of social change—especially change from a feudal past to a democratic present—is likely to regret the decay of things beautiful and the ugliness of things new. What of both I may yet discover in Japan I know not; but to-day, in these exotic streets, the old and the new mingle so well that one seems to set off the other.

The slightly built Koizumi, who doesn’t seem to have inherited many Western features from his great-grandfather, tries to incorporate Hearn’s works into modern society. “Of his five senses, Hearn suffered from vision problems,” Koizumi says of an eye injury Hearn experienced when he was in school. “So he often relied on other senses, especially his ears. Nowadays, kids use their eyes on video games, so through Hearn’s works I try to get them to use their other senses.”

Hearn’s 1903 book “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things” borrows characters commonly found in Japanese folklore. Yuki-Onna is a pale-white female spirit who can kill mortals with her freezing breath and transform herself into an icy mist. Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi, meanwhile, is a blind poet with a talent for the biwa (a short-necked Japanese lute) who is tricked into playing for a group of ghosts at a cemetery.

Bon Koizumi at Zoshigaya Cemetery
Bon Koizumi at Zoshigaya Cemetery

Over the past century, translations of these macabre and grotesque stories, written under Hearn’s Japanese name, have made their way into picture books and texts for schoolchildren. “Even if Japanese people don’t know his name,” says Koizumi, who believes that Hearn published 30 books, with 15 set in Japan, “they know the titles of his books.”

The picturesque town of Matsue has adopted Hearn as its favorite foreign son. Located near the Sea of Japan, the town has placed Hearn’s likeness on everything from sake to snacks. Two spots often frequented by visitors include the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, where Koizumi is an advisor, and Hearn’s former residence next-door. Speech contests in which students read Hearn’s works are held, and a Hearn study group boasts 350 members.

Such a tribute would have been unfathomable to Hearn when he trekked through Europe and America as a youth. Born to an Irish father and a Greek mother in 1850 on the Greek island of Lefkas — the source of his middle name, Lafcadio (his first name was Patrick) — Hearn spent much of his early years in England and Ireland. In 1869, he moved to Cincinnati, where he slummed with the downtrodden while working as a newspaper reporter. Upon moving to New Orleans in 1877, he lost all his money on a restaurant venture.

“His primary interest was, and always was to be, subcultures,” says Roger Pulvers, an author, playwright and theater director, who has written extensively about Hearn. “In America, he made a name for himself as a journalist of the Rue Morgue, a sensationalist. He associated with blacks and down-and-outs. He was drawn to the South because of its rich subculture in music and folklore. When the offer came to go to Japan, he was truly at the end of his luck.”

The opportunity was from Harper’s Monthly, a commission he terminated following a disagreement with the magazine soon after his arrival in Japan. When Hearn disembarked at Yokohama, the country was in the midst of modernization. After the opening of Japan to the West by the United States in 1854, American and European officials, experts and business opportunists flocked to the Far East.

Fountain at the International Library of Children’s Literature
Fountain at the International Library of Children’s Literature

Hearn, however, was different from many of the other arrivals from abroad. “Hearn was alienated from Western society and from its underpinning ideology, namely Christianity, and did not consider himself as a representative of ‘the West,'” explains Pulvers. “In other words, Hearn came to observe, absorb and learn, not to teach, preach and excoriate. Hearn was able to respond to Japanese culture from the start, for he did not need to judge it with Western culture as a superior standard.”

What’s more, Koizumi says, at 1.6 meters tall, Hearn’s diminutive stature allowed him to blend in. “He was even shorter than me,” Koizumi says. “In the US, he felt small, but here, he fit right in.”

The Japan that greeted Hearn was undergoing industrialization, government-hired foreigners reshaping it into a pseudo-Western nation with the latest in modern conveniences. Hearn’s interests, though, lay elsewhere. “Certainly the Japan that Hearn described in his stories did once exist as part of the mainstream culture,” Pulvers says. “But, by the time he arrived in Japan, that culture was a relic. In that sense, he can be seen as digging up the exotic and the forgotten.”

Hearn’s strength was, indeed, in mining the largely overlooked. He brilliantly took old fables and myths—often related to him by his wife—and modified them for his own use. Such a practice was common in the Edo period (1603–1868) and highly prized, according to Pulvers. “It is fair to say that in the Oriental tradition, retelling stories is generally considered a form of creative writing. There is a long tradition of this in Japan, for one place. Ryunosuke Akutagawa did it in modern times, as did Izumi Kyoka, and many others.”

To some degree, Hearn was probably swayed by the local press. It was common for Japanese vernacular newspapers in the late 19th century to regularly run unconfirmed accounts of ghostly sightings, apparitions and other paranormal phenomena. Published a few years ago, “Meiji Yokai Shimbun” is a collection of such stories that ran between 1872 and 1900.

Bon Koizumi at Zoshigaya Cemetery
Bon Koizumi at Zoshigaya Cemetery
Chinese tales, too, likely caught Hearn’s imagination. While Japan pursued a policy of national isolation from the 17th century, cultural borrowings from other parts of Asia never completely dried up. Saikaku Ihara, the most popular novelist of the Genroku Period (1688-1704), drew on an old translation of an old Chinese text on criminal cases for inspiration of least one of his books. The momentum picked up under the eighth shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, who relaxed restrictions for imports of books and translations from 1720. This led to huge popularization of popular works from the Ming era, such as “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and “All Men Are Brothers.”

The pseudonymous anthology “Ooka Seidan” (Famous Cases of Ooka), featuring the legendary judge Ooka Tadasuke, governor of Edo under Yoshimune, incorporated many tales extrapolated from earlier Chinese works.

The 1887 collection of six Chinese-inspired ghost yarns, “Some Chinese Ghosts,” written by Hearn while he was still in the United States, may have been part of a trend at the time.

In 1891, Hearn left Matsue for Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu, where he again worked as a teacher. After a stint at the Kobe Chronicle newspaper in Kobe, he moved to Tokyo in 1896. At Tokyo Imperial University (present-day Tokyo University), Hearn taught English literature. Just prior to his death from heart failure eight years later, he accepted a position at Waseda University.

Hearn’s legacy is still alive in Tokyo. In addition to his grave at Zoshigaya, the International Library of Children’s Literature near Ueno Park includes a fountain adorned with his profile. At the Koizumi Yakumo Memorial Park, Greek-inspired pillars, an arch and a bust of the author brighten a rather dreary neighborhood between Tokyo’s red-light district of Kabukicho and Shin Okubo Station. Just across the street is a plaque marking the site of his former home in which he died.

Near the end of his life, Hearn became frustrated at the lack of recognition in Japan for his work. Though he was widely respected in the US, it was only after his death, when Japan looked to re-endorse its ancient traditions, that Hearn was “discovered” and instated as a foreign spokesman through his books and essays.

Koizumi Yakumo Memorial Park
Koizumi Yakumo Memorial Park
“If you look at his reputation in a balanced way,” Pulvers says, “you see that Hearn achieved a good deal of recognition in his day but not in Japan. Almost no Japanese valued Hearn’s contribution during his lifetime, and he was very bitter about that.”

Koizumi believes that his great-grandfather was happiest when he lived a “simple life” in the countryside, the material wealth and big-city living of Tokyo, bereft of ghoulish inspirations, was not to his liking.

At Zoshigaya, Hearn’s tombstone describes him as a flower blooming as eight clouds and living in the house of enlightenment. For a man who saw Japan as a place in which to immerse himself, this is perhaps the most fantastical chapter of them all.

Note: This article originally appeared in the October issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.