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Magazine Articles > Books > Features > LAFCADIO HEARN


Heather Hale looks at the life of the noted writer

"One's feelings towards Japan tend to vary like the oscillations of a pendulum: one day swinging towards pessimism, and the next to optimism." Lafcadio Hearn, renowned on both sides of the Pacific as one of the greatest interpreters between East and West, reeled between admiration and repulsion for his adopted country of Japan. Patricio Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn was a naturalized Japanese professor and author who wrote under the name of Koizumi Yakumo ('Koizumi' taken from his samurai wife). Most of Hearn's readers wrongly assume that he was the creator, or at least the translator, of the many stories he published. Actually, he only adapted and rewrote stories he heard from others. Lacking any real knowledge of the written language, he had to have the stories first translated before he could even begin to write.

The publisher's foreword to most of his books reads: "His flight from Western materialism took him to Japan in 1890. His search for beauty and tranquility, for pleasing customs and lasting values, kept him there the rest of his life, a confirmed Japanophile." Hearn was not necessarily searching for beauty; quite the contrary, he was devoted to the 'worship of the odd, the queer, the strange, the exotic, the monstrous.' And as for the lasting values that kept him in Japan: he wrote to a friend, towards the end of his life and at the peak of his disillusionment with Japan "I hate and detest the Japanese... I fear the missionaries are right who declare them without honour, without gratitude, and without brains."

How can a man who wrote the above also have spent the major part of his literary career idealizing and sentimentalizing Japan and her people? The same man who far from being an unbiased reporter of Japan to the Western world was rather the champion of Japan against the Occident. How can Lafcadio Hearn's pendulum have swung to such extremes?

Lafcadio Hearn, was born on the Ionian Island of Lefkas, Greece to a British army surgeon and a Greek woman. They separated when he was six, sending him to live with his aunt in Ireland. His aunt sent him to study at St. Guthbert's College in England where he lost his left eye in an accident. He had severe myopia which caused such abnormal enlargement of his right eye that he appeared deformed. His eyesight, and consequent appearance, is often cited for his affinity for subjects outside the mainstream of human experience and as a reason for his reclusive nature.

Philosophically, morally, and aesthetically, no less nationally, he was a hybrid. His life was restless: fragmentary, and episodic. His work, too, is scattered: at times tiresome for the redundancy of subject matter or the relentless attention to tedious detail; flowery, and self-consciously stylistic. And yet, at times, his work borders on perfection.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, to whom he is most often compared, he is capable of sending a cold shudder down your spine as you read. He makes tragedy soft and gentle, suffering beautiful and memorable, the common rare. He makes suicide noble and portrays love as painful and hopeless.

In 1869 he was sent to live with a relative in Cincinnati. Though the beginning of his journalistic career in America was hampered by poverty and a scandalous, illegal marriage to a black woman, Hearn gained literary acclaim for his sketches of Creole life in New Orleans. Primarily for Harper's Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly, he wrote short stories, novellas, sketches, essays, critiques, and fantasies based on the folklore of the Africans, Chinese, Creoles, Hindus, and Japanese. He was a perceptive and unorthodox critic, a leading American prose impressionist, a remarkably well-travelled and well-read journalist, and a translator of both French and Spanish works. He wrote under various pseudonyms including Fiat Lux and Ozias Midwinter.

Arriving in Japan in 1890, Hearn taught English first at a middle school in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture. He married Koizumi Setsuko before moving to teach at a college in Kumamoto. There he wrote his first book on Japan, Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan. He became a Japanese citizen and worked for a short time for Kobe's English-language newspaper, the Kobe Chronicle. His friendship with Basil Hall Chamberlain, the famous Japanologist, led to a job teaching English literature at the prestigious Tokyo University which he held until shortly before his death.

In Japan he covered everything from cicadas and fireflies; to the ghostly and distorted faces on the backs of Heike crabs which are said to be the drowned and slaughtered warriors of the Heike clan ; to the theories behind organic memory and how they relate to modern science and Spencerian philosophy; religious rituals and their roots; meanings of Japanese female names; and the differences in hero/pity perspectives of Western & Eastern culture. Lafcadio Hearn's footnotes and appendices alone could make a Japanese cultural and linguistic anthology.

Though Hearn is justly accused of misrepresenting and sentimentalizing various aspects of Eastern culture, he has provided a legacy of service by familiarizing Western readers with the people and traditions of the Orient.

Japan is often said to be a land of contradictions. Hearn, during the majority of his life in Japan, ignored those contradictions and saw only the charming, the queer, the fascinating, and the universal. He portrayed the Japanese as being infinitely compounded of all of the finest of virtues while all of the ugly human failings and weaknesses were unique characteristics of Western culture. In defending the Japanese, he incessantly criticized his own race. If Japan had a fault, it undeniably acquired that fault from exposure to foreign elements specifically the West.

†For most of his time in Japan Hearn idealized the people of Japan and its culture in precisely the terms in which the Japanese themselves like to think they excel. In his later years, however, he became disillusioned, finding the Japanese too ready to accept modernization at the expense of the things he loved. His works were extremely popular, especially in the United States, in the time up to the Pacific War. Today with many of his works out of print is it not time for a revival? What lover of things Japanese is not disillusioned by the rapid pace of the destruction of traditional Japanese beauty?


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