I had a day off today and it wasn’t raining so I decided to visit Lafcadio Hearn’s residence just down the road from where I live. The address is 2-6 Anseimachi, Kumamoto. It is right behind Tsuruya shopping center.
I had come across Hearn’s name before while researching some other Japanese history but never knew much about him except that he loved Japan and was a teacher.
So it took me about 10 minutes walk from my apartment to get to the house. The house looks a bit out of place, but if you have a good imagination you can get a feel of the old Meiji/Taisho period. The house is Hearn’s original house but it was not originally at this location. It was relocated here in 1965. This house’s original address was at 34 Tetori Honcho which is about 600 meters away and a bit closer to the Tsuboi River.
Hearn was born in Greece on the 27th June 1850. His Irish father, Charles Hearn was the British Surgeon-Major stationed at Lefkada Island and his mother, Rosa Kassimatis, was a noble Kytheran Greek woman. Hearn had quite a sad upbringing. His father had failed to notify his superiors that he was married and that he had a son so when Charles was reassigned to the British West Indies he simply left his wife and son behind in Lefkada.
Two years later however, Hearn’s father made arrangements for his son and wife to immigrate to Ireland to be with his family. But despite the good intentions, the Hearn family in Ireland did not accept the two of them. Rosa and Patrick were sent to live with his great aunt, Sarah who was more accepting of the two of them. In 1853 Charles returned to Ireland for a short time but soon left a pregnant Rosa and Patrick for the Crimea. In 1856 Charles returned to Ireland again but this time severely wounded and mentally traumatised. When he arrived home Rosa had gone back to Greece on her own leaving Patrick in the care of Sarah. Rosa took their second son Daniel with her.
Charles petitioned for his marriage to be annulled which was granted and Rosa soon remarried but had to give up custody of Daniel, Patrick’s younger brother. He was sent to Ireland to live with his father. I don’t think the brothers even saw each other. Neither Patrick or Daniel saw their mother again who died in Greece in 1882.
Sarah became Patrick’s guardian and in 1857 when he was 7 years old, his father remarried and was sent away once again, this time to India. Daniel stayed with his step mother and Patrick with Sarah. Neither son ever saw there father again as Charles died of malaria in the Suez Gulf in 1866.
Hearn studied in France for a few years and learned to speak fluent French. It was during this time that Hearn began to use his middle name Lafcadio and not Patrick. He later returned to the UK to finish his studies and became skilled at writing. In 1869, at 19 year old, Hearn was sent to Sarah’s husbands’ family in the USA. Hearn lived rough for a few years but thanks to his strong writing ability found a job as a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer between 1872 to 1875. Hearn spent about 20 years in the USA but I’m not going to go into detail of this, let’s get to the Japan part of Hearn’s life.
Hearn arrived in Yokohama, Japan in spring of 1890 after 2 years in the French West Indies. He befriended Basil Hall Chamberlain, a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University. He was to continue working for Harper’s magazine but this position was terminated even before he started. Hearn was able to pick up a teaching job at the Shimane Prefectural Middle School in Matsue on the recommendation Basil Hall Chamberlain. Hearn quickly fell in love with Japan and the Asian culture. Hearn married Koizumi Setsuko during his stay in Matsue. His teaching contract ended in 1891 then Hearn and his wife moved to Kumamoto in Kyushu where he got a contract to teach English at the Fifth Higher Middle School, which has now become a part of Kumamoto University.
His stay in Kumamoto were very productive. Hearn had written about life in Japan since he arrived and his stories began to appear in ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ as well as some other syndicated publications in the U.S. These stories became the basis of the 2 volume ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan’ (1894) series. He also published ‘Out of the East’and ‘Kokoro’. Local Kumamoto followers believe “With Kyushu Students’, ‘The Stone Buddha’ and ‘The Dream of a Sunny Day’ are all based on life in Kumamoto and they are very proud of this. And finally while in Kumamoto his son, Kazuo was born.
But on the negative side, Hearn became disillusioned with Japan. He loved the old culture and saw how life was rapidly changing. Hearn lived during Meiji Period, just some 20 years after the huge change from the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled for some 260 odd years, to the restoration of the Emperor and rudimentary self elected government. From his writings we can see how torn he was between the old and new. The traditional values of Kumamoto and the Kumamoto people were vitally important to the Japanese way of life, shown in his quote “The future of the greatness of Japan will depend on the preservation of that Kyushu or Kumamoto spirit, the love of what is plain and good and simple, and the hatred of useless luxury and extravagance in life”. Hearn also wrote, “(Japan) is certainly going to lose all its charm, all its Japaneseness; it is going to become all industrially vulgar.”
In 1894 Hearn and his family moved to Kobe and Hearn worked once again as a writer for the English language newspaper “Kobe Chronicle”. During his stay in Kobe Hearn became a Japanese citizen and took the new name of Koizumi Yakumo. Koizumi taken from his wife’s family name. But due to the poor sight in his left eye from an injury he received back in his school days he was unable to do his job well. In 1896 he moved to Tokyo and taught English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University until 1903. In 1904 he became a professor at Waseda University, but it was not for long as he died of heart failure in late 1904.
Although Koizumi continued to write quite a lot about Japan it seems that his last years in Japan were not happy ones. Harsh winters sapped his health and frequent earthquakes spooked him. Some of his old wanderlust may have returned as he moved to new towns but he abandoned the countryside which inspired his early essays for better-paying work in the cities. It seems that the countryside he once called an “astonishing fairy-land” at last lost its magic, or at least brought him down to earth. What’s clear from his later writings is that Koizumi became more and more a reminicent of Old Japan, resigned to a vanishing world. Toward the end he acknowledged as much: “What is there, finally, to love in Japan except what is passing away?”
As well as the publications mentioned above here are a few more of Hearn’s most famous work.
Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (1904). Exotics and Retrospectives (1898), In Ghostly Japan (1899), Shadowings (1900), A Japanese Miscellany (1901), and Kwaidan (1904).
Written by Stuart Iles. Photos by Stuart Iles.