Patrick Lafcadio Hearn: An Irishman in Japan

The Embassy of Ireland in Tokyo promotes the achievement of Lafcadio Hearn as one of the most important historical connections between Ireland and Japan. A special library devoted to books by and about Hearn was opened at the Embassy in 1987.  The Embassy is also closely involved with many Hearn –related e events in Japan including links with Matsue  in Shimane Prefecture and Kumamoto in Kyushu, where Hearn lived. 

Lafcadio Hearn is one of the most famous foreigners ever to have lived in Japan.

He was born in 1850 on the island of Lefkas, Greece (hence his name), the son of an Irish father who was a surgeon in the British army stationed on the island, and of a Greek mother. When a very young child, he was brought to Dublin and raised by an aunt at houses in Leinster Square and Upper Leeson Street. Later he attended school in Durham, England and at the age of 19 emigrated to the United States. There, in Cincinnati and New Orleans, he became a journalist, a translator and a writer with a taste for the exotic and the macabre. 

In 1890, when he was almost forty, he travelled to Japan on a temporary assignment for Harpers magazine.

His arrival at Yokohama on 4th April 1890 was very much a part of the wider influx of westerners into Japan at that time as a result of the opening of Japan to the west following the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor in 1868. 

Irish people, sometimes within the framework of Britain’s exchanges with Japan and some-times those of the United States, were inevitably involved in the process of “westernization” following the Meiji restoration. Prior to 1868 there is no evidence of significant Irish involvement in Japan. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, foreigners (with limited exceptions) were excluded from Japan.

Lafcadio Hearn spent the remaining 14 years of his life in Japan; married a Japanese woman; took out Japanese citizenship under the name Koizumi Yakumo and, from a relatively humble position as schoolmaster in Matsue in western Japan, he became Professor of English Literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo.

Hearn is largely remembered today because he wrote twelve books on Japan, many of which are still in print. The first and perhaps the most famous, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, was published in 1894. It combined travel sketches of his life in western Japan with studies of its culture and religion in the early 1890s. His last book, Japan An Attempt at Interpretation, was published posthumously in 1905. This was a historical analysis of the transformation of Japan from a feudal society to the rapidly-modernizing country in which Hearn actually lived. As in all Hearn’s books, a note of regret is persistently sounded: regret for the loss of the customs and practices of “Old Japan”, the Japan which Hearn felt was being undermined by the processes of modernization during the Meiji period. 

It is perhaps as a result of Hearn’s sympathy and understanding for this “Old Japan” that his work is still so widely admired. Certainly, his contribution to Western knowledge of Japan and Japanese culture has been very significant. 

While interest in Hearn’s work waned during the Second World War, interest resurfaced in the early 1960’s with the publication of new biographies and critical studies. A new revival has taken place since 1990 which marked the centenary of his arrival in Japan. Many new studies of his life and work have been published in the past ten years in both English and Japanese. These have included books about his Irish background, a relatively new area of Hearn scholarship.

 

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Tags: Asia, Japan, St. Patrick's Day

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