Born on the Greek Island of Lefkada in the Ionian Sea, Hearn was to be abandoned, successively, by both his parents. His Irish father, who served as a surgeon in the local British garrison where he met Hearn’s Greek mother, left mother and son in the care of relatives in Dublin and never looked back. His mother found Ireland dreary and inhospitable and returned home, leaving Hearn to spend his childhood under the guardianship of his great-aunt on his father’s side. This guardian paid for Hearn’s secondary education in England until her fortune evaporated, leaving him destitute in London. In 1869, he managed to migrate to the United States and became a journalist, initially in Cincinnati and later in New Orleans, before moving to the French West Indies in 1887, where he chronicled life in the tropics.
In 1890, Hearn moved to Japan, where he was to spend the last 14 years of his life, initially teaching English in remote Matsue, in Shimane Prefecture, and subsequently at Waseda University and the University of Tokyo. He also had stints in journalism and became an influential and popular interpreter for a Western audience of what was regarded at the time as an inscrutable culture and society. He is now best remembered for his traditional Japanese stories about supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons. Hearn died from heart failure at age 54, yet he was a prolific writer, despite poor health in his final years. His insights into turn-of-the-century Japan attest to his powers of observation and interpretation. Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan (1894) is a classic, conveying his rapturous appreciation for all things Japanese, especially traditions, customs, and ways of living unsullied by foreign accretions.
When Hearn arrived in Japan, the country was in the midst of a state-sponsored rapid modernization program that telescoped the Industrial Revolution into a few decades. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 was a response to the ebbing authority of the Tokugawa shogunate combined with the threatening arrival of US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853. The Japanese saw how the shogunate was unable to cope with this new challenge, and some key leaders cooperated to end the Tokugawa rule (1603–1868) and “restore” the emperor to power, ushering in the “Meiji era.” The Meiji oligarchs were men in a hurry, blazing a forced-march modernization under the banner of fukoku kyōhei (rich nation, strong country). In the name of the divine emperor, they introduced conscription, public education, a national currency and a banking system, and abolished status ranks, while creating modern government institutions, a legal code and constitution inspired by Western models. The state brought over foreign experts to help disseminate new technologies and get turnkey factories up and running. The elite embraced Western fashions and customs wholeheartedly. When, for example, Victorian-era visitors expressed disapproval of mixed public bathing or the prevalence of lingam stones, censorious initiatives ensued.
Hearn thus had ringside seats for a pell-mell modernization where the Japan he loved was fading with gathering speed. His love for the authentic, quaint, and exotic Japan confronted the accumulating “betrayals” of a nation casting off the past in favor of a Western-defined future he loathed and had tried to escape. Ironically, he was not immune to the nationalist fever that gripped the nation, and cheered military victories with the patriotic enthusiasm of the native-born, victories which rested on precisely what he lamented. According to his wife, he enjoyed singing “Kimigayo” (Japan’s national anthem), and followed rapturously any news from the battlefronts. For all his regrets about Japan’s adoption of Western ways, he did well by it, exchanging the precarious existence of a writer for the lucrative and relatively secure job of teaching English to the Japanese, serving as a handmaiden of the Westernization he decried.
Hearn’s writings eulogize a lost Japan, paying homage to what was disappearing in front of his eyes. His ghost stories were popular with American readers, perhaps due to the pervasive anomie sparked by the hammer blows of science on faith. With norms, values, and spiritual yearnings yielding to the relentless juggernaut of modernization, people searched for inspiration from the imagined mystical “Orient,” where the magical and the occult remained resilient. Perhaps this also explains Hearn’s current revival, as today’s readers discover something missing from their lives in Japan’s trove of wraiths and apparitions, or look for some deeper understanding of a country in the midst of a tourist boom, where the modern looms large and the star-crossed search for the nation’s soul beguiles new generations of seekers. The legions of gamers and anime and manga fans might also be drawn to tales of the supernatural that have inspired and influenced various aspects of contemporary popular culture.
Hearn’s retelling of bygone folktales relied on his wife’s prodigious research in antiquarian books, the oral tradition, and patient storytelling. He modified these often dark and macabre tales for Western audiences, making them more accessible, while retaining their spectral spirit and mystical mood. Fortunately, Hearn shelved the florid prose of his earlier, pre-Japan writing in favor of a pared-down, minimalist style suitable for these brief yet haunting fables.
His spouse, Koizumi Setsu, and others found Hearn a sulky man with a sharp temper and little patience for disagreement, falling out with many acquaintances over what seemed trivial matters, but in some cases over principles and values. She recalls, for example, living adjacent to a temple in Tokyo where Hearn became close to the abbot. After the abbot had three trees cut down, however, he demanded that no more be cut and stopped visiting him altogether. By the time they moved away, all the trees and graves were gone, destroying what used to be an oasis of tranquility. The despoilment of the verdant temple grounds by squalid tenements embodied what Hearn found unbearable about a nation in a rush to unshackle itself from the past.
Paul Murray, a former Irish diplomat, has been hooked since a 1970s posting in Japan, producing a biography of Hearn and editing volumes of his writings. His Penguin compilation, Japanese Ghost Stories, includes 34 selections, a chronology of Hearn’s peripatetic life, some intriguing background information about the sources of the stories, and a number of evocative woodblock prints. Murray’s introduction is exceptionally useful to contextualize the man and his oeuvre, tracing the powerful influence of Irish folktales and ghost stories on Hearn’s take on Japanese counterparts. He explains:
The Irish mythological tale of Tír na nÓg (Land of Youth, a name for the Celtic Otherworld), for instance, has an almost exact counterpart in the Japanese legend of Urashima Tarō, in which a mortal man is lured to an enchanted underwater kingdom to be the husband of a beautiful supernatural woman.
The Gothic themes represent the Western turn of the century’s Zeitgeist, ensuring an avid audience. Murray convincingly argues that the popularity of legends, myths, and folktales in an Ireland navigating the same riptides of modernization provided inspiration for Hearn, who “grew up in a time when the middle classes in Dublin were discovering the value of the folklore being collected in the Irish countryside, which would form a key component of the Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
Bram Stoker of Dracula fame was Hearn’s contemporary, and their youths overlapped in Dublin, where the same impersonal forces of that era’s globalization were stoking a similar backlash. Although attracted to the authentic, Hearn infused his tales with familiar themes from Western horror, including vampirism, revenge by the dead (especially by wronged women), punishment for moral transgressions, and necrophilia. The tale of Ingwa-Banashi, for example, details a dying wife’s vengeance on her husband’s 19-year-old mistress. She summoned the girl and asked her to carry her outside for one last viewing of the cherry blossoms. While doing so, just before she died, the wife
quickly slipped her thin hands down over the shoulders, under the robe, and clutched the breasts of the girl, and burst into a wicked laugh.
“I have my wish!” she cried — “I have my wish for the cherry-bloom — but not the cherry-bloom of the garden! … I could not die before I got my wish. Now I have it! — oh, what a delight!” And with these words she fell forward upon the crouching girl, and died.
The attendants at once attempted to lift the body from Yukiko’s shoulders, and to lay it upon the bed. But — strange to say! — this seemingly easy thing could not be done. The cold hands had attached themselves in some unaccountable way to the breasts of the girl — appeared to have grown into the quick flesh. Yukiko became senseless with fear and pain.
Physicians were called. They could not understand what had taken place. By no ordinary methods could the hands of the dead woman be unfastened from the body of her victim; they so clung that any effort to remove them brought blood.
At that time the most skillful physician in Yedo was a foreigner — a Dutch surgeon. It was decided to summon him. After a careful examination he said he could not understand the case, and that for the immediate relief of Yukiko there was nothing to be done except to cut the hands from the corpse. […] His advice was accepted; and the hands were amputated at the wrists. But [the hands] still clung to the breasts; and there they soon darkened and dried up — like the hands of a person long dead.
Yet this was only the beginning of the horror.
Withered and bloodless though they seemed, those hands were not dead. At intervals they would stir — stealthily, like great grey spiders. And nightly thereafter — beginning always at the Hour of the Ox — they would clutch and compress and torture.
Andrei Codrescu edits and introduces 28 Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn, a collection that overlaps — 16 tales are in both — with Murray’s larger compilation. Hailing from Transylvania, a locale firmly associated with vampires in our collective imagination, this Romanian-American poet can claim a certain cultural affinity for the ghoulish and the grotesque. Like Hearn, he has adopted different names, enjoyed a nomadic lifestyle, and made New Orleans his home.
Hearn’s chameleon qualities are considerable, writes Codrescu, morphing,
as if magically, from one person into another, from a Greek islander into a British student, from a penniless London street ragamuffin into a respected American newspaper writer, from a journalist into a novelist, and, most astonishingly, from a stateless Western man into a loyal Japanese citizen. His sheer number of guises make him a creature of legend, by far more fabulous than a frog turning into a prince.
Codrescu reminds us that at the end of the 19th century Hearn was one of the United States’s most popular writers, ranking alongside such luminaries as Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson, but his star later faded, and for a long time he was largely forgotten outside Japan and New Orleans. He has remained a legendary character in the Big Easy because he wrote about it for local newspapers and Harper’s Weekly, featuring his woodblock illustrations, and also authored a Creole cookbook and Creole phrasebook.
Codrescu ascribes this relative neglect to “the triumph of a certain futuristic modernism over the mysteries of religion, folklore, and what was once called ‘folk wisdom.’” His current comeback might thus signal a revival of such interests by those seeking something beyond digitally mediated lifestyles.
The extraordinary appeal of Hearn in his time owed much to the Buddhist religious themes explored in his canon. Regarding karma, Codrescu cites one of Hearn’s tales about a Buddhist monk Kwashin Koji who
owned a painting so detailed it flowed with life. A samurai chieftain saw it and wanted to buy it, but the monk wouldn’t sell it, so the chieftain had him followed and murdered. But when the painting was brought to the chieftain and unrolled, there was nothing on it; it was blank.
Yet, while acknowledging his gifts as a writer, Codrescu expresses reservations about the peripatetic Hearn due to his cloying tendency for “naïve, self-generated enthusiasm in all new places seen in the light of a return to paradise.” This astute observation not only encapsulates much of Hearn’s work but also hints about his disposition.
Monique Truong’s novel The Sweetest Fruits traces Hearn’s ramblings from Greece and Ireland to the United States and Japan, drafting into her damning tale a trio of resilient and inspiring women who knew all about him, including his mother and two wives — an emancipated slave, Alethea “Mattie” Foley, whom he met at a boardinghouse in Cincinnati where she cooked, and a divorced Japanese woman, Koizumi Setsu, from a declining samurai family. Truong focuses on the mostly neglected women in Hearn’s life, imagining the struggles and sorrows of his mother, and, looking at him through the eyes of his two wives, imparts searing counterpoints to the iconic Hearn.
Hearn’s marriage to Foley is an overlooked footnote in his life. This union violated miscegenation laws and cost him his reporter’s job at The Cincinnati Enquirer. After his death, Foley gave an interview about their time together to establish that they were in fact married, thus entitling her to some inheritance. But she never saw a penny as Koizumi Yakumo, the name Hearn adopted when naturalizing as a Japanese, left it all to his Japanese wife.
Truong conjures up a poignant and convincing voice for Foley, who reveals a difficult and persnickety Hearn. This Hearn drank and complained too much, but also showed great compassion for the weak and vulnerable. Truong’s Foley attributes Hearn’s querulous nature and self-pity to the lingering scars of youthful hardships: “You don’t live with the streets as your home and not leave a part of yourself there. The soft parts were what you left behind, or sold, or lost like a rotted-out tooth — in its place, a gap, a soreness, and the taste of blood.”
Koizumi Setsu helped one of Hearn’s oldest friends and champions, Elizabeth Bisland, write a glowing hagiography. Yet later she wrote her own memoirs, sprinkled with mild recriminations and regrets about her husband — an often insufferable and self-absorbed man whom she found remarkably oblivious about what was going on around him. Truong’s Setsu confides to Hearn’s ghost that she held back in these memoirs out of loyalty but is far less circumspect in venting her disappointments to his spectral presence, especially his failure to publicly acknowledge her substantive contributions to his success.
In going beyond the knowable and guiding us through the imaginable, Truong takes the measure of the man through his women in coruscating prose. As her Setsu observes, Hearn despised the imitation and affectations of Japan’s early cosmopolitans,
losing themselves to the West. You saw their redbrick buildings as affronts. You disliked the telegraph poles that marred their views. Even the steamboats and the trains that sped us from city to city you found fault in. Too loud, you complained. Too fast, you decried. Your students were dull and sullen. Your fellow teachers preferred beer and cigars to sakee and pipes or, worse, were Japanese Christians. You were insulted by the Japanese women in their Western-style dresses and hats. Those horrid heeled boots are ruining their feet, you railed. You cringed when you heard them speaking the English language. You abhorred the modern Japanese.
Despite his evident character flaws, Hearn managed to write some captivating books that eloquently preserve a vanishing world. His ghost stories can be read as a eulogy for a Japan that was losing touch with its folk wisdoms as it embraced the dystopia of a futuristic modernism he found closing in all around. One can only imagine that if Hearn pulled an Urashima Tarō and returned to contemporary Japan, he would be appalled by how far it has strayed from what he loved.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan. His most recent books are Japan (Polity, 2019) and The Politics of Religion Nationalism and Identity in Asia (Rowman& Littlefield, 2019).