In Search of Lost Japan - over One Hundred Years Ago, a Young Irish American Named Lafcadio Hearn Journeyed to Japan to Start a New Life and Became One of Its Literary Sons

By johannsen, kristin l. | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview

In Search of Lost Japan - over One Hundred Years Ago, a Young Irish American Named Lafcadio Hearn Journeyed to Japan to Start a New Life and Became One of Its Literary Sons


johannsen, kristin l., The World and I


His story sounds oddly familiar. An alienated young man, a failure in his own country, resolves to make a fresh start overseas. He travels to Japan and gets a job teaching English. There, he falls in love with a beautiful Japanese woman. He settles down with her, raises a family of bilingual kids, and builds a successful new career explaining Japan to the world.

What's remarkable is that it all happened over a century ago. The young man in question was the Irish-American writer Lafcadio Hearn, who arrived in Japan in 1890 and wrote a dozen well-respected books about his adopted home. He became a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo, and never set foot outside Japan again. He is still revered by many Japanese as the only foreigner ever to truly understand their culture.

I spent three years teaching at a Japanese university, and during that time, became a fan of Hearn's writing, valuing the insights it gave me. On a recent visit back to Japan, I set out to look for traces of his world.

Matsue

Many curious and beautiful things have vanished, but Old Japan survives in art, in faith, in customs and habits, in the hearts and homes of the people: it may be found everywhere by those who know how to look for it. (Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, 1897)

Hearn landed in Japan on a spring day in Yokohama, with a trunk, a valise, and an assignment to write a series of articles for Harper's magazine. By the end of that day, he knew he had found his spiritual home. In his essay "My First Day in the Orient," he cataloged the sights and sounds that enchanted him, from the massive boom of a temple bell down to the tiny multicolored wrapper on a bundle of toothpicks.

Within days, the writer had fallen out with his editor. Desperate to remain in the country, he found a job teaching English in the remote city of Matsue, on the stormy Sea of Japan coast. Traveling there, I discovered a city of moody beauty, curved around the shore of a misty tidal lake. A black samurai castle glowers down over a network of canals lined with ancient pine and willow trees. Hearn loved to climb the castle tower and savor the view across the city to Lake Shinji.

Today, Hearn's former home in Matsue is a major tourist attraction. With his bride, Setsu, the daughter of an impoverished samurai family, he lived in one wing of an old house facing the castle's moat. The house has been preserved along with its traditional garden. As I walked through the four simple rooms, a group of women visitors sat on the tatami-mat floor of his study, enjoying his essay "In a Japanese Garden." The wind rushing through the bamboo grove must have made soothing background music for writing.

Next door, a museum preserves many of his belongings. Alongside the predictable pens and manuscripts are more evocative displays: his collection of Japanese tobacco pipes, the bamboo cage that held his pet crickets, a seashell souvenir bought on an excursion. The most touching is a stack of old newspapers, with English lessons for his children written on them in strokes of a Japanese brush: "He is, she is, we are, you are good."

The only foreigner in remote Matsue, Hearn immersed himself in the Japanese way of life. With help from his wife, he collected and translated scores of traditional ghost stories. He penned affectionate descriptions of daily experiences: the quirky stone foxes in the Shinto shrine he passed on his way to school and the precise sound made by wooden sandals on a bridge ("kring-krang").

Hearn also traveled extensively around the region, visiting such sites as Izumo, still one of the largest and most sacred Shinto shrines in the country. Eight million gods are believed to congregate there every October, when they arrange (among other things) all human marriages for the coming year.

When I visited Izumo Shrine, the gods had already gone home, but it was an awesome sight nonetheless. …

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