Lafcadio Hearn: The Writer who Merged Greek and Japanese Cultures



Lafcadio Hearn, a unique figure in international literature, began his life in Greece and spent the rest of his career becoming a citizen of the world, a bridge between East and West, and a devotee of both Greek and Japanese culture.

He believed that Greek and Japanese culture had common features in their paganism and animism, and he visualized Greece as Utopia, historian Kathy Warnes writes.

Also known by the Japanese name “Koizumi Yakumo”, his books about the land of the rising sun, especially his collections of Japanese legends and ghost stories, have made him an inseparable part of the Japanese literary world.

In the United States, Hearn is also known for his writings about the city of New Orleans, based on his ten-year stay there.

But Lafcadio Hearn was neither Japanese nor American. He was born on June 27, 1850 on the Greek island of Lefkada in the Ionian Sea, he took his name from that very island. His father was an Anglo-Irish surgeon major in the British army, Charles Bush Hearn, and his mother was a Greek woman of noble lineage, Rosa Antoniou Kassimati.

Lafcadio was baptized Patricio Lefcadio Hearn in the Greek Orthodox Church, but he never used his first name.

When his father was transferred to the West Indies, Lafcadio, who was then six, moved to Dublin with his mother to live with his father’s family.

However, his mother was not accepted by her husband’s family, and soon the couple divorced, leaving Lafcadio to be brought up by a great-aunt in Dublin.

Rosa Kassimatis returned to Greece and never saw her children again. Young Hearn was injured in a playground accident at the age of 16, suffering loss of vision in his left eye (his subsequent pictures hide his left profile). Soon after his accident, his father died.

At the age of nineteen, Hearn moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. By the strength of his talent as a writer, he soon obtained a job as a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, working for the newspaper from 1872 to 1875.

Statue of Lafcadio Hearn in Lefkada

Hearn soon became known for his accounts of local murders, developing a reputation as the paper’s premiere sensational journalist, as well as the author of sensitive accounts of some of the disadvantaged people of Cincinnati.

The Library of America selected one of these murder accounts, “Gibbeted,” for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of “American True Crime,” which was published in 2008.

During the autumn of 1877, Hearn left Cincinnati for New Orleans, Louisiana, where he initially wrote dispatches on his discoveries in the “Gateway to the Tropics” for the Cincinnati Commercial.

He lived in New Orleans for nearly a decade, writing first for the newspaper the Daily City Item and later for the Times Democrat.

His writings for Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine helped create the popular reputation of New Orleans as a place with a distinct culture more akin to that of Europe and the Caribbean than to the rest of North America.

In 1890, Hearn traveled to Japan to work as a newspaper correspondent. Although this job did not work out, Hearn had found a place where he would spend the rest of his life and expand his inspiration as a writer.

Hearn was soon befriended by Basil Hall Chamberlain of Tokyo Imperial University, and officials at the Japanese Ministry of Education. At their encouragement, in the summer of 1890 he moved to the city of Matsue to teach English.

Hearn married Setsu Koizumi, the daughter of a local samurai family and embraced Buddhism. He became a Japanese national and changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo.

In December 1896, the Imperial University of Tokyo offered him the job of Professor of English Language and Literature. In 1904, he became a professor at Waseda University.

Lafcadio Hearn influenced the establishment of diplomatic relations between Greece and Japan in 1899.

Although he never again saw his mother after 1854, he continued to feel love for her and he took great pride in his Greek identity.

On Sept. 26, 1904, Hearn died of heart failure at the age of 54. He is buried at the Zoshigava Cemetery in Toshima, Tokyo.

A park in his memory was created in 1993 near the place where he died. The park includes a statue donated by the Greek government and several columns reminiscent of ancient Greek temples.

The Tokyo park dedicated to Lafcadio Hearn. Courtesy of GreeceJapan.com

Hearn’s legacy continues in his writing, and in plays and exhibitions featuring his work. The Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum and his house are still popular tourist attractions in Matsue, Japan.

A museum also opened in 2014 in his birthplace, Lefkada, Greece. The Historical Center of Lafcadio Hearn was the first European museum devoted to the man who is considered the national poet of Japan.

Hearn’s most famous work is a collection of lectures entitled “Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation” (1904). His other books on Japan include “Exotics and Retrospectives” (1898), “In Ghostly Japan” (1899), “Shadowings” (1900), “A Japanese Miscellany” (1901), and “Kwaidan” (1904).