Remarkable People: Lafcadio Hearn

We live in a time of great confusions: Celebrity is commonly mistaken for talent, image has frequently displaced substance, notoriety is often equated with accomplishment, rhetoric has generally displaced wisdom, and material success seems synonymous with character. To thoughtful people, this list of errors sometimes seems almost endless, and so it is good to recollect that there have always been individuals among us who exhibit the classical virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence and whose lives, therefore, are worthy of study and emulation. This feature will offer brief descriptions of these exemplary human beings

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was born in Lefkada, one of the Greek Ionian Islands, and then moved to Dublin, Ireland at the age of two. When he was nineteen, Hearn came to the United States and worked as a reporter for a Cincinnati newspaper. In the autumn of 1877, Hearn moved to New Orleans, where he lived and wrote for nearly a decade. His publications were little-known outside Louisiana, but he was a respected investigative journalist who knew a great deal about the city and its rich, exotic, and sometimes tragic culture.

In 1887 Hearn went to the West Indies as a correspondent for “Harper’s,” and while there wrote two books about the place. However, the event that was to transform Lafcadio Hearn from an interesting man to a remarkable person occurred in 1890, when he went to Japan.

From the moment Hearn arrived, it was as if, spiritually speaking, he had “come home.” Hearn abandoned journalism and began teaching English at two Japanese Universities. He married a Japanese woman, became a naturalized Japanese citizen, and took a Japanese name – Koizumi Yakumo. Further, Hearn not only fell in love with things Japanese, but discovered that he had a gift for understanding them – a gift that was then incredibly rare in a Westerner. He began writing books about his adopted country, and several of them remain in print today, both in English and Japanese, most notably, perhaps, the terrifying “Kwaidan” (“Ghost Stories”).

In fact, the Japanese regard Hearn’s stories in “Kwaidan” as so authentic that in 1964 director Kobayashi Masaki made a film based on four of them. This movie won the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and it is altogether capable of impressing – and frightening – contemporary audiences.

An image from the movie.

The inspiring lesson from the life of Lafcadio Hearn is that one can never know what opportunities exist for creative self-expression in this world without being open to new possibilities – especially those one encounters in the course of traveling in foreign lands.

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did now know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” Italo Calvino

Below – Koizumi Yakumo:

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