Kevin K. O’Neill tells us about the life of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, a man born in Greece, but who later lived in Ireland and the US – until he fell in love with a country that was just opening up to the world in the late 19th century. Japan.


Ninja, samurai, hara-kiri, kamikaze, all are Japanese words familiar to English speakers today. Indeed many people, especially those living on the west coast of the United States, are well aware of Japanese culture and often become ‘Japanophiles’ or people who love things Japanese. The size of this group has risen significantly over the last twenty years due in part to the rise in popularity of ‘anime’ or Japanese cartoons. Unlike their American counterparts, anime are created for all ages and tastes. Post war Japan was impoverished and anime filled the entertainment need without the expense of movie making. However, before Japan took a part of center stage in the 1930s and 1940s, little was known of Japanese culture in the English-speaking world except through the observational writings of travelers. Japan, after initial western contact in the 1600s, closed itself off from the world until, in a true case of gunboat diplomacy, Commodore Perry forced them to open trade in the 1850s.

A Japanese print showing Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Perry played a key role in opening Japan to the West in the 1850s.

A Japanese print showing Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Perry played a key role in opening Japan to the West in the 1850s.

In the late 19th century, Europe was in a tizzy over Japan, including such things as pottery (and the crumpled paper it was shipped in, due to the woodblock prints), the Gilbert and Sullivan play ‘The Mikado’ and other items reflecting Japanese aesthetic taste. While information flowed freely much of it was of little value, such as Oscar Wilde’s comment; “… Japan is a pure invention… There is no such country, there are no such people.” A few writers, such as the German Philipp von Siebold, attempted to bring day to day life in Japan to the Western world but their writings were through the eyes of scientists more interested in botany, medicine, or trade. This changed with a writer, Lafcadio Hearn, who went native and became Japan’s first naturalized English speaking foreign citizen. As an aside, the clown of hamburger fame is called Donald McDonald in Japan in deference to Ranald McDonald who taught English prior to Hearn’s arrival.


Troubled Youth

Born Patrick Lafcadio Hearn on an Ionian island in 1850 to a senior British military surgeon of Irish descent and a woman from the minor Greek nobility, Hearn was never acknowledged as legitimate by his father’s side of the family, probably due to his father’s Protestant relatives not recognizing the legitimacy of a Greek Orthodox marriage. With his father on the move due to military service Hearn was relocated to Dublin, Ireland at the age of two. Educated in Roman Catholic schools Hearn lost his faith at an early age, largely due to his parent’s marriage never being recognized and a playground incident that left him disfigured and blind in his left eye.

Portraits and photos of Hearn are of his right profile. Branded a good for nothing misfit, Hearn was sent to the United States at the age of nineteen. Settling in Ohio, Hearn lived a poor life until finding low level journalistic work. Hearn then dropped Patrick from his name because of the source in Saint Patrick and the fact that Lafcadio conveyed the exotic roots of his birthplace, the island of Lefkada. He also thought it was a catchy name for a writer. Hired as a newspaper reporter for his writing talent he developed a reputation for sensitivity with accounts of the poor and of tawdry sensationalism for his descriptions of violent crime. Fired from his job for the crime and associated scandal of inter-racial marriage, he went to work for another newspaper, but with the alleged completion of his divorce he moved to New Orleans. The legality of his marriage and divorce was in dispute until his death.

Hearn wrote for several newspapers and magazines in New Orleans and was prolific in both the variety and volume of his works. With a personality akin to Poe he embraced voodoo as a subject for writing. Hearn wrote many editorials harshly condemning the many failures common to all big cities. It is possible his disenfranchisement with the Western world sown during his early life grew as he bemoaned the ills of New Orleans with diatribes against crime, corruption, and bigotry.


Home at Last, Life in Japan 

Hearn traveled to Japan as a newspaper correspondent, a job that quickly finished as he was able to land a job teaching English in a town in western Japan, Matsue, where he married Setsu Kozumi a daughter of a samurai family. They had four children and to preserve his son’s social and legal legacy Hearn took his wife’s surname becoming known as Yakumo Kozumi. Hearn, even more prolific than before, wrote many books and articles about Japan covering a variety of subjects. Hearn’s fascination with the macabre was apparent in his most popular book, Kwaidan (Ghost Story). Kwaidan, a compilation of tales such as Mimi-nashi Hoichi (Earless Hoichi) and Yuki-onna (Snow Woman), was made into a movie of the same name in 1964 that was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes film Festival.  Another of Hearn’s works, Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation (published posthumously in 1904), was relied on by Bonner Fellers, General MacArthur’s military attaché and advisor on Japanese psychology at the end of and after World War II. Fellers received the ‘Second Order of the Sacred Treasure’ from Emperor Hirohito for his “long standing contribution to promoting friendship between Japan and the United States”. The relationship between MacArthur, Fellers and Hirohito is the subject of the 2012 film Emperor.

Hearn wrote about much more than ghosts or psychological impressions, he left a significant legacy with his collection of oral folktales collected at a time when ‘Old Japan’ was being pushed into the shadows by modernization. Hearn also wrote about the art of raising silkworms, incense admiration, haiku, food preparation, insects, training regimes of geisha and monks, and a myriad of other subjects. The deceptively simple title of his In a Japanese Garden conceals a sweeping study that predates the modern Feng Shui movement by one hundred years. Throughout his writings from his time in Japan one can almost feel the Western mind collating the Eastern philosophy of life. That the Japanese embraced him as a kindred soul is shown by the honor they hold for him to this day. The Hearn Memorial Museum at Matsue is still popular and was the subject of a 1984 NHK historical drama. Hearn’s book Out of the East is still used in Japanese schools today.

While it is doubtful Hearn would have been remembered by history had he not visited Japan and did what the brothers Grimm did for European folklore, one hopes his storm tossed soul finally found peace in the Land of the Rising Sun. Indeed much of his later writing expounds the merits of the Buddhist way with fanatical zeal.


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The author has used the English format of given name first, surname last, when writing Japanese names as opposed to the “Surname, Given Name” used commonly in Japan.



  • Kwaidan; Stories and Studies of Strange Things - Lafcadio Hearn
  • In Ghostly Japan - Lafcadio Hearn