Hearn was born on the island of Lefkada (after which he was named), Greece, in 1850, the son of an Anglo-Irish surgeon-major in the British army and a Greek mother. His parents had a troubled relationship, which soon led to divorce. Neither parent was interested in Lafcadio, and he was brought up by another disinterested relative in Dublin. Nevertheless, he received a decent education, partly in France, partly in Durham, until his guardians went bankrupt. Aged 16, he suffered an injury to his left eye which left him partially blind and shy about his appearance.
In 1869, when his guardians had recovered some financial stability, they paid for Hearn to travel to the US, to Cincinnati, Ohio, to stay with relatives. However, these relatives gave him little assistance, and, for a while, he took menial jobs to survive. With a talent for writing, he gained a reporter’s job on the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer in 1872, and soon developed a reputation for his journalistic audacity and for sensational articles about murders. In 1874, he and a friend set up a weekly journal of culture and satire, Ye Giglampz. That same year he married Alethea (Mattie) Foley, an African-American woman, but the marriage violated Ohio law, and, in response to religious lobbying, he was fired from his job. He went to work for the rival newspaper The Cincinnati Commercial.
Tired of the city, and divorced from Foley, Hearn moved to New Orleans in 1877, where he lived for a decade, writing for, and editing city newspapers. He wrote many articles for national magazines (such as Harper’s Weekly), and books about the city, and is credited with helping 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. He also translated French authors into English.
In 1887, Hearn accepted an invitation from Harper’s to become a West Indies correspondent, and he lived in Martinique for two years. After that, though, he decided to go to Japan. Upon his arrival in Yokohama in the spring of 1890, he was befriended by Basil Hall Chamberlain of Tokyo Imperial University, and officials at the Ministry of Education. At their encouragement, he moved to Matsue, to teach English at Shimane Prefectural Common Middle School and Normal School. There he moved in distinguished circles, and later married Setsu Koizumi, the daughter of a local samurai family. He had the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo.
Hearn stayed over a year in Matsue, moving on to another teaching position in Kumamoto, Kyushu, for a further three years. In 1894, he secured a journalism position with the English-language Kobe Chronicle, and in 1896, with some assistance from Chamberlain, he began teaching English literature at Tokyo (Imperial) University, a post he held until 1903, and at Waseda University. He died on 26 September 1904, having written and published many books on Japan - a full bibliography can be found on Steve Tussel’s Lafcadio Hearn site. Further biographical information on Hearn can be found at Wikipedia, the magazine Humanities, The Japan Times or The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.
Among his many different kinds of books, Hearn left behind a couple of diaries, neither covering more than a short period: one written in Florida in 1887, and the other written just after taking up his first teaching post in Japan. Both these are freely available at Internet Archive. The first published was From the Diary of an English Teacher included in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (Volume II) published by Houghton Mifflin and Company (Boston and New York) in 1894. Later the diary was re-published in other Lafcadio Hearn volumes, such as Diaries and Letters, in English and Japanese, translated and annotated by R. Tanabe. Posthumously, in 1911, Houghton Mifflin published Hearn’s Leaves from the Diary of an Impressionist, which includes a diary called Floridian Reveries.
Here are several extracts from Hearn’s Japanese diary.
15 October 1890
‘To-day I witnessed the annual athletic contests of all the schools in Shimane Ken. These games were celebrated in the broad castle grounds of Ninomaru. Yesterday a circular race-track had been staked off, hurdles erected for leaping, thousands of wooden seats prepared for invited or privileged spectators, and a grand lodge built for the Governor, all before sunset. The place looked like a vast circus, with its tiers of plank seats rising one above the other, and the Governor’s lodge magnificent with wreaths and flags. School children from all the villages and towns within twenty-five miles had arrived in surprising multitude. Nearly six thousand boys and girls were entered to take part in the contests. Their parents and relatives and teachers made an imposing assembly upon the benches and within the gates. And on the ramparts over-looking the huge enclosure a much larger crowd had gathered, representing perhaps one third of the population of the city.
The signal to begin or to end a contest was a pistol-shot. Four different kinds of games were performed in different parts of the grounds at the same time, as there was room enough for an army; and prizes were awarded for the winners of each contest by the hand of the Governor himself.
There were races between the best runners in each class of the different schools; and the best runner of all proved to be Sakane, of our own fifth class, who came in first by nearly forty yards without seeming even to make an effort. He is our champion athlete, and as good as he is strong, so that it made me very happy to see him with his arm full of prize books. He won also a fencing contest decided by the breaking of a little earthenware saucer tied to the left arm of each combatant. And he also won a leaping match between our older boys.
But many hundreds of other winners there were too, and many hundreds of prizes were given away. There were races in which the runners were tied together in pairs, the left leg of one to the right leg of the other. There were equally funny races, the winning of which depended on the runner’s ability not only to run, but to crawl, to climb, to vault, and to jump alternately. There were races also for the little girls, pretty as butterflies they seemed in their sky-blue hakama and many-coloured robes, races in which the contestants had each to pick up as they ran three balls of three different colours out of a number scattered over the turf. Besides this, the little girls had what is called a flag-race, and a contest with battledores and shuttlecocks.
Then came the tug-of-war. A magnificent tug-of-war, too, one hundred students at one end of a rope, and another hundred at the other. But the most wonderful spectacles of the day were the dumb-bell exercises. Six thousand boys and girls, massed in ranks about five hundred deep; six thousand pairs of arms rising and falling exactly together; six thousand pairs of sandalled feet advancing or retreating together, at the signal of the masters of gymnastics, directing all from the tops of various little wooden towers; six thousand voices chanting at once the “one, two, three,” of the dumb-bell drill: “Ichi, ni, - san, shi, - go roku, - shichi, hachi.”
Last came the curious game called “Taking the Castle.” Two models of Japanese towers, about fifteen feet high, made with paper stretched over a framework of bamboo, were set up, one at each end of the field. Inside the castles an inflammable liquid had been placed in open vessels, so that if the vessels were overturned the whole fabric would take fire. The boys, divided into two parties, bombarded the castles with wooden balls, which passed easily through the paper walls; and in a short time both models were making a glorious blaze. Of course the party whose castle was the first to blaze lost the game.
The games began at eight o’clock in the morning, and at five in the evening came to an end. Then at a signal fully ten thousand voices pealed out the superb national anthem “Kimi ga yo,” and concluded it with three cheers for their Imperial Majesties, the Emperor and Empress of Japan.
The Japanese do not shout or roar as we do when we cheer. They chant. Each long cry is like the opening tone of an immense musical chorus: A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a!’
3 November 1890
‘To-day is the birthday of His Majesty the Emperor. It is a public holiday throughout Japan; and there will be no teaching this morning. But at eight o’clock all the students and instructors enter the great assembly hall of the Jinjo Chugakko to honour the anniversary of His Majesty’s august birth.
On the platform of the assembly hall a table, covered with dark silk, has been placed and upon this table the portraits of Their Imperial Majesties, the Emperor and the Empress of Japan, stand side by side upright, framed in gold. The alcove above the platform has been decorated with flags and wreaths.
Presently the Governor enters, looking like a French general in his gold-embroidered uniform of office, and followed by the Mayor of the city, the Chief Military Officer, the Chief of Police, and all the officials of the provincial government. These take their places in silence to left and right of the platform. Then the school organ suddenly rolls out the slow, solemn, beautiful national anthem; and all present chant those ancient syllables, made sacred by the reverential love of a century of generations [. . .]
The anthem ceases. The Governor advances with a slow dignified step from the right side of the apartment to the centre of the open space before the platform and the portraits of Their Majesties, turns his face to them, and bows profoundly. Then he takes three steps forward toward the platform, and halts, and bows again. Then he takes three more steps forward, and bows still more profoundly. Then he retires, walking backward six steps, and bows once more. Then he returns to his place.
After this the teachers, by parties of six, perform the same beautiful ceremony. When all have saluted the portrait of His Imperial Majesty, the Governor ascends the platform and makes a few eloquent remarks to the students about their duty to their Emperor, to their country, and to their teachers. Then the anthem is sung again; and all disperse to amuse themselves for the rest of the day.’
4 April 1891
‘The Students of the third, fourth, and fifth year classes write for me once a week brief English compositions upon easy themes which I select for them. As a rule the themes are Japanese. Considering the immense difficulty of the English language to Japanese students, the ability of some of my boys to express their thoughts in it is astonishing. Their compositions have also another interest for me as revelations, not of individual character, but of national sentiment, or of aggregate sentiment of some sort or other. What seems to me most surprising in the compositions of the average Japanese student is that they have no personal cachet at all. Even the handwriting of twenty English compositions will be found to have a curious family resemblance; and striking exceptions are too few to affect the rule. Here is one of the best compositions on my table, by a student at the head of his class. Only a few idiomatic errors have been corrected:
“The Moon appears melancholy to those who are sad, and joyous to those who are happy. The Moon makes memories of home come to those who travel, and creates home-sickness. So when the Emperor Godaigo, having been banished to Oki by the traitor Hojo, beheld the moonlight upon the seashore, he cried out, ‘The Moon is heartless!’
The sight of the Moon makes an immeasurable feeling in our hearts when we look up at it through the clear air of a beauteous night.
Our hearts ought to be pure and calm like the light of the Moon.
Poets often compare the Moon to a Japanese mirror and indeed its shape is the same when it is full.
The refined man amuses himself with the Moon. He seeks some house looking out upon water, to watch the Moon, and to make verses about it.
The best places from which to see the Moon are Tsukigashi, and the mountain Obasute.
The light of the Moon shines alike upon foul and pure, upon high and low. That beautiful Lamp is neither yours nor mine, but everybody’s.
When we look at the Moon we should remember that its waxing and its waning are the signs of the truth that the culmination of all things is likewise the beginning of their decline.”
Any person totally unfamiliar with Japanese educational methods might presume that the foregoing composition shows some original power of thought and imagination. But this is not the case. I found the same thoughts and comparisons in thirty other compositions upon the same subject. Indeed, the compositions of any number of middle-school students upon the same subject are certain to be very much alike in idea and sentiment - though they are none the less charming for that. As a rule the Japanese student shows little originality in the line of imagination. His imagination was made for him long centuries ago - partly in China, partly in his native land. From his childhood he is trained to see and to feel Nature exactly in the manner of those wondrous artists who, with a few swift brush-strokes, fling down upon a sheet of paper the colour-sensation of a chilly dawn, a fervid noon, an autumn evening.
Through all his boyhood he is taught to commit to memory the most beautiful thoughts and comparisons to be found in his ancient native literature. Every boy has thus learned that the vision of Fuji against the blue resembles a white half-opened fan, hanging inverted in the sky. Every boy knows that cherry-trees in full blossom look as if the most delicate of flushed summer clouds were caught in their branches. Every boy knows the comparison between the falling of certain leaves on snow and the casting down of texts upon a sheet of white paper with a brush. Every boy and girl knows the verses comparing the print of cat’s-feet on snow to plum-flowers, and that comparing the impression of bokkuri on snow to the Japanese character for the number “two,” These were thoughts of old, old poets; and it would be very hard to invent prettier ones. Artistic power in composition is chiefly shown by the correct memorising and clever combination of these old thoughts.
And the students have been equally well trained to discover a moral in almost everything, animate or inanimate.’