There is some charm unutterable in the morning air, cool with the coolness of Japanese spring and wind-waves from the snowy cone of Fuji…

– Lafcadio Hearn, My First Day in the Orient

The journalist Lafcadio Hearn was enchanted by Japan, and of all expat writers is by far the most respected by the Japanese. Celebrated by Matsue as an adopted son, his books, including Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan and Kwaidan, are considered classics.

The offspring of a passionate but doomed liaison between an Anglo-Irish army surgeon and a Greek girl, and named after the Greek island of Lefkada on which he was born on June 27, 1850, Hearn grew up in Dublin, a contemporary of Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. A schoolyard accident in 1866 left him permanently blind in his left eye, and in 1869 the young and penniless Hearn decided to chance his fortune in the United States. Over the course of the next fourteen years Hearn worked as a reporter and writer in Cincinatti, New Orleans and the West Indian island of Martinique (where he penned his first novel, Chita), with a brief marriage to an African-American girl along the way.

Commissioned by Harper’s Monthly to write about Japan, Hearn arrived in Yokohama on April 4, 1890. By the end of the day he had decided to stay, get a teaching job and write a book. The teaching post brought Hearn to Matsue, where he met and married Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of an impoverished samurai family.

Hearn would happily have stayed in Matsue, but the freezing winter weather made him ill and in 1891 they moved south to Kumamoto, in Kyūshū, closer to Setsu’s relatives. The couple had four children and in 1896 he adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo (Eight Clouds) and secured Japanese nationality. By the turn of the century, Hearn’s novels and articles had become a great success; he had started teaching at Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, and was invited to give a series of lectures at London University and in the United States. But, on September 30, 1904, at the age of 54, Hearn suffered a series of heart attacks and died. His gravestone in Zoshigaya cemetery near Ikebukuro in Tokyo proclaims him a “man of faith, similar to the undefiled flower blooming like eight rising clouds who dwells in the mansion of right enlightenment”.

Hearn’s books stand as paeans to the beauty and mystery of old Japan, something he believed worth recording because it seemed to be fast disappearing in the nonstop modernization of the early Meiji years.

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