Arguably the most famous Irish person in Japanese history was the prominent thinker and writer Koizumi Yakumo.
Born Lafcadio Hearn in 1850 in Greece, to an Irish father and a Greek mother, he was raised (from Age two) by an aunt in Rathmines, Dublin, and later emigrated to America. He lived and worked in New Orleans as a writer and Journalist. In 1890 he moved again, to Japan, where he spent the remaining 14 years of his life.
His life as a writer in Japan was prolific. He married a Japanese woman, Koizumi Setsu, and had four children with her. He took Japanese citizenship under the name Koizumi Yakumo, served as a schoolmaster in the town of Matsue and later became a professor of English literature in the Imperial University of Tokyo.
While here, Hearn wrote twelve books on Japan and consequently is credited with providing some of the first information about Japanese society to the Western public.
Hearn was a traditionalist, and staunchly opposed to modernization and the loss of old traditions. He wrote several books on Japanese myths and legends, attempting to preserve the history of Japan in any way he could. His last, Japan, an Attempt at Interpretation (published posthumously), was intended to be a historical analysis of the rapid transformation of Japan from a feudal, agricultural society to a modern industrial one. Today, with Japanese traditions being preserved or revived, Hearn’s work remains popular.
Reviewers of his most famous book Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan, have described it as a ‘series of love-letters to the Land of the Rising Sun’. It contains many myths, legends and stories about Japanese society, culture and history.
Hearns residences in Japan have been preserved as historical sites and his works are on display in the Yakumo museum in Matsue. There are also two statues of him in Ueno Park, Tokyo. His gravestone bears the memorial poem: “A man of faith, an undefiled flower blooming like eight clouds, who dwells in the mansion of enlightenment”.
With Hearn’s prolific work, it is unsurprising that many Japanese people have heard of him. In addition to his written work, Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi adapted four of Hearn’s tales into an anthology of horror films called “Kwaidan” (Ghost Stories) in 1965.
What is surprising, however, is that few enough Japanese people know him by his real name, or that he is a foreigner at all! Many have heard of Koizumi Yakumo, but if you mention Lafcadio Hearn, people look at you in confusion. To day that Hearn mixed with Japanese society is an understatement; his lyrical grasp of storytelling was such that he truly became an influential part of Japanese society.