Researchers from around the world will assemble for a series of events in Japan and Ireland starting Saturday to mark the centennial of the death of writer and educator Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904).
To draw attention to the commemoration, Japan Post will issue on Nov. 4 an 80 yen stamp with an image of Hearn, who is known in Japan as Koizumi Yakumo and is celebrated for his dedication to introducing Japanese affairs to the world.
About 60 experts from Britain, Canada, China, France, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States will discuss Hearn’s life and work at six symposiums to be held in Tokyo along with Hyogo, Shimane and Kumamoto prefectures. The first is set for Saturday at the University of Tokyo and the second for Sunday at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
Organizers believe this is the first series of nationwide events focused solely on a foreign-born writer.
In Dublin, where Hearn spent his childhood, a one-day symposium on the man of Irish-Greek parentage is scheduled for mid-November. Paul Murray, a senior Irish diplomat and Hearn expert who was posted to Tokyo from 1978 to 1980, will speak on how Hearn developed an interest in the East when he grew up in Ireland.
“I think Hearn now stands out as the greatest ever interpreter of Japan. His writing is still valid, for it captures the essence of the country,” said Murray.
In his 14 books on Japan, including “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan” and “Kwaidan,” Hearn wrote about various aspects of Japanese culture including religion, rituals, myths and traditional art during his 14-year stay in the country until his death Sept. 26, 1904.
A man whom the Irish Times called “one of the most respected Irish writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Hearn married into a samurai family in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, and became a naturalized Japanese and adopted a Japanese name.
After arriving in Japan in 1890, Hearn, at the time an American citizen, taught English at schools in Matsue and Kumamoto before joining the English-language Kobe Chronicle in 1894, returning to the world of journalism he belonged to when he was in Cincinnati and New Orleans.
“Hearn doesn’t belong exclusively to any one culture. He transcends any kind of nationalism and he acts, I think, as a bridge between East and West,” Murray said over the phone from Dublin.
Hearn taught English literature at the University of Tokyo from 1896 to 1903 before moving to Waseda in March the following year. He was succeeded at the University of Tokyo by Meiji Era novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916).
At Saturday’s symposium, Sukehiro Hirakawa, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo and a leading scholar in Hearn studies, will give a speech in English about Hearn’s work around the world.
Murray will be joined by Bon Koizumi, Hearn’s great grandson and an associate professor of folklore at Shimane Women’s College, for the Oct. 1 symposium in Matsue.
Hirakawa, one of the organizers of the six symposiums in Japan, said he hopes the events will stimulate study of Hearn and help establish a global network for Hearn researchers, a circle he envisages being called the International Association for Hearn Studies.
Hirakawa said researchers still have various views about how Hearn interpreted Japan.
One group of experts believes Hearn saw Japan with respect to the country’s indigenous culture. But others, whom Hirakawa claims believe Western and Christian civilizations are superior to others, argue Hearn was so immersed in Japan that he over-idealized the country.
“I think that Hearn was more far-sighted. He looked at Japan from a Japanese perspective, and he foresaw that Japan would take only what it needed from the West and would remain uniquely Japanese, whereas other Western observers at that time taught that Japan had to be fully Westernized,” Murray said.
“And I think if you look at Japan today, you don’t need me to tell you who is right.”