Foreign writer who defined Japan has been carved into stone in Matsue


The name usually means nothing whatsoever to the vast majority of people overseas. But in his adopted country, Lafcadio Hearn is lionized among writers in the English language with the same kind of reverence normally accorded to authors of the ilk of Melville and Shakespeare.

Hearn found his way to Japan in 1890, discovered he rather liked the place and decided he’d settle. He then began writing about the country, its folklore and its customs in a series of books for a Western readership keen to hear of this exotic land at the end of the world.

During his time in Japan, Hearn lived in various places, but the one city that is most closely identified with him is Matsue. Hearn fell in love with this city in Shimane Prefecture. And that love is not unrequited, even today.

It’s a little hard to go about Matsue and not be aware of its most famous former foreign resident. A Hearn Square awaits the visitor at the station. Images of the man abound in the city. His thoughts about Matsue are displayed everywhere on plaques. He is prominent in the souvenir shops. Visitors drink Hearn sake. They drink Hearn beer. One of the more atmospheric spots in town goes by the name of (surprise, surprise) Hearn-dori.

Flanking the main moat around Matsue Castle, this street, generally better known as Shiomi Nawate, is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful streets in Japan. And it is rather pleasant as it skirts by the moat, which is fringed by crooked, mossy pines. On the other side of the thoroughfare runs a long line of former samurai residences, which have all been standing for more than 250 years. With their stone foundations topped by wooden panels, white plasterwork and dark tiles, these buildings manage to evoke something of the Matsue of yesteryear. The image would be almost perfect if it weren’t for the traffic thundering along the road.

A more tranquil taste of traditional life in Matsue is afforded on the low hill just above the samurai residences in the shape of the Meimei-an teahouse. Visitors are prohibited from entering the private teahouse itself, with its mussel-colored plaster walls and thatched roof. But the garden is a tiny delight of moss, raked gravel and wandering stone paths laid out in the spare, uncluttered spirit of Zen.

Dominating the horizon at Meimei-an, as it once dominated all Matsue, is the city’s castle. Built in 1611, Matsue Castle is regarded as the great symbol of the city — and with good reason since the austere-looking structure is one of only about a dozen such bastions in Japan to have retained its original wooden structure. In an ornithological tradition of some Japanese castles being named after birds they are thought to resemble (Himeji’s is an egret, Matsumoto’s is a crow), Matsue’s is known as “plover castle.” The less romantically inclined, though, might consider that for all the observable similarity, it might just as plausibly be called “penguin castle.”

Hearn was certainly romantically inclined, and he saw the castle as a “veritable architectural dragon, made up of magnificent monstrosities — a dragon moreover full of eyes set at all conceivable angles.” Quite. A structure within the castle grounds that Hearn never did see, since it dates from 1903, the year before his death and long after his departure from Matsue, is the Local History Museum. This building was constructed specially for the Meiji Emperor on the off chance that he might drop by for a visit. But he never did. Not seeing this elegant white structure, executed in that engaging East-meets-West style of a century ago, though, was very much the emperor’s loss. Even if he had seen it, one building that the emperor would have been wholly indifferent to is the house where Hearn lived. Though Hearn spent just 15 months in this city [before Matsue’s severe winters got the better of him and he moved to warmer Kumamoto] this was clearly the place in Japan that made the greatest impression on him.

He had not been long in the country, and so everything about Matsue came across with particular vividness and freshness. It was in this house, now the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, that he wrote his first book on the country, “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.” As one might expect, the museum does a creditable job of charting the life of a writer who had a fondness for florid prose. Here lie many objects from his daily life as well as some of his manuscripts, written in his careful, tidy hand, which, since he was blind in one eye and required a specially built high writing desk, cost him no small effort.

Though Hearn had a mixed background, being the son of an Anglo-Irish surgeon and a Greek mother and having lived in America for 21 years before reaching Japan, but of all these countries the Emerald Isle is the one that claims him for its own, as evidenced in the museum by messages from such prominent Irish personages as former President Mary Robinson — oh, and the fact that you always seems to hear Enya playing in the background.

If Hearn were to see his beloved Matsue today, he would no doubt be sorely disappointed at the modern place it has become, but then he seemed to be sorely disappointed with the modernizing Japan of a century ago.

Matsue today is no bad spot. Its position on pretty Lake Shinji lends it an attractive waterfront character possessed by few other Japanese cities. The basic pattern of moats and canals around the castle has been basically unchanged since well before Hearn’s time. Those waterways may chug with the little flotillas of tourist boats, but kingfishers and herons fly above those waters, and the whole area of the castle and its grounds gives Matsue a green historical core that any city would be happy to possess.