What does it mean to be an expatriate, particularly when you feel more at home and assimilated in an adopted country than in your own?

The life of a man, born on June 27, 1850, can tell us a great deal about this state of existence outside the borders of one’s native land. It also informs those of us who have chosen to live, work and, perhaps, marry and have families in Japan what our choice may have entailed.

More than a century has passed since his death in Tokyo, but Lafcadio Hearn’s legacy still casts a long shadow. To this day, he is considered by most Japanese to be the foreigner who understood them the best. And yet, those very Japanese generally know no more about the man — referred to in this country by his adopted name of Yakumo Koizumi — than that he retold a few ghost stories dredged from Japan’s long-forgotten past.

Hearn was a born expatriate in an era of fierce nationalism and ethnic rivalries. New-found muscular nationalism in the nation states of Europe demanded unmitigated loyalty from all citizens; empire clashed with empire on the fringes of Europe, in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the farthest-flung islands of the globe. Religions were repressed in the name of “the good news” of the Bible; “pagan” peoples decimated in the name of king or queen; whole languages ripped from the mouths of “primitive” peoples, whose cultures were wiped from the face of the earth.

Hearn, born on the Greek island of Lefkas to an illiterate Greek mother and an Irish surgeon in the British Army, was taken to Dublin at age 2, only to be abandoned by both parents soon after. His schooling took him to County Durham in northeast England and to France. At age 19, he sailed for the United States, where he stayed for some 20 years. During that time he styled himself into a journalist of notorious repute; a man who wallowed in the most gory and grotesque details of low life, details that he sought out with relish.

This was the perfect preparation — that of a painstaking sketcher of wrinkles, warts and deformations — for his initiation into a subculture of Japan that the Japanese of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) were turning their backs on in the interests of rapid modernization. Hearn was to become the rediscoverer of their lore.

He spent the last 14 years of his life living in four locations: Matsue in Shimane Prefecture and Kumamoto in Kyushu, where he taught in secondary schools; Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, where he wrote for the Kobe Chronicle; and Tokyo, where he taught at two of the country’s most prestigious universities, Tokyo Imperial University (today’s University of Tokyo) and Waseda University.

And what a transformation this was for Hearn, who had been destitute and, at times, on the very verge of starvation during his last years in the U.S. He had had no family background or funds to fall back on after he left Europe. His skin was dark-olive in color; his stature, at 160 cm, far from imposing; his countenance, with one eye unseeing and closed due to a schoolyard accident, extraordinary. He spent most of his time in the U.S. in the company of slum-dwellers and roustabouts. In Ohio, he married a woman of mixed blood, though this was against the law at the time. That illegal marriage outraged his colleagues and boss at the newspaper where he worked, and he was sacked.

So, not being able to join the white man’s club of privilege, and despising Christianity with a passion, he went underground — appearing to follow the age-old maxim: If you can’t beat the bastards at their own game, then find a new game for yourself. In hundreds of articles and essays, he recorded the life and culture of minorities and the underprivileged in America, all the while immersing himself in the artfully esoteric and the taboo.

When Hearn set foot on the planks of the Yokohama dock in April 1890, he was ready to rock and roll through the culture. He understood instinctively — and this is the key word for Hearn, instinctively — that Japan was different, and yet that that difference did not make it weird or inscrutable. It was to him just another non-mainstream culture in a world dominated by a spirit, of the Christian God, that he loathed.

This, then, is the reason why the Japanese eventually adopted him as their most favored son: They sensed in him someone who was not judging them against the standards for civilization set in London, Paris or New York.

When he died, on Sept. 26, 1904, Hearn’s writing was virtually unknown among the Japanese. In this 37th year of the Meiji Era, Japan was determined to be an imperial power. The Siege of Port Arthur, the strategic Russian naval base in Manchuria, had begun in August of that year; and when Japan won the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan had come into its own as the new imperial power in the East.

As for Hearn, he had always despised the “new” Japanese male, with his adopted Western ways and imperial aspirations, as he despised anything called “new.” The immutable Japanese female, the taoyame (graceful woman), was his ideal — that yamato nadeshiko (flower of Japanese womanhood). Everything that Japan had been trying to relegate to the cultural scrapheap, Hearn went scavenging for wherever he could find it. Every old exotic (to the Japanese of the new century) detail of Japanese life, he fossicked for and collected, polishing these old gems and trying to breathe onto them a revived gloss.

Hearn had been popular in the West as the single foreigner regarded as being privy to the secrets of the Japanese soul. The Japanese, on the other hand, had ignored him and his stubborn messaging. But then, in the years after his death, the situation reversed. Westerners began to see him as an apologist for Japan who had refused to see the looming threat it posed; while the Japanese embraced him and have held him in that embrace ever since. After all, he gave them back their once-revered culture — a culture they themselves had done little to stop from vanishing.

The Japanese were always uncannily interested in what foreigners thought of them. They wanted to be seen as different from everyone else in the world, as special, as having a unique and esoteric spiritual culture. And when they had achieved the early goals of the 1868 Restoration of Emperor Meiji — industrialization, modernization, colonization in Korea and parts of China — they suddenly felt a need to rediscover their spiritual, mysterious, unique past. And, lo and behold, who was right there to give it back to them, and in English — a language understood around the world: Yakumo Koizumi! The tables turned 180 degrees, and Hearn became the darling of Japan, only to be willfully forgotten in the West.

I return to my question: What does it mean to be an assimilated expatriate? It means that you have found something in your adopted country that you yourself feel is of ultimate value. You pursue that, even if the native population is unconcerned and uninterested. You do not bother whether they accept you; that’s their problem. You accept yourself as someone at home.

The only criterion for fitting in is the one that you yourself define and choose to live by.

Roger Pulvers’ latest novel is “The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn,” published by Kurodahan Press.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.