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  • Conrad and Lafcadio Hearn:Two Observant Wanderers Writing in Their Adopted Countries1
  • Yasuko Shidara (bio)


In September 1922, Conrad, with kind hospitality, received a Japanese guest, Hidaka Tadaichi, professor of English literature at Waseda University, Tokyo. Hidaka had been a student of Lafcadio Hearn’s in Tokyo, and lived not far from him. According to Professor Hidaka’s memoirs “A Visit to Conrad,” Hidaka inquired of Conrad whether he had ever read any of Hearn’s works. Conrad answered, “Yes, I have read a few, such as Kokoro and Out of the East. They were very interesting. Reading them, I don’t know how many times I thought I’d like to go to Japan if there were a chance” (Okuda 82). Later in their conversation Conrad returned to this topic by asking Hidaka about Hearn’s family matters, such as whether his wife was Japanese and how many children he had. Conrad also wanted to know whether his own works were being read in Japan, and he hoped Hidaka would spread knowledge of them more widely (ibid. 84).

This small scenario shows three modes of solidarity typical of Conrad: firstly, a collegial interest in writers who, like himself, had taken the East as their subject, writing from first-hand knowledge as he himself had done at the start of his literary career; secondly, the intent interest in his readership; and thirdly, a life-long sustained interest in the Eastern seas where he had sailed in voyages spanning seven years of his youth.

In this essay I would like to explore the justification for putting Conrad and Hearn together, two writers who left their native Europe to wander into the remote corners of the world, writing in different genres, but each with his own observant eyes. [End Page 123]

Although Conrad’s interest in Hearn is my starting point, there is need for some background, since although Hearn is a writer much studied in Japan, he is little known outside that context these days. As Federick R. Karl and Laurence Davies succinctly note in The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, “Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) was born in the Ionian Islands to Greek and Irish parents; he worked as a journalist in the United States from 1869 to 87 and in Martinique from 1887 to 89. He spent the rest of his life in Japan, becoming a citizen in 1896. He wrote many studies, stories, and sketches of Japanese and Antillean life” (CL 4, 518). George Hughes comments further that Hearn’s “basic self-concept in Japan [was] that of a travel-writer,” who chose “entry and total immersion into the life of a foreign culture” (Hughes 206, 208), resulting in his accomplishment as a folklorist.2

Hearn is now “either forgotten or obscure to most Western readers” (Askew 44).3 But there were one or two decades when his books on Japan were regarded as the “sole authority” (Thomas 23). Indeed, one legacy of Hearn’s has entered world language in the word tsunami. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first occurrence of this word in English comes from Hearn’s sketch of a tsunami disaster, vividly written, included in his 4th volume, Gleanings in Buddha-Fields (1897). When Hearn died in Tokyo in September 1904 in the midst of the Russo-Japanese War, the German-language writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote an obituary in Vienna, saying, “Japan lost its adopted son” (121). This expression reminds us perhaps of Conrad, too, who himself “felt adopted” both into the life of the sea, as he put it in A Personal Record, and also “adopted by the genius of the [English] language (v, 118).4

Within Japan, Hearn studies are flourishing, especially since the commemoration of the centenary of his arrival in Japan in 1890,5 including two international symposia (Hirakawa 1997, 2007) and the publication of a reliable encyclopedic reference book. Comparative studies have juxtaposed Hearn with Yeats and Bram Stoker, but not until now with Conrad.6


Edward Thomas, Lafcadio Hearn (1912)

With the biographical studies well established for both writers, we can be reasonably sure that there was...


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