Lafcadio Hearn (aka, Yakumo Koizumi) and the Japanese Garden of New Orleans

By Helene Marie Thian, J.D., M.A. (Dress and Culture Historian/Japonism Specialist)

      With Distinction graduate, Master’s programme at University of the Arts London

Lafcadio Hearn, known as Yakumo Koizumi, in traditional Japanese dress

Lafcadio Hearn, known as Yakumo Koizumi, in traditional Japanese dress

In the early 1980s, an extraordinary resurrection of the spirit of writer Lafcadio Hearn occurred in my hometown of New Orleans, which was his adopted hometown from 1877-1887.

Hearn was the Irish/Greek chronicler of the ghost stories and legends of Japan who became a respected academic in that country in the late 1800s. He is still studied today by Japanese schoolchildren and known as “Yakumo Koizumi,” his Japanese moniker after he married Setsuko Koizumi, the daughter of a samurai family.

He immigrated to Japan after living for a decade in New Orleans where he had worked as an editor/writer for the local Times Democrat newspaper and for national publications Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine. Hearn’s detailed chronicles of life in New Orleans, Creole culture and the mysterious of the sultry Crescent City are still unrivaled in their authenticity and thoroughness.

Little did Hearn know that one day in 1980 four women in the city of New Orleans would get together and decide to establish a Japanese Garden Society with the goal of building a Japanese garden in City Park, a beautiful public green space which is home to the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden and the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

My mother, Mrs. Colleen Camperi Thian, had a passion for Japanese gardens and so did her three friends: Mrs. George D. Lyons, Jr; Ms. Madeline Jones; and Ms. Coralee Nesser. In ancient Greece, the Triple Goddesses appeared in art form as three goddess figures standing closely together in solidarity, thus depicting the strength and power of the Feminine archetype in triplicate. In the case of the founding of the Japanese Garden Society of New Orleans, it was the Quadruple Goddesses, so to speak, who instigated its organization and in doing so, demonstrated the importance of the “quaternity,” which the noted twentieth century analytic psychologist C. G. Jung discussed in his works. For Jung, the number “4” symbolized the completion and ordering of things out of chaos. This phenomenon can be observed in, for example, the four-cornered Tibetan thangkas, Buddhist paintings of intricate detail depicting the perfection of heavenly realms.

Lafcadio Hearn and his wife Setsuko

Lafcadio Hearn and his wife Setsuko

Those four women together established the Japanese Garden Society and were keepers of the flame for the creation of a Japanese garden for the city of New Orleans for over two decades, until their dream was realized in 2005 and the garden opened just before Hurricane Katrina hit the city.  (Fortunately, there was minimal damage to the garden, and it was restored in due course.) Setting out to foster a strong linkage between New Orleans and Japan, they surmised at the Society’s founding that only one individual in history could embody that linkage and put a face on the Japanese garden for both New Orleanians and everyone else:  Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was the person who immersed himself in both the mysterious culture of New Orleans and the mysterious culture of Japan. He was a literary monolith in both cultures. He grasped the necessity of honoring in his writing the ghostly lore and cultural gestalt of both New Orleans and Japan. He adopted New Orleans as his home in 1877 and then adopted Japan as his home in 1890 until his death in 1904.

Hearn was a translator of French and Spanish newspaper articles and French authors into the English language during his time in New Orleans and was a translator for Western readers of the Japanese folklore and culture of pre-industrial Japan.  Hearn was the one figure who symbolized the world of Japan in the world of New Orleans, and as such, in order to create a Japanese garden inextricably linked to the Creole city of the Deep South, the women decided that naming their garden project the “Koizumi Yakumo Friendship Garden” was not only the best way to symbolize that connection between Japan and New Orleans, but the best way to publicize the garden due to Hearn’s status as a literary icon locally and in Japan.

In the 1990s, I remember seeing on the New Orleans public access television channel a running debate amongst the members of the New Orleans City Council concerning whether or not the municipality should expend funds on the preservation of Hearn’s home in New Orleans. It seemed so strange to me that such a debate had arisen as Hearn’s importance worldwide as a literary and cultural figure is undisputed.

Why wouldn’t the city wish to preserve his historic home? Due to inner city development, Hearn’s home at 1565 Cleveland Avenue had, at that time, stood in the downtown area forlorn and isolated, a property requiring a great deal of capital to maintain it to historic code standard. (See photos at this site: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Lafcadio_Hearn_house,_New_Orleans

The then-landlord expressed an interest in selling the property, which had, sadly, ended up being home to a succession of bars. The City Council had to decide if finally designating the home as a historical landmark, as recommended by the Historic District Landmarks Commission of New Orleans, and then require the city to take on preservation activities for the home and allot more funds than the city could likely afford for preservation was in the interests of the municipality, or if the right of the landlord to sell his private property unencumbered by a “historic preservation status” designation, freeing the city from any preservation obligation, was the best course of action.

Thankfully, by the early 2000s, a former New Orleans football star, Pat Swilling, purchased and renovated the property and had it placed on the list of historic New Orleans landmarks, thus saving the home so that future generations could appreciate Hearn’s contribution to the unique psycheogeography of New Orleans. Hearn valued his adopted home of New Orleans a great deal, just as he valued Japan, Japanese people and Japanese culture a great deal, even going so far as to adopt Japanese dress and a Japanese name. As Hearn said of his beloved adopted city in Louisiana, comparing time spent there with his time in Cincinnati, “…it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.” (Hearn, 2001) Thus, the Yakumo Nihon Teien Japanese Garden of New Orleans has been more than rightly named by its four women founders.

Ironically, it was Lafcadio Hearn’s rich literary legacy of New Orleans-based works that laid the foundation for a cultural heyday in the early 20th century there and instigated in the years after his residency there a preservation of the historic Vieux Carré (the French Quarter).  As the well-respected Tulane University Architecture School of New Orleans website notes,

This [Hearn’s] romanticized vision of New Orleans, which persists today, helped to inspire such notable creative figures as activist Elizebeth T. Werlein, artist William Spratling, and many others to take up residence in the Vieux Carré. The ensuing cultural renaissance of the 1920s made the old Creole city fashionable again and, ultimately, played a key part in its preservation.

Mrs. Colleen Camperi Thian

Mrs. Colleen Camperi Thian

When my mother, Mrs. Colleen Camperi Thian, and her three friends got together in 1980 to organize a Japanese garden society for New Orleans to provide a forum for Japanese garden lovers, I have no doubt, due to being a native New Orleanian and lover of its ghostly lore, that Lafcadio Hearn’s spirit hovered over them, just as the ghosts seem to hover about when reading Kwaidan, his seminal Japanese ghost tales compilation published in 1904. Lafcadio’s ghost was undoubtedly benevolent as his continuing gift to my hometown, as channeled through my mother and her three friends, comes in the form of the Yakumo Nihon Teien Japanese Garden of New Orleans, an homage to the beauty that is a Japanese garden and an homage to Hearn himself for his bridging of two worlds:  New Orleans and Japan.

Article Notes:

An interesting collection of 59 letters from Hearn to Page Baker, editor of the Times Democrat, and dating from 1884-1936 can be viewed at the J. Edgar and Louis S. Monroe Library at Loyola University of New Orleans.

Yakumo Nihon Teien:  A Japanese Garden for New Orleans is the website of the Japanese Garden Society of New Orleans: http://jgfneworleans.org 

The Yakumo Nihon Teien Japanese Garden in City Park website is http://neworleanscitypark.com/virtual-tour/japan

Digital Archives: Lafcadio Hearn Correspondence at Loyola University of New Orleans’ Monroe Library http://library.loyno.edu/research/digital/

Hearn, L. (2001) Inventing New Orleans:  Writings of Lafcadio Hearn. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Lafcadio Hearn:  1850-1904: http://architecture.tulane.edu/preservation-project/entity/427 )

© Helene Marie Thian, 2017. All rights reserved.