Events

Irish eyes are smiling in Japan

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

The first ever St. Patrick’s Day parade in Tokyo made history for a number of reasons — least of all for the fact that it was the first such parade in Asia, and it unfolded on a sidewalk in Roppongi.

On March 15, 1992, a small contingent of Irish and Japanese left the Irish Embassy en route to a record store called Roppongi Wave. Dressed in emerald green, the group was led by a man playing the bagpipes. The spectacle went mostly unnoticed, which was probably just as well because the parade had not been sanctioned.

The following year, the parade moved away from Roppongi to the genteel surroundings of Omotesando-dori, a tree-lined boulevard stretching from Aoyama Street to Meiji Shrine.

The first parade in Omotesando featured a similar lineup of folk dressed in green, but this time included a few Irish dancers and musicians playing traditional Irish music.

“You can imagine the strange looks we were getting from pedestrians,” recalls Rieko Yamashita, a set dancer and chairperson of CCE Japan, a volunteer organization that promotes Irish music and dance worldwide.

Nearly 30 years on from those first tentative steps in Roppongi, the Irish have proven they certainly know how to draw a crowd. These days, the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Tokyo attracts upward of 50,000 spectators, while more than 100,000 people take in the “I Love Ireland Festival,” which is held on the same weekend in nearby Yoyogi Park.

From Hokkaido to Okinawa, parades and festivals are held throughout March to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day and celebrate a wide range of cultures, including Irish culture.

As to why St. Patrick’s Day has caught on in Japan, former Irish Ambassador Anne Barrington says there’s definitely an affinity between the two cultures.

“St. Patrick’s Day is the celebration of a good man who came to Ireland in 432 and who was, by all accounts, in tune with nature and our Celtic heritage,” Barrington says. “Then there’s the openness of Japanese people to absorb new ideas and make them their own — and make them fun.”

People take part in a St. Patrick
People take part in a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Yokohama’s Motomachi district in 2018. | COURTESY OF HIDEKI MIMURA

Hit parades

“We’re in 14 prefectures this year,” says Hideki Mimura, a 10th-generation potato farmer from Kanagawa Prefecture who has been involved in the management of every parade in Japan. Fifteen years ago, he founded the annual parade in Yokohama, near his hometown.

“It’s very much like the parade in Galway,” Mimura says with a laugh.

In 2017, Mimura became the only Japanese citizen to receive a Presidential Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his support for the Irish community.

“My goal is to establish a parade or a festival in all 47 prefectures,” he says.

If Mimura pulls that off, he could eventually become an honorary Irish citizen — or, at the very least, find a pub bearing his name.

How did a small island on Europe’s periphery that’s roughly the same size as Hokkaido with a population half that of Tokyo’s manage to get Japan excited about a jig, Gaelic football, W.B. Yeats and The Pogues, as well as regularly turn landmarks such as Ise Shrine and Yokohama Marine Tower green in March?

Call it “soft power” if you want, but the Irish possess a culture that’s good craic — something fun and welcoming to all.

This spirit of inclusiveness is clearly evident in the St. Patrick’s Day parades and festivals held in Japan.

When Rob Hennesey from Dublin first organized a parade in Fukui Prefecture two years ago, he welcomed anyone who was interested in joining.

Irish setters take part in a St. Patrick
Irish setters take part in a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Yokohama’s Motomachi district in 2018. | COURTESY OF HIDEKI MIMURA

The Irish population in Fukui largely necessitated this course of action, with a grand total of four people in the prefecture having come from the Emerald Isle.

“Most of the people here have never heard of Ireland,” Hennesey says. “They don’t know what it is or where it is.”

Undaunted, Hennesey contacted a local international group, spread the word among musicians in the region and asked volunteers from Irish Network Japan and veterans such as Mimura for advice.

At Fukui’s inaugural parade in 2017, the parade was led out by a “very professional looking” fire brigade band.

“Because we had asked the (Irish) ambassador to attend, the mayor of Fukui wanted to get involved,” Hennesey recalls.

Naturally, Hennesey invited everyone. The result?

“There was staring,” Hennesey says, “but it was a bit of a carnival.”

This year will be the third time Hennessy has organized the parade in Fukui. He’s now overseeing a team of 60 volunteers, more than half of which are Japanese.

Over in Yokohama, Mimura has targeted the diaspora.

“Even though Ireland is a small country, they have a big family all around the world,” says Mimura, referring to the sizable global diaspora with Irish heritage.

Mimura used his contacts in the U.S. military to secure the services of the U.S. Army Band, who is set to lead the parade along a shopping street in Motomachi featuring red setters, local rugby clubs, dancers, musicians and, of course, a man dressed as the patron saint of Ireland himself.

While plenty of St. Patrick’s Day events will be held nationwide, Tokyo typically takes center stage on March 17. The capital hosts the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in Asia, which this year is expected to feature a U2 tribute group, musicians on bagpipes, geisha, beauty queens, people dressed as Guinness cans, a Brazilian samba troupe and more leprechauns than you can shake a stick at.

It’s a smorgasbord of highly organized cultural stereotyping, but it’s all good craic.

People dance during a St. Patrick
People dance during a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Yokohama’s Motomachi district in 2018. | COURTESY OF HIDEKI MIMURA

Local identity

Apart from figures such as writer Lafcadio Hearn and Eileen Kato, an Irish-born adviser to the royal family, there’s little history between Ireland and Japan.

Irish immigrants have never flocked to Japan in large numbers. There are no direct flights between Tokyo and Dublin, and Ireland is more often than not overshadowed by an even smaller island nation: Iceland. The two countries sound similar in Japanese, and their relative proximity leads to further confusion.

The Irish community in Japan is small, numbering around 1,300. That said, what the community lacks in size it makes up for in clout, particularly when combined with the efforts of those involved in the wider community — the considerable army of Japanese fans of Ireland and Irish culture who help run organizations such as Irish Network Japan and Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Japan.

Irish Ambassador Paul Kavanagh says that Ireland and Japan share a mutual respect for “other cultures.”

“The Irish wouldn’t dream of coming into another country and feeling that somehow that the other culture is strange or that you are in anyway above or superior to another culture. The starting point naturally for us is one of curiosity and respect.”

This is a point echoed by Ayumi Miyano, who works with the Ireland Japan Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo, one of the organizers of the “I Love Ireland Festival.”

“I personally feel we (Japanese and Irish) don’t make our points in public,” Miyano says, “but place more of an emphasis on friendship.”

Musicians and fans enjoy an event called Wild Rover, a jamboree in Tokyo
Musicians and fans enjoy an event called Wild Rover, a jamboree in Tokyo’s Shibuya district that has been supported by the Irish Embassy for the past 15 years. | COURTESY OF HIDETO HIRATA

Cultural exports

Two of Ireland’s most famous exports are cultural: music and pubs.

“Irish music has contributed very much in popularizing Irish culture here in Japan,” said Kazuo Oikawa, a professor at Waseda University and author of “The Harp and Green.”

“After Enya emerged and U2 was awarded a Grammy in the mid-1980s, an increasing number of Japanese began to realize that Irish music was totally distinct from British or American music.”

But even before the success of acts such as The Cranberries reinforced this image, millions of Japanese school children grew up listening to Celtic music from Scotland and Ireland — albeit Japanese versions of it.

Tiger McRover, lead singer of Tokyo-based Irish punk band Pinch of Snuff, recalls the surprise he felt when one of his seniors from high school introduced him to The Pogues. The music, he says, was both familiar and nostalgic.

“It triggered this lifelong interest in Irish music,” says McRover who sings with the same lackadaisical gusto as Shane MacGowan, frontman of The Pogues.
“It was only then that I realized the songs I had heard so often in school, such as “Hotaru no Hikari,” is the Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne,” and “Niwa no Chigusa” is originally an Irish folk song called “The Last Rose of Summer.”

McRover’s Pinch of Snuff is just one of the many punk outfits that will perform later this March at an annual event called Wild Rover, a jamboree supported by the Irish Embassy that, for the past 15 years, has been uniting Japan’s Celtic punk bands in Shibuya for a huge party that goes on all day and all night.

Musicians play during an event called Wild Rover, a jamboree in Tokyo
Musicians play during an event called Wild Rover, a jamboree in Tokyo’s Shibuya district that has been supported by the Irish Embassy for the past 15 years. | COURTESY OF HIDETO HIRATA

For Hideto Hirata, owner of the Cluracan Irish pub in Tokyo, the idea for the event came about as a result of the parades. It’s a festival of Irish punk and a lot else with it.

“I want it to be a festival where people find new music,” Hirata says. “For example, an Irish music lover would come and listen to bluegrass and be like ‘What is this?’ and someone else might come to see a specific band and end up finding out about Irish music.”

The other genre of Irish music that has gained considerable popularity in Japan, especially in university circles, is traditional Irish music. Japanese musicians have taken up the concertina, fiddle, flute, tin whistle, harp and, of course, the bodhran (drum) in droves. Here again, the Irish Embassy works closely with CCE Japan to bring over some of Ireland’s top musicians to tour Japan and give workshops.

“The Japanese take their trad (music) very serious,” says Mikie O’Shea, a fiddle player and Irish music teacher from Cork who is living in Tokyo. “I have had two fiddle students who went to live in Ireland for a year — one who still hasn’t come back four years later.

“Japanese musicians in general tend to be very knowledgeable about tune names and histories, and are often gobsmacked when I don’t know the name of a tune I have just played.”

Kozo Toyota, a multi-instrumentalist and veteran of many a Fleadh Cheoil — the holy grail of Irish music festivals held annually in Ireland — comes from a family of musicians. He studied ethnomusicology at Tokyo University of the Arts, but only fell down the rabbit hole of Irish traditional music in his final year. His obsession drew his family in.

“Up until then, we never played together,” Toyota says. “However, when I started playing Irish music, my parents would accompany me on guitar and my younger brother would join in playing with chopsticks on a bowl or a plate.”

This communal aspect of Irish music has made it popular all over the world, especially here in Japan. It yearns to be played with other musicians and in public. That setting is often, but not exclusively, a pub.

“Music brings people together, gets people relaxed and chatting to each other and that’s what going to the pub on a Friday night is all about,” says Evelyn Cullen from Donegal, assistant bar manager at Man in the Moon in Kyoto.

Organizers of the St. Patrick
Organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Yokohama’s Motomachi district pose for a group photo in 2018. | COURTESY OF HIDEKI MIMURA

Watering holes

Although Irish pubs are ubiquitous in Japan nowadays, they were a new concept that needed explaining when they first started popping up in the early ’90s.

Declan Somers, originally from Carlow, was working at Paddy Foley’s in Roppongi in 1994 and he remembers the confusion that ensued when he mentioned where he worked.

“Honestly that phrase (Irish pub) did not work,” Somers recalls. “They all thought I worked in an ayashii (suspicious) pub. That’s the level of profile we had. At least now everyone knows what they mean.”

Irish pubs have become all things to all people. They’ve long been a gathering spot for foreign residents, visitors and curious locals, a place for musicians to gather and, as Somers says, “the pub also acts a bridge for people interested in Ireland to find out a little bit more about the country.”

“I’ve always thought we should be honorary consulates, because for a lot of Japanese people we are the first point of contact with Ireland,” says Mark Gardiner from Cork and manager of Molly Malone’s in Hiroshima.

Go Yamada, a tin whistle player with punk band Junior, became obsessed with Irish culture via his interest in music.
Go Yamada, a tin whistle player with punk band Junior, became obsessed with Irish culture via his interest in music. | COURTESY OF GO YAMADA

Go Yamada, a tin whistle player with punk band Junior, became obsessed with all things Irish via his interest in music — and the color green. For 10 years, he died his hair the color of the Irish flag: green, white and orange.

“At the end of the day,” Yamada says, “what I love the most is the pub culture.”

Will Ryan from Tipperary, co-owner of An Solas, a traditional music spot in Shibuya, says there’s also a bit more freedom in an Irish pub compared to an izakaya (Japanese tavern).

“Japanese people tell me that if they go to an izakaya or a restaurant with their bosses or co-workers, they kind of feel like they’re stuck at the one table and can’t move around,” Ryan says. “Whereas when they come into a pub, they can go to the counter or wherever they want.”

One thing Ryan is particularly proud of though — and it’s a sign of the times in Japan — is that almost immediately after opening the pub in 2014 he attracted a group of older Japanese men from the neighborhood.

“It turned out a lot of them lived very close to each other but hadn’t seen or spoken to each other,” Ryan says. “It’s kind of like if you opened up a pub in the back parts of Tipperary, you get guys in and it becomes a meeting spot for them.”

In late September, space at Irish pubs might be at a premium, given that Japan is likely to see its biggest influx of Irish visitors since Japan co-hosted the Soccer World Cup in 2002.

Ryan’s already told his wife that she shouldn’t expect to see him for seven weeks.

Participants stand on Omotesando-dori during a St. Patrick
Participants stand on Omotesando-dori during a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Tokyo in 2018. | COURTESY OF IRISH NETWORK JAPAN TOKYO

Sporting ties

Although Japan and Ireland didn’t meet in the 2002 Soccer World Cup, the two sides face each other in this year’s Rugby World Cup at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, which incidentally will have its first St. Patrick’s Day festival this year.

An army of Irish fans — an estimated 10,000 supporters are expected from all corners of the globe — will be hoping to win more than hearts and minds, although they’ll probably do that too.

Somers, who recently stepped down as chairperson of Irish Network Japan Tokyo, says that Irish fans took a very Irish approach to assuaging the Metropolitan Police Department’s fears of hooliganism in 2002.

Somers remembers a time in 2002 when a crowd of Irish supporters left Paddy Foley’s one night and marched up to a line of riot police standing in front of water cannons. They started boisterously singing the chorus of Paddy Reilly’s “The Fields of Athenry.”

“Two days later, the entire mood (of the police) had changed,” Somers says. “The riot police had disappeared. They realized they’d got it all wrong.

“The Irish did make a positive impression and it was all done through drinking,” Somers says with a wry smile.

Emmett Bowen, the Melbourne-born chairperson of Irish Network Japan Tokyo, believes 2019 will be “an amazing year for Japan and Ireland.”

Although Bowen will be cheering on Japan, Australia and Ireland, he’s rooting for an Irish win — his father is from Cork, his mother from Galway.

“The Rugby World Cup is going to be the cream on top of the Irish coffee,” he says.