Mina Ishihara, 43, first visited Ireland in 1995 when she was a student at Tezukayama Gakuin University in Osaka, her hometown, where she studied English and linguistics. On that trip she visited Galway, a lively cultural city on the west coast of Ireland, partly because the professor who organized the trip had studied there many years before and was “fond of the city.”
While it was only a two-week trip, her stay in the city left a lasting impression.
“I kept going back to Ireland,” she says, recounting how she returned a few more times while traveling in Europe during her student days.
After graduation, Ishihara veered away from academia, preferring instead to work in a more manual way.
“I’ve always liked handcrafts and using my hands. So I took a course in papermaking in Osaka. While I was doing that and making notebooks, I met an American lady who told me about a bookbinding course in Tokyo.”
One day, while at the Tokyo bookbinding course studio, another student happened to be reading a book about Irish bookbinders. Ishihara asked if she could take a look in the book, and made a note of the two binding companies that were mentioned — one in Muckross House, one of Ireland’s most famous Victorian estates in Killarney, County Kerry, and the other, Kennys Bindery, a family-run outfit in Galway.
Living abroad, especially in Ireland, as opposed to just visiting had been on Ishihara’s bucket list. So in 2002, while on vacation in Ireland, Ishihara visited both binders on a fact-finding mission, but also to ask about job openings.
As it happened, the boss at Kennys had visited Japan the previous year and “he had a good impression,” Ishihara recalls. “He also needed one more person (on staff).”
Ishihara says her timing was fortuitous. Ireland was midway through an economic boom that had begun in the mid-1990s and which came to be known as the “Celtic Tiger.” It was a period of profound societal change, too, as Ireland reversed a long trend of emigration. For the first time in centuries more people were moving to Ireland than leaving.
“He (the boss) offered me an apprenticeship first and then a job after that,” says Ishihara. “I was 26 going on 27 at the time and I wanted to live abroad before I turned 30, so I thought ‘Yeah, this fits.'”
Kennys Bindery had already done library book binding work for two universities in Osaka, and with the addition of Ishihara it had an Osaka-native on staff.
Ishihara’s plan was to work for just a year. But, at the end of term, her boss asked her if she wouldn’t rather stay on. One year turned into two years, and then another, “and I’m still here,” Ishihara says laughing.
As a small company, the team works on all kinds of publications, explains Ishihara. That includes everything from student theses to books that have been passed down through generations.
“We do all sorts of things. It could be repairing old books, people bring in Bibles and old cookbooks,” she says. “Or it could be making a nice cover for a book.”
When she first moved to Ireland in 2003, immigration there was on the uptick, but the vast majority of it was from within Europe. Japanese workers in Galway were a tiny minority, and there wasn’t much of a community either. For some locals, Ishihara remembers, Japan was an unfamiliar entity.
She laughs when she recalls a conversation from her first year in Ireland, when a former colleague asked her, “Do you have televisions in Japan?”
“Now, 16 years later, people say things like ‘I’ve been to Japan,’ or ‘my friends went,’ ‘my family went,’ or ‘I want to go,'” she says. “People are a lot more interested and want to know more about Japan.”
Since she has moved there, Ishihara has seen a couple of sushi restaurants open, including one run by Toyota-native Yoshimi Hayakawa, another longtime Japanese Galway resident. Kennys Bindery, Ishihara says, made the menus for the launch earlier in the year. The city has also become home to Akumakon, Ireland’s longest running anime and manga convention, which was first hosted in 2010.
With a population of around just 80,000, Galway now punches above its weight when it comes to arts and culture. The European Union has designated it one of 2020’s European Capitals of Culture, and it is currently preparing for the major event.
It is also surprisingly cosmopolitan, given its size. Ishihara’s daughter, who is Japanese Spanish, attends an Educate Together school, a nongovernmental organization-run institution that focuses on inclusivity and equality.
“The parents of children who go to the school come from about 50 different countries,” she says. “So it’s so multicultural.”
For Ishihara and her partner, the past 12 years have been extra busy focusing on raising their daughter. But that in itself, she says has given her the opportunity to meet more people in Galway.
She speaks mostly in Japanese to her daughter, who, she says “has an Osakan accent now,” and they usually visit Japan for a short trip each summer so they can meet family and indulge in Japanese food.
Outside of her work and family commitments, Ishihara also volunteers at the Galway Judo Club where she coaches a class of advanced teenagers.
“I started doing judo back in high school,” Ishihara says. “Our coach was really good and I got my 1st dan black belt at 17.”
Though she hadn’t practiced judo for a long time, when her daughter took up the martial art seven years ago in Galway, she returned to it.
“There aren’t as many black belts here as there would be in Japan, so I started to volunteer and train a bit,” she says. “We have five classes a week for kids and teenagers, and while judo is a minor sport in Ireland, it’s great that we have it.”
Ishihara says it’s the multicultural vibe of Galway, that keeps her there.
“I really enjoy my life in Galway,” she says. “For the size of the city — it’s actually more like a town — but there are so many nationalities and there’s so much going on here.”
“When the sun is shining, it’s so beautiful, too,” she adds, before mentioning that the past few days it had actually been raining. “But it can also be cold,” she ends laughing.
Name: Mina Ishihara
Key moments in life and career:
1995 — Visits Ireland for the first time
1998 — Graduates from Tezukayama Gakuin University in Osaka
2001 — Takes a bookbinding course in Tokyo
2003 — Moves to Galway, starts working in Kennys Bindery
2007 — Gives birth to her daughter
2012 — Joins local judo club and begins volunteer coaching
Things I miss about Japan: “Family, food and the weather!”