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Home » Archives » March 2006 » How the Irish Saved Civilization

How the Irish Saved Civilization

Monday, March 20, 2006 Posted: 09:56 AM JST

(by Jean Miyake Downey) - How the Irish saved civilization, spread St. Patrick's Day parades (Occidental-friendly Matsuri) throughout Japan, and may be saving civilization again (or at least putting some much-needed goodwill and fun into our shared World Civilization for one day a year).

The outward signs of any Japanese matsuri are the most puzzling enigmas to the stranger who sees them for the first time. They are many and varied; they are quite unlike anything in the way of holiday decoration ever seen in the Occident; they have each a meaning founded upon some belief or some tradition, --- a meaning known to every Japanese child; but that meaning is utterly impossible for any foreigner to guess. - Lafcadio Hearn, 1894

A little less than a century after Hearn wrote these words, the first St. Patrick's Day parade in Tokyo in 1991 joined Japan's many matsuri, with decorations easily understandable to people all over the world. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the first Japanese St. Patrick's Day parade down Omote-Sando's broad, tree-lined boulevard in Tokyo's youth mecca, Harajuku. This year, six parades will be taking place throughout Japan, in Nagoya, Sendai, Kyoto, Ise, Yokohama, and Tokyo.

We know how the Irish saved civilization during the European Middle Ages from Thomas Cahill's 1995 book. However, it remains a mystery why and how Irish people, originating from the far western end of the massive Eurasian land-mass, leapfrogged two continents, to its far eastern end in Japan, making Tokyo an epicenter of ever-increasing waves of St. Patrick's Day parades throughout the archipelago.

These Irish-Japanese parades seem to be generated by enthusiasm at the grassroots level, thus are different from other adopted European-Japanese holidays such as Valentine's Day and Christmas, popularized by department stores for commercial reasons.

There are many issues here that merit scrutiny and discussion by those interested in multiculturalism. What is it about St. Patrick's Day that gives it such strong appeal in Japan? The Guinness? The similarity to Japanese matsuri? The costumes? The music? The dancing? How does the Irish concept Craic compare with the Japanese term Tanoshii? Are they both the same and different? Why and how? Does everyone, in fact, become Irish on St. Patrick's Day? That would make St.Patrick's Day's "Irishness" a meta-culture, which could possibly save contemporary civilization by serving as a much-needed global day of ethnic transcendence for at least one day every year.

Why did Japan become the eastern center for St. Patrick's Day parades? Simply because of geography, because it's at the far eastern end of Eurasia and the Irish could go no further? Or are there more compelling reasons why? And, will these parades now begin spreading from Japan westward through Korea to China to India, in a reverse path from Buddhism? Will Celtic Christian motifs join the syncretic art in the Dunhuang caves in China? Who will be the pilgrims and saints spearheading this movement? Do I hear Enya singing "Sumiregusa" ("Wild Violet") in Japanese in the background?

The St. Patrick's Day parade, now a global cottage industry, has been multicultural from its inception. It was not indigenous to Ireland, but, instead, created in the Irish-American diasporan culture when the first parade took place in 1762 in New York. When Irish immigrants flooded the United States during the mid-1800's Irish Famine, they encountered discrimination by the dominant Anglo-Protestants. As St. Patrick's Day became a rallying symbol for Irish-American pride, parades began proliferating all over the United States.

The story of the Irish in Japan, of course, dates at least back to Lafcadio Hearn, a nineteenth-century global nomad, and an Anglo-Irish-Greek-American-Japanese hyphenate. About a century after Hearn migrated to Japan, Irish engineers, business people, and teachers started coming to Japan in larger numbers when Ireland was in an economic slump and Japan went through its 1980's Go-Go decade.

Around one hundred young Irish teachers come to Japan on the JET program every year. Some Irish students simply come to Japan to study or visit. A sizable proportion of these people have remained to permanently work for a Japanese company, often marrying Japanese spouses. When the Irish economy began taking off in the 1990's, IT and other business networks have developed between the two countries. Japanese companies have established offices and manufacturing plants in Ireland and Irish businesses have come to Japan. There are also 70 Irish pubs throughout Japan, from Kyushu to Hokkaido, the Japan Gaelic Athletic Association, several Irish music and dance groups and schools.

There are now around nine hundred registered Irish residents in Japan (compared to a little over seven hundred Japanese residents in Ireland). Japanese spouses, mixed children, Japanese aficionados of Irish culture, Irish-Americans, and Irish-Australians increase the numbers of the multi-ethnic Irish community in Japan.

One of my most pleasant memories of the Irish community in Tokyo is of an Irish-Indian-Japanese St. Patrick's Day party at the Irish ambassador's house in the early 1990's, where a Japanese virtuoso Celtic harpist played in the background.

The ambassador's wife was from India so they had an Irish-Punjabi fusion cuisine buffet —Irish soda bread served with curry dishes— with Guinness Stout and Bailey's Irish Creme for beverages. When I commented on how great the combination was, a young Irishman told me that India and Ireland actually have ancient connections and that the Irish and Indian languages are related through the Indo-European/Central Asian family. For example, the word for "brother" in Sanskrit is bhratar, and related to the Irish brathair.

Japan and Ireland, of course, don’t share these ancient Indo-European linguistic connections. And while there are many differences between them, they do have more in common besides both being island outposts of Eurasia. In ancient Ireland, before the Christian conversion, the sun was also a powerful symbol. It's said that St. Patrick actually incorporated sun symbology with that of the cross, creating the Celtic cross. Water also served as a regenerative symbol in ritual cleansing and purification. There's a deep love of poetry in both countries. Seamus Heaney, the Irish literary Nobel laureate, is a personal friend of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, who visited him last year.

An Irish friend of mine, married to a Japanese woman, who lives in Japan permanently, told me he felt at home in Japan from the moment he arrived, especially when he saw the spirals and circles in the rock gardens of Kyoto. They reminded him of Celtic art.

Similarly, a Japanese friend of mine told me that traditional Irish music awakened something powerfully haunting inside of him. I told him perhaps aspects of traditional Japanese culture, repressed in Japan during its rapid modernization, but lingering in the collective unconscious, began surfacing in him upon the recognition of a parallel of itself in the traditional Irish musical revivals.

For instance, during the Meiji (1868-1912) modernization period, Japanese schools began suppressing traditional Japanese music and began teaching only classical European music on European instruments. This was similar to when dominant Anglo-Saxon cultures attempted to repress Celtic culture at one time. However, Celtic rhythms have not only resurfaced but are flourishing. In the African-American experience, ancient African rhythms survived the repression of slave culture. One African-American scholar attributes this to persistent "cultural memory." In the 1990's, as a Japanese traditional musical revival began building steam in tandem with the Irish traditional musical explosion (and world music everywhere), I couldn't help but wonder if there was something very old and powerful at play.

Echoing Buddhist thought, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who had his own connections with Japan, including writing a Noh play, "At the Hawk's Well", had another more mystical theory —that we all resonate to archetypal symbols, no matter from which culture, because, ultimately, we are all made of one single energy— and that memories of this unity can be evoked by symbols:

The borders of our minds are ever shifting
And many minds can flow into one another...
And create or reveal a single mind, a single energy


But these are just a couple of possible hypotheses on the topic of the proliferation of Irish parades in Japan, a subject which deserves much more investigation by multiculturalists and, as a toast to this ongoing discussion, I join all those in Japan and elsewhere who say "Erin go braugh" on St. Patrick's Day.

Jean Miyake Downey is a contributing editor at the Kyoto Journal: Perspectives on Asia (www.kyotojournal.org), an award-winning English-language quarterly published in Kyoto, Japan. She covers multicultural and transnational issues. Drawing on her background as a sociologist and lawyer, she takes an interdisciplinary look at the nexuses between historical and contemporary hybridity and fusion; global cultural trauma and historical healing; the revival and survival of traditional and indigenous cultures; and global human rights movements.

With kind thanks to Kyoto Journal for allowing us to publish this article by Jean Downey.

Keywords: opinion_item

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