The Fascinating History of Irish Influence in Japan


St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Japan are growing every year. And this is because Irish people have had an incredible influence on Japan throughout history. Here are some interesting examples.

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Our Irish government ministers and le grand fromage, the Taoiseach, usually jet all over the world to flog Irish wares on Paddy’s Day. Often they will swing by Japan to drum up business and to bang the drum for Irish investment. Paddy’s Day has been celebrated with a parade every year in Japan since 1992 (except after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011). The claim to fame of the Paddy’s Day parade in Japan is that it will be the first in the Northern Hemisphere to start celebrations. And it is the biggest Paddy’s Day parade in Asia, which is really saying something because Asia has a population of 4.3 billion people.

According to the Irish Network Japan, “More and more people in Japan are getting interested in Ireland. In fact, cultural exchanges between the two countries are getting more frequent now.” Around 1500 people will join in the parade. This gives expats and the locals who are interested in Ireland a great excuse to walk in the middle of the road without the danger of getting squashed by cars.


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But why is the bond between the Irish and the Japanese so strong? According to the Irish Embassy in Japan, Irish people have been traveling to Japan for many years, making an important contribution to modern Japan and bringing with them a little bit of Ireland.  The oldest record of an Irish person visiting Japan dates back to July 1704, when an Irish sailor, Robert Jansen, was seized off the coast of Kyushu.

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Jansen, who was from Waterford, and five companions had escaped from the Dutch East India Company in the Philippines and set sail in a small boat hoping to reach Canton. The six were taken prisoner by the Satsuma clan near a small island off the coast and were held in Kagoshima for several days before being transferred to Nagasaki. This was the period of Sakoku, or the chain policy, when Japan closed its doors to the outside world. Jansen and the others were suspected of being Portuguese missionaries and were held until November 1704 before they were finally released and allowed to join a Dutch ship bound for the city of Batavia (present day Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies.

Lafcadio Hearn 1850 – 1904

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Lafcadio Hearn, or Koizumi Yakumo in Japanese, is perhaps the most well-known Irish person in Japan. He was born in 1850 in Greece (hence his first name), the son of an Irish father who was a surgeon in the British army, and of a Greek mother. When a very young child, he was brought to Dublin and raised by an aunt. He attended school in England and later emigrated to the U.S. where he became a journalist, a translator and a writer with a taste for the exotic and the macabre.

In 1890, he first travelled to Japan on an assignment for a magazine and spent the remaining 14 years of his life there, marrying a Japanese woman, taking out Japanese citizenship under the name Koizumi Yakumo and, whist serving as a schoolmaster in Matsue, he became Professor of English Literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo.

Hearn is largely remembered today because he wrote twelve books on Japan. The first and perhaps the most famous, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, was published in 1894. His last book, Japan, An Attempt at Interpretation, was published posthumously in 1905. This was an historical analysis of the transformation of Japan from a feudal society to the rapidly-modernising country of the Meiji era.

As in all Hearn’s books, a note of regret is persistently sounded: regret for the loss of the customs and practices of “Old Japan”, the Japan which Hearn felt was being undermined by the processes of modernisation during the Meiji period. It is perhaps as a result of Hearn’s sympathy and understanding for this “Old Japan” that his work is still so widely admired.

His contribution to Western knowledge of Japan and Japanese culture has been very significant. A special library devoted to books by and about Hearn was opened at the Embassy of Ireland in Tokyo in 1987. To mark Centenary of his death, many commemorative events such as International Symposium were held in 2004 and Japan Post issued a special commemorative stamp.

Father of Japanese Hockey – Revd William Thomas Grey 1875 – 1968

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The Irish are passionate about sport and an Irishman, Revd William Thomas Grey, introduced hockey to Japan in 1906. Born in 1875, Grey left Ireland for Tokyo in 1905 to work as a missionary. The following year, he started teaching at Keio University. Revd Grey has been a keen sportsman as a student in Dublin, where he was a member of the Trinity College hockey team.

Revd Grey taught students at Keio how to play hockey and from this introduction the modern sport of hockey in Japan developed. Grey remained at Keio for twelve years, before returning to Ireland. He died in 1968 and is buried in Dublin. He is still highly respected as “The father of Keio/Japan Hockey.”

In 2005, to mark the centenary of the Keio Hockey Club the following year, Keio students visited his grave and placed a memorial plate in Dublin. They also played friendly matches with Trinity College and other Irish Universities.

The Irish influence has seeped across the whole world. And there’s no stopping us, we march on! Prepare to be conquered!


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