Did you know that Asia’s oldest and biggest St. Patrick’s Day Parade takes place in Tokyo? Despite having a diaspora community of less than 2,000 Irish people, Japan has been embracing St. Patrick’s Day since the early 1990s. EPIC reached out to the Irish community in Tokyo to find out why…
After a three year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, the I Love Ireland Festival and St. Patrick’s Day Parade was back on the streets of Shibuya in March 2023. Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Ireland in Tokyo, Peter Neary, has been living in Japan for four years and explains that the long absence gave rise to “a renewed appetite and enthusiasm” for the festival’s return which has been welcomed with a “mixture of pride and relief”. Peter explains that throughout its 31 year history the Tokyo festival has always been “open and inclusive” with a welcoming ethos for Irish and non-Irish communities alike.
The significance of the day is also felt by Irish Americans in Japan, where there is a sizable American diaspora. While the Irish Embassy and community play pivotal roles in the organisation of the St. Patrick’s Day events, Peter also acknowledges the contributions of the affinity diaspora: people who have no Irish heritage and may never have lived in Ireland, but who are connected to us by friendship, by commerce or by a love of Irish culture.
When the Tokyo Parade began in 1992, the small Irish community of mostly teachers, business people, financiers and missionaries in Japan were very isolated from home. Before the era of Zoom and social media, Japan really felt like the other side of the world. Although communicating with loved ones and travelling back to Europe have become a lot easier, St. Patrick’s Day in Tokyo remains an important bridge between two very different cultures. Andy Kavanagh, a Gaming and Media Localization Director who has lived in Japan for 9 years, describes his first encounter with the I Love Ireland Festival in 2015: “Walking around Tokyo when I do hear the English language, I only ever hear it with a British or American accent. When I got to Yoyogi Park for my first St. Patrick’s Day in Tokyo I couldn’t believe how many Irish accents I was hearing! I’ve even become friends with some of the Irish people I’ve met here at the St. Patrick’s Day festival.”
When asked what aspects of Irish culture appear to the forefront of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Tokyo both Peter and Andy had no hesitation in answering: Irish Traditional Music. Peter explains that Irish music is extremely popular in Japan, “Japanese people feel passionate about Irish music, even if they can’t quite put words on why.” In the late 1990s Riverdance took Japanese audiences by storm and Irish dance schools can today be found in Tokyo and Yokohama. There is also an all Japanese Trad Group called Dé Domhnaigh who have a growing fanbase in the country and Makoto Nakatsui from Hokkaido is one of the few master Uilleann Pipe craftsmen in the world.
For Andy, the connection that Japanese people find in Irish music is at once bizarre and humbling. For those Japanese people who take Irish Trad seriously, there is a level of expert knowledge and respect for the artform that Peter similarly describes as unparalleled. It is this resonance between cultures, particularly in music, art, and literature that is so enthusiastically celebrated by the Tokyo Parade.
Of course, the Tokyo Parade is also a means of promoting Ireland in Japan. Something echoed by both Peter and Andy is that general knowledge of Ireland within the Japanese population remains quite low. While the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan and head to head Ireland vs Japan fixtures in the 2019 Rugby World Cup created much better awareness of Ireland in the minds of Japanese people, Ireland remains a lesser known country, culture and people. Andy jokes that in Japan, “the Irish are so rare we’re something like shiny Pokemon cards.” While they still find themselves explaining that Ireland is not Iceland, nor England, nor Scotland, Ireland’s relative obscurity can also work in the diaspora’s favour – in Peter and Andy’s experience, Japanese people hold no negative stereotypes about Ireland which presents exciting opportunities for open minded cultural exchange.
Japan also has a history of seasonal celebrations, with street parades, music, dancing and pageantry being a regular feature in the seasonal traditions of most regional festivals in Japan. Perhaps this is why “the sense of fun, celebration, green and good naturedness of St. Patrick’s Day”, as Peter describes it, has translated so well in offering a moment of brevity from the pressures of life in central Tokyo.
Visit EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum to learn more about Music and Dance, Global St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations, and the many diverse ways that Irish culture has grown and evolved around the world through the impact of Irish emigrants and diaspora communities.
Amano Miura, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum
Clayton Lea, Tony. (1999), ‘Japanese tapping in to the world of ‘Riverdance’, In: The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/japanese-tapping-in-to-the-world-of-riverdance-1.160341
Department of Foreign Affairs, (2020), Connecting the Global Irish: Our New Diaspora Strategy https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/usa/news-and-events/news-archive/connecting-the-global-irish-our-new-diaspora-strategy.html