Irish Music in Japan - History

See also postings: Sessions 'abroad' - Japan and Irish Pubs/Sessions Kansai
State of play: There is considerable interest in Irish music in Japan. Most record shops have an Irish section and the live circuit for visiting artists is pretty solid. Native Japanese players form a small but strong and wide-reaching national network via pub sessions, bands and players' clubs (incl. university circles), webmailing lists and SNS e.g. Facebook and Mixi. While some travel overseas to festivals others link to the international scene via internet (mainly from G4 mobiles).

History: The first Irish music in Japan was heard around 100 years ago, its seeds sown by government policy and focused on song. Irish song tunes were first introduced to the Japanese population by the Monbusho (Ministry of Education) during the Meiji Restoration (turn of 20th Century). New text books presented folk songs from all around the world, Ireland included, as part of a cultural expansion policy to counter previous national introversion. Melodies of such songs as The Last Rose of Summer and Sally Gardens were given Japanese lyrics and generations of school children sang them as part of the National Curriculum. As those kids grew up to be consumers - record collectors, concert goers, and soothed by background music - Irish melodies (particularly the pentatonic ones) fell into the 'nostalgia' bracket, the much loved songs of childhood, and homely rather than foreign. These can be regularly heard today as piped music in shopping areas, stations and hospital waiting rooms.

Later, landmark contributors to Japanese interest in/exposure to Irish music include: 
- the 1960s/70s folk revival (incl. DIY music); 
- the 'Bubble' era (1980s) with its accompanying booms in travel, wealth, and English language learning;
The Chieftains in Japan (1992); 
- Universal Studios Japan in Osaka (1994-), modelled on New York, with its Irish pub Finnegan's hosting (resident and visiting artists') Irish sessions; 
- Riverdance (1999); 
- Celtic Woman (2006 (?));  
- the internet
- the Irish Embassy/ Irish Tourist Board
- and Guinness.

Pubs/Breweries: It is perhaps not surprising that Western pub culture plays no small part in exposure to Irish music in Japan. Japanese bars had long (since 1920s) been host to 'nagashi' or wandering minstrels leading japanese enka singalongs with accordions or guitars. 
Sapporo Breweries has been importing stout from Guinness since 1964, but the relationship between the two companies expanded in October 1995 when Guinness began manufacturing Sapporo Premium Lager in Ireland. To celebrate this intensified link, Sapporo employed the popular Japanese singer-songwriter and TV personality, Takaishi Tomoya, who had visited Ireland and played fiddle and banjo, to tour Japan in a celebratory musical marketing push (+). He had previously included Irish tunes and foreign players in his performances since the 80s. Some of those were from the small number of ITM players in Kyoto who were playing in each others houses, at the Pig and Whistle and occasionally in a restaurant or live house. Then the first officially 'Irish' pub in Japan, Murphy's in Osaka, was opened in 1992. The owner was a music lover who opened with the specific purpose of hosting Irish gigs and sessions. 
There are currently over 80 Irish pubs in Japan: six in Kyoto (the oldest is Field (1992) and the newest, Gnome (Nov 2007)) 45 in Tokyo, and others reaching from Hokkaido (the northern island) to Okinawa in the south. Before the Irish pubs, there were/are many other British and Scottish theme pubs - the 'British-style Pub' chain, Pig and Whistle's Kyoto branch (est. 1987) hosted Kyoto's first Irish music pub-sessions in the late 1980s. 
Session music in Japan is certainly buoyed up by the 'Irish' pubs, although it undoubtedly precedes them. It is also worth mentioning that the Irish label of a pub venue can cause other acoustic music, be it English, Scottish, Bluegrass, Scandinavian or Eastern European, to be perceived/assumed to be Irish.
Click here for photos of music at some of these venues. 
(Nov 2008 news - the Guinness-Sapporo partnership is due to end in 2009 to be replaced by a new partnership with Kirin Breweries).

Internet etc: Besides the obvious benefits of inter-Japan networking, publicity etc, the availability of internet and auto-translation software now enables Japanese players to exchange easily with overseas forums, artists, instrument makers, and has opened up previously inaccessible print. Some sites such as My Space, YouTube etc. automatically appear in Japanese, I guess translated at the server.

St Patrick's Day in Japan: There are widespread St Patrick's Day celebrations in Japan (in 8 cities in 2007 between 3rd March and 1st April). The first parade in Kyoto was 2002; in 2007 it included a team of beautiful Red Setter dogs dressed in green and orange kimono.
St Patrick's Day in Japan Links:
A brochure, "Ireland Festival" is produced by the Embassy of Ireland in Japan - it lists all the St Patrick's Day parades in Japan, and participating venues.
Article about St Patrick's day parades in Japan (Williams, Sean 1959-/Irish Music and the Experience of Nostalgia in Japan/Asian Music - Volume 37, Number 1, Winter/Spring 2006, pp. 101-119/University of Texas Press.)
Video: St Patrick's Day Yokohama 2005>
Kyoto Journal Article

Other info:

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