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  • Irish Music and the Experience of Nostalgia in Japan
  • Sean Williams (bio)

The year 2002 saw the first Saint Patrick's Day parade in Kyoto. It coincided with many other such parades around the world, including ones in Tokyo, in Seoul, and in Singapore. Japan has dozens of Irish pubs with names such as Murphy's, Ryan's, or Paddy's, and many of them feature Japanese musicians playing live Irish music in weekly seisiúns. In October of 2003 the current incarnation of the Riverdance stage show appeared on its third tour in Nagoya, Osaka, Tokyo, Sendai, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. Japanese enthusiasts of Irish culture might have been able to catch Riverdance if they weren't already tied up by a harp festival, Irish traditional music camps, set dancing classes, productions of plays by Irish dramatists in Japanese and English, poetry readings in Irish and English with and without Japanese translation, or visits to the 250-seat Finnegan's Bar and Grill at Universal Studios Japan™ in Osaka.

Staying in contact with each other by means of the internet, posters, and performances, Japan's Irish music enthusiasts have ample opportunities to experience a type of Irish culture in diasporic relocation. Consumers of Irish music and those interested in Irish culture generally might be surprised to find Irish music in Japan, or—in particular—to find Japanese people deeply drawn toward Irish music, culture, and notions of identity. Yet the rules of citizenship for the Irish are so generous, compared to many nations, that anyone—including a Japanese person—may be an Irish citizen provided that one grandparent was born in Ireland. This would extend citizenship to the likes of Che Guevara, Muhammad Ali, Tony Blair, Alex Haley, or Alfred Hitchcock. This article focuses primarily on Japanese consumers of Irish music, acknowledging, though, that the peripatetic Irish have established lively diasporic communities across the globe.

I was a professor-in-residence at a branch campus of Kobe University in the Kansai area of Japan, teaching American music history.1 Prior to my arrival I had sent messages by e-mail to the Japan branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the international association of Irish music enthusiasts. Within a few [End Page 101] days I had received multiple welcoming messages from Japanese colleagues, eager to share their interest in Irish music, dance, and language. The development of these connections was crucial to my ability to at least partly understand the current status of Irish music in Japan. It was certainly typical of at least one aspect of the essential Japanese fieldwork experience: knowing someone who knows someone else (kone: "connection or influence"). I attended seisiúns and Irish dance classes both as an observer and as a participant, hung out with Japanese musicians, singers, and academics, gave presentations and lessons in Irish singing, and even got a gig at Universal Studios in Osaka as an "Irish singer." In each case there was an active sense of community on the part of the Japanese participants, and a deliberate engagement with "Irishness" on many levels, from using their first names with each other (and me), to physically performing the mannerisms of Irish musicians in seisiúns.

One of the most striking revelations of this work in Japan was not the prevalence of Irish music, dance, and literature, but rather the profound sense of nostalgia generated by the performance of Irish culture. This performance of culture could include, for example, "Danny Boy" played on the shakuhachi, the Irish national anthem sung full blast by trainloads of Irish soccer fans en route to World Cup events, or my own renditions of sean-nós or old-style songs to everyone from housewives to academics to domestic tourists hoping for an "authentic" Irish singer. People who recognized the tunes as Irish exclaimed frequently (and sometimes tearfully) that Irish music reminded them of their childhoods, or their home, or their mother's singing. However, many other people with whom I spoke were very pleased and surprised to hear that their great Japanese folksong tradition had reached outside their borders and had been translated into English, or even Irish. I was treated to renditions of Irish songs in...


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