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Column: ‘Island? Which island?’ – life as an Irish person in Japan

James Joyce? U2? Guinness? No – Halloween is the only thing that earns Ireland any kudos, writes Hannah Quinn.

Hannah Quinn

RAIN AND RECESSION aside, I usually feel quite proud to say that I’m from Ireland when I’m abroad.

I can pretty much count on a positive reaction, undoubtedly including a reference to a great grandfather hailing from Kerry and a lifelong desire to visit his home town on sheep-back, drink Guinness with the locals and have a quaint old time in general. Perhaps that’s just Americans though. (I should mention if this stereotype offends you, this article is riddled with them. Perhaps best to look away now.)

In Japan, however, to mention Ireland is to induce great confusion.

Island? Which island? Ahh, Iceland! No?

Oh. Hmm, how to explain:

You know England and Wales? Not Wales? Okay, well, to the west of England. No, not America – between the two, really. Oh you didn’t know it existed? It does, I swear!

Cue a doubtful expression and me reeling off a list of things Ireland is famous for, none of which ring a bell. I soon realised that the general geographic knowledge of the Japanese is not the best, especially in Nagoya, where I was based teaching English for the last three months. Nagoya is less a cosmopolitan, happening city and more a town to pass through on your way to somewhere more interesting, trying not to stray more than a couple of metres from the train station if possible.

The Japanese relationship with the so-called Western world is an interesting one. On one hand, they appear desperate to be Americanised. Baseball is huge – every Sunday, parks are full of local teams practising or playing against each other, and there are baseball domes in all major cities.

Western-style weddings have overtaken traditional Shinto ceremonies in popularity for Japanese couples, complete with fake churches and fake priests or ministers to make it feel like an authentic Christian experience – despite less than 1 per cent of the population being of Christian faith. Obviously, Disney is huge, along with Harry Potter, Twilight and pretty much any other animated or fantasy film Hollywood throws over the Pacific. McDonalds, Gap, Old Navy, KFC, Converse and various other American brands are commonplace.


Halloween decorations in shops and on the street easily outnumber what we bother with in Ireland, but none of the traditions really follow, apart from fancy dress parties in bars and nightclubs. Christmas is strangely more of a Valentines-type holiday, aimed at couples.  Nonetheless, on the whole, both are a source of general excitement.  In fact, Halloween was the one thing that earned me any respect for being Irish.

That mine was the country that had produced fine writers like Oscar Wilde or James Joyce, musicians like U2, great traditions like Irish dancing or world-renowned drinks like Guinness meant nothing, but when I declared to my students that Halloween began here, not in the States as they had guessed, they looked at my map of Ireland on the wall with fresh respect that lasted a good 20 seconds, at least.

Then there is the staggering amount of beauty products available to women to help them appear more “Western” – skin whiteners, blue contacts, threatening looking sticks to help create “dual” eyelids like Western girls and be rid of the “mono” eyelids that Asian girls naturally have.

Western culture

And so, on arrival, it appears as if the Japanese are rather eager to look as Western as possible. And even from the outside, before visiting, the impression we have is that of a very technologically advanced country – which for some reason leads us to believe that, in turn, it is advanced in all other ways as well. Yet the longer you spend there, the more it becomes obvious that really this is a very traditional country.

I’ve seen more smart phones, tablets and Kindles since returning to Irish shores than I ever did in Japan, even in Tokyo. Computerisation has not fully gripped Japan like it has our fair isle. The national post office, which doubles as the main bank, still operates fully on paper and carbon copies, meaning bank transfers, or something as simple as a balance enquiry, takes much longer than it does here and involves at least five members of staff, bowing and polite and generally making you feel a bit guilty for asking in the first place.

This is a country where appearance is hugely important. Everything is pretty and extremely detailed, from bento boxes, sweets and cakes to kimonos to temples and shrines. Scruffy or shabby do not seem to exist in the Japanese language. I’ve been told that there is quite a lot of keeping up with the Joneses, with a big emphasis on having the latest, the most expensive, the best brand or label – be it your washing machine or shoes – and that this leads to high levels of personal debt.


Appearing Western is just another part of this. But really, not many people know who won the most recent American presidential election, what we eat for Christmas dinner (not fried chicken which is, bizarrely, the common belief), that Whitney Houston died or where or what Ireland is.

And who’s to say that they should know all of this? Not I, who can’t even name a Japanese politician or speak more than a few basic words of the language after three months living there. A certain distance from the Western world is what makes Japan and Asia in general such an intriguing place for us to visit.

Besides, the lack of knowledge about Ireland lent me a completely blank slate to work with – a breath of fresh air when we usually have to bat away the booze and spud jokes. So if anyone from Japan asks, we invented the wheel, made the first trip to space and Walt Disney was from Tipperary, okay?

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Hannah Quinn is from Ireland, but is living and working in Japan, teaching English. You can read more on her blog, Lost In Translation.

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Hannah Quinn

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