Historian: Japan-Irish relations far predate formal ties

The Japan News

Michael Kennedy speaks at Waseda University in Tokyo on Tuesday.

By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff Writer Not everyone knows this, but the first version of the Japanese national anthem was composed by an Irishman.

Irish diplomatic historian Michael Kennedy shared that and other facts with the audience in a lecture at Waseda University in Tokyo on Tuesday evening.

Kennedy extensively covered the origin and development of the bilateral ties in his talk, titled “Shared commitments, enduring connections: Charting the history of Irish-Japanese diplomatic, cultural and economic relations.”

“Strong cultural, transnational and missionary links predate the formal development of diplomatic relations between both countries,” said Kennedy, highlighting Ireland’s engagement with Japan nearly a century before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1957.

The historian referred to such Irish people as author Lafcadio Hearn (known in Japan as Yakumo Koizumi), who made a significant contribution to Japanese literature, and John William Fenton, who created the first version of “Kimigayo.”

Born in Ireland under British rule, Fenton came to Japan as a bandmaster with the British Army in 1868, the first year of the Meiji period. He subsequently wrote ceremonial music for the “Kimigayo” poem on the occasion of Emperor Meiji’s inspection of military troops, although this version is different from the current melody of Kimigayo.

Ireland gained independence from Britain in 1922.

In the lecture, Kennedy, the executive editor of the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series at the Royal Irish Academy — the nation’s leading academic body — also shared findings from archival research on the not-always-easy diplomatic path that the two countries walked, including two world wars and the struggle to open an Irish Embassy in Tokyo in 1973.

The lecture was held by the Irish Embassy and Waseda University and attended by about 300 people.

The two countries have since further nurtured ties despite being halfway around the world from each other, with especially growing momentum regarding trade links.

Now the European nation faces a crucial phase in Brexit negotiations over a border issue, which could threaten the Irish economy. Speaking to The Japan News after the lecture, Kennedy stressed that Ireland has opened up greatly in the past 60 years, making Japan even more important.

“What Japan means to Ireland at the moment is a place that we can develop our common bonds to do more business with each other to develop our economic relations,” he said.

“Britain is our traditional neighbor, obviously, and we have a very individual relationship with Britain, but that shouldn’t stop us from having important relations with other countries,” he added. Speech

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