By Shane King
Next week the Mullingar air will be filled with music, with impromptu sessions taking place in every corner of the town’s streets, pubs and hotels. Ironically, the same jigs and reels can be heard thousands of miles away in the world’s most populated city: Tokyo, Japan.
Although over 9,500 km away, our rich culture of music, song and dance has had a receptive audience in Japan for decades. The Chieftains have been touring there for almost as long as they’ve been around, even inspiring a Japanese group called The Lady Chieftains.
That a small but studious cohort of Japanese musicians have taken to the fiddle, flute, concertina and uilleann pipes is not in itself surprising.
As Noel Kenny, a concertina player living in Achill Island, and frequent visitor to Japan, says, “There are people playing Irish trad music all over the world and, in this sense, Japan is no exception.”
Because of the distance – both physically and culturally – the Irish music scene in Japan has developed on its own terms. The craic is also different.
In 1991 Japan Comhaltas was approved as an official branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann. The first ever Asian branch was set up by Irish man Éamonn Ó Caoimh who was living in Japan at the time. He recognised the interest in Irish music in Tokyo and surrounding areas and created a platform for these musicians to meet up for sessions and learn to perfect the art of Irish music.
Since the inception of the branch over 30 years ago, Japan CCÉ has gone from strength to strength and now has over 60 members. Sean-nós, céilí and set dancing classes are held regularly along with monthly music lessons in a variety of instruments.
The branch have also played host to some of Ireland’s finest musicians who have visited the musicians in Tokyo to offer workshops in their respective fields.
A major milestone for Irish music in Japan has been the establishment of Féile Tokyo, from which musicians can qualify for the competitions at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. Although Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Japan was first established in 1991, Féile Tokyo has only been running since 2016, supported by the Irish government and the Irish embassy in Tokyo.
But it’s the combined effort of the 60 members – musicians and dancers – of CCÉ Japan that have brought Tokyo and Japan into the global Irish music community
This year, there will be seven musicians and eight dancers making the journey across the world to Mullingar to compete at the fleadh.
In 2016 at the Fleadh Cheoil in Ennis, the Toyota Céilí Band – no connection to the car manufacturer – made history by becoming the first Japanese and Asian Céilí band to play in an All-Ireland fleadh. The audience in Ennis rewarded them with standing ovations.
Fiddle player Hisako Yagoshi and dancer Rieko Yamashita have been making the trip from Tokyo to Ireland for the Fleadh over the past five years, with the exception of 2020/21 due to the event being canceled amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
They said that they love to visit Ireland for the fleadh and the Willie Clancy festival in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare each year.
Rieko, who lived in Ireland for seven years, said she fell in love with Irish music from the first time she experienced the ‘unique’ tradition.
“I have been involved in Comhaltas for around 30 years now. In 1991 the Japan Comhaltas branch was set up in Tokyo. At the time, nobody knew about Irish music or dancing. There were some Irish people living around at the time and they set up the first ever Asian branch. I joined and I said I would love to help” she said.
Hisako, a fiddle player with the Japanese group, spoke about her love for Irish music and how she got involved with the branch.
“I have been involved with the branch for the last seven or eight years. I wanted to learn Irish music. My hero is Martin Hayes so I decided to learn the fiddle. I used to live in a very rural area in Japan. I moved to Tokyo and found some people that played Irish music and I had the opportunity to join in sessions and lessons.” Hisako said.
The group will be traveling to Mullingar to enjoy a week of music. The Japanese musicians will be playing at a special overseas concert in the Mullingar Arts Centre on Thursday August 10 and will be joined by musicians from Britain, Europe, North America, Australia, South America and the Middle East.