The Irish have had an ability to make a mark all over the world, not just in the big emigration destinations of Britain, USA, Canada and Australia.
There’s something in our DNA that sparks into life when we spread our wings.
How else do you explain about the city of Fukui, in the north-central coast of Japan, directly across from North Korea? At the last count it had a population of 265,408. Three of them are Irish and yet earlier this year they had a St Patrick’s Day parade and over 500 attended.
The Irish ambassador to Japan, Anne Barrington, told how proud she was that an Irish population of just 1,200 in a country of 127 million could make such an impact.
How do you explain how a young fella from Cloyne in Cork, Luke Dillon, could move here three years ago to work and become a chairman and ‘county board’ official in Japan and Asia?
Or how Colin Hickey from Kildare, 10 years here now, is coaching around 50 GAA players and teaching the skills of Gaelic football?
They field a Japan team in the GAA’s Asian Games, most of the lads involved are Irish but most of the women — aged between 25 and 50 — are Japanese.
I spent a most enjoyable dinner with these two lads and two of the players, Maya Wada and Naomi Higuchi, at a downtown restaurant on Thursday night and the chat from them was no different to a GAA club anywhere in Ireland.
The issues are the same: Getting venues for training, getting numbers attending, sorting gear and making travel arrangements.
But solving the issues isn’t as straightforward as it is back home.
Open space (or any space) is hard to find in Tokyo. They train on an astro-turf surface, it’s only meant to be for soccer so if anyone raises an issue about this funny game, they just say it’s practice for goalkeepers.
They are preparing for the Asian Games. Recent finals have been held in Shanghai, about a four or five-hour flight across to China while this year it will be a seven-hour trek to Bangkok. But they get on with it. It’s a good network with home and then there is the expansion, the meeting of new friends, as Japanese players take up the sport.
A highlight will come this August when the women’s team will play an exhibition game in Croke Park at the interval in one of the All-Ireland quarter-finals. The majority of the players will be Japanese.
But some have taken a different approach, immersing themselves in the local culture. John Gunning from Roscommon is one such man.
He came to Tokyo on holiday about a decade ago, fell in love with the place and set down roots, teaching English and doing other jobs.
Oh, and becoming a sumo wrestler.
Yes, Ireland’s first sumo wrestler is from Roscommon.
He took up the sport, gained an understanding of what’s involved, worked at it and went on to become an international, representing Ireland in world championships. By any stretch, that’s some achievement.
He now runs a media sports business and has been a huge help to the Irish team here in Tokyo.
On Monday night the Irish team and the few hacks reporting on them were invited to the Tokyo Dome for an American Football match where IBM BigBlue and OBIC Seagulls battled it out for the East Japan Shakaijin championship final.
Gunning, Castlerea’s finest, organised the tickets and at half-time Ireland’s Welsh-born captain Rhys Ruddock, along with coach Joe Schmidt from New Zealand, made a presentation to the head of the American Football organisation in Japan.
The world just seemed to get a small bit smaller.
There is nothing small about this city. We got to see a good bit of it this week. There are loads of Irish pubs, or at least they are in name. Most are owned and run by Japanese business people and most are staffed by slow bartenders from Australia and New Zealand.
Along with the wi-fi and the credit card situation, which we highlighted last week, this is another area of their game they’d want to improve before 2019.
But there is nothing slow about the millions of tiny little food stalls — it’s stretching it to call them restaurants — which are dotted on every street. They are busy during the day but really burst into life after 6pm, tiny little haunts with great food and massive hustle and bustle.
Some of the sushi restaurants where we have been based are stand-up affairs, with no tables in sight. A great plateful of God-only-knows fish will set you back no more than €6 or €7 and you’ll be welcomed in the door and cheered out of it with everyone in the place bowing and rejoicing. It’s some place.
The contradictions we highlighted last week continue. It’s illegal to smoke on the street, there are smoking shelters provided like the units now in Irish pubs. The fine for smoking is 2,000 Yen, about €16.
Or, to put that in terms of the beer index, the cost of two pints in the pubs around our backstreets. It might get you a beermat in some of the upmarket hotels.
It won’t be cheap for rugby fans. I visited one of the Capsule Hotels — they are coffin ships. Stacked two high and maybe 40 of them in a room, they are tiny ‘capsules’, about a metre wide and a metre high, which you climb into. They have television, bed, etc and stretch in for about a metre. They’re scary.
There are only 1,200 Irish, including children born here, living in Japan, so rule out crashing on someone’s couch.
But, then again, the Irish have prospered abroad and for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics, they will do just fine. Just as the Irish always have when they spread their wings, same as it always was.
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