The Irish rugby presence in Japan has been busy on two distinct fronts over the past fortnight.
Saturday: Ajinimoto Stadium, Tokyo, 6.40am (Irish)
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
TV: eir Sport 2
On one hand, Joe Schmidt and his management team have been running the rule over a young and inexperienced squad, while also taking notes for when they return here in two years for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
That tournament is really the focus for Schmidt but there is also a big effort being put in to secure the Japanese vote later this year for Ireland’s bid to stage the 2023 event.
The Irish delegation presented their 2023 RWC bid to the Japanese union on Monday, having done likewise in the USA at the outset of the tour.
Schmidt, of course, has overlapped on both efforts. On Monday night he made a presentation of a signed Irish jersey at half-time in an American Football match at the Tokyo Dome, winning the crowd over when he made his address in Japanese.
Last week he was headline speaker at a function organised by the Japan-Ireland Chamber of Commerce, which also included chambers from Australia, New Zealand and Britain, while on Friday he led several players and management through a coaching session with 70 children in Hamamatsu prior to the first test.
There is a small IRFU delegation busy on the ground as well — several more are in New Zealand and Australia pressing the flesh — and they too have been making an impact.
Ireland stopped off in New Jersey en route in an effort to copper-fasten the US vote, but the Irish need no introduction in America.
It’s different here in Japan though. Put simply, very few have ever heard of Ireland, you notice it checking into hotels or chatting to people in the bars and restaurants. The Japanese rugby fraternity knows of Ireland but they are just a dot in a population of 127 million.
IRFU veterans such as president Stephen Hilditch, Martin O’Sullivan and Declan Madden know how to work a room. They might be far too diplomatic to point out to the Japanese that Ireland voted for them to get the 2019 World Cup but you can rest assured the message has got across in the translation.
Being drawn in the same pool as Japan for 2019 has changed the dynamic of this tour and aside from the sporting benefits, the socio-economic spin-off for Ireland will be huge.
The Irish community in Japan is quite small, only about 1,200 living here. Last year around 10,000 Irish people visited Japan but only 20,000 Japanese — out of a population of 127 million, don’t forget — travelled to Ireland.
The Irish Ambassador to Japan, Anne Barrington, believes that could change a lot after 2019.
“Japan is already familiar in Ireland. I think we should accept that. We know about Japan, we admire its culture, its friendly people. The great thing about what’s happening with the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics is that perhaps Ireland will become familiar in Japan. It’s wonderful that we are in the same group in the Rugby World Cup.
“And when it begins in 2019 there will be millions upon tens of millions of Japanese people turning on their TVs around the country to watch Ireland. And Japanese people will be curious about Ireland because they will do the research and they will find out where it is and what sort of country is playing against their country.
“It’s a huge opportunity for Ireland to become much much better known in this country. The Rugby World Cup is our springboard into that,” said Ambassador Barrington.
She has been ambassador in Japan since 2014 and her term will come to an end the year before the RWC, but she is confident that Irish visitors for the tournament and for the Olympics a year later will be overwhelmed by the welcome which awaits them in this astonishing city and country.
“They will be astonished at the friendliness and the warmth that they receive here. The Japanese people are so welcoming, they have this word that they use — omotenashi, which means a Japanese welcome. They pride themselves on making people feel welcome and comfortable. The level of service in this country is second to none so everybody will feel welcome and at home when they come here.”
Up to now it is mainly a cash society, it’s difficult to use credit or debit cards — remarkably, availability of wi-fi is also an issue — but Ambassador Barrington said changes are being implemented.
“They are working very hard to make everything user-friendly for tourists, people who obviously can’t speak Japanese. So that in the subway, for example, which is a wonderful system, the cleanest I have ever come across in the world, everything is in English as well as in Japanese. It’s a very easy system to work, it’s very cheap.
“There is no need to use anything but the subway going around this city, apart from walking of course which is fantastic as well. Everything is made for convenience. This is a cash society but by 2019 there will be more accessibility towards credit cards and non-cash systems.
“And indeed Irish companies are working hard to help Japanese people do that. But it’s such a safe society that you can carry cash around here absolutely no problem whatsoever. People ought not to feel in any way as if there’s a security issue. There is none.
“It’s the only place in the world where you can put down your iPhone and go and get your cup and coffee and come back and your place is kept for you with your iPhone. You can feel completely safe in this country,” she added.
This is the 60th year of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Japan, but Ambassador Barrington said the link goes back much longer and that this connection will be reactivated when the Rugby World Cup comes round.
“We have a wonderful Japanese community, people who are interested in Ireland and Irish culture. They are drawn to our music, they are drawn to dance, they are drawn to some aspect, maybe Yeats or Heaney, or some aspect of Irish culture has drawn them in and they want to celebrate it. They love to party. Japanese people really do love to party and they will look for any excuse to do a good party. From that point of view Ireland and Japan have great affinities between our two cultures.
“Our cultural relations go way back. And if you think about Gulliver’s Travels, the only real country that is mentioned in that book is Japan. And then of course there is the great connection with Lafcadio Patrick Hearn who came here in the 1890s and wrote numerous books about Japan and interpreted Japan for the west essentially in a most sympathetic way. He is absolutely beloved here, he really is. A part of an icon for Ireland. And then of course the interest Yeats had in the Noh Theatre. It’s a big thing here and Japanese people love his work and really appreciate the fact that he revered Japanese culture. There are all these connections and then there is obviously the more modern stuff, Anuna is massive here. Enya is very, very big, she came here last year to do a charity concert for a charity we support, ‘Support Our Kids’, which brings people from the area devastated by the earthquake over to Ireland. The Chieftains are coming here in November. Anuna will come back again. All these things are continuous inter-cultural exchange between Ireland and Japan and the 60th anniversary gives us that hook on which to put a lot of this.
“In the greater Tokyo area you are talking about 23 or 24 million, Yokohama to Tokyo are growing all the time actually. It’s a massive urban conurbation but with the best transport system you could possibly imagine. The ease of getting around is fantastic. The food is wonderful. When I came here first I didn’t realise you don’t just look at ground level when you are looking for a restaurant you have to look up or look down because they are in basements, they are up on the fourth floor, they are up on the 24th floor.
“It’s a question of trying to find out from somebody helpful and there are hundreds and hundreds of helpful people, where are the best places to eat. Your hotel or wherever you are staying will give you recommendations and you can rely on them. The Irish who come here in 2019 or to the Olympics will enjoy Japan.”
The icing on the cake, of course, would be a favourable decision later this year which would see Japan coming to Ireland for the 2023 World Cup.It won’t be for lack of effort, given the amount of work which is being put in on the ground.
Saturday’s concluding test against Japan will take place at the Ajinimoto Stadium in a Tokyo suburb — and not that minds need to be focused, but that’s where the opening ceremony and first match of 2019 Rugby World Cup will take place in just over two years.
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