Differences & similarities between Irish and Japanese people
by Naoko Yamashita
Ireland and Japan are really at opposite ends of the world from each other, so who would expect to find similarities between us? We have different eating habits (the Irish are meat-oriented while the Japanese focus on fish and veg), different religions (mostly Christian versus mainly Buddhist), different ways of greeting people (the Irish shake hands or hug while the Japanese usually bow without physical contact) and so on.
Japanese people are generally so organised, so tightly scheduled, that the easy-going Irish sometimes give us a false impression of just being lazy. Some Japanese even get annoyed and criticise your haphazard way of doing things. However, things don’t always go as planned anyway! At the end of the day, especially in relation to the unexpected, Irish flexibility and quick response amaze us a big time!
Despite such contrasts, the Japanese feel a great sympathy with Irish people, and are very comfortable in this emerald island. In fact, Ireland has a strangely intense emotional impact on many Japanese visitors. Once they have been here, they put Ireland on their ‘home away from home’ list and even miss it when they are back in Japan! Some come back again and again...
It seems that Japanese people find similarities to the Irish deep inside even though we seem very different on the surface (hope the Irish feel the same about us!). Maybe this is not so surprising? After all, Japan too is an island nation (even though it’s five times the size of Ireland), which might have had a similar impact on our mentality over the centuries...?
W. B. Yeats was inspired by Japanese culture and created masked dance-dramas such as “At the Hawk’s Well” based on the style of our traditional Noh plays. The Japanese – even when they aren’t quite sure how to find Ireland on a map – are similarly fascinated by Yeats’ work, much of which had already been translated early in the 20th century. I believe this mutual fascination is because they felt quite close to each other, off course not physically, but mentally and spiritually.
As I said earlier we are mainly Buddhist, but we also practise an ancient Japanese religion called Shinto. For example, we go to Shinto shrines to make wishes for the new year, but we turn to Buddhist priests for funerals. There is no conflict at all between the two, just as you Irish merge Christianity with Celtic traditions… which is great! I think this unusual religious background makes us quite similar in ways of feeling and thinking.
Like the Irish, Japanese people are usually superstitious, love nature, and are fond of myth and legends. One of our great stories, “Urashima-Taro”, should sound quite familiar to you.
Taro was young man who was taken to paradise and given a magic box by a beautiful princess. She said, “Don’t ever open it!” but (as usual) he gave in to temptation. The instant he opened it, he became on old man… Essentially the same story as that of Oisín and Tír na nÓg.
Not many Japanese speak English but our many similarities help us break through linguistic and cultural barriers and feel great empathy with the Irish.
2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Japan. I hope that more Irish and Japanese people take this opportunity to build bridges between us!