Exquisite Carps | How My Hot Dog Meal-Deal Came With a Japanese-Irish History Lecture

The Hiroshima Carp won their first baseball league pennant in twenty-five years the day my girlfriend and I visited Kobe City. The news hardly blew us away. Had it not happened however, one hot-dog chef would not have stepped out of his bar under the city’s main railway line to erect a chalk board.

A former player himself, on this day he wore the full kit under his blue and white striped apron and to celebrate the achievement further, he came up with a meal deal, written in red and white, which declared,


This was the sign we stumbled upon by pure chance after deciding our plan of action was to hunt for a bathroom and two beers. It was not the promise of baseball food that captivated us. We hadn’t gone to Kobe for wieners. Kobe is not renowned for being wiener country. Simply, this place presented itself the very moment we laid out our next objective.


Just inside the doorway sat four customers, spread-eagled across a green astro-turf carpet. Practically blocking the entrance, this might have forced us to reconsider, were it not for the main server, a woman named Mai Murakami who encouraged us to go just a little futher, until eventually we were inside and guided towards an outdoor picnic table. She wore a baby-blue woollen hat. It bobbed as she said giddily; “A picnic concept. Beer picnic! Night picnic!”

A fast food woodland paradise, glued onto every surface was something worth ogling at. Branches had been moulded into the walls on which somebody had painted more branches leading the eye towards shelves of compact-discs, mandolins, tablas and nylon string guitars. The kitchen was a wooden shack with a roof made of straw. It was a fire-hazard, there’s no other way one can look at it. The bar counter was hidden under photo collages and spirit bottles, it was a miracle that the whole thing remained upright, and the coat hangers seemed to suggest the cast of Fraggle Rock were lurking somewhere off-screen.

“American?” a customer asked, partially scribbled on a highball.

“Airurando”, we responded.

Either everybody cheered, or froze here. I cannot remember exactly.

Mai stood up and pointed towards a poster, which I was amazed we had missed: a large illustrated map of Ireland tacked onto the counter. Our little revelation had clearly excited her. She skipped back towards the counter to fish out a bottle of Jameson, before then ducking out of sight momentarily, only to re-emerge with a flute.

This, she proudly declared, was hers.

Dumbfounded, we were, as she went on to explain how she was a flautist in a Celtic-fusion group fresh from touring their second album. It was overwhelming to hear her, all of a sudden, opine obsessively about music from the Old Country, but honestly, the main surprise came next when she told us that pretty much the entire clientele were either Irish folk musicians and fanatics.

As she went o, the man with the highball proceeded towards the CD shelf to pick out her album in order to play it through the system. Announcing himself to be dancer, once an ethereal version of ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ kick started, he sought to prove himself as such by breaking into a jig, arms flailing anarchically.

isawa shuji ????????
Isawa Shuji

The entire spectacle remained a curiosity for weeks. How had they connected with this music? Why might a Japanese person gravitate towards anything Irish?

Nostalgia, apparently.

In order to understand this, one must go back to 1875. Seven years had passed since the Edo Period concluded and the Meji Restoration began, a transitional period in Japanese history when the country re-opened its borders after two centuries.

During that year, a young Japanese scholar named Isawa Shuji was ordered by the Ministry of Education to relocate to the USA in order to study Education. Previously a school principal in the Aichi Prefecture, instead he chose to enrol at Harvard to study Music. It was there that he befriended another Japanese student named Tenetaro Megato with whom he would attend the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia during 1876.

Unlike Isawa, Megato knew little about Japanese music, which was unfortunate, because he found himself being hounded by an American man in his late fifties who had come to admire the Japanese stall. This man, Luther Mason-Whiting was a tad dismayed. He had visited the stand to learn more about the country’s music. Yet the sole aspect of Japanese culture he came to inspect had been overlooked completely.

Mason-Whiting was an author, a music collector, a composer and a teacher, born in Maine, but working in n. Equipped with more questions than Megato could handle, the exasperated student decided to introduce him to Isawa. The pair hit it off immediately. This fellow left a strong impression on Isawa, detailing his teaching methodologies in such depth, that within a short space of time, Isawa had already envisaged Mason-Whiting as a vital asset to his scheme to revolutionise musical education back in Japan.

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The Opening Day of the Centennial Exhibition, May 10th, 1986

Isawa eventually returned to Japan in 1878, but still he remained determined to use Whiting-Mason to fulfill his dream. Hence he began a lengthy effort to coax the teacher overseas, repeatedly petitioning for the Ministry of Education to hire this man to assist at Isawa’s proposed Music Study School. The Ministry were reluctant, and held off on following through with any of Isawa’s ideas until 1880, when at last they caved and invited Mason-Whiting to take up residence in Japan. What they wanted was for Mason-Whiting to share his insight into American music with Japanese school children. However, upon his arrival in Yokohama, the planned collaboration changed somewhat.

The moment his boat docked, Mason-Whiting set to work on educating himself further about the scales and patterns in Japanese folk compositions. His objective was to draw parallels with American music, but, in doing so, he came to a realisation. To teach Japanese children about American melodies alone would be to give them a second-rate schooling. They needed to gain a broader scope, an appreciation of European music. Hence, he decided to include folk melodies from Ireland, Wales and Scotland into his planned textbooks.

In choosing to deviate somewhat from the initial plans, what would then proceed to happen is indeed still quite extraordinary. Once his textbooks were completed and distributed, the students seemed to gravitate towards the Irish and Scottish melodies, the former generating appeal when he added to them Japanese lyrics.

Giving rise to Shoka, a genre of children’s songs, noteworthy for their distinct use of western scales, the collaboration between Isawa and Mason-Whiting also spawned what would later become the Celtic-fusion subculture, which has grown particularly popular in the Kansai region as subsequent generations were to grow-up reading his textbooks.

In effect, Ireland’s musical heritage became a coming-of-age soundtrack for many Japanese school-children at the turn of the century. As the nation embraced modernity, Irish folk music took on even greater significance, becoming a means of triggering happy memories from an upbringing in a slightly more rural country.

This was not though, strictly a phenomenon for a select number of generations who would have been underage in-and-around the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. According to the ethnomusicologist, Jennifer Milioto Matsue, for those who matured after the sprawl consumed much of the nation’s countryside, Irish folk music served a slightly different purpose. It became a genre which transcended reality almost entirely. Irish music conjured up images of a lost land, idyllic, pure and entirely fictitious. Ireland was less a country, more a utopia within the listener’s mind, nothing close to what the country has ever actually resembled. It was and remains to many not so much an actual place, more a frame of mind.

haruki murakami ????????
Haruki Murakami

There is of course, one major literary representation of the phenomenon, twisted somewhat to fit the genre of science-fiction the phenomenon. The novel Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami is an example, wherein the idea of Irish music as a means of triggering past memories is deployed as a crucial plot device.

The story, set in two juxtaposing worlds, follows an unnamed protagonist who has accidentally found himself trapped in an emotionless inner-dystopia after his mind implodes in 1980’s Tokyo. Determined to escape from the eerie village, where music, shadows and memories do not exist, by chance he comes upon a box, identified later as an accordion. He fiddles with it, unsure what exactly he is supposed to do, until somehow he manages to produce a hazy rendition of ‘Danny Boy’. All of a sudden, dim memories return to him from what we know to be both his past and a parallel world, and with this epiphany, he gains a certain confidence in his being able to flee from the confined inner-space.

Returning to the present day, and my own situation, I must note an intriguing final piece of information here, this being the circumstances which led to Haruki Murakami becoming an author. While one can argue that he may eventually have committed such a story to paper regardless of what he claims, still, it is interesting to point out that his incentive to start writing came as an epiphany at Jingu stadium during April of 1978. Sitting, watching Dave Hilton hit a double for the Yakult Swallows, Murakami wrote that this spectacle sparked the thought, “I think I can write a novel”. It was the opening day of the season, and of course, who else would the Swallows be playing, but the Hiroshima Carp.

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