My uncle Willie was based in Kamitori Cho, Kumamoto City, in the most southern part of Japan before he retired to Dalgan Park, Nr. Navan, Co Meath, Ireland in 2005. From photos that he showed me, the church was very small in comparison to churches in Ireland. He was proud to tell me of a church he built in Japan. I think it might have been in Shimasaki, but I’m not exactly sure. He was a very organised meticulous person. He would have made a great business-man, just like his brother Ned (R.I.P) in Knock – whom he told me was a Kavanagh through and through. (Ned Kavanagh of St. John’s Manor and a grand-uncle of theirs was a very successful business-man with over a hundred men working for him in the threshing and shipping business when times were very hard in the thirties and forties)
After the church was built he was moved. It was not very nice hearing him speak of the shift to another parish that had very serious financial trouble. There was sheer frustration and annoyance in his voice. He felt terribly let down. He was ordinarily of a very gentle quiet disposition, but this move really got to him badly. He felt so bereft. He wasn’t given a chance to relish his new creation. I know this kind of thing happens all the time in the church.
He was a fluent Japanese speaker. He was very much in demand when diplomats and Japanese political and business parties arrived in Ireland, as he was indeed an expert in Japanese culture and international studies and also had a professional way in handling them on a business level. The Japanese, he said, have their own unique way of creating business deals. He claimed that they never rush in to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a hurry, as do Westerners who have that inclination generally. They mull over stuff till they wear themselves blue in the face, notwithstanding all the politeness to boot, till they finally come to agreements. They are so fastidious with words. Those who spoke Japanese were very few and far between in Ireland in days gone by, so he was well sought after by one and all.
The following pointers are very typical of the kind of stuff Willie was telling me about Japanese behaviour. I remember getting infuriated at the rigidity of their ways and the way women were treated. I remember telling him that it was hard for me to contend with the regimental ways of the Swiss, despite my huge respect for them as a people. He said that the Japanese lifestyle would not be suitable to my temperament.
- Those who dress according to their status or position impress the Japanese. Dress to impress.
- Men should wear dark conservative attire. Business suits are most suitable.
- Casual dress is never appropriate in a business setting.
- Shoes should be easy to remove, as you will do so often. Slip-ons are the best choice.
- Women’s dress should be conservative. Little emphasis should be placed on accessories. They should be minimal.
- Women should not wear pants in a business situation. Japanese men tend to find it offensive.
- Women should only wear low-heeled shoes to avoid towering over men.
- A kimono should be wrapped left over right to do otherwise symbolises death.
- Remember the Japanese phrase “The nail that sticks up gets hit with the hammer” when considering your choices for attire in Japan.
- Avoid using large hand gestures, unusual facial expressions and any dramatic movements. The Japanese do not talk with their hands and to do so could distract your host.
- Avoid the “OK” sign; in Japan it means money.
- Pointing in not acceptable.
- Do no blow your nose in public
- Personal space is valued. Because the Japanese live in such a densely populated area, they value their personal space.
- A smile can have double meaning. It can express either joy or displeasure. Use caution with your facial expressions. They can be easily misunderstood.
- The Japanese are not uncomfortable with silence. They use it to their advantage in many situations. Allow your host to sit in silence.
He said that the women behind closed doors though spent a lot of time pulling each others hair out. It was common for them to have to be separated in the women’s baths. This was their way of getting rid of all the pent-up angst. The men on the other hand went to the men only pools and laid back and relaxed. Or they went to love-in hotels. Japan, I concluded was definitely a man’s world.
I thoroughly enjoyed the hours he spent talking to me about the culture and ways of the Japanese. He thought and ate and lived like one even when he was at home. I guess having spent 45 years in their midst that would only be natural.
He stood 6ft-4inches and in the photos that he showed me with the parishioners he looked like Gulliver standing in the middle. The loud red and white church attire only lent to the enormity of his stature. He was very happy in Japan, I could tell that, as he found it terribly difficult to adapt when he came home to Ireland. He could not fathom why so many young and older people just sat around doing nothing. He said that the Japanese were so industrious and always kept themselves busy with work.
In 1934 two Columbans came to Japan to learn the language with a view to evangelisation work among the Japanese living in Korea. Another joined them two years later. The three remained doing pastoral work until 1939 when they returned to Korea. The Japan Region was initiated in 1948. Within two years there were 20 Columbans. These were soon joined by a number of the Columbans being expelled from China during the revolution there, and some who came from the battlefields of the Korean War (1950-53). There was continued assignment of newly ordained priests each year until 1965. The Region peaked with over 90 priests in 1960s. At the moment there are 53 priests (average age over 60), one volunteer priest, four students and five lay missionaries assigned to the Region
I remember my uncle telling me that foreigners are not all that easily accepted in Japan. However they do respect those who try to follow their cultural ways. Because of his priesthood status and his command of the Japanese language he was very highly respected by the Japanese. He said there were tremendous integration difficulties regarding Koreans, even those who were for hundreds of years residing in Japan. They were still classed as outsiders. Despite their insular ways, they were the most polite people he’d ever encountered in his life. He travelled far and wide, like the rest of his family, and would be very cognisant of that fact. He would laugh out loud as he would tell me what they thought of the ‘hairy caucasian’ meaning himself. ‘He was very whimsical’ said mama. I so agree with her sentiment. I remember him telling me that the Japanese claimed that the Westerners had a different pong. Well, that would make sense, evolutionary wise – wouldn’t it?
He always said that ‘the Japanese were the hardest nut to crack. Meaning, that conversions did not come all easy.
I used to be fascinated looking at him reading his Japanese missal, as he sat in the old Edwardian chair belonging to his grandmother at the home in Fairfield, where he was born and reared, when not at boarding school at St. Peter’s in Wexford. He loved stretching his long legs whilst looking out the big bay window that was none the best for wear. He grew up on a farm, but there was none of the farmer about him at all.
I would ask him to read out loud to me from the missal and that he did. I was so mesmerised with the ease with which he spoke this alien tongue. I pleaded with him to teach me some Japanese. Konnichiwa (which means hello or/and good afternoon) and hagimehashite (pleased to meet you) he would holler out, which I then repeated after him. Or when he was on the mobile phone you would hear a quick swish of moshimoshi, moshimoshi = hello, but only on the phone. when you first pick up the phone.
“Moshi ” means ” if ” but moshimoshi is another thing, it’s not the same. You probably won’t see “moshimoshi” in the dictionary? When he went to London after his holidays = en-route to Japan I got great pleasure upon phoning him and mirroring back to him all he taught me in the Japanese lingo. He claimed that the priests who went out on the Japanese mission who never kept up the lingo skills were least happiest in Japan. I also found it to be the same in Switzerland. One has to immerse themselves in the ways of their host country totally.
I so loved being in his presence and listening to him tell me all the stories about the places he visited regularly in a country that was his second home. For example he went on at length about the horrendous nightmarish atrocities of Hiroshima.
Being a vey fair-skin person he found it very hard during the summer months in the sweltering heat of Kumamoto City. The humidity levels were utterly unbearable to withstand; the sweat would be dripping off him and his short-sleeved shirt would be dripping wet. He always felt exuberant when the mini monsoons came. He was always relieved to come home to Ireland. Unfortunately, they were only allowed to come home very seven years, but as he got older that was shortened to four years. Well, in his case anyway.
I know that the people of his parish in Kumamoto City and other Japanese cities where he resided and did ministry work will be remembering him, as a lot of them were very faithful to him and were very sad when he returned to Ireland for good. Their loss however was my gain. (I’m sorry that E.R, never managed to see him in person).