Abe and Akie at the Áras: whistle-stop tour runs over as couples chat

Culture shock as Japanese diplomats politely but openly ponder the Irish interpretation of ‘schedule’

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe, during a courtesy call to President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina at Áras an Uachtaráin yesterday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe, during a courtesy call to President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina at Áras an Uachtaráin yesterday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Thu, Jun 20, 2013, 15:35

The gleaming black cars outside the Herbert Park Hotel yesterday morning moved off at speed like a row of expertly-laid dominos. At the head of the motorcade was the vehicle carrying Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe to their first call of the morning, Áras an Uachtaráin.

Japanese media
Among those following were about 50 journalists from the Japanese media, virtually all of them dressed formally in black. Even the photographers – not a profession known for their sharp tailoring – wore suits and ties. The large media contingent was a sign of how seriously this visit is being taken in Japan, where Mrs Abe is as as famous as her politician husband.

From a wealthy family who made their money from confectionery, Mrs Abe received a Catholic education at the Sacred Heart School in Tokyo. She has worked in advertising, was for a time a radio DJ, known as “Akky”, and is a self-proclaimed fan of soap operas, particularly those from South Korea.

President Higgins
At Áras an Uachtaráin, President Michael D Higgins was wearing an unseasonably warm-looking green tweed suit, when he and Mrs Higgins greeted the Abes with courteous bows in the State drawing room. Mrs Abe wore a grey dress with a matching jacket, and a pearl necklace. She carried a green silk scarf, perhaps in deference to her host country.

The two couples retired for tea and a private conversation, while the media were quietly banished next door, where the fireplace stacked with turf briquettes was an object of much fascination to several of the Japanese press corps. They were possibly the most-photographed briquettes in all of Ireland yesterday.

In the bucolic, pastoral setting of the Áras, where a field of cows were grazing in the sunshine, someone had let the dogs out. The Higgins’s two Bernese Mountain dogs were on the loose in the driveway. A security guard chased them through the flowerbeds as elegantly as was possible give the size of the animals. The scheduled conversation between the couples over-ran by 15 minutes. The over-run had the Japanese diplomats politely, but openly, baffled by the Irish interpretation of “schedule”.

From the Áras, Mr Abe travelled to Government Buildings to meet Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and Mrs Abe went on to Glasnevin. She has a particular interest in education, and had requested to visit a school while in Dublin. The school chosen was Scoil Chiaráin, on St Canice’s Road in Glasnevin, a school for children between five and 18 with special needs.

Outside, the bright flowers were bursting out of the window boxes at St Chiaráin’s, and inside, lungs were bursting as the assembled students practised their welcome. Mrs Abe was greeted on arrival by the school principal, Valerie Monahan, and presented with a bouquet of pink roses by pupil Helena Vasilu.

School visit
On the corridors inside, there were posters stuck up with the children’s names – Ryan, Peter, Ciara, among many others – in Japanese and English. Mrs Abe watched a short private performance, where some children sang and others showed off their Irish dancing.

Outside in the school courtyard, where Mrs Abe was due to raise an FEE flag newly-awarded to the school for their recycling achievements, the flag was trying to raise itself in the sudden breeze that got up.

Mrs Abe duly raised the flag, and took the time to shake hands with all the children who had come out to the courtyard to witness it.

Her final formal engagement of the day was at Trinity College Dublin. Mrs Abe was greeted by librarian Jessie Kurtz on arrival at the Long Room. She had a private meeting with former students who had participated in the college’s Japanese Exchange Teaching programme. She also saw the Book of Kells, and the Brian Boru harp.