Lands of the Rising Sun – An Irishman’s Diary about Cork, Japan, and running before breakfast

Whenever Cork GAA supporters congregate in large numbers, it has become the norm for them to co-opt the national flags of countries that share their colours.

Perhaps this reflects the county's ambitions for global domination – a Leeside empire on which the sun never sets. In any case, the Japanese flag invariably features. And as I discovered at last weekend's Experience Japan festival, Cork's imperialism is more than usually justified in the context.

For it is to a Kinsale man, apparently, that the Land of the Rising Sun owes its national anthem. Not the current one, exactly, although there remains a strong link between that and the original. But the country didn't have an anthem at all until 1868, when a bandleader named John William Fenton arrived in Yokohama and suggested it acquire one.


This was the time of the Meiji restoration, when Japan adopted a constitutional monarchy and reopened links with the West. Fenton was there with his British army unit to protect foreigners from hardline supporters of the old shogunate. And after inviting his hosts to select a suitable lyric – they chose a 10th-century poem in praise of an unnamed monarch – he wrote the score and had his band perform it before the emperor.


It may be less pleasing for citizens of the PRC – People's Republic of Cork – to hear that the lyric was chosen for its similarity to God Save the Queen (although we might as well note here in passing that the phrase "Rebel Cork" has royalist, not republican, origins).

In which light, they might be relieved to hear that Fenton’s music was soon judged to be insufficiently sombre.

In 1880, while the lyrics were retained, the score was replaced by one from a Japanese composer.

But Fenton’s version is still played regularly in Yokohama. And there and elsewhere, the Corkman is revered as Japan’s “father of band music”.

A few years ago, on the 140th anniversary, his US descendants (he died in California) were invited to a ceremony in his honour.

The Experience Japan festival drew thousands to the Phoenix Park last Sunday.  Coinciding with cherry-blossom season, the country’s annual April celebrations climax this Saturday with a day of talks in UCD.

Topics include artificial intelligence, the relationship between Zen and bamboo, and that always contentious subject – “How to make the best tea”.

Road race

Speaking of the rising sun, and risings in general, in a weak moment recently I entered myself for a themed road race also happening this weekend – the “Dublin Remembers 1916 5K Run”.

I entered with some misgiving, since the event was originally due to start at 9am, which at my age is a bit early for vigorous physical activity. But since then, it has been moved to 8am, a time at which I would normally be doing nothing more violent that pressing the snooze button.

On the plus side, the route takes in various sites associated with 1916 – the GPO, Liberty Hall, the Four Courts, and so on. And with grim logic, it ends in Kilmainham, where I live.  So my plan is to reach the start-line only half awake, if possible, and then run back to bed.

The other good thing about that race is that it might serve as a useful rehearsal for a similar, but chronometrically even more extreme, event on May 7th. Since it was first held in 2009, I have been a big admirer of the Darkness Into Light 5k, an annual run/walk in aid of Pieta House, the centre for suicide prevention. But I have admired it from a safe distance, because it happens at dawn – starting at 4.15am.

This year my teenage son (not an early-rising son, usually) insists he’s doing it.  And I’ll believe that when it happens, although in the meantime he has talked me into joining him. So for now, at least, I’m wrestling with the question of whether it will be better to go to bed early the night before, or not at all.

In my absence, to date, the event has proved extraordinarily successful. From a single location and 400 participants in its first year, it has snowballed to 110 locations on four continents, with more than 100,000 expected to take part this year.

I may or may not be among them. But the great thing about the event is that there is always a sponsorship option for the guilty (

So if I don’t make it to the start line, I’ll pay somebody else to get there for me.