Late again, but Enda Kennichiwa successfully negotiates the rituals
Published 02/12/2013 | 02:30
The Taoiseach is renowned for his somewhat laissez-faire attitude to time-keeping, but this time it wasn't his fault that he was very late for his debut official trip to Japan.
The KLM flight due to convey him from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam to Tokyo had developed some class of trouble, and was delayed for a whopping five-and-a-half hours.
But Enda Kennichiwa was hell-bent on making it to his first engagement when he landed on Japanese soil: a visit to the Meiji Shrine in the heart of the vast capital city, to pay his respects.
Waiting at the boarding-gate, he described in some detail the intestinal set-up in cattle – a seeming utterly random topic, save for the fact that this Japanese trip is all about moo-cows and the important and potentially lucrative re-opening of the beef export industry to that country after the disastrous BSE outbreak in 2000.
Later today, a historic trade agreement is to be signed by the Taoiseach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
And so, six hours behind schedule as a fiery red ball began to set behind the dusky skyscraper spires of the Land of the Rising Sun, the Taoiseach's cavalcade took off at breakneck speed for the shrine, which is set deep in rolling acres of forest.
The shrine was bustling with families and tourists who snapped photos of the arriving Taoiseach, although they had no idea who he was. Many of the children were in colourful traditional garb, as yesterday was a celebration of the Japanese equivalent of the First Holy Communion.
Enda then took part in a meticulously choreographed ceremony which began with a procession through the tall ornamental cyprus-wood Torii gate and into the shrine, surrounded by lit braziers and lanterns and led by deputy head priest, Miyazaki Shigehiro. He then took part in a purification ritual whereby the priest poured water over his hands, then Enda bowed his head as a sprig from the sacred Tamagushi tree was waved around his head.
The priest then invited Enda to make a wish to the deities: "I think they will be watching over you and protecting you in Ireland," he said. Another small branch of the tree was presented to the Taoiseach, who placed it on a small wooden table.
So much of business is conducted with ritual in Japan – an always delicate course for a famously informal Head of Government such as Enda. He could start a serious outbreak of warfare by simply giving a cheerful dead arm to an unsuspecting high-up from the ruling class.
But it's likely that Enda would have been given a comprehensive briefing on the myriad protocol pitfalls which await any foreign visitor to Japan – from how to use chopsticks without anyone losing an eye, to the correct way to bow, to accept a business card, to eat food.
And he'll have plenty of opportunities to test his new skills with a packed schedule ahead of him for the next three full days, taking in meetings with the prime minister, the Crown Prince Naruhito, a visit to the Toyota factory in Ngoya and a day in Osaka, all shoe-horned in among a blizzard of trade meetings and sit-downs.
Back in the shrine, Enda took off his shoes (not for the first time that day) to enter the Kagura Pavillion to watch Japanese dance and also to sample a small bowl of saki.
After a long day and night's travel then a dash straight from plane to shrine, it was no surprise that Enda was a bit thirsty, and happily drank the ceremonial sake. "More," he smiled, putting down the bowl, but he was only joking. It would't be the Done Thing.
Then it was off to his hotel, prior to his meetings with the prime minister and Crown Prince today. But before he could get a bit of rest, domestic issues still found their way to halfway around the world. So where's the beef when it comes to a rumoured reshuffle? Would Ruairi Quinn and Pat Rabbitte be shown the cabinet red-card, as was hinted at yesterday?
"This is a matter for the Taoiseach on the day. It's not a case of getting the list of the team six weeks before it happens," he said cheerfully.
"I will discuss the question of a reshuffle with the Tanaiste when I think the time is appropriate. And unlike the discussions that take place in other areas, the team-sheet is not going up six weeks before it's announced," he warned.
In other words, according to Enda Kennichiwa, everyone – including Labour – needs to be a bit Zen about the whole reshuffle palaver.