‘People only notice I am foreign when I speak German in an Irish accent’

Phillip Irving moved to Japan and ended up in Düsseldorf, the happy medium he calls home

Philip Irving is originally from Greystones, Co Wicklow. He graduated from UCD as a mechanical engineer and emigrated to Japan in 1989. He has been back to Ireland to see his family, but has never returned. He lives in Düsseldorf with his wife Naomi. He has two children and is vice-president of the automotive business unit for Japanese company NGK NTK.

Why did you leave Ireland and where did you go?

I left Ireland in 1989 after graduating from UCD with a degree in mechanical engineering. At the time, the economy in Ireland was still very weak and the unemployment rate was very high. For this reason, the government had developed a scheme through FÁS (the national training agency) to send graduates to overseas assignments for long-term training. I was one of about 60 graduates that year who accepted positions in Japan with various Japanese multinationals. I went to a Japanese company in Tokyo. From a life experience point of view, Japan was off the scale and my experiences in Japan have shaped my life positively ever since.

Where did you live in Japan?


I lived in Japan for 10 years in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Hiroshima. I was there for about four years at first, then returned to Tokyo from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2004 to 2008 when I lived and worked in Hiroshima.

What do you like about Japan?

Japan is a beautiful country and completely different to Ireland. I really enjoyed the food, the culture and the hot springs /bathing. In 20 years in Ireland I never learned to enjoy fish. Living in Japan really taught me how delicious fish dishes can be and how it can be enjoyed in so many ways. I also appreciate the Japanese people too, the way that they try to simplify complex problems and the way they always listen carefully before offering an opinion. I also appreciate that the Japanese focus on the “how”, whereas western cultures focus on the “what”, so while western cultures focus on the goal or outcome, in Japan they focus more on the journey towards the goal.

Where were your children born and do they feel Irish at all?

I have a daughter (26) born in the US in 1994 and a son (23) born in Tokyo in 1996. They both have dual nationality (Irish / Japanese) and my daughter, as she was born in the US has a third option as well. From a cultural point of view, they both feel closer to Japanese culture, although in their childhood we spent about five of their formative years also living in the UK. They do not identify one country as their “home” however. As they never lived in Ireland and visited there only to see their grandparents, they only have a limited exposure to and understanding of Irish culture, but now identify more as European. Britain leaving the EU was a shock for them. It was a development that they could not fully comprehend.

When and why did you move to Germany?

We moved to Germany from Hiroshima in 2008 as the kids were getting into their teenage years and the international school in Hiroshima had limited access to the International Baccalaureate program. The move to Germany made sense as the Bonn International school had a strong IB program.

Japan is so totally different to Ireland that the culture shock is massive

We stayed in Bonn until 2010 and my wife integrated into the fairly large Japanese community there. When both children had gone to university in the UK, we moved to Düsseldorf in 2018. From a professional point of view, we came to Germany at a good time economically. As an international family, we were well accepted in Bonn and Düsseldorf and have always felt welcomed for the diversity we bring.

Did you speak German when you moved there?

I didn't speak German in 2008, but did a couple of intensive courses and was able to learn the language. Unfortunately my Japanese and German training has pushed out the Gaeilge from my brain and I am really no longer capable of stringing a sentence together. My two sisters have begun studying Gaeilge recently and one has lived in California for the past 20 years, so who knows, I might join them in the next couple of years.

How is Germany different from Japan and from Ireland?

Japan is so totally different to Ireland that the culture shock is massive - the mentality and the way of life is completely different to anything in Europe. I don't know that anyone from outside Japan can ever truly feel completely integrated and accepted into the Japanese way of life. I was there earlier this year and still noticed how Japanese are reluctant to use the seat beside a foreigner even if the train carriage is full. German language and culture are much closer to Irish people so it was much easier to move to Germany. Unlike in Japan, from my appearance I could be a German person, so this makes integration much easier for me as people only notice I am foreign when I speak German in an Irish accent - the Germans generally appreciate that!

The Germans and Japanese are quite similar in terms of certain values - the work ethic and dependability, ability to structure and plan are all prevalent here too. There’s also a respect in Germany for age and experience, so in that sense they are similar too and this is something that my wife identifies with. Germans are also sticklers for the rules and will have no problem calling you out if you don’t follow them. They are very direct whereas the Japanese are anything but. With the Covid-19 pandemic this has been a huge benefit and I am convinced that it has had some effect on the relatively low infection rates experienced in both Germany and Japan.

There is an area of Düsseldorf called Little Tokyo. On a Saturday you can be forgiven for thinking you are actually in Tokyo

Have you found a bit of Japan and a bit of Ireland in Düsseldorf?

It is much easier in Düsseldorf to experience Japanese or Asian life than Irish life. There are approximately 5,000 Japanese people living here and there are many Japanese businesses based in this area - I work for one of them. Many restaurants have sprung up around Düsseldorf offering an authentic Japanese experience. There are several supermarkets and shops in an area of downtown Düsseldorf called Little Tokyo. On a Saturday you can be forgiven for thinking you are actually in Tokyo . You can even get a haircut in a Japanese hairdresser. This of course includes the obligatory shave and back message - men only - and is one of the most relaxing things you can do. My wife can also buy the type of Japanese groceries that remind her of home and stave off homesickness. Recently, there are even more people from other Asian nations moving into Düsseldorf. The Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese communities are well represented.

The city is also famous for the Altstadt area. It is pedestrianised and dedicated to drinking establishments, breweries and restaurants. At the weekend, this part of the city could be a huge party area and used to attract stag and hen parties from all over Europe. The Altstadt has several micro-breweries making what is called “alt-beer” or literally old beer. It has a dark ale-like colour but a pilsener, nutty flavour. Every brewery has its own take it and it is worth a pub crawl to try them all. There is also an Irish flavour to the Altstadt with many Irish bars. The one that feels most like home to me is called McLaughlin’s and has been there for 30 years.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected things in Düsseldorf?

The city, like the rest of Germany was more or less completely locked down for two months. Things are getting very much back to normal though, although the wearing of masks is still mandatory in shops etc. Some businesses went bust over the period and will never return. The hotel and travel industry was also deeply affected. My office is situated very close to the airport. In the past I could hear aircraft landing every five minutes, but now there’s more like one every 30 minutes or so. We appreciate that the German people really try to follow the social distancing and mask-wearing rules, people are upbeat here about the country’s prospects in the face of the ongoing pandemic.

Are restaurants, takeaways, bars open there?

The restaurants and bars have opened up again, but have strict social distancing rules in place to protect the employees and the clientele. Nightclubs remain closed. The rules are slightly reduced for outside dining areas and this has made dining outside in the squares around Düsseldorf popular, which with the good summer weather has enhanced the feeling of returning to normality.

Has your work been affected? Have you had to make any changes?

Most people have been working from home-office for three months. In addition, many businesses implemented short-time working, a system whereby the government pays up to 70 per cent of the earnings of an employee for up to a year. So far it seems that unemployment has not been a large factor, although the recovery here in September and October will be critical to seeing if this continues. Regarding the working environment, offices have been redesigned with social distancing in mind and we have rotas in place to ensure that offices don’t become over-populated. Also recently, the cases in the meatpacking industry highlighted the importance of clean air circulation. It is hoped that most employees will return to the office by August or September.

Is there anything you miss about Ireland at the moment?

I miss visiting my parents. I haven’t seen them for more than a year now. Recently we have been Skyping as a family (all four siblings and our parents) and that has helped the situation a lot. I visited Donegal with my wife in spring 2019 and we travelled along the beautiful Wild Atlantic Way and stayed on the island of Arranmore. I miss the beauty of the west coast very much, but also the friendliness of the people we met in the pubs around Ireland. I sincerely hope that the pandemic will not affect the viability of these pubs and hopefully the Irish economy will recover well. It seems that the older you get, the more you gravitate to your roots - in my case Ireland and in my wife’s, Japan. For us, Germany and Düsseldorf is a happy medium that we like to call home.

If you live abroad and would like to share your experience of how Covid-19 is affecting you there, email Irish Times Abroad at abroad@irishtimes.com