The Welsh in Japan: An Interview with Ursula Bartlett-Imadegawa

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Saint David July 17, 2020

The St David’s Society Japan, based in Tokyo, is an organisation for all Welsh people and friends of Wales in Japan. Registered under the British Embassy in Tokyo, the society is a key pillar for promoting Wales internationally, and represents Welsh and Japanese interests across all aspects of our cultures. The society played an integral role during the Rugby World Cup, making sure the thousands of travelling supporters were well looked after.

We caught up with the lady from Cardiff running the show, President Ursula Bartlett-Imadegawa, to find out more!

St David’s Society Japan members.

Hey Ursula! How did you find yourself settling in Japan?

I became fascinated by Japanese art, especially the Ukyo-e prints, thanks to a workshop I attended as a 6th form art student in Cardiff. After studying in London, I returned to Cardiff and taught art before applying to teach art at a Tokyo International School. My plan was to do research into Japanese Art, woodblock printing, and textiles especially Batik.

While in Japan I did a second degree in South East Asian art. I was to return to London and continue my studies with an aim to becoming a professor. However, I met and fell in love with a Japanese law student.  The rest is history!

However, it did involve a 2 year break while he focused on his law studies, so I went to Munich to teach art and study in Bavaria. We met after a 2 year break in Cardiff, and when he came for Christmas, he proposed, charmed my parents, and we decided to get married in Japan. My parents came to Japan to attend the wedding and bonded with my Japanese family. In fact my parents visited Japan multiple times and after my wonderful mother died in 2001, my father visited Japan ever year until he died in 2009.

My Japanese in-laws stayed with my family in Wales twice. I returned to Wales every summer. My two children were brought up speaking English and visiting Cardiff every summer was a highlight for them.

British Embassy event promoting Welsh products with Yoko Koburi a member of the Welsh gov. team and the visiting Head of the Welsh Arts.

How big is the Welsh population in Japan?

According to google there are 14,914 people from the United Kingdom who were classified as long-term residents in Japan. Of this number 5,345 British citizens were living in Tokyo. Welsh people make up a small but very active percent of this at about 600-800 in total.

Can you tell us a bit about the St David’s Society of Japan and how you first got involved?

It started at a dinner party for ex-pats where we met some fellow Welsh. Our mutual passion for Wales and a desire to spread the good word about Wales (coupled with our mutual irritation for being mistaken for Americans or English!) inspired us to form the society and to have fun together!

Celebration with fans at the Welsh pub.

What was your main motivation for getting involved as a key person in the society?

During this dinner I was impressed by Madoc Batcup and Andrian Jenkyn; two Welshmen who echoed my passion for spreading the good word about Wales – it was a meeting of minds. Also my husband loved Wales, especially the Welsh culture of singing and drinking beer. We established a formal society. Two wonderful Welsh ladies used to meet every March 1st to informally celebrate St David’s day. We decided we wanted to join the ranks of loyal societies and be registered at the British embassy and to stand alongside the big boys of the St George’s and St Andrew’s societies, which were, at that time, huge.

How many members do you currently have?

Our membership was at its peak of the economic boom of the 1980-90’s – around 200. We are now at a membership of around 60. With a core active group of around 40. Attendance at events can swell for specific big events such as St David’s day and the recent Rugby World Cup events.

“The Japanese understand the group, the clan and the loyalty to location as we Welsh do.”

Ursula Bartlett-Imadegawa
President, St David’s Society Japan

What was the impact of the RWC in Japan and what role did St David’s Society Japan play?

Huge! It put Wales firmly into the mentality of the Japanese big time. When I wore my Welsh team rugby shirt, I was delighted that taxi drivers welcomed me into their cabs saying “Wales rugby”! Our boys and the Welsh government did an amazing job preparing, promoting and capitalising on this wonderfully organised world rugby event. We as a society were lucky and proud to have been able to be so involved.

Filip and Bethany marching in the Samba Parade promoting Wales prior to the RWC.

We created so much publicity with committee members speaking on Welsh media (Filip Pusnik and Bethany Cummins) and I spoke on English media. I promoted our events on the BBC and ITV channels – we worked with several media groups. Our contribution on the ground here in Tokyo was to create and promote a Welsh home for the fans. We arranged for a located pub to become the Welsh hub on any day Wales played. This became such a popular place to go to if  you didn’t have tickets. We had amazing events with so many many visitors and locals. In fact, the Welsh Government and Arts council members who were out in Japan promoting Wales attended our events along with some celebs.

We supported the Welsh government, attended embassy events, supported Welsh events at the Welsh dome. I gave several speeches at various events promoting Wales and our society. Socially, we took visitors out for dinners and we attended games, even flying down to Kumamoto to attend the Wales Uruguay game. We wore our Welsh shirts which we had promoted and helped sell for the WRU. We marched waving the Welsh flag in the Tokyo Akasaka Samba Parade. We did what we could and it paid off!

Actually, I have seen and believe in an affinity between the Welsh and the Japanese since the heyday of the Japanese companies in South Wales until this recent success of the Welsh initiatives for the Rugby World Cup. It may be the love of singing especially coupled with beer! It may be the sense of the group of the “we” rather than the “me”. The Japanese understand the group, the clan and the loyalty to location as we Welsh do. They, like us, always ask where you are from and they mean the actual location as we do. The Japanese and the Welsh just hit it off – the Japanese fell in love with Welsh Rugby back in the 1970’s and they certainly proved how well they learnt the Welsh lessons on how to play!

Watching the RWC in the Welsh pub.

What have been some of the event highlights for you since joining the society?

Goodness so much and so many! Firstly the amazing Welsh and Japanese friends I’ve made through the society. The adventures we’ve had, the fun events and the sense of achievement.

The comfortable feeling of being among your own, the delight of seeing others appreciate your home culture. The pride of being able to help Wales achieve more internationally.

Most recently we helped the Welsh arts centre in Ruthin help a Japanese potter who had suffered huge losses in the recent Tsunami get back on his feet through working together.

We’re involved in so many things, including:

  • Bringing us Welsh together
  • Meeting Japanese who are passionate about Wales
  • Learning more about Wales
  • Holding welsh dinners, BBQs, Pub quiz’s
  • Attending British embassy events representing Wales
  • Representing Wales at the St George’s and St Andrew’s Balls
  • Dancing on the Royal Yacht Britannia when it visited Tokyo
  • We hosted an event for the Welsh crew of a British battle ship when it visited Tokyo
  • We were the local representative for Hitachi when they brought the Ystrad Mynach choir for a tour of Japan
  • We sell tickets for the Welsh National Opera organising the society to attend their performances
  • Teaching the Fujisawa Male voice choir to sing Welsh songs and hymns
  • Organising society and Embassy trips to pottery villages and Kabuki performances
  • Attending society historic walks around the town of Kamakura
  • Supporting the Welsh Government (WDA before) in co-hosting a Welsh cheese and beer event at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan
  • Supporting Welsh Tourism events
  • Supporting Japanese University cultural projects promoting Wales
  • Teaching Welsh Language and Welsh cooking
  • Giving talks to various groups
  • Appearing on Japanese TV promoting Wales and most recently Welsh cooking with leeks!
  • Hosting our own Eisteddfod
  • Participating  in the Tokyo Celtic Festival
  • Demonstrating Welsh cake and Welsh taffy making.
  • Creating the annual St David’s EyeMate Guide Dog charity Christmas Concert event.
  • Hosting seasons of Welsh films.
  • At St David’s day celebrations in 2019 we hosted the actor Stefan Donnelly and his one-man play “My Body Welsh”
  • Hosting Harp events
  • Helped Welsh academics with their projects
  • We’ve taken visiting Welsh personalities for dinners

Ursula and Bethany (secretary) with the First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford at the Welsh Dome in Shinjuku during the RWC.

Wow! That is a lot! You mentioned Welsh personalities, can you tell us about any famous faces who have attended some of your events?

Yes, some of our guests include Bryn Terful and his wife Hanna Stone when she was the royal harpist, Katherine Jenkins, her Imperial Highness Princess Nori no Mia, the Ystrad Mynach choir, the actor Stefan Donnelly, C.W. Nicol, a member of the rock band Little Furry Animals, and various other visitors including Glenys Kinnock and Lord Gregory Mostyn.

“It’s fun and comfortable to be among your own, as there is a common understanding. It is this common understanding that we often miss in the excitement of living in a new culture.”

Ursula Bartlett-Imadegawa
President, St David’s Society Japan

Why do you think it’s important for Welsh people in Japan or any other country to come together?

It’s fun and comfortable to be among your own, as there is a common understanding. It is this common understanding that we often miss in the excitement of living in a new culture. This was as true for us Brits when I lived in Germany.

Also, in Japan the urge to shout “we are Welsh” gets stronger the more often we feel that Wales is overlooked. Plus for me, it was seeing the promotional power of the Scots compared to us, which was puzzling as we have more castles and just as good whiskey! So a desire to promote Wales grew!

Ursula literally flying the flag, front and centre of UK newspaper “The Guardian”.

You’ve become a key figure for representing Wales internationally. What else would you like to see happen to help promote Wales around the world?

Bit of an exaggeration as a compliment, great question though! I would say that now is probably exactly what is needed. I see that we Welsh are beginning to control our own growth, and own an understanding of how we can help ourselves. And with organisations such as St David’s World helping all of us reach out, it helps to get the word out about Wales.

What we need is a unifying force – a united front to promote us internationally. United, we ought to be able to support our Welsh entrepreneurs and creatives to make the world take notice.

Ursula invites everyone to visit the St David’s Society Japan Facebook page and check out the latest competition that you can get involved in! All you have to do is send a photo via email or Facebook messenger that sums up your lockdown experience, and you could be in with a chance of winning a prize!