KIMIGAYO 君が代: the origins of Japan’s National Anthem and the Scottish connection

By Katy Gow BMus (Hons) MA

Monday 7pm – 6th March 2023

VENUE: University of Edinburgh, 50 George Square – Room G.02

Hosted by The Japan Society of Scotland

Synopsis:  With the end of Japan’s long period of isolation, many western powers began to return. Ships arrived, and bands performed anthems and other music as a mark of respect to local and national dignitaries.  As part of their modernisation policy, Japanese authorities increasingly felt that they should have their own national anthem to accompany internal and overseas visits. They requested help from the British to compose a national anthem, the result was the first version of Kimigayo. Today’s talk will describe the process of selection of the ancient waka poem for the lyrics, the melody and the arrangement. John William Fenton (1831-1890), a British bandmaster who was selected for the task is recognised as one of the fathers of Japanese band music and the original composer of Kimigayo.  He is usually described as Irish or British but in fact his parents were Scots.

Katy Gow spent some years in Japan during the 1970s and 80s and later studied music as a mature student at Sheffield (BMus) and Nottingham (MA) universities. Her MA dissertation focussed on the origins of Kimigayo. She is a former President of the Royal Asiatic Society China and has just been elected as Secretary of the Japan Society of Scotland. 



VENUE: University of Edinburgh, 50 George Square – Room G.02

AGM REPORT: Business Meeting – Launch of the new Website – Honorary Life Membership Award – Order of the Scottish Samurai Centre of Excellence Award 2021 – Talk on The Development of Japanese Football.

Many thanks to those members and friends who joined us for our AGM. It was good to see you all and to meet new faces as well as greeting those via Zoom. We swiftly got through formal business proceedings and were able to celebrate three special occasions.

We launched our new website. It is still a work in progress, but we hope to gradually add content over the coming months.

Our longstanding member and friend Mr Charles Edmond was granted Honorary Life Membership in recognition of the many years he served as Secretary and Council Member. We were happy to welcome Charles and his wife Annie and thanked them both for their considerable contribution to the Society over many decades and for their continued support and friendship.

The Society was delighted and honoured to be the recipient of the Order of the Scottish Samurai “Centre of Excellence” Award for 2021. This was the first opportunity we had since covid restrictions, to meet with OSS Founding President Mr Ronnie Watt OBE ORS who made the journey from Aberdeen with OSS Executive Bill Smith. Ronnie kindly presented the Samurai Statue and Certificate to Honorary Vice President, Consul General Tadashi Fujiwara and Chairman Professor Ian Gow.

Sushi and refreshment were served during a short break after which Ian gave a fascinating talk on The Development of Japanese Football, with some Scottish connections.


Monday 5 December 2022 at 6.30 pm at Harajuku Kitchen

The Society will resume its traditional Bonenkai event once again this year, after a break due to Covid. Harajuku Kitchen has reserved 20 places for this event and an early indication of attendance is advised.  The format is a 3 course meal for £25 inclusive of gratuities.  By tradition the Society has agreed to provide the first drink with a choice from sake, wine, beer or soft drink, any further drinks consumed being the responsibility of the individual.    

Members will be e-mailed with details of the event and those who decide to come are asked to choose their 3 courses from either the Standard or Vegetarian Menu and to send their choice either by post or e-mail no later than Monday 21 November.

Members welcomed Consul-General Fujiwara to our annual Bonenkai which has held at Harajuku Kitchen Edinburgh. This was an extra special event due to the fact that we had not held our Bonenkai for two years due to Covid.

MY JAPAN: Reflections on publishing poetry and novels on Japan

Professor Alan Spence

Professor Alan Spence is an internationally recognized poet, playwright and novelist and Professor Emeritus in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. In 2017 he was appointed Edinburgh Makar (Poet Laureate) and in 2018 he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his work on Japan.  

Alan will discuss his two Japan-based novels Pure Land (on Thomas Glover) and Night Boat (a fictional re-creation of the life and teachings of the 18th century Zen master Ekaku Hakuin) as well as his recent research trip to Japan gathering materials for his new novel Mister Timeless Blyth (Reginald Horace Blyth was an English author and devotee of Japanese culture, most famous for his writings on Zen and on haiku poetry).  Alan will also discuss and give some readings on his own Haiku.

Here is an update on Alan’s new works. 

Two new poetry collections recently published:

Thirteen ways of looking at tulips – Renaissance Press (Thirteen tulip haiku with illustrations by Elizabeth Blackadder). 

Edinburgh Come All Ye – Scotland Street Press (Poems from my four years as Edinburgh Makar, with illustrations by Victoria Crowe, Alison Watt, Calum Colvin and others). 

His new novel, Mister Timeless Blyth, will be published by Tuttle in March.  (Cover attached).

Current publications

The meeting on Monday 21st November was our first ‘live’ event for some time since Covid and we were not disappointed. Members and guests, including a Zoom audience, enjoyed listening to Professor Alan Spence, one of Scotland’s leading literary figures, explaining his love of Japan and Zen and how he developed these alongside his love of literature. We were especially entertained by renditions of his “Haiku”. Of particular interest were his Haiku collaborations, beautifully illustrated by the late Elizabeth Blackadder. Now we eagerly await his third fictional novel on Japan, to be published by Tuttle Press in March 2023.

Knowledge transfer between Scotland and Meiji Japan: Japanese engineering students studying in Scotland

Guest speaker after the formal business at our online AGM on Saturday 5th February 2022, will be Dr Mairi Arbuckle. Details of how to register to attend are being circulated to all our members.