Haruaki Saito: The Uplifting Power of Traditional Irish Music


In 2016, Haruaki Saito quit his job as a violin repairer in a workshop in Tokyo and told his family he was moving to Ireland. None of this information went well. However, as Saito, now 34, explains, he had reached a breaking point.

“I had to change, because otherwise I would be dead”, he offers by way of explanation.

In this time of personal struggle, Saito turned to an area that had given him solace, strength and hope: traditional Irish music, as well as the making and repairing of violins, an essential instrument of the genre.

When it comes to music, Saito is a bit of a black sheep in his family. His first favorite instrument was atypical.

“My family is not a musician, but I started playing music when I was 15. A friend introduced me to the erhu, a traditional Chinese two-string instrument.

Ehru and his friend, who were tinkering with electronic music at the time, sparked what has become an enduring interest in the vast and elastic universe of music.

In high school, Saito stumbled across Irish music, via a compilation of “world music” CDs that he picked up from a rental store.

“There was a song that was an Irish reel (dance) set, and I was really impressed with the song,” Saito recalls. “I fell in love with traditional Irish music at that time. I guess it was the rhythm that moved me.

After high school, Saito went to a technical college in Nagoya to learn how to make and repair violins. After graduating, he got a job repairing them at a Tokyo workshop where he stayed for almost 10 years, working on his craft and tending hundreds of his favorite instrument to full health.

In Tokyo, Saito also tried his hand at playing “traditional music” as the Irish musical genre is called, taking the violin himself. It was a struggle, and Saito says his workshop bosses were “not too happy that I’m more into traditional music than classical music.”

As his situation discouraged him, he continued to listen to traditional music and eventually learned to play the button accordion.

“I think it suited me a lot better than the violin. It was definitely more fun to play, alone or with friends, ”he says. “Music, of course, was one of my main reasons for moving to Ireland, I really wanted to learn real traditional music. But also, I was a bit exhausted with life in Japan.

Saito’s childhood, he explains, was a little different from most. He has often withdrawn from school, his friends and society in general.

“I was actually a hikikomori (socially withdrawn). Then in college I was a futoko (refusal of school), and I didn’t go at all. It was so hard. So, so hard, ”he said emphatically. “When I was a hikikomori, I didn’t love myself. I was kind of weird. Living in Japanese society you have to be like everyone else, but I couldn’t. I tried to pretend, but after 10 years of working I was almost… exhausted. My body and mind were in bad shape at the time.

Saito goes on to describe how, the year before he left work, he woke up one day to find he was unable to move. He was taken to hospital by ambulance, but doctors could not diagnose the problem. The left side of his body was then paralyzed for several months.

It was around this time that he made the difficult decision to change course and do what he really wanted to do with his life, and it was then that he told his family his intends to relocate to Ireland.

Saito had been to Ireland before. In 2015 he made his first trip there over the summer and spent a few weeks visiting Dublin, Galway and Cork, in search of traditional music sessions and violin makers. After his hospitalization, he was determined to take a new path, one that would bring him back to Ireland.

“I had a big argument with my father. My parents are very ordinary people, you know. They really wanted me to be a very ordinary person, ”he recalls. “But since I was a hikikomori when I was a kid, then a futoko; then I quit my job and then told them I was moving to Ireland – naturally they were worried.

But, Saito persevered with his intentions and emigrated to Ireland in the summer of 2016.

He moved to Cork, a city in the south of Ireland, after traveling across the country in search of violin workshops and attending traditional music sessions. In Cork he apprenticed at Vegter Violins, run by his brother and sister Hugo and Niamh Vegter – and he has stayed with them ever since.

For Saito, Vegter Violins offered a much friendlier work environment than he was used to in Tokyo. “Hugo (his boss) is both a friend and a colleague,” he says.

Being in the workshop has also been an ideal route into the traditional community, as many of the musicians he regularly attends concerts with to hear, and sometimes even play with, use bows and violins that he has maintained and repaired. .

“I was so lucky to make friends with top musicians,” he says. “Being a luthier in Cork has helped me be a part of their community, make friends and have a strong connection with them. “

One of her favorite places for a music session is The Corner House, a well-known and welcoming music venue not far from the violin workshop. “I think it’s the best pub in the world,” Saito laughs.

As for adjusting to life in Ireland, he says, “Everything is different, everything. I still have a lot of difficulty living in Ireland. I have to get used to the food here. In Japan, everything is precise. But in Ireland, not really.

However, he finds similarities between countries.

“I sort of find the Irish to be a bit similar to the Japanese. The Irish don’t really say what they think. After they leave, they will start to complain and criticize, ”Saito says with a laugh. “I think it’s a bit similar to Japan.”

Going forward, Saito says he wants to try to start making violins again and repairing them, but most of all, he wants to continue living his life as he pleases.

“Since I moved to Ireland the most important thing I’ve learned isn’t about music or violin making, it’s about me,” he says. “I thought (living in Japan) that being weird was a really bad thing, but it can also be a strong point. (Knowing) that gives me enormous self-confidence.

What about his parents? Now they are two of his biggest supporters.

“They really encourage me,” he says with a smile.


Last name: Haruaki Saito

Job: violin maker and repairer

Hometown: Tokyo

Age: 34

Key moments of the career:

2007 – Graduated from Nagoya Musical Instrument Technical Academy and started working in a violin shop in Tokyo

2014 – Starts playing the accordion

2015 – Visit Ireland for the first time

2016 – Leaves work in Japan and moves to Ireland

2017 – Starts working at Vegter Violins in Cork, Ireland

What I miss in Japan: “Certainly food. Fortunately, there is a good Japanese restaurant in Cork, however, I still miss Japanese food. Many.”

Words to live: “You play with the cards that are dealt to you” from “Peanuts” by Charles M. Schulz

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