Peter MacMillan: Now a regular cultural commentator on television, where his fluid, scholarly Japanese astonishes viewers
Artist, poet, scholar and garlanded translator, Peter MacMillan has come a very long way from his childhood in the Kildare countryside, growing up in “splendid isolation” in a house of eight children.
For the past quarter century he has lived in Japan, where he paints, writes and lectures part time at the country’s top institute of higher education, the University of Tokyo.
After years of intellectual toil, MacMillan is increasingly recognised as one of the country’s most brilliant interpreters of Japanese culture, putting him in a small group of elite foreign scholars.
His 2008 publication of 100 waka, a form of classical poetry, won several prestigious translation prizes. A witty collection of prints called Thirty-Six New Views of Mouth Fuji, taking a gently cynical look at consumerism and Japan’s national icon, has earned him the attentions of Akie Abe, wife of Shinzo Abe, the prime minister.
“She’s very interested in promoting Japanese culture,” explains MacMillan over an afternoon coffee in central Tokyo. “She came to my exhibition and said she was so happy that someone from Ireland was doing this because she felt a special link – the respect for nature.”
A youthful 55, MacMillan left Ireland for good aged 20. “I remember the night before I left, I had a dream that I was flying above our house and I was looking down on my mother,” he recalls. “I told her that the next day and she started crying. She said: ‘That means you’ll never come back.’ ”
It was a prescient comment. Though he is very close to his mother (his father, a former art dealer, died in 2008), he has lived abroad most of his life, first in the US and then Japan, which has been his home since 1987.
Like thousands of emigrants in the 1980s, he felt there were few other options. “There was no work,” he laments. “There was no employment office at UCD; nobody talked about employment or careers; everyone of my generation left, mostly for England. I was sad to leave Ireland. But it was inevitable.”
A self-confessed workaholic, MacMillan has long been a high achiever. He graduated first in his class from UCD, where his philosophy lecturers included Desmond Connell, former Archbishop of Dublin. “Though conservative, he was a totally brilliant man,” he recalls.
When he arrived in Japan, he dived into Japanese language, passing the notoriously difficult national examination in less than two years.
He says new immigrants miss out if they don’t bother grappling with the local lingo.