Profile #17: Raymond Murphy – Tokyo-based creator & marketing creative and now founder of the Irish apparel brand ‘Cnota Gaelach’

Paul: Raymond Murphy is a creator and marketing creative who first arrived in Japan in 2004. He launched 'Cnota Gaelach', a Tokyo-based Irish apparel brand in 2021.

Raymond and I spoke about his beginnings in graphic design, moving to Japan on the JET Programme, working in Tokyo's creative scene, tapping into his Irish identity, and setting up his own clothing brand.

Hi Raymond. Thank you very much for joining me. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Raymond: My name is Raymond D. Murphy. D for Declan to differentiate between my Dad and me. I was born and raised in Belfast and am the youngest of a large family. My people come from Mourne and Oriel—parts of nearby counties Down and Monaghan and are part of a family of local merchants—more specifically bar owners and shopkeepers. I used to work in the family bar myself, but I was always illustrating from a young age so building on that through school and in university seemed to be a natural evolution, much to my Dad’s chagrin I suspect, but our family were a bunch of creative and music heads so he couldn’t much get in the way of that, despite how much I miss the bar business.

You studied art, design & visual communication at Ulster University. Were you thinking of a career in graphic design?

At university, I went through a foundation course and then a degree in ‘visual communications’. I relied too much on my illustrative chops in those days and didn’t really put my best foot forward into the work. I enjoyed graphic design and branding, but the ‘New Media’ as it was in those days, was playing with me, and seemed like an altogether different realm. Automatically I went in search of graphic design jobs when I was done.

Tell us a little about your career before you moved to Japan in 2004 on the JET programme?

As it turned out though before Japan I wasn’t able to get a foothold in terms of career, with part-time positions and small graphic design jobs here and there. Eventually, I saw the opportunity to go to Japan with the JET Programme (The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme), and I was interested in getting out of my rut as well as going to a part of the world that had interested me for a long time. More than anything I was keen to discover something new, but the potential of working in Tokyo, if all went well, sounded like an excellent goal to aim at.

So you decided to make the move to Japan?

There was a push and a pull. The push to leave Ireland came from a lack of success and I was also disillusioned with the country North or South.

Growing up in the Troubles was one thing, but I had this very rich narrative of traditional values in Ireland from my parents and the rest of the family. But there was a gap between that narrative and the Ireland I lived in. The more time went on the more this gap grew wider and I found myself disillusioned and wanting an altogether new experience. That’s where Japan came in. Here was another culture that also had its own deep traditions and sense of self but contrary to Ireland it produced and enjoyed what it made, investing in its traditional and contemporary expressions. It didn’t rely on the rest of the Western world for validation—at least that’s the way I saw it, and that really appealed to me.

It was automatically so different in obvious ways, but as I was a bit of a comic book geek at the time too I was captured when I first came by anime films such as Akira, Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell, as well as Devilman. Their non-Western and yet very First World sensibility reached out to me because it showed that something else could exist outside of my then contained and dissatisfied life in Belfast.

Getting into the JET Programme as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) and being placed in a position in Miyazaki was a welcome opportunity to get to the countryside of Japan and allow me to take on a new language, without the English speakers I’d have had had I moved straight to Tokyo — real immersion in another world was really what I sought.

After your time on the JET programme, you moved to the creative industry in Tokyo. Tell us about your work in design, art direction and video.

As an ALT I plunged into the deep end of a culture that I had previously only cursory knowledge of. Within a short space of time after arriving I had picked up a lot, including enough language to sustain me in the working environment, and level 2 in the JLPT too. By the time the job finished at the end of my third year as a JET I was already intent on giving Tokyo a run — there was no way that after grasping the language, and the subsequent introspection that followed, I’d leave only to go home at that point.

I landed my first job in a company called Nichiai which was primarily an IT company but had also begun operating a small division to provide design services to its major client, Zeiss. I got a role there leading the design team for what was mostly print work at the time. That was really my first proper job working in my industry and with a team for real clients. I was already 26 or so, so perhaps a bit late in the game, but I enjoyed the work and got on really well with the people there. Although I don’t see my old boss much these days, I always enjoy catching up with him. 

Things got hairy, however, when the financial crash of 2007/2008 hit and I realized that because of our overexposure to foreign clients we’d likely not survive the impact of the shrinking business. That’s when I got out and started networking like crazy seeing what could come my way. I took on a small role to bide my time as an in-house designer making promotional material for a corporate estate agent of all places, but soon moved on to lead the creative in what was then called Wedovideo (now called Assemblage), a video production startup at the time, who’ve subsequently got a great deal bigger since then.

I had no video experience before this, and although Wedovideo were technically proficient they were without a specifically ‘creative’ focus. I came in to finesse the work and also help their founder run things.

It was a young company and we were flying by the seat of our pants most of the time, but I enjoyed the experience and I suppose that’s where I got to see how video production teams serve their clients—with speed and sheer grit.

On top of their own direct clients, I realized where creative decisions were really being made — not in production houses that’s for sure, but in the agencies that employed them. Some readers might be thinking, “well of course”, but I didn’t come to this on the traditional path and marketing was still a different ball game to my purely creative drive at the time, so I had to cover a lot of ground and did most of that on the job.

I remember at that time talking to a lot of advertising folk and one guy just sat me down and asked, “What are you?” I hadn’t a clue what he meant and it jarred with my sense of never being so specific as to knock myself out of any options. Working in ‘creative’ for marketing was about fitting into a certain role in order to be slotted into the system, however, for me, I hadn’t had the opportunity to really figure it out yet, and felt I wasn’t so willing to define myself so rigidly then. 

Perhaps that was a Japanese industry trait because later I met people from other agencies who were simply ‘Creatives’ which for me would have saved a lot of hassle. All I knew was that I had done creative & art direction, team & office management, as well as illustration & graphics, but the summing up as an all-rounder approach wasn’t working in my favour. It took me a while to settle onto something. Only after a stint on the job would I figure it out.

I broke from Wedovideo to do freelance when I was offered a contract creative director position with I&S BBDO to help on one of their auto clients. It was ultimately brief, but it was enough to see how things were structured and how to recalibrate myself for when I was offered a Creative Director post at Wunderman, not so very long into the contract. The problem here was that I had wanted to get more hands-on within the agency hierarchy and felt I was jumping the queue to CD, so I opted for an Art Director role in Wunderman (now Wunderman Thompson). I still have mixed decisions about that move, because I’m sure I could have learnt the ropes on the job regardless, but as it was specifically a digital agency I wanted to be sure in case I was utterly out of my depth. Eventually, I became Senior Art Director and still handled plenty of creative direction later, as well as picking up a couple of internal brand awards. 

Wunderman was a company in transition while serving its biggest client at the time Microsoft, and everything was changing to the days of Big Data and more content-oriented marketing, but it was a slow beast to change. I still often hear of traditional agencies not having the foggiest when it comes to digital and still putting out the TV approach of well-known talent and product expecting it to do well. Welcome to Japan. That said, it was during that time I was able to focus on my own skills. I suppose that’s the thing with agencies: everyone has a different hat, and rarely do they put on other ones, which lets you drill down on your specialism. I often think it would be nice to have people to do all the different tasks for me now, but ultimately, while it was a good experience, I never fell for the work. There were just too many barriers and too much distance, on purpose, between any work I did, the client and the customer. It was like you were this rarified idea machine prized for only occasional client exposure and then packed away again. The ego loved it but I found the work didn’t develop because of it. The distance between myself and the client meant there was never a lot of love for the work and the client’s business problem that the communication work was supposed to resolve.

I don’t think this is an issue of agencies overall, but more to do with our set-up at the time. We were spread over various projects and could never really own one thing. Some people enjoy this, but I often found it limiting as I never got to the root issues to develop the comms with our clients. On top of the wasted energy on pitches, office politics, and even outright and uncontested theft of ideas by one particular client, I was just burnt out in the end, and the spinning of my wheels on tasks that had no skin in any game led to me losing interest.

Around this time you started learning the Irish language and ended up returning to Ireland in 2018. Tell us about that.

There was only so far I could continue putting energy into projects with little return. It was a question of meaning or connection, so I started to look back at the introspection I had come upon when I was a JET/ALT, and the questions I started to ask then regarding culture, identity and language. Something deep had been awakened from those days, and now I wanted answers.

When I was an ALT in JET I had an almost spiritual insight into the role language had in conveying who I was and how the world was expressed through it. I began to appreciate the depth in which language acted as the vehicle to represent your environment and your relationship with it, as well as its ability to express the culture from which it was born. This all opened up a profound sense of lacking regarding my sense of Irishness, considering I hadn’t a lick of Ireland’s native language, and yet I was continually promoting myself as an ‘Irish person’. (Editor’s note: the Irish language is a Celtic language, related amongst others to Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and was the commonly spoken language of Ireland until supplanted by English in the 18th century)

It was 2012 and I was now engaged with my now wife Mieko. Instinctively my mind turned to Irish and to exploring that massive blackhole in my sense of self.

It all stemmed from a sense of self-improvement, and now that I was married, if I was to have children I was determined to resolve this post-colonial misunderstanding I found deep inside me.

So Irish language and Irish history started to enter my regular activities from this point on, and I began to pour time, money, and effort into it regardless of being here in Tokyo, so far away from Ireland and Irish speakers.

Beginning this journey was a tall order, considering the logistics, and on top of that, I wanted information that is not popularly researched, nor taught at home, even though I felt it was an essential inquiry. I found myself on a course that was essentially the antithesis of common narratives and popular culture—a real unlearning (no leprechaun hats here Paul!). I felt I was on really fresh ground discovering new information and putting things together that I hadn’t even considered before. It was filling in the blanks. The more I think about it today the more I’m glad of the investment but sad that it had to wait until I was in my thirties instead rather than growing up in it at home.

Around 2015 I started going to the Gaeltacht in Ireland every summer. (Editor’s Note: The Gaeltacht refers to regions in Ireland where the Irish language is the predominant language spoken at home).

The more I did it the more I needed it. (Interestingly, the more I went the more I found other adults were there tapping into some great unanswered trove, like myself). Ultimately, after many years I was introduced to an opening to help promote the Gaeltacht town of An Fál Carrach (English: ‘Falcarragh’), in Donegal. By this stage, I had already made a stab at a blog talking about my relationship with communications, creativity, and identity (Saol Na Rannta), but I found that hard to keep up with, and then also a critical review of brand Ireland through a product review site (An Lorg).

In going back to Ireland this time though, I thought I could go back and begin setting up a potential business or put some foundation stones down in order that I could move back to Ireland or Europe more permanently for myself and my wife. The problem was I was ridiculously busy with Irish courses, travel in a notoriously isolated part of Ireland, and the job that I was there to do in the first place for An Fál Carrach.

In the end, while I fulfilled a good deal of work to help my language proficiency and the project I was there for, I still was in no position to springboard into a permanent settling there, so I came back to Tokyo with the hope of bringing some work back with me, while I figured out a way to approach Europe from another angle.

Then came March 2020 and Covid, and out went all my best-kept plans…

Fortunately, I had already started working on an idea for my own apparel brand.

Yes, you launched Cnota Gaelach Apparel in May 2021, with your first limited edition t-shirt and you’re currently in your 2nd product launch. Tell us about this project, where the idea came from and your plans for the future.

Cnota Gaelach is the culmination of my different experiences and skills up to this point. Between growing up in a very identity-aware society to working in illustration, graphics, web, and digital advertising in different languages and cultures, I wanted to shore it all up and fulfil a desire in the one idea.

When so many cultures out there can be used to provide the background for a multitude of products, brands and services giving it status and global brand awareness, I was always fed up with the way that ‘Brand Ireland’ appeared, when we have so much to explore and take advantage of. For example, if I was to mention England, France, Spain, Belgium, the US or a whole ream of other cultures you can picture something in your mind in terms of what you could buy, or experience. Hardly so for Ireland, despite its history and culture. For the longest of times, all you can really imagine has been Guinness and leprechauns. I remember talking to people in Japan and they either can’t pronounce the word Ireland and confuse it with Iceland or think you are talking about Scotland! 

One of the biggest motivations I have is to make the most of what you have, and paired with my journey from Ireland to Japan, and back again I felt I had discovered the place and its ‘value’ as if for the first time. So I wanted to express it in a way that I don’t see anywhere else. I recently wrote about this as the background for Cnota Gaelach.

Cnota Gaelach started from the idea of using symbology, icons and graphics from the Irish past and applying that to contemporary apparel, appreciating the genuine path our long and rich history has come and avoiding all the pastiche and made up Paddywhackery/”Oirish” that I never chimed with. When I say contemporary apparel I look at brands such as Rowing Blazers, Only NY, Tracksmith, Sporty And Rich, Kent and Curwen, and would love to grow CG to that level, but I’m humble enough to start small and see where it goes.

In my journey over the last number of years, I had to get to some basic truths before I could start putting anything interesting out there. A lot of it stems from the fact that the country, having spoken Irish in its majority all the way up to only the 1840s suffered a massive shift in national consciousness and when everyone began to switch to English en masse the narrative of ourselves was always diminutive and derogatory. This contemporary English language narrative only looks back to the Great Famine and then fades off, giving only a nod to Daniel O’Connell for Catholic Emancipation in 1829. For me, this is entirely irresponsible and it was only through an active effort on my part to try and understand the specifics that I saw how much of a noble and heroic past exists — one that even O’Connell was intent on dismissing — much like many of today’s Establishment continues to do.

As a result, I became fascinated by the end of the Gaelic era in the early 1600s and how Ulster is the predominant Gaelic space on the entire island. I’ve been able to see where my own people are rooted in all of this too. It’s interesting that these last few years I’ve been able to look inward, but the current trend is to do the opposite and seek external validation which leads to a whole lot of today’s cultural rot. If you look at any non-colonised countries they can go into immense detail and proudly celebrate their achievements, to such a point that they can make products, services, and entire industries from their own legacy. When I look at Ireland I see the same depth of legacy, but a desert of commercial expression based on it. There is nothing stopping us from doing the same. It just requires a belief that we have something to provide. There’s a deep sense of victimhood that, almost without fail, surrounds every form of today’s Irish expression. It’s interesting that when I was doing work for An Lorg, I kept coming across foreigners in Ireland doing a better job of promoting Irish products than native Irish. Telling.

Cnota Gaelach for me is a project that redefines all of our native cultural and historical assets and takes pride in presenting our very best versions of them in an appealing and relevant manner today. There are so many examples of heroic expressions and deeds, with characters that display a courage and fearlessness that inspire me to believe in a better version of myself that I was never aware of and in a way that I never get from constantly following other brands or stories. I could never sate this hunger. Until now.

The point however is greater than merely being Irish. The very same idea of an unspoken or misrepresented hero is to give courage to those that have overly protected their own ideas, fearful of putting them out there, and flip it so that they too draw courage and reveal their true selves. People are too afraid to not persevere in what they notice, or consider, for fear of breaking some form of taboo. The only people they are keeping happy are everyone else, who when push comes to shove, are absolutely indifferent to them. What’s truly missing is the wherewithal to step out of the comfort zone and express the self—to self-actualise. My conjecture is that Irish heroes —Irish courage— offer the best example to allow people to discover their greatest within themselves, and not wait for someone else to grant them permission.

This is why Cnota Gaelach is about those who show the greatest courage will find their greatest selves only after they make their first move, not before.

What does your typical day look like?

At the minute it varies because of so many different tasks related to the new biz. I wish I could fit it into some routine, but it changes depending on what stage of any timeline I’m on.

It’s been a strange timeline but in the first launch last August I was doing all-night work and chasing up technical people to make sure I had the website working, while I was also ensuring the ads and comms were working too, in three languages. Since then I’ve pulled back my intentions to make sure I can better grow through consistency.

As it stands I’ve just launched my second limited-edition without the extra languages or ads, and mainly working in a more organic and steady fashion, dealing with designs, both on the site and the product on a more incremental basis, so I can find the right balance, especially because this project is so personal. Like all new projects, patience is key.

As it stands I wake at 6am, tidy and sit for a moment with a coffee and either a book or a course/journal. I’ll get a walk in and then do back exercises, change and eat breakfast before tackling the hardest or most creative task. Come around 2pm and having had lunch my brain switches to more clerical items and emails.

Come 6pm/7pm I’m fairly drained but ideally, I like to either go to the park again for a stroll or have a beer on the balcony to unwind. I know Corona had a lot to do with it, but also it seems Tokyo has completely lost the buzz I first got acquainted with when I first arrived here, many years ago. I mean do they still not allow dance clubs? (Editor’s note: Japan actually had a ban on dancing for 67 years (unless at a venue with a special ‘dance licence’) until the law was replaced in 2015. It was a whole Footloose country)

What are some of your goals for the future? Short term, longer-term?

Who’s to say? I’ve never been at a lack of ideas for what could be cool to do or what might be an ideal setting, but a lot of my plans, even ones I had been busy with for the last 6 years or so, got panned due to Corona, and to be honest, I think I’m only coming out of that. Coming back from Ireland and facing the Corona shutdown killed my social ability so I’ve been adjusting to that over the last two years.

Quickfire questions

– the most important piece of advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time to your arrival in Japan?

Pick a goal now, and attack it relentlessly, don’t drift. Talk to your parents more. You’ll miss them when they’re gone. Lastly, the sooner you find out what “Don’t take it personally” means the better for everything.

– how do you learn new skills?

That’s an interesting one. I think I need to be in the space first and be allowed to learn on the job. No amount of books will do. That said I love reading as much info on whatever topic it is, but it’s only through action does any kind of ‘fluency’ come from it. Also, lose the entitlement and victim-mentality that is prolific today. Everyone has their own hidden advantages to play into. Life ain’t fair so stop expecting someone to give you what you feel you’re deserving of.

– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

I think some of the most important books I’ve come across of late are about persistence and getting over the negativity that persists inside the head. I wrote a short blog at the end of last year on what I was currently reading then. At the moment I just finished Whatever Happened to Tradition?: History, Belonging and the Future of the West – Tim Stanley [Amazon Japan / Amazon US & other]

As for movies, I enjoyed Rudy and Hillbilly Elegy recently. I find that there’s so much stuff out there that is explicitly gaslighting people but they are ruing the day as their profits now crumble. A lot of the books and movies I watch are all the opposite of this.

– what’s the best thing you’ve spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

No idea, maybe the limousine taxi ride back from Haneda airport to my home after quarantine, coming back from Poland a couple of months ago. I got a free bottle of water with that… they’re normally ¥100, you know!

Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with me, Raymond, and best of luck with your new launch.

Check out Cnota Gaelach’s 2nd limited edition t-shirt, the Rua 42. You can contact Raymond via LinkedIn here.

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