Column One: Haggis, tatties and tartan are big in Japan

THE JAPANESE and the Scots would seem to make unlikely kindred spirits. Yet these two nations, both with island mentalities, their deeply romantic, melancholic emotions hidden behind gruff exteriors, seem to have embarked on a remarkable love affair.

The latest manifestation is the adoption by many Japanese schools of tartan kilts for the girls and trews, tartan ties and scarves for the boys.

At Lochcarron of Scotland, a Galashiels textile company, designers are busy supplying tartans to Akatsukti, Japan's main manufacturers of uniforms.

"The Japanese love the history and the different stories behind the fabric," said Dawn Robson-Bell, one of Lochcarron's designers. The film Braveheart was a big hit in Japan, she added, the defiant poses struck by Mel Gibson not far from the stylised images of the samurai.

A group of 12 Japanese headteachers were persuaded to adopt tartan for their schools after a visit to Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford home earlier this year. Sir Walter was a key figure in popularising tartan during the 19th century when Queen Victoria led the fashion for Scottish regalia.

"Holyrood" tartan, designed for the palace in Edinburgh is a big hit, said Ms Robson-Bell, as is the Isle of Skye tartan, worn by the Queen at the Scottish Parliament opening in July.

The fashion for all things Caledonian is no surprise to many Japanese. Last week saw Harumi Kurihara, Japan's Delia Smith, devote an edition of her best-selling quarterly to Scottish cuisine. The Japanese love for golf and whisky, imported by some of the earliest Scottish traders, is legend.

Meanwhile it is not unusual for the people of Hokkaido, the country's northern island, to remark how similar their landscape is to Burns's country. You need only visit a Tokyo karaoke bar and hear a Japanese man sing a few weeping lines of "The Skye Boat Song" about the Jacobite rebellions to know that the Scots and the Japanese have similar beliefs in self-sacrifice and passions about lost love, separation and bravery.

More prosaically, perhaps, at pedestrian crossings in Japan, the sound indicating that a walker can cross is not a bleep but the opening of "Auld Lang Syne", universally recognised in Japan as the song of parting.

More farcically, perhaps, Japan hosts its own annual Highland Games outside Tokyo, begun by expatriates but now firmly part of the scene for locals, who compete in bagpiping competitions, Highland dancing and tossing the caber. This year, at least, some of the cheering school children will be appropriately attired.