For many Germans, the name Japan evokes images of sushi, manga, a garish pop culture, high tech and geishas – or quite simply of a far-off land of thoroughly inscrutable manners and customs. Besides these clichés, reports of natural and man-made disasters dominate our idea of Japan. The 1995 earthquake in Kobe and the 2011 Tohoku seaquake and tsunami followed by the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster re-ignited the global debate over nuclear power and its hazards.
Few people in the West are aware that over 30,000 Japanese live in Germany or of the many forms relations between the two countries take or even of the unique history of those relations. Many remember the alliance between Japan and the Nazi regime as established by the Anti-Comintern Pact and the Tripartite Pact. This ignominious chapter of German-Japanese relations can neither be shrugged off nor allowed to distort the perception of other chapters in a long history that began with Japan’s friendship, commerce and navigation treaty with Germany in 1861. The Prussian constitution even served as a model for the first modern-day Japanese constitution. After World War II, Japan needed suppliers of steel and machines for its reconstruction and found many of them in Germany’s Ruhrpott. Relations between the Japan and Germany of today go far beyond trade in steel and machines. In cultural, economic and many other areas, a vigorous and dynamic exchange is underway. Germany is, after all, Japan’s principal trading partner in Europe.
During the years of Germany’s division, Japan maintained contacts with both West and East Germany. East Berlin’s socialist regime was interested in the Japanese economic system and its emphasis on importing expertise and licensing. In spite of Japan’s pre-eminently capitalist orientation, East Germany hoped to modernize its economy using similar strategies and began importing Japanese technological expertise, especially in the chemicals and electronics industries. Japan, for its part, was looking for ways to make up for the decline in its exports to the USA and Western Europe.
A story of imported expertise far removed from the world of official trade agreements took place in the town of Suhl, Thüringen, where, in 1966, restaurant-owner Rolf Anschütz decided to substitute his sausage and sauerkraut with sushi and sashimi. He turned his Waffenschmied and its Thüringen cuisine into a Japanese restaurant – until 1981, the only Japanese eatery anywhere in East Germany. One indication of the restaurant’s popularity was the fact that tables had to be booked two years in advance. Film director Carsten Fiebeler heard about Anschütz’s story. His film “Sushi in Suhl” premiered in German cinemas in October, 2012.
Japan and Germany not only draw culinary but also cultural inspiration from one another. One of the first great German friends of Japanese culture was Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony. He avidly collected Japanese porcelain, eventually founding the now world-famous porcelain manufacturer in Meissen. Over a thousand pieces from Augustus’ collection are on permanent display in Dresden’s Zwinger Palace. Many Japanese are devoted fans of classical music from Germany. The Dresden Staatskapelle has been giving concerts in Japan since 1973 with such regularity that some of the musicians even call them home gigs. And the Robert Schumann School of Music and Media in Düsseldorf is highly popular with aspiring Japanese classical musicians.
Of the more than 31,400 Japanese residents of Germany, about 7,000 live in Düsseldorf. This is partly a consequence of the city’s strategic location on the Rhine River, with its connections to major ports such as Rotterdam and its proximity to the Ruhrpott – important factors for the currently 300-plus Japanese companies with offices in North Rhine-Westphalia’s capital and a total of nearly 30,000 employees. Over the years, an impressive Japanese infrastructure has taken shape in Düsseldorf, ranging from Japanese food specialty shops to Japanese hairdressers, book stores and karaoke bars and Japanese satellite television stations – almost everything the Düsseldorf Japanese could wish for to keep from getting too homesick.
Even if most Japanese living in Germany tend to stay mainly within the Japanese community here, many are in fact big fans of their host country. This is partly related to the status of work in German life. Japanese employees enjoy the clear line drawn between career demands and the working day. The greater number of vacation days and shorter working hours also appeal to many of the Japanese who take advantage of an opportunity to work in Germany. There are of course many and varied cultural differences between Germans and Japanese, whose caution and relatively strict and complex code of manners can easily invoke the tired cliché that Japanese people are incapable of showing emotion. But a closer look may reveal many surprising similarities. Accuracy, dedication and reliability are all qualities that both Germans and Japanese have reputations for. An active interest in the other’s culture, coupled with these similarities, can serve as a good basis for rewarding mutual relations.