Ich werde ein Berliner

How to blend in wiz ze Germans

57. The Mitte man

by Dolores Overgaard

Puritanism is often defined as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. Nonconformism, on the other hand, is often haunted by the possibility that someone, somewhere, may be more miserable. Someone in your ungentrified neighbourhood might be in a more open, less gender-specific and less gratuitously abstruse relationship. This applies to both sexes, and any in-between. In Berlin, people have finally broken free from the bourgeoise straightjacket of monogamy, a fact that would make the men of Mitte very happy indeed, if only their full-time brooding commitments allowed them.

Nihilistic despair may have been pioneered by French intellectuals as a way of getting the ladies horizontal, but the Mitte Man (Homo Pretentious) has enthusiastically picked up the baton, together with the smoking habit. That they are fashioning themselves after a beat poet half a century after the original movement began might put a slight dent on their revolutionary credentials, but why should recycling be limited to beer bottles when it can be applied to relationships as well? Anyway, the sort of women they are targeting with this reprocessed rhetoric either think that Kerouac is Keanu’s less well-known brother, or the closest they have come the author’s work is to Instagram a second-hand copy of On The Road that they found while perusing a Flohmarkt. It goes without saying that as a woman you should be blown away upon learning that the Mitte Man has freed himself from the shackles of biology. This admiration should ideally translate into uncontrollable sexual magnetism, a completely unintended side effect of being so firmly above the rules of attraction that seem to afflict mainstream men, who are ruled by their sex drive rather than their non-conformist drive. The Mitte Man will tirelessly parade his unwillingness to participate in the “dating charade” through the cafés and bars of Berlin, in the hope that it will have a similar effect on the female population as bathing in Axe deodorant and legally changing his name to Johnny Depp. Sitting in your Stammkneipe, the Mitte Man will fluff up his scarf so as to resemble the neck of a pigeon in heat and demand the same level of attention with his demonstrably nonchalant “over here, laydeeeehs!!!!” pose. Also, the sounds emanating from his turntable will occasionally resemble those of a horny bird, although the similarities will be more marked if he is into freestyle jazz. A successful courtship will emboldened them and the clichés pulled from his Freitag bag will come thick and fast. Let’s take a look at some of the usual suspects and what that they actually mean:

“I totally agree with Houellebecq: humans are just not monogamous creatures” I am certainly not monogamous, and, as my current object of desire, neither should you be. To be honest I have no idea what Houellebecq’s opinion on monogamy is, but I saw Atomised at the Babylon and Franka Potente is hot!  Sleep with me.

“The problem with the establishment is that it asphyxiates the individual and stops them from expressing their true sexuality. I am very open-minded and would never judge anyone” Apart from people who don’t agree with my stupidly narrow worldview. I really don’t like people who get in the way of expressing my true sexuality, particularly women inexplicably oblivious to my obvious charms. Please sleep with me.

“Have you ever considered an open relationship?” I will only respect your opinion as an intelligent woman entitled to hold her own opinions if the answer is “yes”. Otherwise I might have to play the “repressed” card. It worked for Freud. I will still respect your cleavage. Why aren’t you sleeping with me yet?

“At the end of the day, we’re all animals” A very specific animal. I’m picturing myself as a heavily anthropomorphised lion, king of the urban jungle, napping the day away while his harem of lionesses do all the work. The idea of being an imperial penguin who is not only paired for life but who has to sit on a giant egg freezing his beak off in arctic temperatures and star in mainstream documentaries voiced by Morgan Freeman doesn’t appeal to me. And no, the praying mantis is not a good example either.

“I don’t ‘date’. This is a term popularized by restaurants, cinemas, and other commercial enterprises with the aim of maximising their revenues. You can’t put a price on romance” I even burnt you copy of Photoshop! Why won’t you sleep with me?

Additionally the Mitte Man will remind you that Berlin is the city of true romance. This might have eluded you, as the title is, often wrongfully, given to such conventionally beautiful places such as Paris, a town that has trapped less visionary minds in the mainstream matrix with its elegant boulevards and enchanting squares. Berlin, on the other hand, with its communist cement and the postmodern Alexanderplatz, is somehow overlooked. Fear not, you will soon be reminded of the city’s unconventional romanticism with the same unforgiving, implacable enthusiasm displayed when highlighting its hipness.

Berlin is the single most paradigm-bashing, mould-smashing and mind-blowing megalopolitan melting pot in the annals of human history. And while it is still acceptable, nay positively encouraged, to remind everybody of the city’s intense awesomeness during those never-ending borderline arctic winter months, when the only coolness found is firmly located at the bottom of a thermometer, this fades when the temperature creeps above zero. Come spring and Berlin might once more seem positively inviting with its many pleasant parks and placid lakes. Pointing out the city’s attractions might mark you out as a tourist, a summer scenester who is there for the sunny season, when the place is not only habitable, but actually enjoyable. In short, one of those people who don’t get Berlin in all its dank, gloomy, relentlessly harrowing glory. The Mitte Man’s virility is directly proportional to how many winters he has endured. With this he hopes to impress all the new arrivals who will picture him as a sexy fearless Amundsen, and not as a man that has to spend four months of the year wearing long-johns. And when this fails, he will relentlessly promote Berlin as a dystopian Venice of the North by pointing out its higher number of canals.

In short, there is not a single fact or figure, not a single idea, that the Mitte Man won’t shamelessly appropriate to mask his vapid, chronically insecure self. Every morning he will add three extra heaped spoons of delusion to his flat white to pretend that the age old rules of attraction are beneath him, when he is in fact so up his own backside that he could perform his own colonoscopy, and has lost all sense of perspective or self-critique. For somebody so vocally against the bourgeois society of spectacle and status, it is slightly contradictory that he would invest so much time publicly parading his radical credentials like a particularly pretentious peacock. Likewise his tendency to label everything and everyone that enters his field of vision like some kind of OCD-addled librarian following a flimsy counterculture classification. The sad truth is that in his neurotic attempts to appear a free thinker, the Mitte Man comes across as revolutionary as a Grateful Dead tribute band.

56. The meltdown - Part II: An Idiot Abroad

The following is a conversation between Farorientalism, the pseudonymous author of the self-titled, utterly brilliant and necessary blog about the image of Far Eastern countries in Germany, and Wash Echte.

Farorientalism’s author is a Berlin-based journalist who prefers to stay anonymous. Make sure to visit his blog at farorientalism.blogspot.com (currently not available).

Wash Echte: The other day, I was thinking about booking a trip to Japan, so I thought, let’s read some German language books about the country. After a few pages, I had to stop reading, as all of these books were basically a sequence of stereotypes and the sort of ethnocentric anecdotes that should have become non-publishable by the year 1867. My irritation rose with each book, until I was so aggravated that I put “orientalism” into Google and your blog turned up. When I first discovered Farorientalism, it was one of those “Thank you, Internet!” moments. There’s comfort in knowing that there’s another person out there who’s as bothered by such a specific, yet extremely irritating phenomenon as yourself. So what was it that triggered your desire to write a blog about this topic?

Farorientalism: I guess it was a number of things I experienced over a span of years. During my university years, out of a diffuse fascination with Japan, I took up learning the language, and also traveled there a couple of times, and later on also stayed there for an extended period of time.

So, along my way, I repeatedly bumped into Germans, who really annoyed me. Like this one time I attended an official presentation for a student exchange program catering to German and Japanese students. Two young Germans, a dyed-blonde woman in a Manga-T-Shirt, and a bearded Gauloises-smoker, were scheduled to report about their experiences. Both were in Japan for the first time, both didn’t speak the language at all. They did this slide show of photos they took during their four-week stay. One slide showed a bunch of six or seven-year-old pupils in school uniform. The blonde woman commented this slide by saying: “What a pity, those poor children all look the same, no sign of individuality, and they don’t even realize their situation! Even on their holidays, their schools made them come in for some kind of sports project, you know, those Japanese and their work-centric life…”

What followed was a dozen or so similar slides spawning similar comments, peaking in the statement, made by our bearded friend, “Individualism - a concept the Japanese have yet to learn.” How convenient, I thought, that the Japanese finally found such competent drill instructors.

Blondy and the Beard might just have been extraordinarily stupid, but generally speaking I found this kind of nonsense to be quite common. Most people I met suffered from projection bias, based on half-truths and clichés, which of course revealed more about them than about the subject matter.

They believe to be in possession of the single correct stance on any given topic, which of course is the “Western” one.

It is just like religion - so I call these kinds of people “the wise men from the occident”. So to go back to your question why I started blogging - I think I was looking for some catharsis from them and situations like the one described. To always be confronted with the same old stereotype can be tiring, but also quite amusing.

Wash Echte: When we agreed to have this conversation about German writing on Japan, neither the earthquake nor tsunami had happened yet.

So, apart from prose, we now have this overwhelming build-up of lousy journalism to talk about. Actually, most of the reporting was of such poor quality that I was close to stop bothering at all.

Farorientalism: I have similar feelings. I haven’t read any newspaper since weeks now. Or rather, I just read the sports section. What I did is check the BBC every morning to see if Japan still exists. And again in the evening. That was it.

Wash Echte: Do you prefer the BBC’s approach to journalism to that of, say, Der Spiegel-type journalism?

Farorientalism: I usually favor the BBC’s style of reporting. The recent developments in Egypt, for example, I watched only on the BBC.

Wash Echte: Might be that the English media is more competent in international reporting. Positive repercussions of having had colonies.

Farorientalism: Also of having more correspondents, and less ideology. I haven’t read Der Spiegel for quite a while now, and only when I have to - for professional reasons. Apart from them, there have been other examples of intolerable journalism in the German media.

Wash Echte: The more drama and hysteria, the better. I’d say there are two types of far-orientalism in popular culture: The first being the orientalism of the everyman who gets his information exclusively from Western sources. And then we have the Western pundit with first-hand experience. Which type is easier to let off?

Farorientalism: Definitely the first type. Because it is less presumptive and can even have an amicable side to. It’s normal to have little information about a faraway country. The second type, the pundit’s orientalism, is the really insufferable one.

Somebody who considers himself or herself an expert, yet hasn’t got the slightest grasp on the subject matter, is infuriating, and also comical.

Wash Echte: Your blog started out with a piece about Christoph Neumann who wrote one of the most commercially successful German-language books about modern Japan, or actually about alleged cultural differences between the Germans and the Japanese. And in fact, I have met quite a few people in Germany who take his book at face value, and cite it as a source whenever they talk about Japan.

Farorientalism: Oh dear god. Where do I start? Have you ever seen a picture of Neumann?

Wash Echte: Yes…

Farorientalism: In his book, he styles himself as some kind of Don Juan. Which I think is a big giveaway. Yet, much of the stuff he writes isn’t factually wrong, as I described in my blog. He simply shares the general view on Japan found in Germany or the western hemisphere. But he completely fails to reflect that his view isn’t the only one. He’s so self-assured about himself being the bearer of the universal truth.

Wash Echte: You call him “Würstchen”, which I thought was interesting. Is this simply another case of low self-esteem, someone pulling himself up on the alleged superiority of their own culture?

Farorientalism: Right. Japan has a strange attraction to these people, because there, they aren’t as easily typecast as they are in their home countries.

Wash Echte: So the source of this way of thinking is really an inferiority complex.

Farorientalism: Hmm. Suffer in Germany - heal in Japan? I doubt that works. All I do know is I felt a lot of embarrassment-by-proxy while reading that book. In order to avoid portentous terms such as “racism”. Then again, to ponder the thought if a book like this had been written about African people or Jews…that would be unthinkable.

Wash Echte: To slag off most of what you find in a foreign country as “worse than home” and “ridiculous” points to the possibility that this person must have felt even less accepted there, than back home, so he sought out a way to make up for the hurt he suffered.

Farorientalism: I am all for making fun of stuff. But please, be classy about it. Something that Neumann’s writing seems to be lacking in every aspect.

German publishers have found out there’s a market for books like his. The concept being “German people report about the foreign country they chose to live in”. You can find such books about Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Greece…so of course, some guy at some publisher one day said, “let’s do one on Japan”. What all these books have in common is that they try to be amusing. And what country is more apt to be made fun of for it’s alleged whimsicality than Japan? The buyer of such books expects to read amusing anecdotes.

Wash Echte: So, Germans like books about foreign countries, but only as long as those books don’t threaten the idea that the German way of life is superior and closest to the “natural state”.

Farorientalism: Exactly. They are daft, but ultimately harmless books. Where they become problematic, is in the reader’s domain. The type of reader who takes these books at face value, who even forms their image of a country based on them, just can’t be helped.

Wash Echte: Is it really all the reader’s fault? I think the marketing of such books is often misleading. I have never once seen them advertised as, “A jolly potpourri of lies, stereotypes, and personal bias to pad the self-esteem of the author”, but always as “authentic, insightful, inside information from the inside!”

Farorientalism: I’d like to differentiate here. That depends on the author. Take this book about China by Christian Y. Schmidt, “Bliefe von dlüben”. There’s no real “need” for this book either, but it is certainly less irritating than Neumann’s.

Wash Echte: You said that writing the way Neumann did about Japanese people would be unthinkable if the subject matter were Africans or Jews. Am I right to suppose that the German audience also would disapprove of such blatant stereotyping and generalizing of individuals if the target group were, say, Americans? Have Germans come around to think of Americans as individuals rather than as a homogenous, faceless group, and if so, is it due to the ubiquity of American culture in Germany?

Farorientalism: Yes, that surely is true. This lack of familiarity also has a role in the current reporting about the Fukushima nuclear plant. In German media’s editorial offices, you will be hard pressed to find anyone with a sound knowledge about Japan. We do know American writers, musicians, geography, and cities - our image of America is manifold. Japan is also a manifold country. Take the conflict between East Japan and West Japan, for instance. In Germany, is anyone is aware of it?

Talking about the French affection for nuclear energy, just yesterday a Japanese friend from Fukuoka wrote me: “Paris-Berlin: 876 km Fukushima-Fukuoka: 1084 km. Good luck with that!”

Again, the fact that a reactor leak in Fukushima doesn’t mean that instantly, all of Japan is contaminated requires only basic geographic knowledge, but even that seems to be too much to ask.

Wash Echte: Every conversation with people here in Germany about the disaster in Japan seems to follow this exact script: German person: “Isn’t it horrible what happened in Japan?” Me: “It sure is, more than 12000 deaths caused by the Tsunami.” German person: “What? What are you talking about…I was referring to the radiation! Isn’t it just horrible?”

Farorientalism: Exactly. The catastrophe that really happened stopped being of interest to Germans since day two. By the way, this wasn’t the case in the BBC’s reporting. In Germany, the only two aspects that are still of interest are nuclear energy and exploration of the “Japanese national character”: Why the hell aren’t they panicking yet? I am not aware if anything like this has happened before - people responding with pure hysteria to a dangerous situation happening more than 9000 km away.

Wash Echte: Me neither. And Germans don’t seem to fathom out why the Japanese aren’t interested in being “educated” by the much more liberal, nonpartisan western media.

Farorientalism: Exactly. Have you read this interview with Kenichi Mishima in Frankfurter Rundschau?

Wash Echte: I did, yes.

Farorientalism: What stood out for me was one of comment left by a reader below the interview: “The true feelings of Mishima are revealed when he talks about the desired response of the West to the Japan crisis: Send money, don’t ask questions.” This guy seems to think he should be awarded a seat in the Japanese parliament before he gives one Euro to charity.

Wash Echte: I can’t shake the feeling that we Europeans have grown to see our society and our way of life and thinking as the “natural state”. As the optimum any living person should ever strive for.

Farorientalism: And most importantly: That you can only feel happiness as a European person. Happiness being the crucial term here, because since it’s been proven that the Japanese are the more commercially successful nation, the image of the “inferior Asian” can’t be held up anymore.

Wash Echte: That’s where we’re hurting.

Farorientalism: Yes, so luckily, we can now play the happiness trump: “Maybe they’re more successful, but look at the miserable lives they are living.” I just wonder then why life expectancy is higher and Japanese people are healthier. I have never got the impression that they’re especially miserable looking.

Wash Echte: That may be the reason why a European person, expecting to see only miserable, overworked people, is driven into an inferiority complex once confronted with the reality there.

Farorientalism: Or, in a misguided attempt to make reality go away, the European person will then argue that the Japanese just haven’t realized yet how miserable they should really feel, if only they knew. Anything goes to coerce reality into the narrative of the “inferior Asian”.

Wash Echte: That’s what your blog is about, isn’t it - describing all those defense mechanisms people come up with to reassure themselves of their hypothetical superiority.

Farorientalism: Yes. I think this European attitude, or at least that of many Germans, has totalitarian qualities to it: There is only this one way to think and live, and, one day, the whole world has to become like us.

Wash Echte: Totalitarian thought-patterns, imposed on subjectively positive values such as those held up by the students of 1968, who were fighting totalitarianism.

Farorientalism: The same old story, in a new packaging - with a bit of added philanthropy.

Wash Echte: Let’s go back to writers. There are less blatant examples than Christoph Neumann. Have you read “Zehn” by Franka Potente?

Farorientalism: I sort of skipped over it.

Wash Echte: One of the ten stories is about this emotionally inhibited Japanese man, who fails to grasp the opportunity when an outgoing, impulsive Scandinavian woman he met tries to start a relationship with him.

Farorientalism: …that outgoing Scandinavian women of course being Potente’s Alter Ego.

Wash Echte: Probably.

Farorientalism: Sexuality is a fitting topic. About 150 years ago, the Europeans started to go to Japan, and found it to be demoralized, mainly because homosexuals were left alone over there. Today of course, Europeans go to Japan to fight for same-sex marriage rights. Isn’t it ironic?

Wash Echte: Today, it is automatically assumed that homosexuals have it better here than in the Far East.

Farorientalism: Which isn’t an easy call to make. But it makes it obvious that the Japanese don’t need any reeducation from the Europeans.

Wash Echte: That Japanese guy in Potente’s story…isn’t he going against human nature in rejecting that impulsive Scandinavian party-animal?

Farorientalism: Yes, even more so as the Scandinavian, from the classic left-wing point of view, portrays the noblest specimen of mankind: Ecologically correct, socially secured, emancipated, and Arian. Oops, strike Arian, that’s the opposite school of thought. Anyway, the world will never be like Scandinavia, which can be called a blessing for climatical reasons alone.

Wash Echte: Why then, despite presenting us with such shallow, ethnocentric character sketches, does the German feuilleton still praise Potente’s punditry on the Japanese?

Farorientalism: Those guys often don’t care about facts or life outside of their offices anyway. Feuilleton mostly is introspection.

Wash Echte: It’s not like there’s only one example. The book is full of such ideas.

Farorientalism: Tell me more.

Wash Echte: Okay, so this Japanese person comes to California as part of a student exchange program. But when it’s time to go home again, the student, in a change of mind which must have been so obvious to Potente she’s doesn’t even try to explore it, decides to not want to go back to Japan, because compared to life in the US, it now feels like going back to prison.

Farorientalism: Wow.

Wash Echte: So, is this book maybe less of an insight into the Japanese character than into the projection bias of its author?

Farorientalism: I’m speechless. I’d like to ask her why we haven’t seen a mass exodus from Japan yet. I sense oblivion.

Wash Echte: She said she lived with real Japanese people who gave her access to the “inside” of Japan.

Farorientalism: Maybe she really did? Like that one week where I stayed with the Schmidt family in Bergisch-Gladbach and suddenly had this epiphany about Germany ;-)

Wash Echte: I wonder what authentic Japanese people agreed to have this severely tattooed German actress stay with them.

Farorientalism: Good question. Maybe she stayed with a Yakuza family.

Wash Echte: As she isn’t known to speak Japanese, not only the statement to have gotten to know the “inside” Japan, but this whole background story to me sounds quite far-fetched.

Farorientalism: Good point. Yet, the ARD correspondent in Japan doesn’t speak the language either.

Wash Echte: Hetkämper?

Farorientalism: What a spectacle, that guy.

Wash Echte: A caricature.

Farorientalism: He’s really one of a kind. The old school of Far East correspondents - the guys with the straw hats. Whenever I see his documentations on Phoenix, waddling his way through some arbitrary Vietnamese village, I am always looking for a rickshaw in the background, already waiting for him - that’s like Scholl-Latour’s idea of journalism, minus the insight.

Wash Echte: That doesn’t keep them from writing book after book about the topic.

Farorientalism: Like “Tokyo Tango” by the former FAZ-Correspondent Uwe Schmitt. You can find him in my blog as well. Basically, what he writes is vain blabber, with the pretension to write beautiful prose. The Berliner Morgenpost gave him a full page to open up about his feelings on the earthquake. Funny, I thought, as in the meantime, he had been sent to work in Washington. I quite like the idea to not just ask the people in Japan who were directly affected by the quake, but a correspondent sitting in Washington.

Wash Echte: Is it lack of money, or carelessness to fail to come up with a journalist that speaks the language of the country he has to report on?

Farorientalism: I think the German media is really bad at networking. Also, most journalists are now too scared to go to Japan, for their fear of radiation. But I was speaking about “Tokyo Tango”. What a sad piece of writing.

Wash Echte: Sad for presenting the same old half-truths and stereotypes instead of depicting everyday reality there, which might turn out to be more livable than ours?

Farorientalism: Well, Schmitt did dutifully read much of the Western standard literature about Japan, especially the outdated and the highly critical, without questioning the information he got from these books. Then, for example, he came to the conclusion that the Japanese “salary men” (people following a conservative career path, the ed.) must live a miserable life. He took that idea and ran it through some kind of “lets-write-like-Thomas-Mann-if-he-had-been-a-journalist” - machine, and the result was “Tokyo Tango”, a book that has earned much praise from the Feuilleton.

Wash Echte: Apparently, the Germans have a problem with people who dedicate their life to their workplace. So next time I go to a German bakery half an hour before they close shop and ask to buy something despite all the displays already having been emptied, should I take the rude retort they’ll certainly give me as a symbol for the freedom and superior quality of life of the German working class?

Farorientalism: Germans mainly see work as a means of self-realization. Which wouldn’t be such a bad idea, if it weren’t for the fact that 80% of work that needs to be done - working in a bakery, delivering parcels, being a janitor - will hardly leave room for self-realization.

Wash Echte: On the contrary, if you think about the people working in Japan’s supermarkets, who are usually friendly and helpful even at late hours, should you be worried that these people lie awake at night to grieve about the sour grapes life dealt them?

Farorientalism: Definitely! It’s normal for the Japanese to cry themselves to sleep every night because they weren’t born Europeans ;-)
The general image of the Japanese, for the regular German, is that of an odd, often whimsical, yet kamikaze-grade disciplined person.

Wash Echte: And obedient to authority.

Farorientalism: Correct. The “hardworking member of the ant colony” stereotype.

Wash Echte: So we talked about the image of Japanese people among the insecure and uninformed, but what about the group of people I like to call “elite Germans”, who consider themselves to be progressives. Take alternative, globetrotting, young actress Franka Potente, for example. To me, what she writes about Japan is simply kitsch, akin to those yodeling Africans in Lederhosen you can see on ARD. Yet, nobody seems to be bothered much by it.

Farorientalism: Part of the problem is that the Japanese seems to represent a concept from which we Germans have long struggled to distance ourselves. We consider ourselves as not being obedient to authority anymore at all, as individualistic free thinkers - yet we all have the same basic opinion, as we can currently see in regard to nuclear energy. The Japanese doesn’t have the best standing in our hip communities.

Wash Echte: Which is China’s chance to take its place there.

Farorientalism: Yes. But the Chinese trigger new, different anxieties. Do you know this book by Amy Chua?

Wash Echte: Oh, that woman in the US with her rigid ideas of how to bring up children?

Farorientalism: Yes, the so-called Tiger mum. Granted, she’s quite a nut-job. A majority of Chinese people would probably never raise their kids like her.

Wash Echte: Nonetheless, the “rigid Chinese mother” stereotype has already been consolidated…

Farorientalism: It is highly provocative of her, an intelligent woman, to boldly say, “I will raise my kids the Asian way”. The only thing the West is worried about is whether they now have to adopt her ideas to stay afloat. That scares people. Until recently, the West was calling the shots on this planet. And now, god forbid, a new age has broken where things are vice-versa? This, I think, is interesting to observe.

Wash Echte: The one straw we clutch to being “creativity”. To make ourselves feel better, we entertain this idea of a spiritual, mysterious creativity, which “cannot be learned”. At the same time, we deny “the Asian” any creative potential - even if they ever had any when they were children, it is erased by the “harsh” drill they “all have to go through”.

Farorientalism: There’s this well-meaning article in Die Zeit, which seemingly speaks against an exoticism-riddled view on Japan, only to go back to that same exoticism a few paragraphs later.

The author talks about negative aspects of Japanese culture, and in that context makes a statement like, “creativity is repressed in Japan”.

Seriously - I know many Japanese people from varying backgrounds, and I never once got the impression that they were less creative than the Germans I know. If anything, the opposite is true. But I do know where this stereotype is coming from.

Wash Echte: Because Japanese people don’t live in Altbau apartments in Berlin-Mitte?

Farorientalism: That’s it. But that doesn’t explain how someone who knows a few Japanese people, let’s say outside a business context, can come around to believe this stereotype to hold any water.

Wash Echte: Like the person who wrote that article for Die Zeit.

Farorientalism: If you read that article, it becomes clear that he has read the odd book about Japan, and may even have visited the country. Also, he definitely is well meaning. I fully understand how journalism must generalize. Still, why articles like this one are greenlighted, escapes me.

Wash Echte: Concerning Japan, apparently negative aspects of its culture are generalized and persist, while positive ones usually fall through the cracks. Back to your blog, Farorientalism - did you get any negative reactions to it?

Farorientalism: Not many. The other day, someone wrote: “Much of your criticism I’ve heard before - coming from the Japanese themselves. They miss the sort of enlightenment which would enable them to question the status quo and voice their opinion (…) there’s no point in turning a blind eye towards the problems of the people there out of sympathy for their country (…)”

Wash Echte: This sounds like one of those German people who love to cite critical opinions on Israel voiced by Jews. Which coincidentally are the only Jewish opinions they usually cite.

Farorientalism: “My Jewish friends say…” ;-)

Wash Echte: Thank god for the whistleblowers.

Farorientalism: Right. But something else I found to be even more remarkable: The allegation that I turn a blind eye on the “problems of the Japanese”. I don’t want to sound mean, but if there are such problems, then the Japanese must solve them themselves. There is no need - and this the exact point I am trying to make - for us Germans to pose as “super-nannies” who help the Japanese solve their problems. I’m not so stupid as to think of Japan as a perfect place. During my trips there, I rather had the feeling that we Europeans haven’t even realized our problems. I doubt that becoming like Germany should be a goal for any country.

Wash Echte: Is it fair to say that this E-Mail by Der Spiegel journalist Nora Reinhardt to Kenichi Mishima is a good indicator for the quality of reporting about Japan?

Farorientalism: To give a fair answer: No, it isn’t that bad everywhere. But generally, it is pretty awful. Ms Reinhard may not even be the worst example.

Wash Echte: Well, she didn’t even know that there was a time difference between Germany and Japan, so she called him on the phone late at night in his time zone, and had to apologize for it later.

Farorientalism: I thought the actual Manga-related article that apparently was the result of this research wasn’t that bad after all. It was definitely better than this story in “Stern” which was basically a potpourri of all known stereotypes mixed together: Kamikaze, Samurai etc..

Wash Echte: I didn’t read it.

Farorientalism: To understand how bad that piece is, imagine this catastrophe had taken place in Germany and the foreign media would illustrate their reports with SS troops and spiked helmets. To quote that article: “(…) there are stories like that of this old woman who is rescued from a car wreck and apologizes to have caused an inconvenience for the rescue workers. Or that of people who were evacuated, but didn’t dare to enter the gym (which was set up as a shelter) without taking off their shoes first (…)” What’s wrong with this description? First of all, this woman simply used the most common Japanese idiom for saying, “Thank you”. Nothing else. And second, the people who take off their shoes before entering the gym do the most common thing imaginable. Why would they want to “dare” something different in the first place? Where did the author get this idea that they “do not dare”?

Wash Echte: A good example.

Farorientalism: …that suggests that all Japanese, deep down, have a heartfelt desire to not to take off their shoes when entering a living place. But they just don’t “dare”, because they will be shunned by “the group”.

Wash Echte: So, leaving your shoes on when you walk into a place other people live in, should be understood as the “natural state of human existence”.

Farorientalism: Like you are supposed to say, “Guten Tag” when entering a store, even if you actually couldn’t care less if they have a good day.

The people who wrote that article are probably not stupid. But they lack all intercultural intelligence. Or they switched if off for professional reasons.

Wash Echte: Does Germany need a complete overhaul of the way journalism is taught here?

Farorientalism: I don’t think so. A more critical audience would be nice.

Wash Echte: Then again, if you take a look at Stern, you immediately know what kind of journalism to expect. But Der Spiegel on the other hand claims to be Germany’s number one source of “quality journalism”. With the reporting of the past few weeks, I rather get the impression that those questions from Nora Reinhard to Mishima are the better indicator for the quality to expect from Der Spiegel.

Farorientalism: Like I said - I tend to categorize Spiegel Online as a tabloid anyway.

Wash Echte: They are more insidious than your usual tabloid…

Farorientalism: Everything is a “Eilmeldung”. Also that unfortunate “liveticker”. As if the situation in Fukushima was a football match and they’re waiting for the first goal. Hyperventilating the news in hope to manufacture a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we took the reporting in Der Spiegel at face value, it’d be a miracle that anyone in Tokyo is still alive and the city not in ruins.

Wash Echte: What Der Spiegel excels at are cunning headlines. Maximized shock value disguised as factual information.

Farorientalism: It’s just speculative, badly researched, and unethical journalism. What they aim for, of course, is attention and eventually “page impressions”.

Wash Echte: The “Let’s turn everything into a slideshow” school of online media.

Farorientalism: Right. To say it like Sarah Kuttner or Nora Tschirner “Spiegel Online - Das geht gar nicht.”

Wash Echte: I thought it was “Ich glaube es hackt”?

Farorientalism: That’s by Judith Holofernes, our trusty old Bild-boycotter. You don’t like her very much, do you?

Wash Echte: I haven’t really formed an opinion about her, but I do find the uniformity of her audience a bit suspicious. Isn’t it tragic that you will find a huge crowd of Germans who will rally behind such lazy rebellion while at the same time they seem to be completely uncritical of what Der Spiegel feeds them?

Farorientalism: To take Bild seriously is nobody’s fault but your own. For example, saying, “es hackt” about Bild just strikes me as old thinking. It’s common knowledge in Germany that the Japanese allegedly trust their media “blindly”. But look at the Germans - they are the ones who fit this description as much.

Wash Echte: I think they are even worse.

Farorientalism: In Germany, the easiest way to position yourself outside of society is to say: “I am in favor of nuclear energy”. Of course there are good arguments against nuclear energy. But the level of uniformity in opinion is scary. It reminds me of the citation of Kaiser Wilhelm II, “I recognize parties no more; I recognize only anti-nuclear activists!”

Wash Echte: Do you think that freedom of speech still exists, meaning that one is able to openly be in favor of nuclear energy without having to fear bodily harm?

Farorientalism: I wouldn’t go so far as to say freedom of speech is in danger, apart from certain areas of Berlin maybe. I’m amused by Germans who call the Japanese a “group-oriented” society who always adapt the group’s opinion as their own - the very same thing the Germans do.

Wash Echte: I again suspect that it’s 100% projection bias and Japanese are actually less group-oriented than Germans.

Farorientalism: To prepare this conversation, I re-read a couple of newspaper articles, and got the impression that the Germans are almost as angry with the Japanese “not learning their lessons from Hiroshima” as they are angry with the Jews “not learning their lessons from Auschwitz”.

Wash Echte: :-) Can the performances of people like Hetkämper or Reinhard serve as evidence for the provincialism of modern Germany? After all, Hetkämper works for Germany’s biggest and most important TV network, ARD.

Farorientalism: What else could it be? But to differentiate a bit, in the case of Hetkämper, I believe his mishaps to be sheer incompetence paired with lack of motivation and the convenience of being a veteran foreign correspondent for a large public TV network. He simply can’t be bothered. Reinhard, on the other hand, is proof that not only the Japanese have trouble with the English language ;-)

Wash Echte: So if they ever do a German version of Ricky Gervais’ “An Idiot Abroad”, the best place to look for a German Karl Pilkington would be in the editor’s offices of the self-appointed German quality media?

Farorientalism: :-)

Wash Echte: As a consequence, isn’t it preferable for Germany to not play a major role in international politics? The general public seems to lack basic knowledge of foreign countries, and worse, still accepts stereotypes and ethnocentric pseudo-journalism at face value.

Farorientalism: That’s a hard question. You can find that sort of bad journalism in the US as well. I never understood the reasoning behind why Germany strives to play a bigger international role, anyway. Germany does export loads of weaponry to who knows what countries to. Japan doesn’t, at least not to the same extent. Yet, we Germans like to think of ourselves as a refined, thoroughly peaceful nation: “We learned our lessons from history, you know - unlike those Yasukuni-visiting Japanese”. The troublesome aspect of this ethnocentricity and lack of knowledge is that we aren’t aware of it.

Wash Echte: I fear this conversation is quite pessimistic. There surely must be exceptions to the rule. Germans who are able to competently write about Japan?

Farorientalism: Hmm. Let me see. I like Petra Kolonko of FAZ, who earlier worked as a correspondent from China and now from Tokyo. She’s fair and balanced, yet critical, and rarely falls back on cultural criticism. She is able to categorize aspects of Japanese culture in a way that signals: Everything is relative and can be found, to another extent, elsewhere. By the way, I also like the guy who does China for FAZ, Mark Siemons. He is definitely competent. Also, what you can find in Die Zeit about the Far East is usually not too far off the mark.

Wash Echte: Interesting, because I thought they rank among the worst. Their flaunting of the whimsical is unmatched. The number of articles like “in Japan, robots are caring for the elderly" you can find in Die Zeit in sum means a distortion of reality, because it creates a false image of homogeneity that fails to do justice to the complexity which is inherent not only in the Japanese, but any modern society.

Farorientalism: It’s true that you can find awful writing there. Sometimes though, a really good one also makes it into print. I remember one about Japan’s foreign policies. It’s hit-or-miss with Die Zeit.

Wash Echte: Would you like your blog to help change the status quo of reporting on the Far East?

Farorientalism: The main motivation for writing is to catalog my own thoughts in a “just for fun” way. Having said that, I’d of course be happy if my blog leads some of the “ants” from this “ant colony” called Germany, which to me looks quite uniform, to reconsider their thinking about the Far East and not blindly trust what the media feeds them, I’d be happy.