Spring 2011. A catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions has hit Japan, an ongoing tragedy that reveals the inability of a whole commercial sector, whose underlying structure of misinformation, lies, and blatant manipulation of facts for the sole purpose of profit, is suddenly brought to light. The incompetence of those involved proves itself to be so profound, that no one in their right mind can ever be able to trust these people with anything ever again.
What’s that? No, I’m not talking about Fukushima, radiation, or anything happening in faraway countries, but about the tragic and complete meltdown of journalistic ethos, methodology, and human dignity of most of the German media in the face of the current events. The sheer amount of ethnocentric vitriol and small-minded idiocy concerning Japan found in the German media has rendered any satirical approach useless. So let’s take a shot at some entirely amateur gonzo journalism. Or as the Germans call it, journalism.
Surely there must be at least some people in Germany who can write about Japan without mentioning vending machines for used knickers or the “contrast of tradition and modernism”? After looking really hard, I found something. This text, Stadt der Träume for taz is such a good read that I just had to talk to the guy who wrote it. Turns out the author, Dr. Roberto Lalli, an Italian playwright living in Germany, has a very interesting view on why the German reporting about Japan is in such poor state.
WE: What was your motivation for writing about Japan?
RL: I have to admit that Japanese culture fascinated me since I was a little kid. Probably very early in my life I realized that European art was not as modern and revolutionary as it seemed to be at first glance. Jugendstil or Art Deco, as it is called outside Germany and Austria, had been influenced heavily by Japanese minimalism or purism, a perspective on life as well as on art that came up in Japan hundreds of years before it struck artists like Van Gogh and later Picasso like lightning. I remember the effect the preparatory drawings of Van Gogh had on me - he was not at all the wild, irrational painter many believe him to be: ‘Wow, I thought, this is pure Japanese reduction to the essential!”
I will never forget the first time I went to a German “Völkerkundemuseum”. At some point I entered the Japanese section and noticed a glass shrine with black, shiny, ultra modern teacups, and I wondered if someone had put their brand new IKEA cups in there. Well, I approached the cups to read the tags, which said, “Japanese manufacturer, 12th century”. Oh dear, that was like a kick up the arse. Real fun. Later I read a lot of Japanese literature, ancient and modern, and among the modern writers especially Kenzaburo Oe fascinated me because of his essential, sometimes crude, and still touching language. So, that was the beginning of my passion for Japan, no, not for Japan, but for Japanese art, cinema, architecture, philosophy and economy. Maybe the movie “Lost in Translation” reminded me at somehow, that there was not only Japanese culture as a way to deal with life over here, but also a living Japan, waiting to be discovered. So I took a plane and went there.
WE: Before visiting Japan, did you have in mind any stereotypes about modern Japan? Did you experience affirmation for any of them?
RL: The only thing I anticipated was a particular kind of foreignness that it was going to be very difficult to communicate with the Japanese. Not because of the language barrier, but because of an impenetrable seriousness, which shields most emotion, and I found that to be true. What took me by surprise was the fact that Japanese people, when communicating with strangers, barely exchange any subtext at all. This particularly European mess of hidden desire, shame, and constant searching for the other’s soul, this constant judgment, eyeballing, and competing, in Japan simply doesn’t exist between strangers. The individual there feels no need to reflect itself in others, because outside of work or family, it isn’t on a constant quest to self-discovery. When a Japanese person is among other Japanese people who are strangers to him, he in a way ceases to exist, but reappears once he interacts with peers known to him. I found it to be amusing that the stereotype of “losing face” has some truth to it. When I was lost and asked a Japanese person, who didn’t speak English, for directions, he just passed me with a fixed stare, simply to avoid embarrassment for both him and me.
WE: Is it natural for a European to feel “alienated” by Japan and the Japanese, or is this feeling of alienation more like a self-fulfilling prophecy?
RL: I’d say: Both. Asia and Europe are fundamentally different, under objective criteria, and this is no illusion. On the other hand, there will always be a sense of alienation once one delves into another culture. We Europeans are mainly defining ourselves through the people around us - to a much greater extent than we happen to be aware about in our natural “habitat”. An example: If you’re a handsome man or woman, when you’re walking around Tokyo, or when you’re riding the subway there, you will soon find out that no one seems to notice your good looks, let alone react to them even in any non-verbal way, so it may appear to you like you’re a time traveling, invisible man. Our ego, in the Freudian sense of the word, is a reflected projection. When that reflection ceases to exist, part of the ego also fades away. Accordingly, the meaning of “travel” is to become aware of the fact that whatever we think our ego is, actually isn’t our ego. So, what is the ego then, I ask.
WE: In your piece for taz, you oppose the usual clichés of the Japanese as whimsical “others”, caught in an eternal conflict of traditions and modern life with a unique, favorable view on the Japanese society. In your piece for taz, Tokyo for once isn’t the hypermodern, inhuman place it usually is stylized as in western media, but rather an actually existing utopia of a fairer, more livable capitalism. Isn’t the do-or-die, psychopathic society of loners, that western media purports Japan to be, closer to reality?
RL: Make no mistake: Capitalism by nature is just that, an at all times inhuman system - not only during the time of crisis, when the whining about “degenerated capitalism” is at its loudest. Which to me is really just laughable. People should read what Rosa Luxemburg said a hundred years ago about the capitalistic tendency of increasingly radical accumulation. Japan is different to Europe in that people, in return for submitting themselves to this logic of capitalism, at least receive some kind of compensation. They get a better deal than the Europeans - on all levels. The Japanese capitalism is not necessarily more human than the European one, but the participants receive a greater share. In Europe, the corporations can get rid of 150 years worth of social standards and comforts without anyone in the media complaining much. At the same time, they receive tax break after tax break from governments, regardless of their political orientation. In Japan, companies pay a higher price to the country and society for being allowed to participate in the market. Having said that, the capitalistic pressure on people, even the youngest, is enormous in Japan as well. Suicides rates are high, even among 10-year-olds, and adolescents rather try to make a living by selling T-Shirts than do like their fathers and dedicate their lives to a corporation.
WE: Is this fairer type of capitalism in any way caused by the same traditional morals and values that are often mocked as being antiquated and limiting in comparison to the hedonist western lifestyle?
RL: No, this is a trait of the Asian capitalism in general, the most important trait of the “Tokyo model,” which differs from the “Washington model.” Refer to any given history book: All countries that have succeeded at implementing industrialization and produce goods which can compete on a global scale, have in fact started out in seclusion, meaning that they used protective taxes to make their economies immune to cheap imports. Japan is still keeping up this way of regulation, especially in the agricultural sector. This effectively prevented a rural exodus and helped stabilize society after the Second World War. Had Japan, at that time, followed the absurd ideas of the IWF, like so many countries in Africa in South America, who are still being told that an unconditional opening of their markets will strengthen their economies, it would probably have become another “developing” nation. The Japanese were much too clever to be led astray as the Washington model only serves Washington and its industrialized allies.
WE: Would it be a fair assessment to call Berlin, due to its absence of most of capitalism’s landmarks, like skyscrapers, and its wide-spread suspicion of even the feeblest forms of consumerism, and on the other hand its decadent nightlife and skepticism towards conservative forms of employment the exact opposite of Tokyo? Is Berlin after all the more modern city of the two, where ones’ ego hurts particularly bad?
RL: Surely the ego hurts a lot more in Berlin than in Tokyo, because here in Germany we’ve traded in all those conservative elements of society for a certain kind of freedom. The kind of freedom which at heart is merely just a consumer’s freedom, limited to those with money to spend. Japan, in many aspects, is still a conservative, and in some aspects even authoritarian country, which to a great extent resembles the German empire of Bismarck. Its values, though, have never been filtered through such an epic identity crisis like the one that came over Europe (Ed. note: The revolts of 1968), which, as the lowest common denominator, lead to nothing but materialism. Japan’s values did suffer by their defeat in WWII, but the Japanese still do believe in and lead their lives after certain, century-old values such as loyalty, personal dedication, integrity, and readiness to sacrifice. Voiced in Berlin, such vocabulary would earn you nothing but laughs, and rightfully so once you consider the significant abuse of these values by the Nazis. In Japan on the other hand, they do live on.
The good news for us Europeans is that we’ve been atomized to an extent that we’ve come to a more radical concept of the ego than any other place on earth. This opens a view to change, a new spirituality, and a new definition of the “persona” in the context of others, which we had to re-learn. This is something which seems to be lacking in Japan on an objective level, yet not on the subjective level. For these collective-oriented societies, it is easier to create sense for the individual, which seems like a paradox but really isn’t.
WE: Is Japan especially alienating to somebody who lost his innocence, naiveté, and faith in the goodness of this world?
RL: A good question, to which the answer I believe to be “yes”. We Europeans basically do not believe in anything anymore. This will actually be the crucial factor in the ongoing competition of who is going to run the world. What is it exactly that we can do so much better than China, India, and Japan? That we do not believe in anything at all. And what is the biggest advantage of those countries over us? The fact that we don’t believe in anything anymore. I do not even dare to start contemplating the extent of catastrophes we’d have to face to become open again to rediscover the humanism of early European capitalism, which I personally think is the greatest accomplishment of the Europeans. The belief that every single person is precious from the moment they enter this world, and that nobody can be happy alone because love and personal fulfillment can only be experienced together with others. It is exactly this heritage, which we lost and sold out for the sort of “promise” that you can carry home in a plastic bag. A promise never kept.
WE: In Germany, there seems to be huge demand for writers who claim to have a stereotype-free insight into the cultural differences of Japan and Germany. I found it especially remarkable how publishers go out of their way to attest these writers a deep knowledge of Japanese culture, yet after a few pages, it becomes clear that despite all the reputed insight, you’ll always find the same patronizing, ethnocentric European viewpoint. You, to the contrary, were able to avoid it. What makes it so hard for German writers to see what you have seen?
RL: I am not an oracle, god beware. A point where I, and many other somewhat well read people might differ from those authors is that I believe in knowing a countries’ history helps to understand its people. The history, the dynamics of power, the economical structure. It doesn’t matter how much time you have spent in Japan. You will only see what you’re capable to understand. Whatever you don’t know, will escape you. This is the benefit of education. It makes you see how things relate.
WE: In German literature about Japan, take German Franka Potentes’ book “Zehn” for a recent example, one is often startled by this inherent, knee-jerk assumption that any Japanese person having lived in a Western country will automatically come to prefer the Western lifestyle to that of Japan, mainly because the Western world is allegedly more in favor of individualism. I often get the impression that these books aren’t actually about exploring a foreign culture, but about manufacturing proof for the superiority of ones own, “western-alternative” lifestyle. Would you say German writers make a valid point by claiming that the stereotypical Japanese “salary man” is secretly hoping to be liberated by an alternative Western Uebermensch?
RL: First of all, I don’t think of Nietzsche as a figurehead of a philosophy that puts the freedom of man first. Quite the contrary. His idea of “eternal recurrence” is a rejection of the struggle for freedom as for Nietzsche, man cannot escape fate, but only has the choice to radically accept or not accept it. Yet, to answer your question, if a Japanese person, having lived in a foreign country, can ever go back to see the Japanese lifestyle as the “default”, or if he’ll from then on long for the “alternative” Western lifestyle…I’d like to answer this with the words of Ernst Bloch, who in contrast to Nietzsche, said that utopia is a function of human spirit, because that is what’s waiting for us in the future. So we bear a certain idea of it, which pushes us forward on the time axis, in the direction of utopia, with the intent to eventually make it reality. Utopia in this case being another, more fitting, more human existence in harmony with ourselves, nature, and all other forms of life. And this very longing for a different, utopian, yet in principle possible existence, is felt all the same by Japanese students, Italian managers, or Spanish accountants.
The paintings and sculptures in our museums are nothing but a window to this very utopia, and what else do we read about in the myriad of Dante’s, Goethe’s, or Scott Fitzgerald’s words if not about the longing for a more human life, where we and everything else will finally stop being nothing but wares.
That feeling of life we sometimes grasp in those rare moments yet is impossible to achieve in our globalized capitalism, and probably lifetime. This longing, and the unbearable pain that comes with it, isn’t European or Asian, but human, because the souls of man and their thirst for liberation of their inherent possibilities and love are universal. This is what I believe.
Then, apart from this universal longing, there is a practical, personal longing for change. An example: I live in Mannheim, and for years I’ve pondered the thought to move to another place. To the seaside, back home to Tuscany, or to Spain. Why? Because there are aspects to these places that I think of as better, more beautiful, or simply more fitting to my needs. And - who wouldn’t think this way after having set out foot in the world? Who doesn’t dream about waking up somewhere in Provence, or fall asleep in Mali, breathing in the musky odor of its soil, under the brightest firmament ever seen? The Japanese students who return from their University studies in Europe might feel the same way, but not because Germany or Italy are such awesome countries, or because we Europeans excel the Japanese in any way.
What we find in foreign countries is an inkling of wholeness: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could live in a mixed existence of French, Italian, Chinese, American, and African influences, instead of everybody simply bumbling about their own Starbucks, whether it is in Tokyo or Auckland.
You know, I am really struggling with the term “individualism”. In the sense of a mature, self-determined life in relation to other people, “Individualism” isn’t a word I am able to take serious before capitalism and the objectification of our existence is overcome. As long as individualism merely means that I can buy a BMW in 16 different colors, but otherwise lead a hollow, lonesome, inauthentic life among the masses of the disaffected, I’d prefer any tribe of the Brazilian rainforest, or any Japanese family with their rituals and collective rules to the “great freedom” we live in.
WE: Is Japan such an easy target of clichéd and subjective observations because both the distance, and language barriers are very hard to overcome for the average western person? Would it be met with the same acceptance to publish similarly misguided views and factually wrong information about a country like the USA?
RL: See, in Germany culture and “Kulturkritik” is a function of the currently ruling commercial interests and strategic alliances. Everything American is good, everything French is good, everything Russian is evil, and everything Japanese is ridiculous, or simply “inferior”. If you’d like to learn about how a certain country is stereotyped in Germany’s cultural circles, you should study our current foreign trade balances and military alliances. What we have in Germany is a synchrony of the press, which in this aspect defies all description.
WE: This makes me wonder if trade balances are a sufficient explanation for the ethnocentric and subconsciously arrogant view on Japan these writers can’t seem to overcome – especially writers who are part of a so called counter-culture? I guess most of them would vehemently protest any claim they are taking sides in capitalist rivalries.
RL: The term “counter culture” makes me laugh. What is it supposed to mean anyway? It reminds me of the German movie “Berliner Ballade” starring Gert Fröbe, from 1948, where at one point, the “Lied vom Kampf” (Song of the battle) is performed to mock the specifically German trait of constantly having to campaign against something.
Even if we give that term counter culture the benefit of doubt: The true protagonists of German counter culture do not write articles or paint pictures, because they’re dead buried, and for the most part, forgotten. Whoever seriously rebelled against the status quo has been murdered, driven into exile, or put into jail, which is as good as death. Remember the German peasant’s war (1524-1526, the ed.), Heine, Dutschke, Einstein, Rosa Luxemburg, and Karl Liebknecht, all those who were part of the resistance in WWII, like the Delp, Scholl, or the unknown soldiers who refused to take part in the murdering only to become victims of murderous obedience themselves. Where are the monuments reminding us of these people? Where in Germany is this counter culture who stands in this very tradition and builds on its strength to plan cities differently, speak differently, love differently, debate differently, and decides to work, eat, and learn differently, hence practically live a different culture? What I do see is a culture of change. People who want to raise their kids sort of differently, leave their car in the garage now and then, eat mostly vegetarian, and dutifully vote for green parties - a kind of change that safely stays inside certain limits but never questions the distribution of power to the few. This culture of change does work, no doubt about it, and Germany did in fact change for the better over the course of the last 30 years. I was born in 1963 and who knows what would have happened if back then the German minister of foreign affairs decided to come out about his homosexuality? Which is a good example to demonstrate the limits of this culture of change. It has been very successful in the private realm, and partly successful in parliamentarian politics, but it couldn’t and wouldn’t at all touch the basic structure of a society where the few own almost everything and get to decide, while the majority remains powerless and unheard.
When the minister of foreign affairs wears trainers, but engages in super nationalist, imperialist foreign politics, which again only serve very few people, but hurts a majority, then that is not counter culture. Counter culture would mean to raise taxes for corporations, and to prioritize the concerns of common people instead of theirs, to demand the same on an international level, and to lower the reliance on imported energy through the development of own resources, instead of securing them internationally by military means. This would have brought forth very different, historically significant effects compared to the laudable, but less fundamental changes to our daily, so-called “private” lives.
You know, it has become very hard to understand international politics, capitalism, and globalization. I tried, and it took me the better part of 20 years to publish even a thin, yet hopefully enlightening book that I titled “Diktatur als Demokratie”. Therefore, it doesn’t really come as a surprise, and can be forgiven, that many Germans, Italians, and French people who write about Japan and the Japanese do from a middle-of-the-road “Gutmenschen” (do-gooder, the ed.) point of view, which in a way reminds me of Marie Antoinette’s motto “Let them eat cake”, which probably is a misquote. But the basic idea to save galley slaves with cigarette breaks and six weeks of holidays can be easily transferred over to Japan: Capitalism as a brilliant concept, which merely needs some cosmetic changes here and there. Japan is suited very well for the European “Gutmensch” who argues from this point of view, because at first sight its capitalist organization looks much more archaic than that of Germany or Italy. Salary raises by age, discipline, hierarchies, mandatory drinking binges after work - wow, don’t we have it better here in Germany! Over here, a young, trendy, cool “head of the agency” comes to work at 2 a.m. with free Pizza for the poor souls who work all night to meet next days’ deadline – isn’t life great? No, you know, it’s just crap, simple exploitation under the disguise of the latest aesthetical fashion.
Like the guys on that ship in that “Beck’s” advertisement, who 20 years ago had to look like career-driven mods, while today they look like career-driven, 18 year old hobos. To that I’d prefer a less cozy, Marxist analysis. I am quite sure that Marx would see the current German capitalism as much more encompassing than the Japanese one, just by looking at the relationship of the government to corporations, and vice-versa. Engels, on the other hand, would simply ask what a Japanese worker’s salary is, how many hours he’s working, and under what conditions, and after how many years can he buy his own house. How about the public health care system, or the pensions? I am not an expert in these areas, but I bet that the Japanese system would look good compared to the German, Italian, or French one.
If there was one newspaper, magazine, or TV network in Germany who published the actual figure of how many taxes German corporations have to pay, then we’d have a chance to compare it to the amount of money that Japanese corporations pay for public wealth. I am quite sure: It is less.
WE: In your opinion, why do most Western writers seem to be unable to meet modern Japan on eye level, accepting it as an autonomous model, and walk straight into the trap of evaluating it as a deviance, if not even perversion, of their own, Western “Leitkultur”?
RL: But then I pose the question: Who still buys into the concept of Western “Leitkultur”? It has never existed, at least not outside of the Western world. What we Europeans refuse to accept is that this world is a sphere. Take one look on a map - what is right in the center: Europe. Our world maps are even proportionally incorrect (they scale up the north and scale down the south). But for most people on this planet, Europe isn’t the center of the world. The first humanoids lived in Africa, and most of what mankind has discovered and invented was discovered and invented in Assyrian territory, China, or Persia. On a Chinese world map, of course China is in the center. Did you know there has never been a Chinese “Foreign minister”? That is because, with some justification, China considers all other countries to be inferior to China.
Sure, we have had a good run with ancient Greece and the Roman empire, Dante, Shakespeare, and Mozart, Kant, Einstein, Beethoven, and Hemingway, but all this isn’t singular and could be found in the respective heydays of past empires and cultures, with the only difference being us not remembering or simply never having heard of them.
Persians or Arabs have invented all modern European math, pharmacology, medicine, and astronomy, yet nobody seems to care much about it. The Sumerians, at 2000 BC had cities that in large parts were similar to our cities of today, yet we think of ourselves as God’s gift to science.
But we are not. What we Europeans did rule are those 500 years between the 15th century and today, which in the grand scheme of things is nothing, a thing of the past. The next 500 years of human history will be shaped by China, India, and maybe Japan, regardless of what the US will undertake to prevent it.
WE: Are you planning to write about Japan again? What projects are you currently working on?
RL: I’d like to spend half a year in Japan, or live there for a longer period of time to better get to know the remote areas. My colleague Garr Reynolds, the “Presentation Guru” is an associate professor in Osaka and I’d like to visit him there for an interview. And to study Japanese fairy tales - I love fairy tales.