Tag Archives: Geisha

Sounds Like…Geisha!

January 31, 2013


I grew up in Los Angeles, where the oldest standing building, the Sanchez Adobe, reportedly dates back to the early 1790’s. Therefore I am astonished on a daily basis, by the structures I see here in Bremen, Germany. Some of the oldest date back to the 11th century—really. Their Gothic and Renaissance facades seem to somehow confer and convey the weight of historical fact by their stubborn persistence. So it was with that particularly American, grew-up-with-Disneyland, naïve ability and desire to accept a good fairy-tale, that I experienced my first of many on-going, trans-cultural misunderstandings.

The center of town is the Marktplatz, the main market place, ringed with buildings that look so impossibly old; they appear to me as made-for-the-movies, scenic facades. Set into the cobblestones on the north side of the 13th century Cathedral St. Petri, is a 30 x 30 cm dark granite plaque, etched with a cross. On one of my first “walking tours” into the Marktplatz, my father-in-law regaled me with a bit of “graveyard glee,” like one pointing with morbid fascination to a house haunted by angry, murdered ghosts, “This marks the spot where the infamous Geisha Gottfreid was hanged!” He said with a glint in his eyes.

He went on to tell me that although he never did it himself, people often spit on the stone cross. I was horrified. Why would people in the 21st century spit on the spot that marked the hanging of a Geisha—how absolutely awful!

“When was that hanging, and why was she hanged?” I asked him, my mind racing with images of a beautiful Japanese Geisha swinging from the gallows.

“Oh, she was a serial killer who murdered 15 people, most of them her family, before finally being publicly executed herself in 1831,” he said. “She was the last person to be publicly executed in the city.”

I still do not understand the cathartic act of spitting, but it opened up a doorway in my mind—Hmmm, I didn’t know that the Japanese were here in Bremen in the 1800’s. Of course, I was later to find out that she was not exactly Japanese, she was German, and her name was spelled Gesche, sounds like Geisha. Oops.

But I was soon to be surprised by an exhibition in one of the Bremen’s many museums, The Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum titled; Japan und der Westen, Japan and the West. Walking through the exhibition, full of beautiful Japanese woodblock prints depicting the life and the seaports of Germany, I again found myself confronted with the same thoughts about the history of Japanese-German relationships. Later, while touring some of the many fairy-tale castles in Germany, I was struck by the large number of Japanese tourists, pouring out of busses, beside themselves with joy, while standing in front of the real life edifices. Why are they so fascinated by German culture? How long has this been going on?

The actual history of that relationship dates back to the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) when Germans arrived in Japan to work for the Dutch East India Company. From that point forward, the relationship was to take a decidedly on- again-off again course. Things went O.K. for a while but between 1635 -1853, the Tokugawa shogunate enforced a policy which it called kaikin. The policy prohibited foreign contact with most outside countries, however the Netherlands was one of three countries with who trade remained open. Despite the national seclusion policy, which the emperor had put into place, a German physician, Philipp Franz von Siebold was allowed to travel freely throughout Japan in the 1820’s. Throughout his journey, he wrote one of the first Western accounts of life in Japan, “Nippon: Archive for The Description of Japan.”

Hot and Cold
However, the relationship ran hot and cold over the ensuing century. In 1861, Prussia and Japan signed a treaty to facilitate goodwill and commerce, and in the ensuing years diplomatic missions moved freely back and forth between the two countries, though the “unequal treaties” were later revised during the Meiji period (1868-1912). During this time many Germans went to Japan as advisors to the new government, and were known as “oyatoi gaikokujin,” hired foreigners. The German industrial company Siemens opened an office in Tokyo in 1887, to enable Japan to enter the industrialized world. It helped them set up their first hydro-electric power facility, supplied power generators to copper mines, and gave them all the railway equipment for an electric railway system. Getting warmer.

Then, things cooled off at the end of the 19th century, as competition between Europe and Japan grew rapidly over territory in China. Japan grew further estranged when Germany decided to support Russia during the Russian-Japanese War of 1904. As a result of the Japanese victory over Russia, Germany became fearful of Japan’s growing power as the leader of a United Asia, prompting Wilhelm II’s colorful coinage of the term “Yellow Peril.” Nice. Definitely cold.

WWI ushered in a new arctic front between the two countries when the British asked Japan for help in destroying the ships the German Navy had stationed in Chinese waters. Japan was keenly interested in reducing European colonial power in South-East Asia, and decided to take the opportunity to declare war on the German Empire. In 1914, acting as an ally of Britain, Japan engaged in battle with the Germans in the Chinese port of Tsingtao. This eventually led to Germany having to relinquish its Southeast Asian territories to Japan. Very cold.

In the aftermath of WWI economic pressures grew in both countries and somehow, through diplomatic efforts, relations were strengthened once again. A re-establishment of cultural alliances developed through the founding of several cross-cultural societies beginning in 1926, and a Japanese-German Research Institute was created in 1934. With the rise in militarism in both countries throughout the 1930s, the relationship grew warmer still, as Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, or the Anti-Communist pact with the Empire of Japan in 1936. The following year, Italy joined the pact, creating the historical alliance known as the Axis Powers. In a chilling gesture, Adolph Hitler even bequeathed the title Honorary Aryans on the entire populations of Japan, which was primarily politically motivated, but creepily, also served to acknowledge their racial “purity.” He sent a boatload of Hitler youth to Japan in 1938 for a seven-month friendship tour. Uncomfortably hot.

This was unquestionably a fragile alliance, and what might be seen as a shifting coalition of political/economic interests. In the Journal of Japanese Studies Mark R. Peattie wrote,”…the Tokyo-Berlin connection, from its beginnings, faced unprecedented difficulties: national selfishness; enormous distance; radically different values, culture, languages, and political institutions…”

Beer, Cameras, and Industry
As in all relationships, there are the good and bad, the light and the dark and sometimes just the sheer tenacity to hold on. Despite the differences, and though often at odds with each other, these two enterprising countries have found ways to focus on a number of rewarding and fruitful collaborations.

Take Beer for example. It is by far, hands down, the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan and Germany. Both countries export their brews around the world with great success. In the 17th century the Dutch opened up a beer hall, The Holland Merchant House, in Japan for sailors working their trade route between the two countries. It was obviously a big success; so much so that when early pioneers in Japan found Hops on Hokkaido, they took action! In August 1875, an intrepid young man named Seibei Nakagawa, directed the construction of the first beer factory, having just earned his Beer Brewery Engineering License in Germany. It opened in Japan in 1876 under its symbol, the North Star and is now known worldwide as Sapporo.

In 2004 a classically trained brewer from Bavaria and his Japanese wife, opened a brewery at the base of Mt Fuji. He adheres to the strict German purity laws of brewing, uses the fresh water from a nearby stream, and actually imports his malt from Bavaria. There is even a Bavarian Representative Office in Tokyo, which celebrates Beerfestival (Oktoberfest) in the Bavarian tradition, with Bavarian beer, culinary specialties, and music. http://yokosonews.com/travel/german-beer-festival-nagoya-2012/ This is definitely a successful/hot aspect of Japanese and German unity!


Apparently, once Japan had created a thriving beer industry, other large German companies began to feel right at home. Although Siemens http://www.siemens.com/about/en/worldwide/japan_1154631.htm had its first contact with Japan in 1861, when a delegation presented the Edo government with a telegraph developed by Werner von Siemens, it was not until 1887 that it opened up it’s first office in Tokyo. This relationship continues today in a very special way. Beginning this year Siemens is slated to begin supplying northern Japan with 23 wind turbines, part of a power project designed to help Japan move away from nuclear power to more renewable energy in the wake of the terrible Fukushima disaster. Definitely cool, I mean Hot!

Japanese companies apparently feel right at home in Bavaria as well, where hundreds of companies have set up subsidiaries, making it one of the largest Japanese communities in Germany. However the largest Japanese community in Germany— actually in Europe—is in Düsseldorf. Beginning in the 1950s, Japan was on the lookout for raw manufacturing materials such as steel and chemical products. They found them in Germany, in the Ruhr region, resulting in the growth of the Japanese community in the city of Düsseldorf. The Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf currently offers a Department of Japanese Studies.

The industrial giant now known as the ThyssenKrupp Group, also has long-standing ties to Japan. In 1894 two Princes from Japan visited Krupp’s steel plants in Essen, Germany, launching a spate of reciprocal visits and a successful strengthening of business relationships. Japan received: rails, locomotives, coking plants and rolling mills, all made by predecessor companies of today’s ThyssenKrupp Group.

Currently ThyssenKrupp Group supplies Japanese customers with a wide variety of industrial products such as; components for the Japanese auto industry, parts for large wind turbines, engineering of production plants and recycling centers.

Of course it would be impossible not to mention the bond of photography shared by Japan and Germany, although in the beginning the technology to develop cameras was not exactly a mutually agreed-upon collaboration. In 1932-33, Leica in Germany introduced its first high-end camera models. They were so good and became so successful that they became immediately popular worldwide. The Japanese called them takane no hana, or something far beyond reach for ordinary people. This is where the not-exactly part comes in: A man named Goro Yoshida, decided to “study” the Leica Model II by disassembling it. He wanted to create a camera that would be more affordable to customers in Japan. At this time, Germany continued to lead in the sophistication of its precision instruments, so, using available technology, Yoshida and two partners developed a precision engineering research laboratory in Tokyo, using German cameras as models. They eventually accumulated valuable ideas, which led to the Kwanon, the nation’s first 35mm focal plane camera, equipped with a range finder. The company is now known as Canon, and on their website they share this interesting fact; “…The prototype camera was named “Kwanon” because Yoshida was a believer in “Kwannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy…” I would say this particular aspect started off rather frigid and evolved into a warmer relationship.

Bio-Med Technology and Healthcare
Japan and Germany are both very strong in research, development and the Pharmaceutical Industry. Obviously a good match, they signed an intergovernmental agreement of cooperation in scientific and technological endeavors, in 1974. At the same time they created a youth exchange program called “Youth Summit” which is held annually. With German Re-unification in 1990, Germany has become Japan’s largest trading partner within Europe.

Both Germany and Japan have large Bio-Med Clusters, or areas of the country, where hundreds of pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical companies, start-ups, and research institutes are accumulated. These clusters participate in world business forums such as Bio Med in Europe and BioJapan, in Japan, where they strive to create new business relationships, and strengthen existing alliances. These events allow pharmaceutical and chemical companies to create new networks, mixing entrepreneurs, academic researchers, venture capitalists, and other supporting agencies. One of the largest in Germany, the Munichm4 Biotech Cluster and their Japanese counterpart, the Northern Osaka Biomedical Cluster, recently signed a transnational biotech and life-science agreement on close collaboration between the two regions, with the aim of paving the way for industry-industry and industry-academia cooperation between the two regions.

One final and noteworthy connection which deserves mentioning, is the spill over into popular culture. As a fan of animated films, I have been surprised by the European/Old World styling and scenic design occasionally used in contemporary Japanese animated films. I never really understood it until now. One great example is the way acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki uses Germany as a reference in his wonderful film, Howls Moving Castle. http://www.cinemagia.ro/trailer/hauru-no-ugoku-shiro-castelul-umblator-al-lui-howl-1993/

I swear I’ve been to that village!

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com / E: jeanniewn@gmail.com


Filed under History, Politics, Travel