While vacationing in Saitama Prefecture recently, two cheerful-looking elderly gentlemen politely inquired about my nationality after complimenting my 5-year-old daughter’s cuteness. When I told them I’m from Germany, one of them exclaimed in joyful, if slightly misguided recognition, “Ah, Copenhagen!” The other one straightened his back, offered a mock military salute, and said, “Heil Hitler!”
OK, I thought, I guess I’ll take Copenhagen. I smiled awkwardly and ushered my daughter away, hoping she hadn’t picked up a new catchphrase (thankfully, she seemed entirely preoccupied with a group of mushrooms she had just detected on a nearby tree).
Later, I realized that I was still silently fuming over the fact that I hadn’t been a worthier warrior in the face of cultural stereotyping. All I could do is replay the scene with alternate endings in my head and vow to do better next time.
That controversial question
To be fair, that “next time” might never come, at least not anytime soon. This was my first “Hitler moment” in roughly four years of living in Japan and more than 15 years of frequent travels. I had heard about encounters like this from my German friends, but it seemed to be one of those things that only ever happen to other people.
That’s not to say I haven’t had my fair share of being conversationally confronted with other well-known German mainstays like sausage, beer and Angela Merkel (no, I don’t have any inside information about what’s going on with the shaking). Being reduced to assumed traits and topics that come with your nationality is not a phenomenon unique to Japan (if my wife got paid ¥100 for every time she is quizzed about sushi and chopsticks in Germany, we could have moved into a nicer place already). Also not unique to the Japanese is that now apparently controversial question: “Where are you from?” I have never felt the need to do the smartass thing and reply, “I’m from Meguro.”
I understand how the question “Where are you from?” could be an annoyance for those who grew up in Japan but, by the most narrow-minded and conservative standards, don’t look the part. However, I was asked the question constantly during my years living in Munich because that city, like Tokyo, is not so much a place where people “come from” but where they “move to.” I also didn’t speak the Bavarian dialect that the locals did, so that could have been the giveaway. In any case, I came to Japan already used to the idea of myself as an “outsider.”
My interpretation of the question — and I think this is an interpretation common in many parts of the word — is that it refers to the place where you spent your formative years, and formative years are called that for a reason. Try as we might, we can’t escape the cultural and moral programming of our upbringing. The best we can do is realize that the ways we have been taught since early childhood are neither the only ways in the world nor must they be the best ways. A complete reprogramming, however, is not going to happen. (At best, an inner reboot might install a few updates, to stretch a metaphor to its limits.) Even if one day I will have spent more years of my life in Japan than in the country I came from (which is the plan), I will still be defined by the place that defined me; the place where I was formally and informally educated, where I first learned about joy and heartbreak, where I eventually yearned to get away from. If we could ever fully assimilate, we wouldn’t need to scan international supermarkets for overpriced junk food.
Accepting the fact that you are who you are doesn’t have to lead to patriotic stupor. Being born in and formed by a particular country is a random occurrence. It is neither a personal achievement to be proud of nor a stigma to hide in shame.
Back to you, Hitler
So, I have no problem confirming my Germanity by slightly exaggerating my love for beer and bratwurst (admittedly, I don’t have to exaggerate much on the subject of beer), but I stop short (or not so short) of embracing Adolf Hitler.
When I wrote earlier that the incident in Saitama was my first Hitler moment in Japan, that was only relatively true; it was the first time somebody just assumed I would be fine with the Fuhrer connection. But I have been confronted with him and his obsessions before, in the form of questions. I have been asked a couple of times, always in the sweetest and most innocent tone of voice, whether I liked Hitler, or disliked Jews.
Very recently I met up with a Japanese friend of mine who is a writer and was hesitant to tell me about his current project concerning Chiune Sugihara, the diplomat often dubbed “the Japanese Oskar Schindler” for granting transit visas to thousands of Jews during World War II against the orders of his superiors. I had already heard about this project through other channels and asked him why he hadn’t told me earlier. My friend is typically talkative to a fault when it comes to his work. Sheepishly, he replied, “I thought it might offend you.”
No, tales of refugees being saved from barbaric slaughter do not offend me. If anything, the assumption of being offended by it might offend me. But maybe we are all best advised to be a little less offended and, instead, talk about the subjects that cause offense.
I am sure the gentleman offering me the Hitler salute wasn’t really expressing a deep love for Nazi ideology; he probably didn’t know the first thing about it. Japanese history books are notoriously light on the country’s own wartime atrocities, so why would they go into detail about those of its allies? The old man just said the first German thing that came to mind, without grasping its meaning. For some this cultural olive branch is “schnitzel,” for others it’s “Copenhagen” … for him it was “Heil Hitler.”
Japan’s alignment with Germany in World War II might even give me privilege, I learned at another occasion, if only people knew. On one of my first trips to Japan, I told a local acquaintance that sometimes I do feel a certain degree of discrimination. I had repeatedly experienced the classics — getting seated at the worst table in an almost empty restaurant; having the seat beside me remaining empty on a packed train. My acquaintance tried to console me.
“Oh, that’s only because they don’t know you’re German,” he said. “They think you are American.” (I’ve since learned that Canadians receive the same kind of consoling, which makes me wonder what the Americans are being told.)
Speaking with my writer friend the other day, we somehow arrived at a discussion about whether our home countries’ historic crimes gave us certain responsibilities, unfairly or not. A lot of Germans these days roll their eyes at any mention of the war, maintaining it happened way in the past and it wasn’t their fault to begin with, having been born decades after the fact.
I came to the conclusion that, yes, I do feel responsible. Not for the rise of European fascism in the early 20th century nor its consequences, but for remaining conscious about it and for doing my part in keeping the memory alive.
Replaying that park incident in my head, maybe I should have talked to the elderly gentleman about the well-intentioned despicable thing he said. Or, perhaps, I was correct in saving my energy for doing a better job with younger people who will be around to shape society for quite a while longer. I don’t know whether I will walk or talk the next time I find myself in a similar situation, but I hope whatever I do won’t just be another cowardly and panicked reaction like that day in Saitama.
Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.