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Germany's 'Little Tokyo' celebrates Japan Day

May 27, 2019

Sushi, origami and anime — these may sound like scenes from an average day spent in Tokyo. But once a year, fans of Japanese pop culture get to live out their wildest dreams in the Rhineland.

Cosplay dressers mash-up characters from anime and manga comics
Image: DW/S. Sanderson

For many years, Düsseldorf was known throughout Europe for having the largest Japanese expat community in Europe. In recent decades, however, the city has ceded top spot to Paris: With more than 15,000 Japanese residents living along or near the River Seine, the French capital is home to nearly twice the number of Japanese expats as the western German city.

However, that doesn't deter the capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia from paying tribute to its significant far eastern community with an annual Japan Day that turned 18 this year. Visitors from all over were among the 600,000 attendees to descend on Düsseldorf on May 25 to celebrate Japanese culture, an event that is capped with a spectacular firework display.

Along the banks of the Rhine, stages, stalls and market booths are set up for Japan Day
Along the banks of the Rhine, stages, stalls and market booth are set up for Japan DayImage: DW/S. Sanderson

Boulevard of Japanese dreams

There's much more to Japan Day, however, than colorful explosions in the sky. Trains from all over the state pull into Düsseldorf main station with their human cargo packed to the brim — akin to those familiar viral videos depicting Tokyo subway trains stuffed with commuters like sardines in a can — before they pour out to the stages, stalls and performances that mark Japan Day on the banks of the Rhine River.

For many, the first stop is the neighborhood around Immermannstrasse nearby the station entrance, Düsseldorf's traditional Japanese quarter, brimming year-round with sushi restaurants, karaoke bars, Japanese supermarkets and bookstores — and even a hotel highlighting far eastern hospitality. Known in tourist guides as Little Tokyo, the district's additional visitors on Japan day turns it into Little Japan.

The boulevard is named after the German playwright Karl Leberecht Immermann, and theatricality is indeed the order of Japan Day, as hundreds of anime fans parade the kilometer-long stretch dressed in outré "cosplay" outfits that mash-up characters from anime, manga comics, video games and more (pictured top). The elaborate accessories and props on display could as easily be imagined on the city's famous theater stages as opposed to strutting up and down the aisles at a Japanese supermarket.

'Free hugs'

Among the thousands of cosplayers is a young lady called Sara, who is dressed as Princess Serenity from the anime series Sailor Moon. Striking poses like an experienced catwalk model, she says that she's been coming to Japan Day, and dressing in cosplay, for the past three years.

"I love getting to be someone else for a brief moment in time, and this escaping into another world," she explains. Despite spending so much time and effort to look the part, Sara is by no means unapproachable. These anime and manga fans don't regard themselves as a distant subculture: Rather, they want to be proud and share their interests with the rest of the world, especially on Japan Day.

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All this sometimes translates into a lot of physical contact as well: Sara and many other cosplay fans wear homemade masks while also holding up signs and placards advertising "Free Hugs."

Sara's Sailor-Moon costume at Japan Day
Sara's Sailor-Moon costume gets the public's attention Image: DW/S. Sanderson

"You always see such things at anime conventions," says visitor Kai. "We hug a lot. Why? Why not? Because we can. And today, by the way, is only a warm-up in that regard. In two weeks' time, the biggest anime convention in Germany will also take place here in Düsseldorf," he says with enthusiasm. "That's going to be even more of a hug-fest."

Far eastern arts

Along the Rhine promenade, visitors on Japan Day get to learn about more than just anime. There are stalls about Japanese tourist destinations, places where you can learn about Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, or attend origami courses.

Mr. Osuga is one of the volunteers at the stands where visitors learn that meticulous Japanese art of paper folding. Origami is in his blood, he says: "We learn it in our early childhood at school. The whole thing has a lot to do with mathematics. In origami, you simply calculate the individual steps in advance, and fold the paper accordingly."

Origami on show at Japan Day
Origami on show at Japan Day 2019Image: DW/S. Sanderson

There's a certain element of beauty to such perfection that the Japanese value highly, a quality that's also evident in the Düsseldorf-based drumming group Wadokyo — a regular at Japan Day since its inception in 2001.

Their Japanese drumming style is known as Taiko, an artform that is impressive, and pleasing, to both the ear and eye. This high energy, physically demanding Japanese drum circle can look more like a competitive sport than an ancient musical form from the Far East.

Robert, who has been with Wadokyo for 15 years, grins after this year's performance as sweat drips from his brow: "Of course, we all feel a great sense of affinity for such things as the Japan Day," he explains. The band name Wadokyo apparently means "beautiful sound that climbs into the heavens," he adds.

Two Taiko drummers pose with a Taiko drum in the background
Robert (l.) and Andreas performed with the Taiko band Wadokyo on May 25 Image: DW/S. Sanderson

Lost in translation

It is indeed impressive that the Japanese language is so concise that it can create so much poetry with only three syllables. To gain some deeper insights into the mysteries of the Japanese language itself, visitors can attend language workshops during Japan Day to get acquainted with Japanese's three different alphabets.

"Japanese is very easy," jokes Japanese teacher Mr. Ikeda after emerging from a fully booked crash course in Japanese along the Rhine promenade. "Coffee is 'ko-hi' with us, wine is 'wa-in' and ice cream is 'a-isu-ku-rimu,' and everyone of course knows Toyota. Everything sounds quite normal, quite English," he claims with a chuckle.

Fireworks light up the Rhine River as another Japan Day draws to a close
Fireworks light up the Rhine River as another Japan Day draws to a close Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Young

Rising from the ashes

The linguist reflects the light-hearted and infectious optimism that permeates both Japan Day and Japanese culture — despite the war and destruction that the Japanese people have had to endure.

Along the Rhine promenade in Düsseldorf, that same hopeful attitude is highlighted at a stall about the future of the coastal area devastated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The stand highlights plans to erect wind farms in the area in the coming years, and to create something positive out of so much destruction.  

It's another part of the rich and diverse culture that Düsseldorf welcomes throughout its all day and night far eastern celebration. While some visitors might just want to kick back with a sip of "wa-in," or an "a-isu-ku-rimu" cone, those overawed by the Japan Day throngs can simply seek out a cosplayer for a free hug.

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson DW journalist & human seeking to make sense of the world and understand what motivates other humansSertanSanderson