Swiss savour sushi as Japan warms up
Many Swiss are tucking into sushi and enjoying other things Japanese as the Land of the Rising Sun hosts the football World Cup.
"There is a lot of interest in Japan, especially among young people," says Masayuki Ninomiya, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Geneva.
He is not referring to the Japanese football side, but rather reflecting on the growing fascination with a country that many Swiss admire for reasons beyond sushi and "mangas" (cartoons).
"The Swiss seem to admire the strength of a country that has been able to maintain its cohesion and cultural identity in the face of challenges from more powerful civilizations, such as China or the West," says Ninomiya. "And the Japanese spirituality and religious outlook is also a source of attraction.
"Of course," he continues, "there are more down to earth aspects of Japanese culture, such as mangas, which many Swiss have imbibed on a daily basis since they were toddlers, and this naturally arouses interest in Japan. Japanese gastronomy is also enjoying a boom thanks to the growing popularity of sushi."
It is perhaps not surprising that the Swiss identify closely with Japan. Both countries have spent much of their history in self-imposed isolation, and when compelled to interact with the outside world - either by military force in Japan's case, or for reasons of economic necessity in Switzerland's - both have proved more than a match for the competition, as their world-beating products testify.
"This mutual interest is explained by the fact that our two countries have a somewhat similar view of the world," explains Pierre-Yves Fuchs, cultural attaché at the Swiss embassy in Tokyo. "Both maintain a slight distance [from the rest of the world] even though they are fully integrated."
Although the average Swiss or Japanese might know virtually nothing about the other's culture, ties between the two countries run deep. This is reflected in by common cultural organisations, such as the Switzerland-Japan society.
"Our programmes range from Japanese films to cookery courses, and from lectures to exhibitions of Japanese art," says the society's general secretary, Walter Keller. "And people show a great deal of interest."
Sushi snacks at Expo
Switzerland's affection for Japan is evident to anyone visiting the national exhibition, Expo.02. "Right in the centre of one of the [Expo sites], there is a sushi bar, which demonstrates the affection Swiss people feel for Japanese civilisation," adds Pierre-Yves Fuchs.
The two cultures' ability to identify with each other has definite limits, though. Shinji Tanaka, a Japanese restaurant owner in Bern, says the Swiss may be partial to many things Japanese - sushi and judo, for example - but "if you exclude Japanese food and certain sports, I don't think they are very interested in Japanese culture as such.
"It may be because of the language barrier," he adds. "Japanese people wanting to settle in Switzerland have to make huge efforts to adapt. The Swiss are very direct, while Japanese people are more reserved, more sensitive. My employees, who come straight from Japan, always find it difficult to adapt. Quite a few go back after the first year or two."
Despite the differences, Japan is one of the few Asian countries with which the Swiss are able to identify. Ties with others, such as the other world cup host, South Korea, are all but non-existent, on any level.
"Apart from a few makes of car and the odd restaurant, people know very little about Korea," says Serge Komaromi, a consultant with the Geneva-Asia association.
"It's partly because, until now, both states of the Korean peninsula have cultivated a rather aggressive form of nationalism, matched by their diffidence in foreign relations."
That view is supported by professor Philippe Reigner, director of the Centre for Modern Asiatic Studies. "On a purely cultural level, there are occasional events, such as those to mark the United Nations' year of dialogue between civilisations.
"However, these tend to appeal to international circles in Geneva, and do not capture the imagination of the general public."
Serge Komaromi is confident, though, that things are changing: "The Koreans want to start exporting services and culture," he says.
Perhaps the Swiss will yet acquire a taste for "kim chi" (fermented cabbage with chilli), and the occasional bout of "Tai Kwan Do".
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