Sake At The Biergarten: It's `Tokyo On The Rhine'

Business is booming at Nippon Kan restaurant on Immermannstrasse, Dusseldorf's main drag. Four kimono-clad waitresses smile and glide quickly among the low tables, delivering lacquered trays to throngs of Japanese customers. Across the street, a solitary waiter at the Maharadja "Exotic Indian Cuisine" eatery pours tea for three Turkish customers.

It's a familiar picture in this bustling German city, where one in about every eight people is a foreigner. Although Dusseldorf's 7,000 Japanese residents are outnumbered by Turks and Yugoslavs, the Japanese are by far the wealthiest and most envied newcomers. As the city with Europe's largest colony of Japanese expatriates, Dusseldorf has earned the nickname Tokyo-on-the-Rhine.

'ON OUR SIDE.' Germans haven't exactly welcomed foreigners with open arms in the past, but the Japanese have a special status. Dusseldorf even extends financial incentives to attract them. The reason is simple: They are a tonic for the once-ailing regional economy, racking up $13 billion in annual sales and bringing 8,000 jobs for the locals. "This year, Japanese firms will be the biggest investors and will overtake Americans in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia," reckons Rainer Hornig, head of the Asia division at the regional Office for Business Promotion. "They're coming on strong." This year alone, Japanese companies are planning investment of up to $400 million in the region, with Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and Toshiba Corp. leading the way.

It is largely through Dusseldorf's strong Japan connection that Germany buys more Japanese goods and sells more to Japan than any other European nation. Operating in many cases from their Dusseldorf base, the Japanese are winning market share in Germany against the U. S. and establishing strategic alliances with German companies. "Germany is on our side," says Thomas Takeda, general manager of the Japanese Industry & Trade Chamber in Dusseldorf. "We feel right at home here."

The Japanese are even quite prominent in part of Dusseldorf's downtown. Every morning, the broad, tree-lined Immermannstrasse crackles with rapid-fire chatter of Japanese housewives who crisscross the street from store to store. A shop sells two-day-old Tokyo newspapers, designer chopsticks, and beautifully colored katakana stencils for Japanese schoolchildren. In a large, brightly lit Shochiku supermarket, Panasonic electric rice-cookers stand next to big jars of marinated seaweed.

There's also a sprawling German-Japanese Center, complete with two banks, the Japanese Industry & Trade Chamber, the consulate, restaurants, sushi stands, a big Mitsukoshi department store, a movie theater, and many Japanese corporate offices. "Nowhere in Europe are the Japanese as comfortable as in this city," says Takeda.

Most Japanese in Dusseldorf live in Oberkassel, a prosperous neighborhood where the Japanese School is. But the building itself can't be seen: Like a giant Jacuzzi, the school has been sunk into a hill. And there's no sign outside to reveal its presence, even though nearly 1,000 students spend most of the day there. "The Japanese community here is very much discreet and into itself," says Hans von Schaper, who promotes foreign investment for the mayor's office.

Although the Japanese are conspicuous consumers, they usually speak poor German and find it hard to mix with the locals. Since they do their shopping, working, and entertaining in their own shops, offices, and clubs, other Dusseldorfers view them with a blend of curiosity and caution. Some fear the growing Japanese presence because it drives up rents and prices.

But the animosity doesn't run deep. Dusseldorf's Japan connection is set to expand and along with it German-Japanese business ties. For a glance at the future, just take a stroll down Klosterstrasse. There at a cafe, clusters of Germans sit drinking--not schnapps, but sake.

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