Little Tokyo on the Rhine


Sauerkraut meets sushi in “Dyusseru”, better known as Düsseldorf, Germany.

Kushitei, Kyoto, Takumi… to look at the signs in downtown Düsseldorf, you could be excused for thinking you had been teleported to the wrong continent.

That’s right, this city of 578,000 known as “the writing desk” of the Ruhr industrial region is home to Europe’s third-largest Japanese community,  hence its popular epithet, “Nippon on the Rhine”.

The first wave of Japanese migration began after the Second World War, when Mitsubishi Corporation discovered the Ruhr as a source of raw materials urgently needed in war-ravaged Japan.

Many other Japanese companies followed suit, choosing to base their European subsidiaries in a city that offers affordable rents and infrastructure that runs like clockwork.

Buddha of suburbia

Today there are over 450 Japanese businesses registered in the region, with net sales totalling 35 billion euros. About 8,000 Japanese people live in Düsseldorf, most of them in the affluent neighbourhood of Niederkassel, where they have their own kindergarten, school, physician, football club and weekly newspaper.

Here, in the heart of sleepy suburbia, you will find the Eco-House of Japanese Culture, a Buddhist temple, bell tower and Japanese garden – something you don’t see on every street corner in your average German town.

The tight-knit Japanese community keep to themselves, especially those temporarily posted in Germany. Many speak little German and struggle to get their mouths around those pesky consonants.

Kimonos and kushiyaki

But second-generation migrants draw inspiration from their mixed heritage. One is fashion designer Tina Miyake, whose father migrated from Nara in the ‘60s.

“As an Asian-looking woman, Düsseldorf is a fantastic place to live, because I don’t stand out!”

Fusing an Asian sensibility with ethical design, Miyake recycles kimonos in a succulent palette of oriental pinks, greens and blues. Being Germany’s fashion capital, Düsseldorf is the perfect location to build her rising knitwear label.

“The city is small but cosmopolitan. What’s best, I can get any Asian food I like. I might think like a German, but in eating preferences I’m definitely Japanese!”

Kyoto on my mind

For great Japanese cuisine, the place to visit is Immermannstrasse two minutes from the main railway station. Along with Asian eateries, it hosts a legion of Japanese businesses including Shochiku, a grocery that stocks everything a homesick expat could wish for, from gyoza wrappers to manga comics.

Across the street is one of Miyake’s favourite restaurants, the Kushitei grillhouse. Listening to the incomprehensible chatter of Japanese businessmen munching on charcoal-grilled kushiyaki, a weird feeling returns – is this really Germany or lunch hour in Tokyo?

A few doors down is Kyoto, a gift shop where Hidenori Yoshimatsu sells gorgeous kimonos, ceramics and Japan’s inimitable brand of kitsch knick-knacks. After a quarter-century in Düsseldorf, he courteously describes relations between the Japanese and the “long noses” as “very harmonious”. But, he adds with  a smile, the real Kyoto is where he will return the instant he retires.

Japan and Germany celebrated 150 years of friendship last year, but in Düsseldorf’s case, it’s more of a love affair – or marriage of convenience. Either way, it looks set to last.

Check out fashion designer Tina Miyake´s homepage.

Text by Silja Kudel
Photo by iStockphoto

Published April 16, 2012

Category: Local features