July 1st, 2006


Meet the Jerpmans

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe called Kauf Dich Glucklich ("buy yourself happy") -- a cafe, Japanese friends of mine say, whose friendly, tasteful, relaxing style could as easily fit into Daikanyama or Harajuku as Prenzlauer Berg. I was reading Exberliner, the English-language magazine, when I came across this sentence:

Like the cafe, this description rang a bell. A national obsession with saving? And not just saving, but saving at ridiculously low interest rates? The other nation known for this odd behaviour is, of course, Japan. I scribbled a note in my notebook which started a collection: a list of all the parallels between German and Japanese ways of doing things.

The theme is in the air in Berlin right now, with the big Berlin Tokyo show on at the Neue Nationalgalerie. But there really does seem to be some kind of clustering of attitudes; it's almost as if an amalgamated cultural group exists, a blend of Germans and Japanese we could call "the Jerpmans". The control group in this cultural experiment will be the UK and the US, since those are the societies I know best, and since they tend to differ from Jerpmanian traits and habits on almost every point. I'll call them the Anglos. Let's look a bit closer.

Saving in low-interest accounts: Some need for stability and security leads both the Jerpmans to build up big savings in accounts which yield 2% interest or less. The Anglos prefer much higher rates of interest if they're saving, but tend to be in debt all the time, running up big borrowing on credit cards and overdrafts. Such "casino-style living" worries the Jerpmans, although there's some evidence they're beginning to adopt Anglo ways (saving less, spending more). In Freudian terms, the Jerpmans would be seen as "hoarders", late anal types obsessed with order and control, rather reluctant to let go and spend. (It's interesting, then, that the cafe I was sitting in when I read about their hoarding habit was called "spend yourself happy".)

Lawsuits: Anglos are much more likely to sue than Jerpmans. Again, this seems partly to be an aversion to speculative behaviour. Sueing is a rather "casino-like" behaviour. The stakes (in terms of legal costs and social conflict) are high, but if you win you can break the bank with a multi-million dollar payout. Nevertheless, Jerpmans would not be impressed by the 1-800-I-CAN-SUE adverts you see in New York. I'm personally Jerpman on this issue: I never thought of sueing when I lost the use of an eye through a contact lens problem, and I would never demand money if someone sampled a record of mine, just as Konishi didn't when he heard my Pizzicato 5 samples in "Enlightenment". Sueing is a slippery slope to a society where everything is owned, everything has a financial value, and where people are at each other's throats for money the whole time.

Cleanliness: Jerpmans are notably obsessed with cleanliness. Berlin and Tokyo are much tidier and cleaner than London or New York. Toilets tend to be tolerable, non-stinky. Cleanliness is a moral virtue here. It can be hell moving out of an apartment in Berlin, because you have to leave it in a pristine, sterile and impersonal condition (I tried repainting my kitchen twice before leaving my Karl Marx Allee apartment -- the agency didn't accept the standard, and kept my security deposit to pay a professional to do the job). In contrast, rented accommodation in London often comes furnished, eccentric and dirty. And, obviously related, is this:

Taking shoes off in houses: The Jerpmans take off their shoes when they enter a house or a restaurant. The Anglos don't. In fact, Anglos will often sit with their shoed feet up on the upholstered seat of a subway train, despite signs telling them not to. It's no wonder that upholstered British trains often have a cheesy smell. What's more, cowboys and Irish labourers stereotypically wear their boots in bed.

Nakedness: The Jerpmans are often seen as uptight, but in many ways they're less hung up than the Anglos. Nakedness, for example. In Germany and Japan public nakedness has a long tradition (mixed public bathing, for instance, or summercamp callisthenics). The German band Faust famously recorded naked, and I'm sure The Boredoms have done the same thing (Morning Musume record semi-naked). It's hard to imagine Radiohead stripping, although I'm sure it would improve their music. On this issue, I'm Jerpman: at least one Momus record has been recorded naked, "Folktronic".

Drinking and smoking: Here too the Jerpmans are way less uptight than the Anglos. In Tokyo you can buy beer out of streetside dispensing machines. In Berlin everyone walks around with a beer bottle in their hand. These are also big smoking cities, where you can smoke just about anywhere. In New York and London, smoking and drinking are strictly controlled. Incidentally, this relates to the sueing issue. The trend against smoking in the UK comes from US lawsuits against Big Tobacco. I wonder if British people would accept such radical curbs on their civil liberties as readily if, instead of American lawsuits, the UK smoking ban came from an EU health directive? What would the headlines be saying then, eh? "Puff one for Britain!" "Blow smoke in their eyes!"

Stealing: Germany and Japan are both more equitable societies than Britain and the US: the Gini rating is lower here. People are less inclined to see others doing much better than them (partly because extremes of wealth and poverty are hidden in these societies), less inclined to feel a sense of relative deprivation that entitles them to compensatory crime ("redistributive crime", we could call it). One test of this is what I call "the bike test". I like to buy a cheap bike and leave it unlocked, because I hate fiddling with locks. I've done this in Japan, and I'm currently doing it in Germany. I've never had a bike stolen in either of these countries. In Britain, despite locking my bike, I've had two stolen. In New York I left a Razor scooter unattended for ten minutes and it was gone.

Tipping: The relative lack of unease Anglos feel with inequality is expressed in tipping practises. In the UK and especially the US, you tip people in service industries. In Germany and Japan, you tend not to. It feels (and I speak as a happy non-tipper) patronizing. It also induces anxiety: Why are there all these hidden charges? Why can't the employer pay his employees properly? Am I able to calculate the exact tip I should leave? Are these people just being nice to me so that I leave a fat tip?

Pedestrian crossings: Jerpmans stand like sheep, waiting for the red man to go green. On this issue I'm strongly Anglo: I charge across the road at my own discretion, looking left and right and judging when it's safe. What I don't take into account, though, is that I'm endangering other people: sometimes, in Jerpmania, people see someone crossing and assume the light has switched to "WALK". They then get hit by a car.

Trees and nature: I often think the Jerpman soul is rooted in a forest. The fairy and folk tales of Germany and Japan are full of stories that take place deep in the woods, and Jerpman cities are pervaded by greenery, gardening allotments and window boxes. The percentage of Japan covered in forest is something like 65% -- in Britain it's dwindled to a pathetic 11%. As a result, the British people have lost their soul. There are no tengu-type souvenirs in Britain, and Robin Hood is largely forgotten.

Fascism, Atrocity, Guilt: Okay, let's deal with it down here. Germany and Japan were both fascist countries in the mid-20th century, and both committed atrocities. As a result, Jerpmania is characterized by a notable, all-pervasive guilt. This guilt, I believe, is what makes these societies, today, remarkably civilized, liberal and pacifist. Atrocity and fascism, today, are much more likely to happen in Anglo societies. Look at Britain's omni-surveillance, reminiscent of the STASI. Look at the Iraq invasion, American torture camps, extra-judicial internments. These things happen, I believe, because Anglos, having won the last major World War (thanks, partly, to an atrocity of their own: the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations), are insufficiently guilty. Guilt, my friends, is good, and guilty countries are good countries. Fingers crossed that Jerpmania doesn't win the World Cup.

(Images on this page are of the work of Layla Curtis, who takes bits of maps of one place and transforms them into maps of another.)