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April 2002 - Nr. 4


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Japan Succumbs to Magic of German Fairy Tales

TWIG - Grimms’ fairy tales have hit the bestseller lists once again - this time not in Germany, where the tales were first published, or even in the U.S., where they first made millions, but far away from their European roots, in Japan. A new generation of Japanese readers is diving into Snow White and Rapunzel with unexpected passion, experts say. And it isn’t just children who are reading the tales. Japanese tourists often know more about Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm than people in Hessia, the region where the brothers gathered and recorded their stories nearly 200 years ago.

"The brothers Grimm are better known than Goethe in Japan," says Berhard Lauer, director of the Brothers Grimm Museum in Kassel. The latest Japanese edition of the Grimms’ fairy-tale collection is being produced in print runs of several million, he notes. Brigitte Buchholz-Bloedow, who oversees business along the German Fairy Tale Road, a 600-kilometer route from Hanau to Bremen, has noticed the phenomenon too. "They are extremely well-informed about the brothers Grimm," she observes. "No ordinary citizen here would know such things."

About a quarter of the tourists visiting the Brothers Grimm Museum are from Japan, says Lauer. That adds up to between 5,000 and 10,000 a year. Korean, Chinese and North American travelers are also frequent visitors to the museum, which is housed in the building where the Grimms compiled their first volume of tales, Kinder- und Hausmaerchen (1812). Large crowds of Japanese tourists also show up in Hanau, where the brothers were born in 1785 and 1786, and in the small town of Steinau, where they spent much of their youth.

But many have likely seen these sights already. Replicas of Hanau’s city hall and the Grimms’ boyhood home in Steinau are on display at the Japanese theme park "Brothers Grimm Kingdom of Happiness" on the island Hokaido. And Japanese television teams often travel to Germany to film fairy-tale features on location. To get in on the action, the city of Hanau plans to take excerpts from its annual fairy-tale festival to its partner city Tottori, Japan.

Fantasy may be big in Japan, but Isamitsu Murayama, a Japanese scholar of German literature, thinks it might be the dark side of the tales, rather than their sweetness, that makes them so appealing to Japanese readers. The original tales include passages that are gruesome and erotic, he notes. "There’s still a lot of prudery in Japan," which makes the stories’ sexual innuendoes all the more enticing, he explains. Lauer says there may be a historical reason for the trend, too. When Japan opened up to the West in 1867, it took its cues from Germany, Europe’s dominant power. It was then that German romanticism and with it the Grimms’ fairy tales made their way into Japanese culture.

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