A Japan-trained Dutch Banker’s Impressions of Chicago, 1968

From The Magatama Doodle: One Man’s Affair with Japan, 1950–2004, by Hans Brinckmann (Global Oriental, 2005), pp. 184-185:

Seven years earlier, our first US visit was no confrontation. We were wide-eyed tourists then, basking in America’s sun and easy smiles without care or consequence. Even our brief stay in Illinois in 1965, a year after my bank’s takeover by the Chicago bank, was little more than a courtesy call made out of our safe and trusted Japanese home base.

But this time it was different. This protracted stay was intended to be confrontational. There were wise men in the head office suspecting their ‘man in Tokyo’ of alien sympathies. They were right, twice over.

First, there was my typical European prejudice against the might and swagger of America, its superficial, money-based way of life, its waste and hyperbole, even that questionable concept – the ‘pursuit of happiness’. This spoon-fed mindset was overlain by a less expressible, more internalized reserve about the United States, Japan-grown and stubborn. It was directed at the American mentality, the casual arrogance that is the birthright of the strong. It was a silent protest against the overweening, patronizing manners of so many Americans towards anyone and anything foreign, and especially Asian. Above all, it was a deep-seated resistance against the immodest American approach to life itself, its aggressive ‘conflict model’, its blatant emotionalism and lack of restraint, its materialism and physicality and holier-than-thou Christian orthodoxy.

Thus I arrived in Chicago heavily burdened with opinion but also willing to change my views ‘in the light of new experience’. Well, experience is what we got. From the first day I had to place my mental constructs on the back-burner. Actual, visceral life, took precedence. The accommodation the bank had arranged for us, a small, furnished apartment in Old Town, turned out to be an address of ill repute, teeming with prostitutes. Within our stingy rent allowance we found a better place, near the Ambassador East Hotel, with mostly decent tenants. But we had to decide how to deal with the neighbours across the hall, a friendly well-groomed woman with an attractive grown-up daughter for whom – Toyoko had to conclude to her astonishment – she was acting as a ‘discreet’ pimp.

The confrontation with American reality brought home to me the vast cultural gap that separated that society from the Japanese – and the Dutch. But the comparison was not necessarily negative. The office, for instance, far from being a nasty environment steeped in power-crazy adrenaline, was more like a large living-room filled with people exchanging easy banter while glancing at a document or two, or discussing golf scores with a customer on the phone. The informality was deceptive. While telling jokes or kidding around these well-educated bankers kept a beady eye on the boss’s door, to see who would go in next or to wait for an opportunity to slip in with a ‘hot deal’. I was amazed to see that in spite of their relaxed style of communication they did get their job done.

The looser structure was an immense relief from the tensions and social rules of Japan. What is more I soon discovered that the much-maligned ‘shallowness’ of American social relations was actually more like an open, unprejudiced kind of hospitality which we tight-arsed Europeans and fastidious Japanese would do well to try and emulate, to our benefit. Americans, I found, opened their doors first and then sorted out what they had let in. Europeans and Japanese, distrusting spontaneity, were forever trying to determine the suitability of others before deciding whether they wanted to get acquainted.

My lifelong latent resistance against America’s ways had collapsed inside a week. Not on fundamentals, but – let us say – on the attractions of their lifestyle. These Americans lived their lives instead of fretting about them. They had no time for wrenching soul searching or weighing up the relative merits of their civilization. They were victors, and victors are free of doubt.

Vietnam was supposed to have changed all this. But not here, not yet, in this heartland of assured capitalism, where seating a single black graduate from Northwestern University on my bank’s carpeted ‘platform’ for all to see, was deemed to constitute an adequate gesture to the irksome demands of the Civil Rights movement. The headlines of the Chicago Tribune copies scattered about the desks might be screaming indignantly about the seizure of the US Navy ship Pueblo by the North Koreans or about the Communist Tet offensive just launched by the Viet Cong, but loan requests had to be processed and the 17.37 back home to the comforts of Winnetka had to be caught.

The self-assuredness was astounding. Laced as it was with magnanimity and the decency of family concerns it was a far cry from the imperial hauteur of the British and French or the self-conscious pride of the Japanese. But it was daunting nonetheless. Paraded around Chicago as ‘our man in Japan’ I had to make frequent appearances at meetings, both inside the bank and on calls to important corporate customers, to shed light on the mystery that was Japan. I was expected to explain the peculiarities of the market and dispense hot tips on how to breach its protectionist shell.

My audience was eloquent, courteous and sceptical.

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Filed under economics, industry, Japan, Netherlands, U.S.

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