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Sunday, May 20, 2001

The importance of being Osakan

We're not like all the rest


Staff writer

"Osaka? You think Osaka is the same as Tokyo?"

Well, yeah, I say. What's so different about Osaka? I mean, the buildings look the same as Tokyo. The food is the same. The people look the same.

Enjoy those tasty Osaka treats.

It's a cold spring night and I'm sitting in a small hostess bar in south Osaka. I've been in Japan all of a week, long enough, surely, to have figured out how the entire country works.

My friend -- let's call him Ebisu-san because a fondness for beer and yakiniku has given him the same portly features as the god of fortune -- looks at me with a smile reserved for children who say something cute but dumb at the dinner table. Seated between two hostesses and a mama-san with a whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, we pause in between karaoke songs as he explains.

"Osaka is not Tokyo. We are nothing like Tokyo people. Tokyo people are cold, impersonal and bureaucratic. Osaka people are warm and friendly. We know the importance of human relations."

Toto, I don't think we're in Tokyo anymore...

Well, yeah, but knowing the importance of human relations hardly makes Osaka a unique . . .

"No, you don't understand. Osakans are merchants by nature."

Merchants? Not the swashbuckling heroes of "The Seven Samurai"?

"You've been watching too many movies. During the Edo Period, Osaka's population ranged from between 400,000 and 500,000. But there were never more than 1,000 samurai living in the city at any one time. In contrast, over 80 percent of those living in Tokyo, with its population of 1 million, were of the samurai class."

Sounds like it must have been one big shopping mall.

"Merchants consider everyone a potential customer. They don't want to run the risk of losing you as a customer so they go out of their way to be friendly.

"Furthermore, the merchants have traditionally been small business owners. Think about this. You're a merchant during the Edo period. You have lower class status. You have to run your business, pay your employees, and outfox the shogun's bureaucrats who don't trust you and try to create every form of bureaucratic interference they can think of."

Sounds like the complaints of some American merchants in the Heisei Period.

"The point is, this kind of situation creates a number of cultural traits. First, it forces you to be a quick thinker. Second, it creates a loathing of bureaucracy and military power. Third, it makes you practical. And fourth, it makes you a tough negotiator in business but a valued friend and ally."

OK, fine. But you're talking about ancient history. You guys lost the Battle of Sekigahara, not the Tokyoites. Tokyo has been the center of Japan for 400 years and really became dominant after the Meiji Restoration.

"Uh, huh. And just where do you think many of the architects of the Meiji Restoration got their education?"

Let me guess.

"Do you think they could have learned so much in the bureaucratic confines of Edo? People like Sanai Hashimoto, Masujiro Omura, and, above all, Yukichi Fukuzawa studied at the Teki Juku in Osaka, which was opened in 1838 by Koan Ogata, a Dutch Studies scholar. His students learned Western medicine, but they learned a lot about the outside world, too, knowledge which was applied to the whole country after the Meiji Restoration."

Speaking from the heart

Again, fine. But, 150-odd years later, and especially since the end of the war and the advent of television, Japanese cities are becoming more or less alike.

"No. Osaka is unique among Japanese cities because it has retained its culture, starting with its way of speaking. You're speaking standard Japanese, which I'm sure some Tokyo language teacher said was polite. But, to Osakans, such Japanese sounds really cold."

So what should I speak? Swahili?

"Osaka dialect. It's more warm and friendly. Standard Tokyo Japanese is flat. Osaka dialect allows you to inflect your voice. It's easier for foreigners to express themselves in Osaka dialect than in standard Japanese. Tokyoites speak like Washington bureaucrats. Osakans speak like Chicago merchants."

But other areas of Japan have regional dialects. Why is Osaka dialect different?

"Because Osakans use their dialect everywhere. Go to Tokyo. People from other parts of Japan lose their local dialect when they move to Tokyo. Osakans continue to use Osaka dialect, which really pisses Tokyo people off."

So in addition to learning standard Japanese, I have to learn Osaka dialect. Just what I need. More homework.

"And don't forget that the many words have different meanings. 'Baka,' which means stupid, is more offensive to Osakans than 'aho,' which means basically the same thing. In Tokyo, it's the other way around."

From what your saying, it sounds like there's not a whole lot of love lost between Tokyo and Osaka.

"Nope. Tokyoites like to strut around and act superior. In fact, during the Edo Period, it was Osaka merchants who kept the Tokyo bureaucrats propped up by extending them loans. Tokyoites have always seen Osakans as a necessary evil."

An ancient rivalry. But, again, "ancient" is the operative word.

"The modern rivalry can be seen at Koshien Stadium, where the Hanshin Tigers play. When the Yomiuri Giants are in town, it's not just two teams battling it out. Nor is it two cities in competition."

Uh, what is it then?

"It's a battle between two different philosophies! It's the cold, robotlike, talented but humorless drones from the Yomiuri Giants against the high-spirited, hardworking and warm individuals who call themselves the Hanshin Tigers. The Giants represent everything that's wrong. The Tigers represent everything that's right and good."

Ooookaaay, I think we better change the subject. There are a lot of foreigners in Osaka, but the feel is different from Tokyo.

"That's because there are lots of Asians here. We've been trading with China and Korea for more than 1,500 years, from the time when Tokyo was still uninhabited. We've always been open to foreigners."

Especially Koreans.

"Absolutely! There are nearly 160,000 Koreans in Osaka Prefecture, the largest number for any prefecture in Japan. We have Korean communities in Tsuruhashi and elsewhere."

Lots of cheap Japanese restaurants, as well.

"Osakans take their food seriously. The food here is much better than Tokyo because it's cheaper and there's more volume. Instant ramen was invented in Osaka, and the first yakiniku restaurants in Japan were here. And, of course, you have classic Osaka dishes like okonomiyaki and takoyaki."

Natural innovators

A great place to open your own restaurant, provided you don't charge too much.

"Not just restaurants, but any business. Osaka businesses are distinguished by their inventiveness but also by their ability to bring something to market quickly."

Like what?

"Everything from microchips to dental equipment to video games. Did you know that the great majority of new businesses, perhaps as much as 80 percent, which were begun after the war started off in Osaka? In Tokyo, the first response to a new idea is to say 'no.' They assume that if there is no rule or precedent, it can't be done. In Osaka, we assume that if there's no rule or precedent, it might be worth a try."

Reminds me of a gambler.

"Osakans have a strong inclination to gamble on the unknown. It makes life interesting."

It can also lead to problems.

"Yeah, like quarrels and fights and going to the yakuza for cash. But when they win, they usually win big."

And yet, despite their willingness to gamble, Osakans don't seem to spend money lavishly.

"We do, but on food. Kyotoites buy clothes, Tokyoites spend money on shoes, and we in Osaka buy food. We're not cheap skinflints like in Nagoya or some other cities I could name. We'll spend money, but you have to convince us it's worthwhile first."

Gamblers, gourmets and stubbornly proud of their local customs. Osakans seem different from the stereotypical images of the gray-suited salarymen we read about in the West.

"True Osakans are outspoken and independent. That's why they don't work well in large groups. Tokyo people discuss things and once an agreement has been reached, even those who opposed it initially express their support or keep quiet in front of outsiders. Osakans continue to grumble publicly about a decision they don't agree with, even after it's been made."

At this point in the conversation, I turn to Mi and Yu, the two hostesses who have been sitting quietly during this discussion. And, I ask, do Mr. Ebisu's descriptions fit Osakan women as well?

"Osakan women are noted for their lively personalities and for being especially good with money. That's because, traditionally, wives had to help run the smaller businesses. They kept the books while the husbands went out and made the sales," Yu-chan says.

"Osaka women are tough but kind. They are, in many ways, the opposite of the stereotypical geisha. Osaka women appear tough on the surface, but they are actually very passionate," she says.

They also have a different fashion sense, it seems, than Tokyo girls.

Mi-chan, dressed in a shocking pink blouse, and wearing light green nail polish and fire engine red lipstick, explains, "Tokyo women prefer more earth-tone fashions and are often more subdued in their fashion sense. But Osaka women like bright, bold colors."

And, turning the conversation to an area of immediate, personal interest, do they like bright and bold guys as well?

"Definitely," both girls say at once. At this point, the mama-san speaks up.

"If you ask a Tokyo girl what's important in an ideal man, she'll say things like the name of the guy's company or where he graduated college from. Osaka women put a lot of emphasis on a lively, cheerful personality. The stoic samurai-types aren't likely to find Osaka women swooning over them," she says.

So a sense of humor is particularly important?

"Yes," the mama-san says. "But it's the kind of humor that's important. Osaka men and women prefer quick-witted remarks delivered in a somewhat slapstick fashion. Tokyo humor tends to be more dry and reflective," she says.

"That's why Yoshimoto Kogyo is so popular in Osaka," Ebisu-san says.

I've seen it. Reminded me of "The Three Stooges" or old vaudeville acts.

"Yoshimoto Kogyo is representative of the spirit of Osaka. The skits are more often zany than intellectual, the humor is loud and earthy, and everyone wears bright, colorful costumes," he says.

Sounds like Osaka to me. "And the Yoshimoto Kogyo humor usually steers clear of politics. It's not criticism in disguise."

Now that you mention it, Osakans don't really seem to care for politics.

"Not of the Tokyo kind, at any rate. It's too reminiscent of bureaucratic control and petty rules, which Osakans have no patience for."

Well, not too many people like petty rules.

"But here, we are notorious for being impatient. Traffic crosswalks display the number of seconds until the light turns green because people are in a hurry and want to know how much longer they have to wait."

It could be argued either way, but I suppose that's a bad point about Osaka.

"Osakans have a lot of bad points."

Get outta here.

"No, it's true. Public manners for starters. Osakans are horribly rude in train stations and restaurants. They'll push their way onto trains, block doorways and ignore safety precautions. Then there's the cigarette problem. Do you smoke?"

Nope.

"Osakans are oblivious to the concerns of nonsmokers, and they would get irritated if you complained."

Now that you mention it, it can be annoying walking around the streets of Osaka.

"Not just annoying," Yu-chan adds. "For a woman, Osaka can be dangerous. Osaka trains have the highest number of molesters in Japan and the city is also No. 1 nationwide for purse snatchings."

"Osaka is also No. 1 for illegally parked cars," adds Mi-chan. "People just park wherever they feel like, with no regard for traffic safety. The traffic situation here is as bad as Bangkok."

Well, maybe not that bad. But if Osaka people are so friendly in private, as you say, why are they so rude and uncaring in public?

"Partially the heat. Osaka has the climate of Florida, the pollution of Newark, and the population of Chicago. It has almost no public parks to relax in. People become ill-mannered and uncomfortable, especially in the summertime," says Ebisu-san.

"But it's also partially because the independent, free-spirited nature of Osakans, if not tempered by discipline and concern for others, quickly turns into selfishness and arrogance," says the mama-san.

Speaking for concern for others, it's getting late and my roommates must be wondering where I am. Thanks for the lessons.

"Not at all. Oh, don't worry, this is my treat. Mama-san, how about a discount?"

"I think we can take 5 percent off," she says.

"What! Five percent? Can't you make it a bit more? I'm really kind of tight this month."

"OK. Ten percent. But just because he seems like a nice kid. I do have to pay Yu-chan and Mi-chan, after all."

Outside on the street, the two girls and the mama-san wave goodbye as Ebisu-san climbs into a taxi heading for parts unknown. I bow politely to thank him for his generosity, but he waves me off.

"Kid, don't ever forget that Osaka is a special kind of place. Pay me back by telling your friends someday what the people are really like."



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