Osaka: Beyond Stereotypes

Society Travel

Osaka’s bustling Minami district, with its neon signs and crowded lanes, has come to represent the city. Local landmarks like the huge glowing advertisement for Glico on Dōtonbori street—a runner with both hands raised against a blue sky and red sun—are standard television shots for Osaka and draw droves of photo-snapping tourists.

Mixed among the conventional signs are such kitsch advertisements as a large model crab, complete with moving legs and pinchers, and a floating blowfish. Vendors surrounded by piles of wares call out to passers-by from vibrantly colored stalls. The animated scene makes other Japanese cities like Tokyo seem tame in comparison.

A Chinese friend once told me that he enjoyed Osaka because it had an easy-going feel like cities in China. It is no wonder that Chinese visitors flock here to enjoy the crab cuisine.

Surprisingly Livable

In August 2018, the Economist Intelligence Unit listed Osaka third in its index of the world’s most livable cities, four spots ahead of seventh-place Tokyo. The announcement prompted locals to express their surprise on social media with cries of Honma ka?—“Really?” in Osaka dialect.

Yet, it was true. Osaka scored 97.7 out of 100 points, finishing just behind Vienna (99.1) and Melbourne (98.4) based on the five criteria of political and economic stability, healthcare, transportation infrastructure, education, and culture and environment.

Osakans are typically seen as a spirited and unpretentious lot, albeit lacking somewhat in refinement. Although locals have great pride in their home city, few would consider it one of the most livable in the world. After all, there is little room for boasting when based on 2017 materials from the National Police Agency, Osaka Prefecture had the highest annual number of recorded crimes per person nationwide. I love Osaka, but I doubt that other than locals, very few people around Japan fervently want to live there.

Yet this rundown image of Osaka does not match reality. Looking at the ranking’s different categories, Osaka has justly earned its high score. It is a compact metropolis, saving it from suffering the same stifling transport congestion as Tokyo, and its urban functions are on par with the capital in every way. It really is a highly livable city.

Shaping How Osaka Is Viewed

Part of Osaka’s image problem is due to manga, films, and comedy. The comic and anime series Jarinko Chie (Chie the Brat) by Haruki Etsumi is an excellent example of a work showing an unrefined side of the city. The story takes place in a shack selling grilled offal and revolves around the antics of elementary school student Takemoto Chie, her parents, and the shop’s regular customers. Another well-known manga set in the city is Naniwa Kin’yūdō (The Osaka Money Trade) by Aoki Yūji. A dark comedy, the series, which was also made into a live-action movie, depicts a salesman working for a consumer credit company and shows people ruined by excess borrowing. The Osaka of these stories is spirited, vulgar, and full of life, and similar works portraying the city typically focus on the shadier aspects of life, enhancing these to full effect.

Comedians from Osaka, particularly those performing a rapid-fire style of stand-up comedy known as manzai, have also influenced the perception of the city. Osaka-based talent agency Yoshimoto Kōgyō has propelled a slew of local comedians into the national limelight where they appear regularly on national television broadcasts speaking a high-tempo, working-class version of the Kansai dialect. I remember hearing Tokyo-born comedian and director Kitano Takeshi saying that a similarly unabashed way of speaking is necessary for creating humor in the Tokyo dialect. But the success of Osaka’s comedians has given people the misguided impression that everyone in the city speaks in this unrefined manner.

Incidentally, I am baffled at how a simple dish like takoyaki, which is nothing more than diced octopus fried in balls of batter and topped with a savory sauce and condiments like dried bonito shavings and chopped leek, has become Osaka’s most famous food. Historically, the city has been associated with a wide variety of extravagant gourmet delicacies—one old phrase even describes the city as a place where people may “eat themselves into bankruptcy.” I am very fond of takoyaki, but I cannot accept it as an emblem of Osaka nosh.

A Rich Heritage

I was born in Tokyo, but as my family on my mother’s side lived in Osaka I would sometimes visit them when I was an elementary school student. Their home was near a stop on the Hankai Uemachi Line, a tramway in the south of the city, and we would often visit the nearby verdant Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine. On a clear day I could see the Ikomayama mountain range to the east on the border with Nara Prefecture. I cannot recall ever seeing mountains from Tokyo, which sits on the broad Kantō Plain and suffered terrible air pollution at the time. Viewing this rugged landscape was a new experience for me and reinforced my impression that Osaka was a cool city.

My grandmother and other older residents were fond of comparing Osaka with other famous cities around the world. For instance, they might call Osaka the “Manchester of the East” based on its status as a former major industrial city. The phrase was already out of date by the time I heard it, but it impressed on me that Osaka had once been a city greater than even Tokyo.

During my visits I was impressed by the neatly aligned buildings and beautiful ginkgo trees along the main Midōsuji street, a thoroughfare built in 1937. I was equally taken with the elegant dome ceilings and broad platforms of the Midōsuji Line, which began operations in 1933. By contrast, Tokyo stations like those on the Ginza Line seemed merely cramped.

Countless international trading companies, banks, and manufacturers as well as many large newspaper firms had their beginnings in Osaka. It was once Japan’s most advanced city, and did not rely solely on the charm of its unaffected residents, as it does today. Its rich heritage almost certainly contributed to its high livability ranking.

I would like to see Osaka get out of the habit of emphasizing its commonness as a means of selling itself. In time Tokyo may become a rather dull place, with only its advanced status to take pride in. Osaka, on the other hand, should use its distinct appeal as a leading city to win the attention of the world.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Tourists and locals stroll along Osaka’s Dōtonbori street on January 19, 2018. © Jiji.)