The government likes to project the image abroad of a happy, homogeneous Japan, a giant assembly line of a nation humming along under Tokyo’s astute guidance.
In Osaka that’s a joke.
If America has its North-South rivalry and a clash of cultures between East and West, Japan is divided along cultural fault lines between Tokyo, the staid seat of government since 1603, and Osaka, the freewheeling birthplace of Japanese capitalism.
It is a rivalry that spans hundreds of years of sometimes blood-soaked history. Across the 255-mile gap between the cities--or, more properly, between eastern Japan, known as Kanto, and western Japan, known as Kansai--civil wars have been fought, rebellions snuffed out and byzantine intrigue hatched against emperor and shogun.
To the dismay of Osaka-centered Kansai, Kanto finally proved dominant and established Tokyo as the nation’s political and economic center, a position only strengthened in the government-led postwar rebuilding period.
Today, however, with Tokyo’s metropolitan area taxed by overcrowding and astronomical land prices, and with Japan’s newly rich corporations becoming more independent of the government, many Osakans believe their hour of prominence is at hand again.
Hardly, say some Tokyo residents, who at about 8.5 million strong comprise a population almost four times the size of Osaka.
To Tokyoites, Osakans are crude, blunt and money-hungry, a legacy of Osaka’s somewhat despised origins as a merchant center left to fend for itself by the central government.
To make matters worse, Osakans are proud of their reputation. For many years, for example, they greeted each other not with an ordinary “Konnichiwa,” meaning “hello,” but with “Mokarimakka,” meaning, “Are you making any money?”
To Osakans, Tokyoites are “eikakko”: snobbish, strait-laced and image-conscious, reflecting Tokyo’s dignity since the early shoguns, or military rulers, turned it into Japan’s capital. The rigidity of manners harks back to the years when splendidly armored feudal lords were forced, at great expense, to live half the year in Tokyo under the glare of the shogun’s samurai.
Though the rivalry is mostly a friendly one, intermarriage between the regions is only about 10 percent.
“To Tokyo we are a joke,” says Kazuaki Tsuda, senior managing director of Osaka-based Suntory Ltd. “It’s true that women who were raised in the Kanto area hate to be married to men from Kansai.”
Nowhere is the rivalry as apparent as in business practices, and in the battle against the bureaucratic control from Tokyo that Osaka companies have chafed under for so long.
“There are many companies from Osaka that will be successful in Tokyo, but there are very few companies from Tokyo that will be successful in Osaka,” says Ryotaro Nohmura, chairman of Japan’s biggest tent-maker. “People in Tokyo depend on the government for favors, whereas we just use our business sense.”
Indeed, many Osakans bristle at the image of a closed Japan projected by Tokyo and its overbearing bureaucrats.
“Tokyo people think they represent Japan,” says Takashi Onishi, president of an Osaka-based textile wholesaler. “That’s a mistake.”
The feisty 69-year-old Nohmura told of enduring 300 trips to Tokyo just to get his mammoth fiberglass dome approved for the Yomiuri Giants’ indoor baseball stadium, known today as the “Big Egg.”
The approval took 15 years. It seems the Tokyo government bureaucracy wasn’t quite ready for something so new, particularly from--ahem--Osaka.
Osakans’ free-spiritedness is evident downtown, a snarl of elevated highways and shimmering glass high-rises. Car horns seem to honk and tires screech more frequently than in Tokyo. Where Tokyoites will stand docilely at a stoplight, even on a quiet side street, New York-style jaywalking is more the Osakans’ style.
And Osaka relishes its history as the hub of a sophisticated distribution system that united Japan commercially at a time when Europe was still a caldron of feuding duchies and city-states, and America a raw wilderness.
It is in Kansai that Japan’s giant trading companies such as Sumitomo and Mitsui were born. At Osaka’s commercial center is Semba, meaning “place of ships,” where 300 years ago merchant vessels loaded rice cargo bound for Japan’s Inland Sea.
Today, instead of a port, Semba features one of the world’s largest shopping malls, a half-mile-long building that Osakans jokingly call the “prone Empire State Building.”
Many of the clothes shops there don’t even use price tags, in sharp contrast to the fixed-price policies of Tokyo retailers. So frenzied is the competition that some merchants prefer to bargain.
Osakans, and even some Westerners in Japan, say Kansai business ethics are far more suited to foreign businesses compared with Tokyo, where residents are known to remain loyal to old suppliers and neighborhood stores no matter what.
In Kansai, if the price is right, anything goes.
“For example, if you buy some underwear and you go to another store and see the same underwear for a better price, the Osaka way is to go back to the store and return the underwear,” Onishi says.
“But in Kanto, they’ll first try to negotiate the price down in their store, and if they can’t do that, they’ll still buy it.”
As always, Osakans turn to history to explain. A century ago, two-thirds of the Tokyo region was owned by samurai warriors, who made up half its population. In the transition to a Western-style government, many became button-down bureaucrats.
But only about 10 percent of Osaka was samurai; most of the rest were merchants loath to bow to government authority, says Michihiro Matsumoto, an executive with the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry.