Culture : Osaka: the Soul of Old Japan : Entering a new era of global attention, the city seeks to find a line between the comfortable and the cutting edge.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three generations of the Zatsuno family, ready for customers at any moment, gathered in their tiny storefront around a hot-plate dinner: a bubbling pot of seaweed broth with fish, chicken, eggs and kamaboko , (fish-paste cakes).

The Zatsunos' shop, stacked with such items as umbrellas, baby clothes and towels, was wide open to a narrow alley jammed with pedestrians who had come to patronize the area's low-cost eateries and entertainment parlors. Yet from grandmother to toddler, no one in the family seemed the least embarrassed to be dining a couple of yards from the passing crowds.

Such casual mixing of family and commercial life, common in less-developed countries of Asia, is almost inconceivable in status-conscious Tokyo.

But the Zatsunos live in Shinsekai, a famous, if slightly shabby, working-class entertainment district that helps define the spiritual core of Osaka. No need for airs and pretense here, in the heart of Japan's second-largest but most down-to-earth city.

"We who grew up in this area feel attached to the present atmosphere," said Hirofumi Zatsuno, 29. "We have things here that other places don't have, and now there's a wave of nostalgia for bygone days. That's why we're getting attention."

For most foreign visitors, Japan is defined by uptight Tokyo, with its astronomical prices and blue-suited businessmen, or perhaps by the graceful temples of ancient Kyoto.

But neither is truly representative. Ask anyone in Osaka: Their city is the real Japan.

And as it enters what many hope will be a new era with global attention, venerable Osaka is feeling a sharp tug between the traditional and the modern, between what is comfortable and what is cutting edge.

To many sophisticates, this city shares some of the conflicts in identity that Los Angeles does when compared to New York.

Tokyo is the seat of power and prestige, while Osaka is viewed as a place where people put more emphasis on enjoying life.

In Osaka, as compared to Tokyo, commutes are shorter. Homes are bigger. Life is less pressured. Everything costs less. Osaka also clings tenaciously to its own dialect, refusing to recognize any kind of superiority in a Tokyo accent.

"Tokyo does things in a fancier way," said Koichi Otani, a professor at Osaka's Tezukayama Gakuin University, who specializes in Osaka's history and popular culture. "But sometimes in the eyes of Osaka people, Tokyo looks like it's a colony of other countries, especially America."

Makoto Ishihara, editor of the Osaka-based women's magazine Herbivo, said Tokyo has lost its Japanese character and is not really Asian anymore.

"Tokyo is no longer a part of Japan," he declared. "It's just Tokyo."

It is true that many smaller cities across the country try to imitate the capital's modern styles, with boutiques or other trendy stores copying the most popular Tokyo districts. While parts of upscale northern Osaka also fit this pattern, most of the city just doesn't care what Tokyo does.

Take a stroll here, talk to the people, learn the history of this place and it is clear that Osaka offers a unique take on Japanese life.

As the birthplace of Japanese capitalism, Osaka was built up during the country's feudal era by merchants whose values were very different from the prestige-conscious samurai and bureaucrats who brought power to Tokyo.

Many of Japan's great trading houses and industrial firms, famous names like Sumitomo and Matsushita, were born and grew to power in Osaka.

It now has a population of 2.6 million in the city core, with 17 million in the greater metropolitan area. It is still full of savvy entrepreneurs, energetic traders and friendly shopkeepers who know how to put customers at ease.

It is a culinary capital where the slogan "Eat till you drop" is bantered about with pride.

The people of Osaka are famous for being pragmatic yet willing to show emotion, frank yet gentle in speech and fond of self-deprecating humor.

Foreigners may find ambiguity in the conversations of most Japanese people. This indirectness can lead to international misunderstandings, even when people from Tokyo are speaking. But the tendency toward softness and lack of clarity is even more pronounced in Osaka.

"When you're trying to sell products, people from the Tokyo area will say 'no' or 'yes,' but, in Osaka, people don't use those kinds of words," said Takashi Nishikawa, a manager at the Tsutenkaku Tourism Co., which runs a landmark observation tower in the Shinsekai district. "Since you made an effort, we say, 'I'll think about it.' That actually means 'no.' Speaking like this reflects the gentle nature of Osaka people."

Nikkei Anthropos, a Tokyo-based lifestyle magazine aimed at young businessmen, offered a different perspective on this practice in an article headlined: "Business in Tokyo depends on following rules. In Osaka, it depends on human feelings."

A salesman from Osaka, with experience in both cities, was quoted as saying that, "although Osaka people say Tokyo people are cold, Tokyo is more efficient, because people clearly say 'no' when they don't need products."

Zatsuno, the shop owner in Shinsekai, said his neighbors will often make self-deprecating plays on words.

Just a few doors down from Zatsuno's shop in Shinsekai, the pre-television era lives on in the form of two shogi parlors, where dozens of men sit at long rows of tables playing traditional Japanese chess. Nearby are noisy restaurants serving meats and vegetables roasted on tiny sticks, which customers liberally slosh with sauce from collective pans. Prices are a fraction of what an upscale version of the same dishes would cost in Tokyo.

However informal people may appear to be, though, Osaka is still a city where deep in their hearts everyone knows that sophisticated Tokyo is really just an upstart.

"Four hundred years ago, the Tokyo area was a place where savage tribes lived," said Tetsuro Kawakami, chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation, Osaka's most important business lobby. "A 'barbarian-conquering shogun' was appointed to subjugate them. Because of this history, Osaka-area people looked down on Tokyo people. Economically, commercially and culturally, they felt superior."

During the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, real political power became concentrated under the ruling shogun in Edo, which later became Tokyo.

But the emperor was headquartered in Kyoto, and nearby Osaka prospered as the commercial distribution center for the nation--an island of budding capitalism in a sea of feudalism. After the Emperor Meiji abolished the shogun system of 1868, Osaka led Japan's industrial revolution; administrative power, however, was increasingly centralized in Tokyo.

In the post-World War II period, as powerful government bureaucrats guided the creation of a modern economy, free-wheeling Osaka's relative importance slipped more seriously.

The share of Japan's total economy accounted for by the Kansai region, which includes Osaka and the neighboring cities of Kyoto and Kobe, stood at 25% in the prewar years, but it has now fallen to 17%. Even so, with annual output valued at $800 billion, the Kansai economy is larger than Canada's.

Hoping to reverse the slow decline in its relative fortunes--and achieve the kind of recognition it feels it has always deserved--Osaka is now seeking a greater role on the world stage. Local governments and businesses contributed heavily to financing the new Kansai International Airport, which opened last year and now provides Osaka with greatly expanded international links.

Osaka will also draw new attention this fall when it hosts national leaders from throughout the Pacific Rim for the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Local government and industry leaders already show palpable enthusiasm for hosting the summit, although the excitement may not run very deep among average citizens.

"If you look at the history of Osaka, it's never been a center of political power," Otani explained. "I think Osaka will never produce a prime minister. Osaka people don't care much for politics. They care more about money. . . . At souvenir shops all over Japan, they say you can easily identify Osaka people because they're the ones who come straight up and ask for a bargain."

The most famous symbol of Osaka's popular culture is the Yoshimoto comedy theater, which pokes fun at the city's stereotypical characteristics with stories based on life in the older, more working-class and entertainment-oriented southern part of the city, including the Shinsekai district.

Yoshimoto characters are talkative and overly kind, to the point of butting into other people's business, said Masafumi Noyama, a Yoshimoto spokesman. They speak frankly and are easily seduced by money.

"People at this extreme probably don't exist in the real world, but there are people who resemble them," he said.

A typical show tells the story of a merchant with a customer who got his finger stuck in a flute. When he couldn't get unstuck, the merchant told him he would have to buy the flute. The customer asked how much it would be and the merchant quickly began musing aloud about needing enough money to renovate his house and to buy a fancy kimono for his mother.

Another skit pokes fun at Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, a surprise pick last year for the nation's top leadership. His huge, bushy eyebrows are his most distinctive feature. The story line itself has nothing to do with Murayama but involves the investigation of a bank robbery. At one point, a policeman rushes up to a group of workers and demands: "Who's in charge here?"

"I am! Name's Murayama!" proudly declares one of the men, who then turns to the audience, holds his hands above his eyes and waggles his fingers like long eyebrows flapping in the wind.

The audience roars with laughter.

A cheerfully rebellious streak in Osaka culture is reflected in many little things. Osaka people, according to Otani, tend to jump the green light when crossing streets, are less willing than Tokyo people to wait in orderly lines to board commuter trains and have the worst record for illegal parking in Japan.

Whatever interest most Osaka residents do have in politics, he added, is primarily expressed as anti-government sentiment: "The thing Osaka people hate most is strong pressure from outside. They love freedom."

Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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