You do not have to be in Osaka very long before the characteristics that supposedly distinguish it from Tokyo come up.
As I eat breakfast in the restaurant of my hotel in Osaka, I can look down on Osaka Castle. Sitting atop a massive mound whose walls rise dramatically from the dark green waters of its wide moat, the picturesque castle is already besieged by tour buses at this early hour. Later in the day, it will be overwhelmed by massive numbers of visitors, who will strip the shops of souvenirs and fill camera memory cards with pictures.
However, the castle is not all it seems. Beneath the ancient-looking façade is a concrete frame, dating to 1931. With the original destroyed by fire in both the 17th and late 19th centuries, the design was based on paintings found on folding screens. It was damaged again during World War II bombing and had another major restoration in 1995.
“The castle has been rebuilt so many times, visitors wonder what is authentic, like the Ship of Theseus,” says a British-educated friend, local businessman Hiromi Tanaka. “We see no contradiction as its essence remains the same. A ruined castle is the European Romantic ideal, not a Japanese one. And Osaka is a business-like place. Unlike Tokyo, we like to get things done.” He laughs.
The sense of humor is another major feature that supposedly makes Osaka stand out from the capital. Manzai, Japan’s popular style of double-act stand-up comedy originates here and the musical local Osaka-ben dialect now seems almost obligatory for a Japanese comedian. “[Osaka-born] Kitano ‘Beat’ Takeshi started life as half of a manzai act,” says Hiromi. “After films like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Sonatine, he is considered to be a serious actor and director abroad, but he is still remembered as a great, and often very crude, comic here.”
Takeshi’s now-presumed wealth is another characteristic that people from Osaka are labeled with. “We are thought to be very money-minded and practical,” says Hiromi. “Osaka has a better climate than Tokyo, so it is a farming region and farmers are practical people. But people from Tokyo say we greet each other here with ‘Mokkari-makka (Are you making money)?’ – which is nonsense. We say ‘How are you?’ like anywhere else.”
One other difference is very real: in Tokyo people stand on the left on escalators; in Osaka it is on the right, with people walking on the left. No one really knows why but, since people in crowded Japan tend to keep to their left on the sidewalks, the abrupt change on the Tokyo escalators is the oddity. “Maybe it reflects that keeping walking is the norm in Osaka, while standing still is the Tokyo preference,” says Hiromi. “I told you we like to get things done.” He laughs again.
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