We’re pretty rude — and we don’t care

by Kenzo Moriguchi

OSAKA — Forget the phrase “Excuse me.” Here in Osaka, nobody’s going to excuse you, much less give you a second thought. Besides, if you’ve been raised with, say, English manners, you’d have to say “Excuse me” a million times a day.

Don’t expect drivers to give you the right of way at a crosswalk or anywhere else. Even when the road is congested, traffic is moving at a snail’s pace and you’re already three steps into the zebra stripes, an Osaka driver will just swerve around you as if you were simply another obstacle in his way.

Even on the sidewalk, you can’t afford to let your guard down. Bicycles whisk past on both sides, from both directions, at a frantic pace, either with no warning at all or signaled by a continuous, impatient ringing of the bike bell.

If one of these bikers causes damage to your bag, consider yourself lucky. If you’re careless enough to break your beeline on the pavement without first checking for two-wheeled traffic, you might end up in need of a few stitches yourself.

Everybody knows the stereotype. Osakans come first and pull no punches — no apologies. But not everybody has stopped to wonder why. Koichi Otani, professor emeritus of the faculty of humanities at Tezukayama Gakuin University, has devoted his career to exploring this question. So what can he tell us?

Since the Tokugawa Period, Osaka has been a city of merchants, and as such, says Otani, it has fostered a society of competition. The faster Osakans move, the sooner they get to where they’re going. The less mind they pay to others, the more likely they are to win out over them in competition.

Even after the most successful companies began moving to Tokyo, Otani says, Osaka’s competitive spirit did not ease but became even more fierce, reflecting the increased rivalry among the small and medium-size companies left behind.

“Yes, Osakans are greedy and mean if you speak ill of them,” says Otani, 77, who founded an Osaka studies course at the university and taught it from 1988 until last March. “But that’s what is required to be successful in business.”

Today’s Osakans have inherited their merchant forebears’ business mind-set and developed it into a whole paradigm of social interaction.

“What comes first for Osaka people is whether or not something is profitable,” Otani says, “unlike for Tokyo people, who tend to take morals into consideration.

“For example, the 20th of every month is designated ‘No My Car Day’ by the Osaka Prefectural Government. On this day, drivers are asked to [leave their private cars at home] and use public transportation to ease the city’s traffic. However, a typical Osakan would think, ‘Well, it’s No My Car Day today, there may be less traffic, so I should take advantage of it and drive today.’

“It turns out that more people drive their cars [on No My Car Day than nondesignated days], making traffic even worse.”

But don’t expect anyone on those congested roads to be cowering in shame — if anything, they might be complaining all the louder. According to Otani, Osakans are Japan’s ultimate individualists and rationalists: The reason they can be so loud and rude is that they don’t care how others perceive them.

Unlike many people who hide behind their tatemae social mask, Osakans wear their honne inner selves on their sleeves. And unlike their more “sophisticated” counterparts in the nation’s capital who reign in their feelings for the sake of others, Osakans can only — and can’t help but — express their “genuine emotions,” says Otani. By means of example, he had this story to share:

“When the Hanshin Tigers beat the Yakult Swallows at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium to clinch the 1985 Central League pennant, home-team supporters celebrated the Tigers’ victory with a banner that said ‘Congratulations — but the Swallows will take next season.’

“When the Swallows won the league title at the Tigers’ Koshien Stadium in 1992, Hanshin fans yelled at the visiting team, ‘Bastards, get lost!’ ”