Tsuruhashi, home of ‘exotic’ Korea in Osaka

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — You can always tell when your train reaches Tsuruhashi Station. Unlike the other, mostly nondescript, stops on the JR Osaka Loop Line, the district has an atmosphere, flavor and aroma that makes it one of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods.

Tsuruhashi is the historic and cultural home to one of the largest populations of Korean residents in Japan.

As visitors exit the station, the smell of kimchi, “yakiniku” (grilled beef) and other Korean delicacies hangs in the air. Walking through the Korean food stalls, one can hear Korean almost as often as Japanese, while seeing the occasional sign in hangul.

Nearly 20,000 Koreans live in Tsuruhashi, and 50,000 live in Ikuno Ward, of which Tsuruhashi is a part. Although exact figures are not available, district merchants and officials of the pro-Seoul Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) says Japanese visitors have increased in recent years.

At a time when many Korean residents of Japan, especially third- and fourth-generation Koreans, are taking Japanese citizenship because of a desire to blend in, many young Japanese have, in Tsuruhashi, been discovering the “exotic” Korea.

Osaka officials, recognizing the business potential of Tsuruhashi, have in recent years included the area in tourist brochures, touting it as a symbol of local ties with the Korean Peninsula.

Such official promotions have received mixed reactions in the district, which became a Korean cultural hub around the 1920s when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. Japan was rapidly urbanizing and in need of thousands of laborers to work at factories and businesses, so many Koreans were brought to Japan, often forcibly.

“For decades, Osaka wanted nothing to do with Tsuruhashi. Its presence was an embarrassment to officials and to Japanese who discriminated against Koreans. Now, suddenly, the city is claiming it as part of Osaka culture. It’s strange,” said Kimiko Hamaguchi, a Japanese resident of Tsuruhashi who runs a coffee shop. “Still, if the added attention helps Tsuruhashi economically, then perhaps it might lead to social changes as well, and help Koreans in their fight for social justice and recognition.”