Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Tokyo is big, Kyoto is polite, but Osaka's for the Scots

by William Lang

Contributing Writer

“That’s Japan out there,” said a local drinker in an Osakan izakaya, a Japanese-style bar. With a dismissive wave of his hand he gestured outside, indicating the rest of the country beyond his hometown. “This, however, is Osaka.”

I had just recently arrived in Japan from Glasgow, Scotland. I was chatting about the differences I had found between its customs and those of Japan, which I had made a quick tour of.

“Forget what you found in Tokyo and Kyoto,” the drinker said. “We do things differently in Osaka.”

He seemed none too friendly toward the political decision-makers in Tokyo, who he felt ignored Osaka. Nor was he keen on people from Kyoto, whose speech he felt was too indirect and full of affected politeness.

“Do you know how someone from Kyoto asks a guest who has overstayed their welcome to leave?” he asked. “They ask them if they would like another cup of tea. Can you believe that?”

I had just committed to living in Osaka. I immediately felt right at home. This was exactly the sort of alcohol-infused complaint you could find in a pub on a Friday night in Glasgow: “Those greedy politicians in London couldn’t even find us on a map. And don’t get me started on Edinburgh, with its Castle and its Festival.”

In Osaka, I found a working-class city with few airs and graces and a chip on its shoulder — just like home.

Each area has its own local customs, its own distinct character. Osaka’s famously vibrant food culture and mercantile past have marked its character with openness and its dialect with an irreverent humour. These set it apart from the political hub of Tokyo, and the culturally traditional hub of Kyoto.

Takumi Kanai is an Osakan, who has run izakaya in both Osaka and Tokyo. He has had to deal first-hand with the differences between cultures and dialects.

“When I first opened an izakaya in Tokyo, I remember going to a greengrocer to buy supplies,” he says. “I wanted some herbs to place on top of a dish of chopped radish. I asked the greengrocer for some ‘ōba,‘ which was a word in common use in Osaka. The guy just stared and said that he didn’t understand. I hadn’t realized that the word for a bunch of shiso leaves hadn’t caught on in Tokyo at that time.”

I have had my own chance to compare Osaka to other areas in Japan, having tried life in Kyoto and Tokyo, too. For a while I commuted daily from Osaka to Kobe. While on the train I would take out a textbook and study Japanese. Other passengers would often strike up a conversation: “Oh, you’re learning Japanese! Can you speak Osaka dialect?”

After moving to Tokyo, I had a daily commute of similar distance to a town in Saitama. I again passed the time by taking out a Japanese textbook and studying. On this route, however, nobody ever struck up a conversation.

“We call that ‘itcho kami‘ in Osaka dialect,” says Kanai. “It means the tendency to poke your nose into anything or anyone’s business that you feel like. You get that a lot in Osaka. People in Tokyo are much more stand-offish.”

Of course, this frankness and openness common to both Osaka and Glasgow has its downside, too. I remember several clear instances in Osaka when people showed open hostility because I was an outsider. For instance, a different local izakaya owner told me that they did not have any beer when I asked for one, even though there was a line of old men drinking beer at the counter. I have hardly ever encountered similar problems while living in Kyoto or Tokyo. In an open and frank culture, people are more likely to be very nice to you, and also more likely to be brazenly nasty to you as well. Whether you like the frankness or would prefer the reserve of Tokyo or politeness of Kyoto depends on your own personality.

I met Kanai recently for dinner in Tokyo. Although he is 30 years older we managed to become friends through his izakaya. I know which Japanese city’s atmosphere suits me best. Quiet trains and unfailingly polite hosts have their own charms, but scatter my ashes into Osaka’s Dotonbori Canal when I am gone.