Nagoya takes on Osaka

by Eric Johnston

Psst! Heard about the hottest “new” place in Japan? The city that’s rapidly gaining a national reputation for being at the cutting edge of women’s fashion and is, perhaps, the country’s most vibrant economic center?

Welcome to Nagoya. Yes, that’s right. Nagoya. No, it’s not just a gray urban blight upon the landscape that you pass through on the shinkansen on your way to some place more interesting.

After years of being the butt of many jokes, ugly duckling Nagoya is transforming, albeit slowly, into a swan — with a local economy that is doing well, and with a growing civic pride that has optimists convinced that Nagoya may one day be the second-most important city in Japan.

But don’t tell that to Osakans, unless you want to get into a long, and sometimes heated, debate. Nagoya, they are quick point out, is too small, too provincial and completely lacking in important history or culture to become a serious rival.

Maybe. But Osakans aren’t as confident as they were a few years ago.

“Nagoya is energetic, Osaka is tired.” Over the past year in particular, commentators familiar with both cities have used this phrase to describe the difference not only in economics, but also in basic attitudes in the two cities.

While dismissing the rivalry as nothing more than media hype, Osaka officials are now less likely to hide their irritation, and sometimes concern, when asked about the “new” Nagoya. Nagoya officials, on the other hand, don’t hesitate — politely and quietly in most cases — to offer reasons why Nagoya could eventually overtake Osaka as Japan’s second city.

So how do the two cities measure up against each other?

Academics, pseudo-academics and just plain partisan supporters of each town offer reams of statistics to support their arguments. But here are some reasons that, if less analytical, are arguably more profound and give a better sense of how the two cities differ.

Attitudes toward money

“Nagoya people hate debt and love saving money. Osaka people are gamblers by nature.” That is something one often hears in Nagoya.

In the book “Nagoya-jin,” a group of Nagoya-based writers note that many people in Nagoya start saving money when they are as young as 16. In Osaka, by contrast, an easygoing attitude toward debt means the percentage of personal and corporate bankruptcies there is among the highest in the nation.

In the wake of the bubble economy’s collapse in the early 1990s, these differing basic attitudes have, economists and others say, ultimately hurt Osaka and helped Nagoya. A refusal to run up huge local government debts in particular has made it easier for Nagoya to turn things around, while Osaka struggled, and continues to struggle, with some of the highest local government debt in the nation.

Fashion sense

Osakans are noted for fashions that are either “interesting” or “loud,” depending on your taste. For those who like to wear polyester, shocking-pink dresses and lime-green suits, Osaka is the place to be seen.

Nagoya’s fashion tastes, on the other hand, are either “conservative” or “dowdy,” once again depending on your taste. But for a large number of people nationwide, conservative fashions are now back in style.

In short, the thinking goes, Osaka fashions were appropriate for the bubble-economy years, but the Nagoya style is considered more hip and trendy these days.

The exception to this rule for women is the “Nagoya curl” hairstyle, which was supposedly invented by a stylist in central Nagoya and has become something of a national trend.

A cynic might suggest there is also an “Osaka curl” hairstyle. Think punch perms for yakuza gang members. No question as to which hair style today’s trendy young women prefer.


The authors of “Nagoya-jin” note that it is common for mothers to give their daughters hand-me-down brand-name items bought at discount stores. Likewise, they note, Nagoya people tend to walk slowly through the streets because they are always on the lookout for bargains.

Osakans, by contrast, will spend a small fortune on the latest brand-name item and then take it or wear it to a cheap restaurant or bar. A recent survey by a fashion magazine showed that if given 100,000 yen to spend on either a new brand-name item or a trip abroad, nearly two-thirds of Osaka women under the age of 25 would choose the brand-name item.


Osaka is renowned for its takoyaki (octopus-based snacks) and okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), and Osakans firmly believe they inhabit Japan’s gourmet capital. Nagoya, on the other hand, is famous for its Nagoya-style broiled eel, its miso and, apparently, for its ramen tea shops, especially the Sugakiya chain.

Here, you can order a full-course lunch, which includes a small fruit bowl as an appetizer, a bowl of ramen and dessert.

You be the judge of which city deserves (if it does) the title of gourmet capital of Japan.

As for non-Japanese cuisine, even Nagoya people admit Osaka is streets ahead, as it has hundreds of ethnic, especially Asian, restaurants that offer authentic fare.

There is one exception. With its large population of Brazilians and Japanese-Brazilians working in the local auto industry, some foreign residents say that Nagoya is now the best place — not only in Japan but the whole of Asia — to find genuine Brazilian fare.

Openness toward outsiders

Here, Osakans proclaim loudly that they are far more open than Nagoya to outside ideas and foreign visitors and residents. Osaka businessmen have long considered Kyoto and Nagoya as the two most closed cities in Japan for outsiders to do business.

Westerners, at least those who live in Nagoya and know both cities, tend to side with Osaka on this. Nagoya may be a Japanese-media hot-spot right now, as well as a growing darling of the international financial press due to its tight fiscal policy, but long-term Western residents of Nagoya say all this obscures the fact that Nagoya is a very closed and conservative factory town, run by a half dozen industries with Toyota at the top, and is not particularly welcoming to outsiders.

Osaka, by contrast, constantly reminds newcomers of its long history of trade with China and Korea, and proclaims that this has led to Osaka being a far more tolerant place.

Human-rights groups acknowledge that it is rare, compared with Nagoya or even Tokyo, to hear about foreigners in Osaka being denied housing, access to restaurants or clubs, or suffering other overt forms of discrimination.

It is also true that Nagoya and its surrounding environs have had high-profile cases of racial discrimination, and there have been reports of restaurants using “entrance fees” to keep out unwanted foreign customers.

In short, Nagoya and Osaka are cities that are proud of their individual traits, especially as both have had to struggle in the past with negative images in a country where a Tokyo-centric view of Japan dominates.

So, for those seeking the truth, forget about what you read in the media, including this article. Instead, just hop on a train, or plane, and check out both cities to decide which is your No. 1.

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