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Nagoya: The most boring city in Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

At a meeting of city leaders last Monday, the mayor of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, expressed annoyance with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That same day, Abe had opened a new session of the Diet by touching on the issue of regional revitalization in his usual general policy speech; he said that the central government would fully address the problem by making Tokyo and Osaka “the main hubs.” Kawamura was miffed that Nagoya, which he called the “biggest money-making region” in Japan owing to its proximity to a large number of major manufacturers, had been “skipped over” by Abe.

“It’s no longer a joke that Nagoya is considered a place people don’t want to visit,” he said.

As far as Nagoya being a joke goes, Kawamura has no one to blame but himself. After all, it was the city of Nagoya that conducted an unfavorable survey last summer among residents of eight “key cities” to determine which were the most appealing as travel destinations. Nagoya came in last in almost every category, but what people found hilarious was that the respective residents of each city surveyed picked their own hometowns as their favorites except for Nagoya’s, who chose theirs as the third favorite, behind Kyoto and Tokyo.

The media had a field day with the results, saying that if the survey was supposed to generate some sort of PR benefits, it had obviously backfired. The weekly magazine Shukan Post parsed the results and concluded that most people’s view of Nagoyans was that they are “conniving, stingy, vain and unsophisticated.” Another weekly, Shukan Playboy, used the poll to fortify an article about how Nagoya’s professional sports teams had done so poorly this year by pointing out that Nagoya has become famous as “the city with nothing to offer.” Playboy’s assistant editor told the Asahi Shimbun that Nagoya is the gold standard of “a place people like to make fun of,” but “it’s not really bullying” to say so because he didn’t think residents took it all that seriously.

Maybe that’s because people who live in Nagoya have bought into the general prejudice that their city’s vibe is more rustic than urban, especially with regard to “attractions” that visitors might be interested in. Their No. 1 response to that question was “nothing,” followed by Nagoya Castle and local cuisine.

Kawamura, who obviously has prejudices of his own, may try to make something out of that response. Ever since being elected in 2009, one of his primary aims has been to rebuild the Nagoya Castle keep in wood, thus restoring it to its original condition. (The keep was rebuilt with concrete after the war.) He says that Nagoya contains no “government-approved historical sites,” but first he needs to convince the people that they should spend ¥50 billion on the castle. Initially, he wanted to complete the project by 2020, when Japan would be buzzing with tourists for the Tokyo Olympics, but the city assembly is aiming for 2026, when Aichi Prefecture hosts an Asian sports tournament, or 2027, when the high-speed maglev train is slated to connect Nagoya to Tokyo.

Asahi thinks the mayor’s obsession with the castle has less to do with attracting tourists than with providing a source of pride for his constituents, and in that regard he may end up being disappointed. Nagoya’s most impressive traits are its wide roads, extensive port facilities and business savvy — all functions of an indelible commercial mindset. Even more than Osaka, Nagoya is a dedicated merchant town and every other consideration is of secondary importance, including tourism. The problem with the assembly pinning its distant hope on the maglev train is that, most likely, it will send more travelers from Nagoya to Tokyo than vice versa.

With such a mindset, it’s easier to put up with outsiders’ derisive opinions of your city, but, in truth, those opinions are fairly recent. Most of the media who covered the ignominious survey results point out that “Nagoya-bashing” was invented by TV personality Tamori back in the 1980s, when he constantly harped on the city’s in-between status and attendant lack of distinction. He insisted Nagoyans had an inferiority complex and tried to make up for it by boosting a regional cuisine that was lacking in subtlety: deep fried shrimp, cutlets slathered in rich sauce and cloying stews. He also made fun of the Nagoya dialect, which became the default accent of humiliation for comedians.

As for Shukan Post’s insinuation that Nagoyans are not particularly big-hearted, it should be pointed out that their neighbors to the west in the Kansai region have a similar reputation. One of the year’s best-sellers is a book called “Kyoto-girai” (“Hating Kyoto”), which investigates the ancient capital’s infamous snobbery, especially toward the tourists who enrich it. Osakans are considered even more money-grubbing than Nagoyans. But for some reason neither of these traits hurt Kyoto or Osaka in the survey — Kyoto came in first and Osaka third.

The most obvious explanation is that Kyoto and Osaka have charms that outweigh the peccadilloes of their inhabitants, and while they may look down on outsiders, they also actively court them. Nagoyans don’t, which may make them lazy or cold but also less hypocritical. Kawamura recognizes this as a problem, which is why he thinks he needs to give his people something they can be proud of, but he’s missing the point: They’ve got one of the most vibrant regional economies in Japan — they don’t need to be liked.

Years ago I lived in Nagoya and thought it was a great city, but I understand the general outside attitude toward its residents, what with their ostentatious wedding customs and big cars. My landlord was a proper, well-to-do woman who demanded tribute in the form of an exorbitant cleaning deposit, which she tried to retain when I moved out, even though I left the place in better shape than when I moved in. When I tell my Japanese friends that story, they always say, “That sounds like Nagoya” — but none as emphatically as the Nagoyans themselves.