The Kansai Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe region is a political, cultural, and economic power center at constant odds with the Eastern power center of Tokyo-Yokohama, which together with the central power center of Nagoya constitute around 1/2 of Japan’s population. Whereas Tokyo has been a political power center in Japan since before the Edo, or Tokugawa period (1600-1868), and has only become a force of industrial and cultural output since the postwar period, Osaka traditionally held cultural and economic hegemony. Osaka’s contemporary role in Japanese culture is a still a strong one however.

Within the East-West divide that is the Tokyo-Osaka binary, Tokyoites are more traditionally prone to hierarchy and formalism in interpersonal relations, whereas in Osaka these relations are expressed by informality and pragmatic modes of relationality. Genki desu ka (How are you?) is a formal way to ask how one is doing in Tokyo and linguistically similar regions, but a popular mode of address in the historically profit-motivated Osaka is mokkari-makka (you making money?).

Kyoto, although just a 20 minute ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Osaka, is considerally different than these other two areas. Kyoto is surrounded on three sides by Mountains and was therefore allowed to develop its own idiosyncratic cultural habits like those of Tokyo and Osaka. The dialect in Kyoto is Kansai wherein many words and phrases are different from those in the Tokyo and Osaka-ben dialects. Whereas Tokyoites are typically described as formalistic and hierarchical (historically speaking), and Osakans are more profit-motivated, Kyotoites are less committed to social relationships, tend to intervene in other’s matters less often, and generally believe in freedom to do as one wishes within the broadly-conceived confines of what is and is not acceptable in Kyoto culture.

The city is large, but is dwarfed by the megalopolis of Tokyo (which has a GDP similar to that of the nation of India and only slightly less than the economic powerhouse of Brazil). The Kyoto tower is the tallest structure in Kyoto, and very few buildings come close to its height due to city restrictions on the building height. The Western Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto area houses Japan’s largest percentage of ethnic Koreans (around 1/3 of the total Japanese population in Kyoto alone) and 80% of Burakumin (Japan’s historical “unclean” or outcaste) reside in this western region. Kyoto is known as the”Walking city”. It seems there are nearly as many pedestrians, bikes, mopeds, and motorcycles as there are cars in the city and bike shops are ubiquitous.

Cultural differences between Tokyo and the Kansai region display a minute level of the true cultural differentiation in Japan. However, in a country constituted by not only Honshu, but the 1871 addition of predominately mountainous and ethnically Ainu Hokkaido, the 1972 addition of the Okinawan ryukuyu isalnds, mountain cultures, fishing cultures who historically lived on the sea in houseboats (efune), and large minority populations Korean, outcaste, indigenous, and denizens of mixed racial ancestry one can only expect to find many more differences. And by the way, if you learn Tokyoite Japanese, have fun trying to communicate in the southern islands, northern Honshu, or Hokkaido.

Sugimoto: Intoduction to Japanese culture


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