Last weekend I went to Osaka for a few days to catch up with some old friends, do a little shopping and visit my favourite ramen place. When I told one of my co-workers where I was going he got visibly excited, “I’m from Osaka! Osaka people are funny and friendly, not like Tokyo people. You will have fun!” And he was right, I did have fun. But this conversation got me thinking; where do Japanese peoples’ ideas of one another come from?
Every Japanese person knows the stereotypes about how different one region’s people are from another. Tokyo people are supposedly formal, obedient and cold. Osakans are funny and friendly, but also somewhat crude and uncouth. Depending on who you speak to Kyoto people are seen as sophisticated or pretentious, whereas those from Shikoku are sometimes labelled as rural hicks or country bumpkins.
Of course stereotypes are nothing more than broad categorizations of people, and for every person that fits the stereotype there are many that don’t. However misleading these labels are though, they continue to be said and used all over Japan. So where do they come from?
Some stereotypes clearly stem from current cultural trends. The idea that Tokyo people are too straight laced and stressed out comes from the idea that Tokyo, as a huge metropolis filled with some of Japan’s most successful companies, is also filled with some of the country’s busiest and most serious workers. Similarly, the stereotype that Osaka people are all fun loving people comes in part from the dominance of the city on Japan’s comedy circuit.
Japan’s most successful comedians all hail from Osaka or the Kansai area. Even if they aren’t from the area originally, many comedians choose to adopt the Kansai way of speaking so as not to stick out. No wonder the country as a whole thinks Osakans are the funniest!
As much as today’s culture clearly influences regional stereotypes, events of the past have also influenced the development of specific labels. Kyoto people are said to have an air of sophistication or even superiority, and there is no doubt that people say this because of its historical position as the centre of Japanese culture. Kyoto was once the home of Japan’s royal family and society at the time gravitated around it accordingly, meaning Kyoto was the birth place of many of Japan’s traditions and cultural characteristics; something Kyoto people are rightly proud of but which may explain their stereotype.
Returning to Osaka and Tokyo, each city’s unique history may also hold some of the basis for their current stereotypes. In the past, Tokyo was the political center of Japan. It was dominated by Samurai culture; a culture based on formality and respect. Osaka meanwhile, became the trading and commercial center of the country. This difference may have influenced the two cities’ stereotypes; Tokyo people may be associated with following rules and being straight laced because they would have been during the samurai period, whereas Osaka, a place slightly freer of the samurai influence and more geared towards making money, has become known for being more unruly.
Similarly it is history rather than the present that encourages the stereotype that people from Shikoku are country hicks. The idea that Shikoku people are uneducated or uninformed probably comes more from the fact that historically Shikoku was isolated from the main cultural centers of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, than it does from any evidence of backwardness in the present day.
This brings us on to the importance of Geography. Okinawans are often referred to, and refer to themselves, as sunny warm people mainly because of the difference in their climate compared to the rest of Japan. Similarly, people from the north of Japan, be it Hokkaido or Iwate, are invariably referred to as tough because of the colder weather they have to endure.
Geography impacts stereotypes in other ways. Saitama is sometimes cruelly referred to as ‘Dasaitama’, a play on words that implies the city’s people are uncouth, vulgar and unsophisticated. The reason for this though probably has more to do with its proximity to Tokyo and the rivalry between the two cities, than it does with the people of Saitama itself.
Japan’s regional stereotypes have developed for all sorts of reasons. Whether it’s through history, geography or current day culture, each region seems to have developed its own personality. Some are positive and some less so, and whilst it would be a bad idea to judge anyone based on the stereotypes of the city they come from, each label can help us to uncover and understand Japan’s regional differences.
So if you know any other region’s stereotype, and why they are said to be like this, please add it in the comments section so that we can all uncover a little more of Japan’s varied personality.