Groovy Osaka: Kansai versus Kanto
Living in Japan is a unique experience, but each region of Japan is an experience unto itself. Each region has its own personality and flavor, and each expat has their own take on it. The Kansai region, which includes Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, and Kobe, differs considerably from the capital region of Kanto in almost every way, aside from both being large Japanese metropolitan regions.
When talking with Kansai expats about their adopted region, the topic inevitably turns to food. Kansai food is famous throughout Japan, but is rarely done well outside its borders. Yes, convenience stores and certain chain restaurants sell takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and kushi katsu all over Japan, but regional changes or a poor understanding of how to cook them make the Kansai originals stand out.
Kansai residents are very particular about their sauces, and foreign residents tend to support the strong flavors. That being said, many expats are divided on horumon (ホルモン), or offal. In Kansai, you can find many yattai food stands and small intimate bars selling every variety of grilled guts, but perhaps it is an acquired taste.
It should be noted that while street food is stronger in Kansai than it is in Kanto, the traditional dishes such as udon and soba are actually a bit weaker. Some residents cite water quality as the primary factor, but Kansai typically uses a clear light broth while Kanto typically uses a stronger darker broth.
One thing that expats universally love and hate about Kansai is the dialect. International programs in Kansai, like the one at Kansai Gaidai University, teach standard Japanese and not the local variant. Yes, learning a standard is a great idea. No matter where you go, everyone will understand you.
However, if you live in Kansai, you may not be able to understand the locals when they reply to you. Between dropping particles, dropping entire syllables, shortening grammar, adding melodic intonation, and overusing those repetitious slang or onomatopoeic words, the Kansai dialect can confuse even native speakers of Japanese.
However, if you are like me and many other expats who find that standard Japanese can be a mouthful, Kansai dialect is a great alternative. Long grammar structures like “-nakerebanarimasen” become short pronounceable phrases like “-naakan.” Always conflicted about which particle to use? Just drop them.
While some Kanto natives may turn their noses at the Kansai dialect, many more people are fascinated by it and find it particularly friendly when spoken by foreigners. Expats unanimously agree that Japanese people, regardless of location, are more likely to take them seriously if they use a non-standard, or non-Kanto, dialect. If you are speaking in Japanese to a Japanese person who refuses to acknowledge that you are indeed speaking Japanese, switching to the Kansai dialect has been known to break through the wall of ignorance.
Kansai is famous, or perhaps infamous, for the types of people who live there. Larger than life and passionate in every way, the stereotypical Kansai person is just as overly friendly as they are overly offensive. This directly corresponds with the Kansai type of comedy, which is characterized by its slap stick silliness, somewhat inappropriate gags, and their straightforward criticisms of Kansai life and stereotypes.
Comedy is certainly not limited to the comedy groups and manzai duo acts. Everyday citizens are typically good natured and will run with most spontaneous jokes. One of the most famous gags is pointing at passersby with your hand pointed like a gun and yelling, “BANG!”
While Kanto people tend to skirt away, most Kansai folk will play along. There are also those who embrace certain stereotypes as they age. Kansai’s fearless old lady obahans with their outrageously dyed hair and loud animal print shirts have even inspired an AKB48-style obahan idol group.
This is not to say that all Kansai people follow the stereotypes. Tokyo, stereotyped as being colder, certainly has its share of warm and friendly people. In fact, most cities in Japan have residents who hail from every region of Japan, so stereotyping city populations is often problematic.
However, many expats agree that some of the Kansai stereotypes are intentionally played into and embraced as regional pride.
Activities, Jobs, and Economics
While Kansai gets many favorable reviews by expats, it does lack the variety offered by Kanto. Living in Kansai is fairly cheaper than Kanto, but the types of jobs are limited in variety and number. There are more clubs, concerts, and activities geared towards the international crowd in the capital region than in Kansai.
I have to admit that I love Kansai, and that most of the Kansai expats I talked to also love Kansai. Why wouldn’t we love the region we chose as our home? However, there are plenty of people who have lived in both places and prefer the variety offered by Kanto. There are also those who live in Kanto but miss Kansai. It really depends on what works for you and what you want out of your time in Japan.