The City: Osaka

By Swarup, Vikas | Newsweek International, September 17, 2012 | Go to article overview
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The City: Osaka

Swarup, Vikas, Newsweek International

Byline: Vikas Swarup

Vikas Swarup captures the spirit of Japan's vital, vibrant heart.

Princess Toyotomi, a 2011 Japanese film, centers on the audacious conspiracy theory that for 400 years Osaka, Japan's third-largest city, has been secretly operating as an independent country headquartered beneath the real-life Osaka castle.

While the Japanese would consider the idea of a sovereign Osakan state hilarious, there is no denying that Osaka is the most idiosyncratic city in Japan, with its own dialect, its original brand of humor, its distinct food culture, and above all, its warm and unpretentious people.

The city itself is not particularly touristy. Three years ago, when I first rode into Osaka from Kansai International Airport, I was greeted by a tangled maze of elevated highways, high rises, and treeless neighborhoods dotted with pachinko parlors and giant Ferris wheels. The concrete harshness of the urban jungle was softened somewhat by the network of waterways deriving from the four rivers that traverse the city, but Osaka seemed to have neither the cosmopolitan grace of Tokyo nor the cultured romanticism of Kyoto. Yet, as I subsequently discovered, it has something far more vital and vibrant, exemplified by the Osaka obachans, or "aunties." These fun-loving, spirited women with a penchant for jaguar-patterned clothes and hunting for bargains in packs, defy the stereotypical image of Japan as reserved, straitlaced, and conformist. Many of them love chatting and gossiping, and carry candies simply to give to total strangers as a way of initiating contact. They create that much-needed sense of community in an impersonal metropolis, making Osaka both big city and small town.

Unlike Tokyo and Kyoto, which prided themselves as seats of shoguns and emperors, Osaka has always been a city of citizens. The culture of merchants and commoners rather than of the samurai class flourished in Osaka, typified by the Osakan greeting Mokkari makka, "Are you making money?" In the late 16th century, the city rose to prominence as Japan's main commercial entrepot, a distribution hub from where essential goods were sent all over the country. It was the site of the world's first futures market during the Edo Period and became an innovation and manufacturing giant in the early 20th century, earning the epithet of Manchester of the East, until Tokyo usurped its position as the economic center of Japan after World War II.

Osaka, however, still retains its status as the food capital of the country.

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