Osaka is easily one of my favorite places in Japan — up until early in the 20th century, it was actually the largest city in Japan (and the bombings it experienced during World War II certainly didn’t help it). What’s perhaps more interesting than its size, though, was its traditional clout: back during the feudal era, the merchant town of Naniwa (its name at the time) was enough of an economic powerhouse that, to no small extent, the city just ignored the shogunate government in Edo (now Tokyo).
Because of its history as a city built on and around business, rather than, say, politics and governance (Edo/Tokyo or Kyoto) or culture (Kanazawa), Osaka developed a reputation for… well, for everything that a city with lots of money and nobody to really answer to would develop a reputation for. In particular, Osaka became a center for both food and entertainment, in addition to commerce.
Even today, Osaka’s place in modern Japanese culture leans heavily toward the entertainment industry. The National Bunraku Theatre, dedicated to bunraku puppetry, is located in Osaka, rather than Tokyo as one might expect of a “national” anything.
Of course, more than highbrow entertainment, Osaka is closely associated with lowbrow popular entertainment. It’s widely regarded as that place you go if you’re an aspiring comedian, and rumor has it that people will even cultivate an Osaka accent as a way to make their way into the comedy world.1 This focus on comedy and showmanship has become a fundamental part of Osaka’s character — I’ve said on numerous occasions, half-jokingly, that while your stereotypical Tokyo resident might want nothing more than to drift, ghostlike and unnoticed, from public transit to their office and back every day for forty years, then retire to the country, the stereotypical Osaka resident doesn’t so much believe as simply knows that they will one day be on TV, so it’s crucial to keep in practice every single day.
This can be seen in parts of casual Osaka culture like nori-tsukkomi, which is essentially an extension of straight man/funny man comedy duo dynamics, where, for example, someone might ask for a bottle opener to open a bottle of beer, in response to which someone might hand them, say, a wrench, and say “here you go.” The proper response to something like this in Osaka is to play along for a moment, pretending to use the wrench (or whatever) as a “bottle opener,” after which point the norm is to react in an exaggeratedly exasperated way to the fact that no, of course it’s not a bottle opener.2
One fun thing about this deep cultural emphasis on comedy is its effect on local marketing:
A billboard for a dental clinic. The headline at the top reads, in a thick Osaka accent, “Do you want to get your teeth drilled, or don’t you?” The message below the picture says, “If you don’t want to get your teeth drilled, then take precautions [to prevent cavities]!”
The Osaka police also have some really great marketing as well:
“Even if you can’t transform, you can still be an ally of justice.”
“Ideal job candidate.” (The copy underneath the picture reads, “For people who want to preserve their sense of justice.”)
- Interestingly, so far as I’m aware, this particular phenomenon isn’t necessarily limited to Japan: I seem to recall having heard a long time ago of a comedian being given advice by a mentor, who told them to, among other things, work to develop at least a hint of a southern US accent. ↩
- This comes directly from a fantastic episode of the TV show Himitsu no Kenmin Show, a show about unique local differences in various regions of Japan that the locals are often unaware aren’t universal. The example given happened with a hidden camera at a restaurant (and actually kept going), where the waiter would bring out a bottle of beer without an opener, and bring out silly things when customers asked for an opener. Osaka has such a uniquely straightforward and showmanship-oriented culture that Kenmin Show has a segment on it practically every week, with the occasional comparison to how people in Tokyo would react to something like responding to a waitress’s “Have you decided what you’d like?” with “Your phone number” (the answer: with a terrified stony silence descending around the entire table, instead of a laugh and/or a clearly fake response like 110, Japan’s emergency number), or how casually people in Osaka ask about one another’s salary or rent (“It’s like asking someone, ‘Did you watch Kenmin Show last night? What’s your rent?’ Same feeling.”). ↩