“You despise me, don’t you Rick?” says Peter Lorre’s Ugarte to Humphrey Bogart’s Richard Blaine in Casablanca. “If I gave you any thought I probably would,” replies Bogart dismissively, deflating his presumed rival.
The exchange is reminiscent of the regional rivalry that divides Eastern Japan (Kanto and Tokyo) and Western Japan (Kansai and Osaka). Tokyo has four times as many people as Osaka and, as may be heard around Kansai, thinks it represents Japan. To Kanto, if they are forced to deal with Osakans at all, they will typically think them a coarser, more money-hungry lot. It is mostly a friendly rivalry but things were not always so tonque-in-cheek.
Kansai is where Japan coalesced from a collection of feudal societies into a modern-looking city-state developed around a sophisticated commercial system and trading centre. The traditional home of the Emperor of Japan was in Kansai for over 1000 years. In 1868 the government seat moved to Tokyo and the fracture between the two regions began to appear.
Tokyo was ruled by the samurai warriors while Osaka remained the home of wheeler and dealer merchants. The samurai would evolve into button-downed government bureaucrats in the 20th century loath to challenge the strict rules of society that they were brought up to represent. In Osaka meanwhile, only about 10 percent chose the samurai lifestyle and the remainder chafed against increasing national regulations that targeted their business-fueled lifestyles.
In Osaka, the common greeting on the street was not “Konnichiwa” (hello) but “Mokarimakka” (are you making any money?). The carryover of this attitude can be seen today. It is not unusual for an Osaka-based company to be successful in Tokyo but the reverse is much-less common. The usual explanation is that businesses of Tokyo origin are often used to their dealings being entwined with the government and they can struggle in the free-spirited Kansai marketplace.
The cultural divide between the two region manifests itself across everyday life. Riding an escalator in Japan? In Kanto, stand on the left side. In Kansai, stand on the right. It’s something about samurai preferring to approach strangers from the left to keep their sword hands ready while Osakan merchants would prefer to keep their wallets away from the flow of traffic.
Walking the big city streets in Japan? In Tokyo, pedestrians will stand obediently on an empty street waiting for approval to cross – much like their strait-laced, rules-addled samurai ancestors. In Osaka, barreling into traffic is the order of the day, like a businessman rushing to close a deal.
There are inter-regional dust-ups in sports (Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants vs. Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers in baseball); language (a formal dialect the Kanto folks consider standard Japanese vs. a street-infused communication in Kansai); fashion (a more individual appearance in Kansai vs. the dedicated followers of fashion in Kanto); food (in just about everything from the amount of salt to the amount of spiciness); to a sense of humor (guess which region prefers slapstick and which strait-laced region doesn’t?).
The internecine flare-ups between Kanto and Kansai have been going on for centuries with no signs of dissipating. How can you tell? The marriage rate between those raised in Kanto and those reared in Kansai is only 10 percent. People will no doubt be staking out their allegiances for years to come.