Kansai - A Breed Apart

Japan flag. Kansai - A Breed Apart

Kansai - A Breed Apart 関西

by David Rogers

Ask any Japanese person to describe the average Kansai dweller and you'll hear a plethora of adjectives that make Osaka sound like the place to be.

Funny, humorous, boisterous, outgoing - none, at first thought, are words one who had lived outside the region would typically use to describe the Japanese. In fact, throughout Japan Kansai is famous for its "un-Japaneseness."

Go drinking with a Kansai man and you'll soon feel the difference. Living in a conservative backwater far from Kansai, or any large city for that matter, as I do, the difference in tone can be shock to the system.

My first experience of a Kansai-style night out was with my new boss, who had just been transferred to my small, rural town from Osaka. Our evening got underway in an oden restaurant. I naively expected the next hour or so to be much a repeat of any other visit to a restaurant in out-of-the-way Japan, i.e. starring me, the foreigner, and requiring of me the same old answers and anecdotes in response to the same old questions and comments.

Imagine my bewilderment, then, at not really getting a look in! My new boss immediately took the reins on entering. It seemed that the echoes of 'Irasshai!' had barely faded before he was already on intimate terms with owner and the other customers.

We hadn't made it even as far as the fifteen minute mark when all barriers had been trashed to the point of his hosting a lively discussion on the various anatomical differences between Westerners and Japanese - no prizes for guessing which region of those supposed differences attracted the main focus!

Another fifteen minutes (and two or three more beers) on, he was postively presiding as head language instructor, leading the other guests in solicitous attempts to teach me appropriately - or inappropriately - down and dirty Japanese phrases for picking up Japanese women via personals ads. It had become a crazy, raucous evening where, other than as the foil for this master socializer, I felt totally superfluous to proceedings. This, too, was Japan?

I had encountered the Kansai man: wildly refreshing and yet a profound shock to the system for a fairly reserved Brit who felt quite at home with, and accustomed to, the unchallenging atmosphere of a typical Japanese gathering.

Of course, there are parallels here with British culture, specifically with the city of Liverpool, where little respect is paid to conventional boundaries. They are felled before anyone can open their mouths to protest, and any potential protests are drowned in irresistable humor, however cutting, and a tide of bonhomie. In some ways it's an aggressive approach, but in societies as generally rigid as Britain and Japan, it's the only way to break through.

The lack of reverence that the Osaka way represents has its roots in the Edo era. Osaka has long been an important commercial center, and in the 18th century it was a vital supply hub for the city of Edo (modern day Tokyo). Since 1635, daimyo of the various provinces were obliged to spend alternate years in Edo under a system called sankin kotai. This was not only to keep them close under the watchful eye of the Bakufu, but to force them to incur the kind of retinue-related expenses that made a surplus - a surplus that could be used to fund rebellion - impossible.

Life for the samurai in Edo, then the world's largest city, spurred the kind of consumption that maintaining a lifestyle in any big city requires. The warrior class found it more and more difficult to make ends meet. The only class in Japan at this time that was rich was, understandably, the only class that devoted itself to making money: the merchant class. However, according to the status quo of the day, the merchant class was at the very bottom of the social ladder, even below the peasants. Nevertheless, however despised they might be by the samurai, the merchants became critical to them if they were to maintain a lifestyle appropriate to their samurai station.

Despite this change in the balance of (at least financial) power, the Tokugawa Shogun's code that set the relative status of the classes ruled. The social revolution that put the merchants in control of Japan would have to wait another two or three centuries. The territory of the merchants was defined: Osaka. Yet within this enclave they were their own masters, and it was in this enclave of social freedom that a great deal of Japan's satirical popular culture and comedy was born.

The Kansai dialect itself is a hallmark of the earthy, the free and the casual. Manzai, Japan's duo standup: the straight man and the funny man - is the heart and soul of Kansai. Just switch on Japanese TV at almost any time of day to find a variety show with a perfect example of it. The manzai team will always be the most raucous! In manga, too, the outsider is often distinguished by his or her Kansai dialect.

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Osaka by neon night.
Osaka Neon

The flavor of Kansai comes throught in nearly any aspect of life. Even in a business setting, any stiffness will soon find a challenge, however subtle, in the levelling style of Kansai.

My new boss made constant use of humor and it completely changed the atmosphere at work. Not only did work became a much friendlier place to be, but customers liked it too, and business prospered.

Yet I felt that no one besides a Kansai man like him could have carried it off. From a non-Kansai person his stock in trade faux pas would at best fall flat, at worst backfire. In a country where "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down" it takes something pretty powerful to subvert that tradition. It takes, in fact, no less than another tradition: one of historical opposition to Tokyo's central role in Japan's affairs.

Finally, a Japanese survival tip taught me by a Tokyoite: if you ever get in a tight squeeze, a bit of clowning around Kansai-style gets you a long way.

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