Kansai Vs. Kanto: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Some of you may have heard of the “many differences” between the Kanto and Kansai regions in Japan. In Kanto you have the metropolis of Tokyo and the seaside city of Yokohama. In Kansai, you have the older culture of Nara and Kyoto, the messiness of Osaka and the (similarly messy) seaside city of Kobe.

The two spheres are often portrayed as heavily contrasting or even conflicting and both are also involved in stereotyping of each other. I’ve lived in Osaka for a year and am living in Tokyo right now and sometimes I question – are they really that different in the end?

Having experienced both, I want to go through some of the alleged differences between the two, questioning the “accepted wisdom” to see how much wisdom there really is.

But First, Some History

kyoto

Image by Bermi Ferrer

Kinkakuji in Kyoto

Let’s start with the basics. Now Tokyo is (obviously) the economic and political capital of Japan with a metropolitan population of around 30-35 million. The Kansai bloc of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe and surrounding cities has around half that at 17 million.

But it didn’t use to be this way. Tokyo (and wider Kanto) only became a political center in Japan after the Kamakura shogunate and the shift in power from the imperial court (in Kyoto) to the warrior classes. Even then, Edo (present day Tokyo) during the Edo shogunate was only one of the “three capitals” (三都) of Japan: Edo being the seat of power of the Shogunate, Kyoto being that of the Imperial Court and Osaka the center of commerce.

Perhaps you can now see how this rivalry began getting so serious.

Cultural Differences

japanese-escalator

Image by Luke Ma

Guess whether this is Osaka or Tokyo

When you compare the Kansai and Kanto regions, you get the sense that culturally, things are quite different. Of course, television, stereotypes, and more help to perpetuate this, but there are some reasons why the two regions have long been considered the center of two distinct cultural spheres, even to this day. The most basic being:

  • The sides which people stand on the escalators – Osaka on the right, Tokyo on the left.
  • Food – Osaka is famed for its Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki, Kyoto for traditional Japanese sweets, and Tokyo for Monjayaki.
  • Prices – Most things, especially rent but not really for transport, are cheaper in Osaka
  • Society – Western Japan including Kansai still has significant problems with dowa (burakumin) discrimination. Kansai (especially Osaka) is often associated with the Yakuza

Other stuff can be googled. What I really want to focus on is the dialect and the stereotypes of the people, so we’re going to move on to that.

The Dialect

hN2Boyf

Nande da yo just can’t compare

I’m going to go on a rant here. For anyone who thinks that the Kansai dialect (Kansai-ben) is “not Japanese” or is “wrong”.

KANSAI-BEN IS JAPANESE IN THE SAME WAY AS KANTO-BEN IS.

You got me? Let me say that again.

KANSAI-BEN IS JAPANESE IN THE SAME WAY AS KANTO-BEN IS.

Heck if it wasn’t for the Kansai dialect, there would be no keigo (honorific speech) in Kanto-ben. The dialect of Kanto borrowed the honorific patterns of Kansai-ben because it did not have any keigo in the first place.

But anyway, there’s a lot of variations even within Kansai-ben but these are the rough traits.

  • Differences in words: Honma in place of Honto, Oru instead of Iru, Akan instead of Dame etc.
  • Sound differences: Tendency to pronounce “s” as “h” eg. “san” becoming “han” etc.
  • Stress pattern differences: eg. “Hashi” with the stress on the first syllable means “bridge” in Kansai and “Chopsticks” in Tokyo. “Hashi” with the stress on the second syllable is the opposite.

There is significant variety even within Kansai-ben though. The list above is in reference to Osaka-ben, or the accent most stereotyped as being “Kansai-ben.” Kyoto-ben (especially geisha-speak) may be different even though it’s also considered Kansai-ben.

If you’d like to dive even deeper into Kansai-ben, Wikipedia seems to have a lot to say about it.

The People

Then we come to the people – and the various stereotypes about them.

“Kansai=interesting people”

comedy

Downtown – One of the many famous Kansai comedy duos

The whole of the Japanese media is full of this. Television is awash with Kansai comedians doing their acts in Kansai-ben. The fact that the most famous comedy company (Yoshimoto Kogyo) is headquartered in Kansai also reinforces this.

Kansai people are often seen to be “talkative” and “with a good sense of humour.” Other stereotypes include how Kansai people ignore red traffic lights, are far more honest, individualistic and “go along with their honne (本音で生きる) ie. ignoring social rules when they want to.

Kyoto people in general are viewed to be more refined because, well, it’s Kyoto. Osaka people, due to its association with business, are sometimes viewed as business oriented, greeting each other with Moukarimakka/儲かりまっか (Are you earning well?).

“Tokyo = Evil”

train

Image by Wry2010

I exaggerate but a minority of Kansai people do say this. Most of it is more out of rivalry rather than actual dislike or malice I think, though. The Tokyo-is-evil stereotype is nowhere as strong as the Kansai-has-interesting-people stereotype. Tokyo is after all considered to be the “standard”; Kansai is the “outlier” from standard Japanese culture.

Anyway, I’ve heard quite a few half-joking comments about “cold Tokyo people” (冷たい東京人). When I told people that I was moving over to Tokyo. For example, a few (and certainly not a majority) came and warned me about Tokyo. I’ve even seen quite a few “❤ Osaka / F*** Tokyo” T-shirts being worn around before.

While a majority do just make passing comments about the topic, there are however a few people who have a very strong sense of Kansai-pride (surprisingly strong amongst some non-Japanese foreigners) and by extension sometimes also have a strong dislike of Tokyo.

But Are We Really So Different?

osaka

Osaka’s Tsutenkaku Skyscraper

To be frank, I think the whole Kansai-Kanto differences thing is a bit overblown.

Certainly some truth to it, sure. For example, Tokyo trains tend to be really quiet – the only people talking tend to be foreigners and high school girls. People even stare at you when you talk in a reasonably audible voice. From my own experience, Kansai trains, especially the Osaka municipal subways, are much livelier.

In addition, yes the Kansai people I’ve met do generally tend to be chattier than the Tokyo people that I’ve met. And their sense of humor also tends to be stronger too. Though perhaps that’s because as a foreigner who actually has lived in Kansai (and who uses Kansai-ben) we tend to gel better.

However, nobody has ever used Moukarimakka on me, nor have I ever heard it used in my presence. Perhaps the older generation still uses it to each other but the younger folks certainly do not.

The “Tokyo is evil” or “Kansai is better” perception is something that I definitely cannot abide with. On the one hand, a portion of the foreigners living in Tokyo just don’t like Tokyo. It’s not rare that I hear the someone saying “if only it were somewhere else in Japan”. And since Kansai is the most obvious alternative, you sometimes see some foreigner Kansai worship.

Plus, I’ve also had arguments with other foreigners in Kansai during trips back there who are very keen on bashing Tokyo. Usually it’s because it’s too crowded / it’s colder than Kansai / it’s more expensive / traveling time is longer / the drinks are weaker / the people smile less etc. All of which of course fall somewhere into the Kansai-Kanto differences stereotypes.

kansai

Kobe seaside

Both I think are being too extreme. True enough, if you dislike crowds then Shibuya and Shinjuku may drive you insane. And yes, because rents are higher commuting time may be higher since people’s houses are further away (the farther away you are from Tokyo, the cheaper your rent is probably going to be).

But this idea that Kansai people are easier to socialize with and that Tokyoites are cold seems suspect to me. After all, I know plenty of people who had the full cultural shock and gaijin social isolation in Kansai even though they were supposed to be surrounded by “warm, friendly Kansai-jin”.

Doesn’t their sense of humor help to get to know them though? Well, this is just my observation, but let’s just assume, as it is commonly, that Japanese people tend to avoid serious topics in favor of safe ones – social harmony needs to be kept. In Kanto, the conversation may descend into awkward silence before someone tries to change the topic. In Kansai however, humor may be used (rather skillfully) to change the topic before the awkwardness.

The latter may be good and all and give a few good laughs. But the point is the same – topics are still kept safe, opinions kept silent and conversation safely shallow. Entertaining is not the same as personable.

There is also a view that since there are far more foreigners in Tokyo and the surrounding areas, Tokyoites are far more used to foreigners than Kansai people, excluding Kyoto people who are used to tourists. This is just an opinion (I don’t know of any evidence for or against it). But what is true is that quite a few of my friends do feel more “stared at” in Osaka than in Tokyo.

Kansai ♥ Kanto

torii

Image by Ann Lee

The Torii “Tunnel” of Fushimi in Kyoto

While it may sound like I’m thrashing Kansai above, I’m not. I do genuinely like the place having lived there for a year.

I do think that the “Tokyo-bashing Kansai pride” and the “It Would Be Better Over There” views need to be taken down a few notches. It seems to me that these are extremely misleading and exaggerate the differences between the two. No matter how different the histories etc. are, Kansai is part of Japan – the similarities are probably more than the differences.

But anyway, just as an ending note I’d just like to say that Tokyo is not the whole of Japan. There’s many other parts of Japan, such as the Kansai region, which are very worth visiting or even staying in. So if you’re heading over to Japan or in Tokyo right now, consider taking a trip over to Kansai – there’s really a lot to see.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Larry Cooper

    Having been thoroughly trained in 標準語, I was surprised when I first encountered a man from Kansai who ended his sentence with わ. Of course, now I’m used to that and many others differences between the dialects, but initially it was odd.

  • Delbert Sand

    I’ve always sorta thought Kansai-ben would be fun to learn Japanese in. I mean, I think one should learn the basics before jumping into dialects, but since I’ve always heard the comparison that Kansai-ben is ‘Southern Japanese’ it just seems like fun to try and get into down the road. Was it hard to pick up on when you lived in Osaka?

  • meroigo

    Thanks for this article. It calms me down a little. :) I’ve been living in Kansai since 2009 (Kyoto 1,5 years, Osaka 3 years), and I’m moving to start working in Tokyo from April…. D: So scared… D: D: I like, never hear any positive things about Tokyo from my Kansai friends, haha. :(
    You’re kind of right about the Kansai Pride. I’m kind of proud of Kansai that has become my second home in the world. I’ll keep speaking Kansai-ben and make Kansai:ish jokes even after I’ve moved to Tokyo, haha… :D But nope, I will do my best not to get bitter about how Tokyo sucks, which I don’t think I will think, I have never thought that the countless times I’ve been there as a visitor. But standing on the left side on the escalator???? WHAT ARE YOU DOING??????? …so wrong…
    Also I’m open to meet new people in Tokyo from April, if anyone in Tokyo’s interested. :) (You’re now witnessing me being all desperate in a comment on Tofugu, being all alone and new in Tokyo with almost no friends… D; Oh well! :D)

  • meroigo

    I’m not the author of this article but I can comment with my experience if that’s OK. :D
    While I went to Japanese language school in Kyoto, they taught us in standard Japanese, but on my spare time when I socialized with Japanese people I was exposed to a lot of Kansai-ben, and used to hearing it right from the start. It made me being able to naturally snap it up easily and spiced up my Japanese in a nice way. :) It was never hard, it came naturally and made learning Japanese more fun. :D
    Since you get a dialect as a “bonus” if studying in Japan at a place not being the “standard” Tokyo, I’d actually recommend it. Kyoto is awesome for studying in Japan. It also has a nicer feel and is more beautiful and student:y than Osaka, so for studying, Osaka vs Kyoto: Kyoto! (you can also visit Osaka sometimes if you want to, it’s close).
    Maybe I’m getting a bit off here, sorry. :D

  • Austin

    Actually speaking Kansai-ben and making Kansai-ish jokes in Kanto can be very useful because you’ll end up surprising lots of people and making yourself the ちょーおもろい外人さん. I know this because I do this quite a lot haha.

    But no Tokyo isn’t that bad – unless you fit the above criteria as in the article (ie. cannot stand crowds etc.)

  • Austin

    Meroigo is right – you’ll learn the standard stuff in school but when everybody else around you is speaking in Kansai-ben you’ll pick it up. Well certainly at least the basics.

  • https://twitter.com/RochelleBreen Rochelle

    “Topics are still kept safe, opinions kept silent and conversation safely shallow. Entertaining is not the same as personable.” A well-placed, well-put observation. Great piece, Austin.

    My favorite response to people who talk crap like “__ dialect isn’t ___ language!” is “When you have a degree in linguistics, I’ll be interested in your opinion.”

    Personally, I try to find something loveble about wherever I’m living.

  • Shan

    If you are just learning Japanese what dialect is easier to learn?

  • Tristan Duggan

    Which language school in Kyoto did you go to? I’m planning to attend ARC Academy in Osaka within a year or two, but I’m up for exploring other options before I start applying, especially if it’s cheaper.

  • Nathan

    I’m looking forward to that. I’m actually going to Osaka to Kansai College for language school for the next couple of years… starting in April! Getting a dialect is gonna be interesting as well.

  • Xaromir

    I want to know more about this, and similar topics. *notes*

  • DAVIDPD

    Thanks Austin. This is a very good article. It is kind of funny how discrimination is kind of built in to humanity (*Shakes Fist* Evolution.). I am guessing around 2020, Kansai and Kanto people will be very happy just being Japanese. ;)

  • Jan Moren

    The food preferences are definitely different. Food makers even make separate versions of stuff like cup noodles for Kansai and Kanto with different flavour.

    From my own experience and that of (native Japanese) friends that have moved in one direction or the other, there is a real difference between Osaka and Tokyo in how easy it is to get to know new people. But I suspect that’s a difference between Osaka and Tokyo, specifically, not Kansai and Kanto.

    Just like Tokyo, Stockholm in my native Sweden is the capital and the economic center. Many inhabitants are not native, but have moved there for work or study from other parts of the country. The social web of friends, family and acquaintances is weak and thin as a result. And that seems to make people less likely to accept other new people; when you have only a small social circle yourself you don’t want to risk it by letting new people in.

    I suspect that what causes the difference between Tokyo and Osaka, not some deep cultural reason. After all, Kyoto is also Kansai, but is reputably even more insular and hard to enter socially than Tokyo.

  • Austin

    Thanks! About dialects and language though, the thing is that Kansai-ben is actually understood by pretty much every single Japanese person (TV has helped that) in Japan. So since people understand it, and it has a long history, why is it not Japanese too? People saying that Hyojungo is the only standard of Japanese reflects the Tokyo-centrism of Japan than any linguistic merit.

  • Austin

    I actually don’t think there’s a difference – in terms of gramatical structures both are roughly similar anyway.

  • https://twitter.com/RochelleBreen Rochelle

    You could contact study abroad offices at universities — they have ties to clubs on campuses who love meeting new people from other places.

    Tokyo was my home for a year. Sometimes it’s really loud and crowded, but there are a lot of parks to go to and where you can take a breather. And the Studio Ghibli Museum is nearby. :D

  • meroigo

    Nihongo Center – http://www.nihongo-center.com
    As I have not attended other language schools I can’t say how it is compared to others, but since I learned a lot, I’d say it’s good. :) But you must also try being social outside of school and not hang around other foreigners all the time! If learning Japanese is the most important goal.
    And as I said, I recommend Kyoto much more than Osaka. :) Osaka is always just a 43 min 390 yen train ride from Kyoto if you want to visit there sometimes. ^^

  • meroigo

    Wow, it’s gonna be awesome. :D Good luck and do your best! ^^

  • meroigo

    You’re right. :) People always react positively when I speak Kansai-ben. (*´∀`*) When I was at the job interviews in Tokyo where I got a job, I accidentally said things in Kansai-ben now and then and they seemed amused….. Maybe they hired me partly because of that. D: haha.

  • meroigo

    You’re right.

    But me personally would think that if my social circle is small, I’d like to make new friends. Since I’m moving from Osaka to Tokyo now, my everyday social circle will naturally become very tiny and lonely in the beginning, so I’m hoping to find new friends and let people inside my circle.

    But also thinking about how people generally are as you describe, I might have a difficult time. :’( 不安いっぱい…

  • meroigo

    If anything, Kansai-ben’s the “real” Japanese, with Kansai historically being the cultural and ruling center of Japan and a lot of mountains in the way making new words spread slower outside of Kansai. Which is why “honma” would be more “fashionable and new” than “hontou”.
    …..is what one of my friends from Hiroshima, not Kansai, said one time (I might have paraphrased it :P).
    Anyway, is it really a thing with people calling certain dialects not the real languages? Weirdest thing I’ve heard today. :o

  • Jan Moren

    Actually, the way people will generally think is “what will the others think of me if I introduce a new person into the group?” That becomes a lot more important if that is the only group of people that you know.

    Conversely, if you get to know somebody with a small social circle, it won’t lead you to meet many new people, and few new chances to make more contacts. Even if you befriend as many people as usual, you still end up with a smaller social circle.

    Put it this way: getting to actually know anybody in a village can be notoriously tough. But if you do, you suddenly know everybody in the village, since it’s really all one big social circle. Get to know another out-of-towner in Tokyo and you know only them and possibly one or two other people.

  • Austin

    You’ll hear a lot of it in Tokyo with people asking you “where’d you learn that kind of *wrong* Japanese?” actually.

  • Austin

    Perhaps and I do see your point. That being said though I’ve had a different experience – while in Kansai I personally found it difficult to get past the “laughing acquaintances” stage of socializing with people. Which is why, as in the article, I personally have doubts about the view that Kansai people are easier to get along with. If anything I’m having a better time in Tokyo right now actually.

    That being said, what may have changed is that when moving from Kansai to Tokyo I may have changed the way which I approached human relationships so maybe that had an effect – maybe I’ll talk about this in a future article.

  • Austin

    Hey we’re always open to people suggesting topics for us to write on. Any concrete suggestions?

  • Austin

    Thanks for the comment! Just to add on, in the article I may have made it seem like it was Kansai bashing Tokyo but there was a time where Tokyo (or the rest of Japan) had quite negative views on Kansai – as shown by anime villains speaking in Kansai-ben vs. heroes using hyojungo.

  • initialize

    I’m a gaikokujin who’s been living in Tokyo for a few months now, and in late December I visited Osaka for the first time and stayed for about 5 days. I definitely noticed differences right away:

    -More talking, laughing, usually just “louder” in general in Osaka. Especially on trains and in public (duh)
    -More stares in Osaka
    -Just different mannerisms altogether really; i.e. the escalator thing, Osaka-ians usually have a bigger appetite (lol), etc

    I wouldn’t say one region is any “better” than the other; it really just comes down to personal preference like the article was getting at. From what I’ve experienced so far, I’d say I like Tokyo a little more because I just love how quiet everyone keeps to themselves… very peaceful. I can see how some people wouldn’t like it though.

    Oh and I hate to say it… I know Osaka is known for their good B-list food, but Tokyo has all that and even more. And just a bunch more stuff to do as far as things to see, activities/ nearby excursions etc. I CAN’T WAIT to go back to Kyoto though because I hardly saw any of it and it seems so beautiful there.

  • TCMercury

    I’ll be honest, if I could have lived in Kyoto I’d have jumped at the chance. Guess I’ll just have to stick with cold (literally, figuratively and sarcastically) Tokyo for now.

  • http://about.me/WolfHavenXIII Wolf Haven

    I’m more of a 九州人Kyuushuu Person (Fukuoka FTW), though I’ve only been there and Tokyo so can’t say much about the Kansai area… Yet.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    It’s easy to learn a dialect once you’ve mastered standard Japanese more or less.
    But more than learning it, it’s so much easier if you just MOVE to the region. You don’t have to study at all, you’ll just live the dialect.
    I’ve been in Japan for 6+ years now, but only moved to Kansai two years ago. Yet I’m fluent in Kansai-ben without ever studying it.

  • MoiKnee

    It sounds kind of similar to America where dialects such as Creole or traditionally Black American patterns of speech are considered “wrong” or “incorrect English” because they are not “standard English”. I recommend a documentary called American Tongues, it’s really informative.

  • Miamiron

    I think anyone caught up in civic pride / civic rivalry should listen to the Louis CK bit from his special “Live at Carnegie Hall” and then realize how dumb you are to cheer or boo a place based on whether you live there or not.

  • john

    Why Kanto we all just get along?

  • David Allgayer

    I always wonder if it is possible to generalise about Tokyo Japanese. There are people from all over Japan in Tokyo, so that surely the average Tokyoite doesn’t really exist? It’s all well and good saying Osaka vs. Tokyo, but that’s comparing 2 million people vs 13 million.
    Isn’t looking for your quintessential Tokyo stereotype like looking for your real londoner in London? Yes, they are there somewhere, but chances are you will only ever come across a few of them unless you are one of them yourself.